Tokyo ramps up ‘English village’ plan as 2020 approaches

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

As Tokyo gears up to host the 2020 Olympic Games, demands for action are growing to overcome Japan’s notorious English-speaking phobia.

To achieve that, discussions are underway for the capital to establish “English villages” — language education facilities aimed at improving students’ communication ability through the use of all-English environments.

In other parts of Japan, facilities of this type are run by municipalities or schools free of charge and use games and other recreational activities to teach the language. A growing number of municipalities are investing in such institutions, and Tokyo may soon jump on the bandwagon.

Let’s take a look at the situation with English villages and how Tokyo’s plan is developing.

Is Tokyo going to create an English village?

The proposal emerged in “Long-Term Vision for Tokyo,” a report the capital published in December.

Aside from more active acceptance of exchange students and foreign teachers, the report said Tokyo aims to internationalize educational environments for schoolchildren by establishing what it tentatively called an English village.

The facility will be an all-English community that “enables students to learn what it is like living overseas and enjoy cross-cultural communication” through cultural programs involving native speakers of English.

A group of experts in English education and global business gathered at City Hall for the first time last month to discuss potential content for Tokyo’s idea.

How are the talks going?

At the moment, few details have been fleshed out, including location, scale and basic concept. But the panel is expected to examine and reach conclusions on the specifics by the end of the year, said Tomomitsu Ishige, an official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

“Few schoolchildren who have gone through a six-year education in Japan’s junior high and high school systems actually learn to speak English,” Ishige said.

Since Tokyo is set to host the Olympic Games in 2020, pressure is growing to alter the status quo and foster youths who can communicate fluently with foreigners, the official added, noting the English village project is part of an attempt to nurture such people.

Are there other English villages in Japan?

Kinki University in Osaka Prefecture is widely believed to have been the first to establish this type of facility in Japan. Its English village debuted in November 2006 with the aim of allowing visitors to acquire practical English skills through fun activities and events, including dancing and cooking, that native speakers also engage in.

Open Monday through Friday, the all-English village is geared mainly toward the university’s students and faculty.

Are other entities following Kinki University’s lead?

Hiyoshigaoka High School in the city of Kyoto, for one, aims to create its own English village by the end of fiscal 2015. The school will start renovating an entire floor of one of its buildings to turn it into an all-English community that will cater not only to students, but also sometimes to the public, Vice Principal Hiroaki Hirai said.

Titled Hello Village, the facility plans to allow visitors to communicate with five of the school’s full-time assistant language teachers, or ALTs, outside class hours, such as during lunchtime and after school.

Having long prided itself on its communication-focused English education, Hiyoshigaoka High hopes the initiative will “further increase students’ exposure to authentic English,” Hirai said, adding that the school will borrow a page from Kinki University’s playbook to implement the project.

Are there other examples?

Not every English village will match the scale of the one built by Kinki University.

The city of Neyagawa in Osaka Prefecture, too, launched what it termed an English village project last year, targeting fifth-graders from all of its 24 public elementary schools. Under the project, children from each school are invited once a year to an educational facility run by the board of education to engage in leisure activities with foreign teachers all day.

The event is also characterized as an opportunity for students to put their lessons into practice, such as by giving directions and explaining how to cook Japanese food, so they can discover the joy of “making themselves understood in English,” said Ai Tada, head of the facility.

“Of course, it’s not like students will be able to improve their English-speaking skills dramatically just because they spent a day at our facility,” Tada said.

Rather, the purpose of the city’s English village project boils down to awakening interest in real-life English communication and motivating students to study the language harder in their classes at school.

Likewise, elementary schools in Yokohama are undertaking similar English village activities under a project launched by the city in 2009. Participating schools host an all-English festival once a year in which ALTs set up their own booths to amuse children through a variety of entertainment-oriented activities, including a quiz contest.

Like Neyagawa in Osaka, the Yokohama project also prioritizes inspiration, rather than improving actual proficiency in the language, said Yokohama official Tsuyoshi Ichihara. Despite apparent improvement in the children’s willingness to converse with native speakers, the city, however, remains unable to scale up the project due to budgetary limitations, he added.

Are these facilities effective in nurturing English-speaking ability?

Kensaku Yoshida, director of the Center for Language Education and Research at Sophia University in Tokyo, said the answer is yes.

“Children in elementary school, for example, are given such limited hours of exposure to English that it’s nearly impossible for them to be fluent in the language just by studying within school,” Yoshida said. In this regard, it is “very effective” to offer students English-speaking opportunities like this outside classroom hours, he said.

As for the upcoming Tokyo version, Yoshida said he is concerned first and foremost about what educational programs it will offer, rather than its scale or other details. Given that the envisioned institution has its sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, its programs should go beyond being merely recreational, Yoshida said, adding they should also be able to aid in the improvement of students’ actual English skills.

A key to achieving that, he proposed, is to involve as many foreign youths as possible, such as children at international schools and exchange students. Being close in age, Japanese students will likely find them easier to interact with than native adult speakers, such as ALTs, he said.

