English taught in English

New teaching guidelines released by the education ministry call for high school English to be taught primarily in English from 2013. This conversion from traditional methods to a more active and communicative approach is decades behind the rest of the world. As China, Vietnam and South Korea have moved ahead, Japan’s English education policies have languished. It may be a case of too little too late. Japan’s position in the future internationalized world will be determined by the nation’s English ability.

That is not to say that many teachers have not already moved ahead on their own. Many have already instituted what the government is just now starting to recommend. Excellent-quality English programs exist here and there and, generally, English-teaching methods have improved. However, ministry guidelines for increasing conversation, upping vocabulary levels and offering more active learning, admirable as they are, must be put into practice broadly and completely in more classrooms.

English education in Japan has been hobbled by an overemphasis on grammar study, pressure to pass entrance exams and over-reliance on translation. As a result, years and years of English study typically produce more anxiety than communicative ability. Changing the tradition of explaining everything in Japanese by creating more active English-based approaches will not happen overnight.

If the ministry’s decision-makers are serious, they will commit to training teachers, finding more active textbooks, financing extra materials and study centers, and changing the overall English study curriculum.

Mostly, though, what needs to be changed is attitude. The resistance to teaching in English may stem from some teachers’ embarrassment over their own ability. Yet, that is just the attitude that must be changed in students’ minds. The burden of shifting to a more active approach will inevitably fall on English teachers. Yet, many teachers have already undertaken that shift with or without government support. Their individual efforts should be applauded and their innovations studied and exchanged.