LDP takes aim at English education, seeks to boost TOEFL levels


Staff Writer

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is on a quest to reform the educational system in order to foster global talent to reverse the nation’s declining competitiveness on the world stage, and English-language studies have been especially targeted for improvement.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to spend ¥1 trillion to create a “globalized” workforce via educational reforms.

A key component will be English education. Abe set a goal to double the number of doctorates in the language to 35,000 and distribute tablet computers to all students from elementary school to high school by 2020 in a bid to rejuvenate science studies.

The LDP plan would mandate that people reach or exceed a threshold in scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to gain college admission and graduation, and to qualify for government jobs.

The LDP’s education revitalization headquarters sought approval Thursday from its member lawmakers before submitting the plan to Abe on Monday, but some lawmakers argued that high TOEFL scores do not necessarily equate with English fluency.

“Mandating (certain TOEFL scores for) all Japanese college (students) sounds to me like colonial policy,” said one LDP lawmaker who is against the introduction of the tests administered by an American company. “We should instead teach Japanese history and culture.”

In 2010, Japan’s average score TOEFL iBT score was 69 — among the worst three out of 33 Asian countries. The LDP plan would require that students at 30 select colleges score 90 to graduate and mandate that all high school students score 45 or better to earn a diploma.

Toshiaki Endo, head of the LDP’s education system revitalization headquarters, said changes are necessary.

“We all know that the (current) six years of English education did not help us speak English,” Endo said.

As for science education and reforms in teaching information technology, the LDP plan would boost the math and science pass levels for college entrance exams.

One LDP lawmaker questioned the viability of this approach: “The more urgent problem is that we are in short supply of science teachers. Instead of spending money on tablet computers, we should resolve this situation.”

Abe has been bent on educational reforms since his 2006-2007 prime ministership, which was characterized by his focus on instilling a sense of patriotism.

He also seeks to revamp the school-year system and college entrance exams, and make ethics a mandatory course of study.

  • Lilly

    In terms of English education in Japan, I think that Japanese people have been spoiled and indulged for long time. We were overproteced from intensive English study with a good excuse to say “teaching Japanese and history should come first.” in the past. Why don’t we teach them in English now?

    To improve English, the places or schools where they can be forced to try their English firsthand even in Japan must be widely provided. And studying Engslish shouldn’t be branded for the business purposes, which is the main reason to impede encouraging people to study English. For instance, only the haves can afford for English education but the have-nots cannot.

    I also agree that the score on any Enlgish proficiency test doesn’t show their communication skill. Especially for Japanese, taking into account of our traits, we definitely need to nurture confidence in communicating with non-Japanese, forgetting or overcoming our sense of inferiority about English to native speakers. Thus it will pave the way for us to negotiate for our interests in any fields.

    • c2c75

      Well said. Sounds like someone studied.

    • Maria Gianina L. Mayo

      I couldn’t agree more with you Lilly. Six years of studying English is not enough to equip a learner with enough skill to communicate in English especially if there is not enough opportunity to practice using the language in actual communication. I also agree with you that Japanese culture and history can be taught in English. Better yet most, if not all, subjects should be taught in English in the elementary school level onwards. In other words, learners should be exposed to the language early on and have as much opportunity as possible to practice using it to communicate.

  • Satoshi Takeuchi

    English, science, mathematics, and ethics are very important for young people to enhance Japanese power. For this purpose, teachers should be well educated first. All teachers should have master degree. In the U.S. almost all teachers have master’s degree already. Then teachers can eagerly devote to their education tasks.

    • Perry Constantine

      That’s not true, Satoshi. If you’re talking about college teachers, then yes, they have masters. But schoolteachers only need a bachelor’s degree in the subject they teach as well as education certification (depending on the state).

      There are teachers who have masters degrees, but it’s far from almost all. It’s actually around 50%, lower for teachers at private schools.

  • marimari3

    It is nonsense to introduce TOEFL to all Japanese students. I wonder Mr. Abe has tried TOEFL test by himself. Before considering the introduction of TOEFL, he should have taken TOEFL test and found whether this test would be necessary for Japanese students in order to show their English ability. If he had done so, he would have known the answer.

    • YourMessageHere

      I agree with this, It’s how politicians should make their decisions – based on reality. I also tend to think that Chancellors should live for a month on a minimum wage before they set that minimum in law, and Defence ministers should be on the front lines in any conflict they prosecute. Sadly, it’ll not happen, because politics and reality are pretty far apart.

  • Steven Morris

    I want to bring up three things:

    While it’s true that Japan has poor average standardized English test scores, I think it’s important to understand that many more people take the test when compared with other countries. So the average Japanese person is competing with someone from another country who has spent a lot more time with the English language.

    “We all know that the (current) six years of English education…”? Hasn’t Japan been doing eight years since 2011? If I understand correctly, 5th and 6th grade elementary school students are currently required to study English. That makes eight when combined with the three years in junior high school and the three years in high school that Japanese study English.