  • Don Corleone

    Please don’t go changing, Japan. Sure, put a few friendly English signs where the events will take place, but take them down afterwards.

    • tomado

      Don’t worry, I think many in the Japanese establishment already bought into the idea of never changing. Although, they certainly may put up signs. But they won’t signify much.

      • Johnny LoveFive

        or be Engrish

    • Firas Kraïem

      I guess you like Japan in its current mediocrity, do you? Gives you some sense of superiority and all that… The article is not about signs, it’s about making people able to interact with the world.

  • Paul Martin

    Japan either wants to join the rest of the World or remain isolated in archaic history out of touch with today’s generation ! It can’t have it’s cake and eat it any longer !

  • tisho

    The problem is the way they teach English at schools, and their complete lack of exposure to real English language conversation in the real world. The solution is pretty simple; 1 – Put someone in charge of the English class curriculum that actually has some experience and knowledge of how people study languages. 2 – To increase the exposure to real English language conversations from the real world, you can do things like – increase English language TV channels, such as cartoon channel for kids all in English, News all in English, movies all in English, no subs, no dubs., and so on.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Meaningless nonsense. Only one thing will cure Japan’s aversion to learning English. Make it compulsory for all University entrants to have achieved a Toefl score above 800. Problem solved. It will never happen because this is Japan and merit is continually unrewarded.

  • Tomokazu Ishikawa

    It may be worthwhile to consider what underlies “Japan’s notorious English-speaking PHOBIA” and what is meant by “authentic English” and “real-life English communication”.

  • Bruce Reed

    How many of you speak Japanese? Really strange for a country to expect people within their borders to speak the language of the country, I guess. Man those Japanese have an offensive attitude.

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      The Japanese government and many Japanese people are the ones who say they want to, or should, learn English. No-one, from any English speaking country, is forcing this on them. No doubt some of the visitors in 2020 will make an effort to learn some Japanese before they come here too. But you carry on trolling there, no need to offer anything constructive.

    • cliff in tokyo

      If it weren’t for the compassion of the USA after WWII Japan would not even exist. Have the Japanese shown gratitude at least learned to converse in the language most popular globally of the victors who spare their lives? Been here 40 years speaking Japanese.

  • Taake

    Why is the lack of English speaking skills for many Japanese such an issue? Japan is one of the few countries which is able to stay “strong” even without being a global competitor. There is simply no need for them to learn English because they don’t need it. That is one of the things I really like about Japan.

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      The people in Japan who have no intention of living or working overseas, or in any business that trades overseas, obviously have little or no need to learn English, or any other language for that matter. And despite what people such as yourself seem to think, NO-ONE is making them. Unless you count English in school, but when did kids get a lot of say in what they were taught at anytime, in any country? However, there are those for who it can be considered an investment, or even a necessity. Aside from the (painful for you?) fact that English is the current lingua franca in many areas, for those people likely to be involved with visitors in 2020 it makes good sense. Your post has that whiff of whiny, childish nihonjinron about it.

      • Taake

        Those Japanese who need to be able to speak English at their job can speak the language. They learned it. All the people in Japan who can’t speak English don’t need it either for their job or for something else. In my country there are people for who languages like Russian or Chinese could be an investment and still we don’t learn it at school. You should accept (painful for you?) the fact that not all countries desires to be totally globalised.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        So you aren’t in Japan, have you ever been? Because your comment “those people who need to speak English…” tells me you haven’t. If you HAD, you wouldn’t make such a blatantly wrong statement. Best to admit you know nothing about this topic, painful for you, troll?

      • Taake

        Is this your way of arguing? I’m working here in a Japanese company for almost 2 years. Speaking English & Japanese with my coworkers. I talked with some about this topic and they kind of have the same opinion so I would be glad to hear some arguments from your side instead of just hearing some wrong statements.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        I’ve been here for over 17 years, teaching English the whole time, and in that time I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands of people failing badly at English. So I would say I KNOW what I’m talking about. I wasn’t trying to argue, merely stating a point of view based on experience.

  • Frank Hansen

    The Japanese seems to assume that only two languages exist in the world, Japanese and English. I am always surprised to discover that every non-Asian foreigner is assumed to be able to speak English. Sometimes it is taken to ridiculous extremes when a foreigner is presented with so-called translations of official documents that contain such rare or archaic words and expressions in English that I myself never have encountered them before.

    Why not raise the bar a little? In parts of Europe it is common to speak four or five different languages. A Japanese high school student should be given the opportunity to select from a batch of foreign languages. Chinese and Korean are obvious, but also French, German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic are great languages of the world.

    I am a Dane, and I am sometimes asked why Danes are so confident in English without being overly skillfull in the language. The answer is very simple. The country is too small, so we never had the money to dub all the foreign films shown on television or in movie theaters. We had to contend with subtitles giving us amble opportunity to get a feeling of the language even if we did not understand it. It has the extra benefit that we never had to listen to John Wayne speaking German or Chinese.