Japan should use its opportunity as 2020 Olympics host to bolster English proficiency amid figures showing a worsening trend, says the Japan president of the official English language-training supplier for next year’s Rio Games.
Junnosuke Nakamura, who heads local operations for Swedish firm EF Education First, which also ran English training for volunteers and officials at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, said despite recent reform efforts, English competency in Japan has not markedly advanced.
“Japanese people need to improve their English to welcome more people from outside, attract more people from outside,” he said in a recent interview at EF’s Tokyo office in Shibuya Ward.
“The Olympics is a really good target to encourage us to improve English,” he added. “Five years going forward is super critical for us.”
Japan ranked 26th in EF’s 2014 English Proficiency Index based on test data from 63 countries, giving the nation a “moderate proficiency” score of 52.88. Long-term, its score decreased 1.29 points from 2007 — the second-worst fall among 13 Asian economies and compares to a regional average increase of 3.52 points.
China and Taiwan increased 2.53 and 3.63 points, respectively, while South Korea fell 0.57 points.
Japan, like South Korea, needs to train teachers to help students “develop practical communication skills” as well as free up students from “high-stakes exams that focus primarily on grammar and vocabulary,” EF, which operates seven language centers in Japan and 500 globally, concluded.
“It’s not changed a lot. Everyone is sitting in a classroom and the English teacher is just teaching grammar and asks them to translate (text) from English to Japanese,” Nakamura said of how English has long been taught here.
More overseas teachers are needed as well as better-developed person-to-person communication skills, he said.
He said improving English language skills is crucial if Japan hopes to provide an optimum visitor experience during the Olympics and meet its target by 2020 of 20 million visitors a year.
Last week, government data showed that the number of visitors to Japan between January and July jumped 46.9 percent on-year to 11.05 million.
“Service industries, especially hotels, transportation companies, airlines, they need to train their employees in English,” Nakamura said.
He said that when working with other Olympic host countries, EF tailored its school-level teaching materials to an Olympic theme.
While he would only say the company, which started in Japan in 1972, was keen to reprise its training role for Tokyo 2020, he believed a similar approach could be used.
English-speaking Japanese Olympians could also act as role models to encourage people to improve, he said, adding that it would be beneficial if the country could change the “English level in Japan by using the Tokyo Olympics.”
Nakamura said educational reforms unveiled by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government last year were a starting point.
Under the wide-ranging reforms, certain degrees at some universities will be run entirely in English, while the Super Global program at designated high schools and universities champions a “global approach” to study.
Abe has also called for at least 10 universities to place among the world’s top 100 by 2020, while boosting the number of foreign students in Japan by 50 percent.
“In other Asian countries, many universities are moving forward very quickly with many classes taught in English,” Nakamura said, adding that some universities in less-developed economies, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, ran classes entirely in English.
“Compared to other Asian countries, Japan is far behind,” he said.
But Nakamura said moves by some Japanese companies, including Honda, Fast Retailing, which runs the Uniqlo apparel chain, and Bridgestone, to make English their official corporate language showed Japan was globalizing, with companies such as robot-maker Nachi-Fujikoshi sending all new hires for a stint overseas.
The key is expanding this further, he argued.
Likewise, moves by Hitotsubashi University last year to send all first-year students overseas for a few weeks in a study abroad program should be broadened.
“You have to provide an environment where people can speak English,” he said.
“I don’t know if by 2020, 10 universities will be in the top 100, but we are going for it . . . we are changing slowly.”
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