    See for yourself: http://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/gaikokugo/


    Pushing for higher scores on standardized tests will most certainly make
    the Japanese better at… getting higher scores on standardized tests.
    However, I’m doubtful that it will measurably affect their English
    speaking ability. Japan should look to other East Asian countries for
    successful models of English language (communication) education. English education in elementary school is where they need to focus. Unfortunately, it looks like they forgot!

  • All the English teachers in Japan have to speak English fluently before teach English.

  • English teachers in Japan have to speak English fluently before teach English to the students.

    • Aida Ramos

      I think it is practical for the Ministry of Education to devise an English teaching eligibility examination for Japanese and foreigner English teachers.

    • Shaun Dubin

      Kono-san, you’re kidding right. Because the teachers at my daughter’s Japanese middle school can’t speak English fluently. Japanese as a whole now need to focus more on being able to communicate in English more than ever.

  • Aida Ramos

    Before the government expects students to improve or excel in English, it must upgrade the capabilities of the Japanese English teachers or homeroom teachers. Most Japanese teachers can’t even communicate in English that ALTs find it difficult to talk to them about the lessons. All the homeroom teachers know is to teach what are on the textbooks sending them to be too bookish. Worse, they are self-centered to pressume they are good having taught English for 18 or 20 years when they are not. They are also audacious to venture too much in pronouncing new words even when flawed because all they want is to impress their students. Arrogant Japanese teachers don’t want to be corrected that they monopolize the teaching keeping the ALTs away.

    The government is spending huge sum of money for English education but the Ministry doesn’t have any systematic monitoring and evaluation of Japanese English teachers and their classes.

    To the Prime Minister and education officials, please start with the Japanese English teachers first. Or else they will continue saying “Pass your back.” instead of “Pass backward.”

  • Christopher-trier

    When many of my Japanese acquaintances speak English they speak it very
    unnaturally. They also have a very limited ability to understand
    anything but textbook US English which makes it difficult to communicate
    with most English speakers, especially those from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, India, etcetera. It also makes it more difficult to communicate with English-speaking European tourists who more often than not learn British English.

    The problem is not with the Japanese people themselves, but with the way English is taught. The beauty, richness, and diversity of the English language is ignored in favour of asking Mr Miller from New York City if his wife likes tea or coffee.

    • D L

      Even worse, it’s asking Mr. Miller, who is a person from New York City, if his wife is a person who prefers coffee to tea.

  • HiromitsuM

    Most Japanese think that they can get by without being proficient in English.
    The reason is that Japan has been the 2nd largest economy in the world and they have been spoiled. However in this age of instantaneous information age,
    they will loose their competitiveness if they can’t even surf the net in English.
    Most of the people in government, education and business will only surf the net in Japanese. Whatever information they are searching is translated into
    Japanese. What about the millions which has not been translated and what about the time lag for the translation to uploaded?
    Very sad state of affair.

    • Aida Ramos

      China is now the second largest economy in the world. But what you say is true. One English teacher even was telling foreigners that Japan doesn’t need English.

    • Maria Gianina L. Mayo

      Even worse than the time lag is the poor translation.

  • Ben Snyder

    The fact that no teachers or scientists were quoted for these policies speaks for itself. The echo chamber continues to be just that.

  • nonbiri

    As someone who is regularly involved in recruiting local talent for a multinational company, I have to say that there seems to be little connection between TOEFL scores and communication skills. There are already many, many candidates in the Japanese job market today who have relatively high TOEFL scores, yet typically only a few of those candidates can effectively communicate in an interview. Reading and writing skills are usually very far above listening and speaking skills. This is in sharp contrast with the few times I’ve interviewed candidates in Korea and China, where I found similarly high TOEFL or TOIC scores, but nearly all of the candidates were also competent and confident in English conversation. I’m afraid that the Japanese government’s focus on TOELF scores, while well intentioned, will simply give us more of the same.

  • Guest

    Commendable targets, but without a shake-up of the weaponry used, it’s going to miss by a mile. Again.

    These folk really have to get out more. A visit to poorer and less-developed South-East Asian countries will quickly demonstrate what it takes to have a successful English language policy.

    Or is this is merely pre-election tinkering?

  • Don Largo

    Grammar Translation=failure
    Political Translation=Make an in-house test for in-house profits (who cares if they never learn to speak the language)

  • beezy

    Give the students tablets and they’ll just play games in class lol.

  • Hanten

    I teach English here in Tokyo and have also taught it, English as a Second Language, in several other countries, too. My students have come from all over the world so I think I can fairly compare Japan’s English abilities to those in other countries. They aren’t the worst English communicators but they’re the lowest group, particularly in speaking and listening. This is how most English is used but sadly, in Japan these areas are willfully neglected by teachers and students alike in the majority of school and university classes.
    I applaud Abe for trying to set the bar higher for all students and goverment employees. The TOEFL test isn’t the only test for English ability but it is a good all-round test, with all four key skills being examined. Reading, writing, listening and speaking skills are worth 25% each. Furthermore, two or three skills have to be used in unison in several sections.
    The first problem with Abe’s scheme is that it only sets a test score as a goal without specifying the scores required in listening and speaking sections. If a student gets 80% overall, its possible that most of those marks were from perfect reading and writing answers while the listening and speaking parts were barely adequate. If Abe wants better verbal communicators in English then he needs to set that bar highest. The second problem is one of implementation. Thousands of Japanese English teachers will need to be trained so that they can prepare their students for the TOEFL and a fair percentage of them may need to go to live overseas for a year or two to improve their own listening and speaking skills as well as living the language, not worshipping the textbooks.
    English is the most widely spoken language in the world and more people now speak it as a second language than the native speakers. More and more education and business is being done in English between non-native speakers. This is why Japan needs to improve its English communication skills or it risks missing myriads of opportunities for its whole population in all corporate, academic and social areas of life.

