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.

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