  • Roan Suda

    This is simply the umpteenth recycling of the same, tired, fallacious argument we we have heard for decades…In affluent, populous countries with a well-educated populace speaking a single national language, foreign-language competence is a relative rarity.

    The Germans speak English (a linguistic cousin) better than the French, who
    have to master all that odd Germanic vocabulary, but the (less numerous) Dutch and the Scandinavians are (by necessity) generally more fluent than the Germans. American movies are all dubbed into German, and no one wallows in guilt or embarrassment at being less than totally pera-pera when monolingual Yanks or Brits come visiting…Eigokyō, the worship of English, is predicated on the notion that one must talk incessantly about the need to learn English—while not actually doing anything about it, except to spend gobs of money on more idiotic tests.

  • Mark

    Japanese teachers should have the right to do a month home stay in an English speaking country over the Summer vacation period instead of having to go to school and waste time, (even though there are no classes) and this should be encouraged and sponsored by the government.

  • ben doonal

    Just remember that TOEIC was decided as defacto by Abe’s predecessors as TOEFL was deemed as irrelevant. Just another brain melt down by Abe.
    TOEIC is the defacto testing standard here has everone forgotten what happened to STEP test, Eiken and many others who didnt pay the bribe money.

  • satomee

    Another attempt by politicians to change the education system despite not knowing anything about education at all.

    Most of the comments have already covered the problems this new policy presents, but I’ll just briefly type my comments.

    (Translating) English is viewed as a means to get into college because that’s all they’re tested on. There is no speaking portion to the entrance exams, so there’s no reason to focus on it. Everything is taught for the sake of the test and that doesn’t produce English speakers. It produces students who can read and comprehend written English fairly well and take tests but cannot speak to save their lives.

    TOEFL might be a great way to make the students focus on speaking more, but that doesn’t change anything. Teachers are just going to have to teach to the test as usual. When teaching students how to pass the TOEFL, some teachers just focus on writing, reading, and listening because the speaking section is hard for certain students. You can get an 80% overall without doing very well on the speaking section. That’s nice to know. That clearly addresses the issue Abe wants to fix. With all this focus on numbers, scores, and testing, I have to wonder if Japan’s situation is going to become like America’s where teachers are blamed and sometimes even fired for the “low test scores” their students produce (“I’m sorry that I didn’t get 80% or higher on the TOEFL….”).

    The way English is presented and taught in Japan is the core issue. It’s not the students. The students are very capable of learning English and becoming fluent, but the system and the classroom environment don’t allow it. A lot of Japanese students hate learning English because it’s boring and there’s no motivation except to get into college. Stop being teacher centric and numbers-based and force the students to talk more during class. Everything boils down to language pedagogy and acquisition. Why hasn’t anyone changed anything at all? What exactly do Japanese English teachers learn in college? For anyone majoring in Education or English in Japan, they should be required to spend at least a semester in another country seeing how ESL is taught there.

    A noble attempt, but as usual, they fail to acknowledge the core issue. Lots of money is being poured into this policy; ETS and all the other eikaiwa companies are smiling all the way to the bank while the rest of Japan sits quietly and accepts this new system.

  • English is simply a requirement worldwide if you want to succeed in business, aviation and education. Somewhat nationalistic and narrow minded to think it’s something colonial. Here in Belgium they try to mandate Flemish for the schools,advertising, even monitoring billboards to see if they have too much English. That is dumb and counter productive , I like to hear and study all languages and in a globalized world we need to get used to it.

  • Adam

    I would encourage that children be exposed to English from age 2.

    That is simply a more natural way to develop language immediacy.

    The exposure to — and use of — English language should go beyond a few hours here and there. Take a look at Europe, where people use several languages all the time. Because they grow up with them.

    And even there, each country maintains its national identity. Just look at sports.

  • Brent Conkle

    What if we stop using norm reference exams from ETS (TOEIC & TOFEL) and put more emphasis on criterion based or “competence” based exams that are high in construct validity, reliability, affordability and portability such as the suite of Cambridge ESOL exams such as IELTS or BULATS like much of the rest of the world has done.

    We’ve been very successful with our clients who have adopted using BULATS (Business Language Testing Service) as part of their talent management and overall HRM and development processes and the nicest thing is that the backwash / high stakes on the people taking the exams for work has diminished greatly and performance and motivation have increased greatly.