Arecent education ministry survey of third-year middle school students nationwide found most students have an ambivalent and contradictory attitude toward English. Of the 3,225 students surveyed, most felt English was important to study, but few wanted a job requiring English. The disjuncture between what they consider important and what they want for themselves is puzzling and disappointing.

In the survey, 85 percent agreed English was important and 70 percent — up from 47 percent in 2003 — agreed that knowing English would give them an edge in finding a job in the future.

Clearly, English is perceived as integral to internationalizing Japan and the world. However, despite students’ increasing awareness of the importance of English, the percentage of students who said they did not want to get a job requiring English increased six percentage points to a whopping 43 percent.

Only 11 percent said they strongly hope to get a job requiring English, a six-point downturn from the previous survey. Even more worrisome, only 30 percent of students said they like English, if they had to choose between “like” or “dislike.” This level of aversion to English does not make one hopeful about the future.

Perhaps the resurgence of pride in Japan after the Tohoku tragedy can account for some of the turn away from English, but students are retreating from something that they distinctly say is important. Most of the explanation, though, can be found in the way English is still being taught in Japan. Despite recent changes in English education, most English lessons remain focused on the most meaningless English — entrance-exam English.

English teachers, administrators and the education ministry should take these results as a wake-up call. The current approach is clearly de-motivating students. Stressing grammatical rules as well as memorization of vocabulary and correct answers dulls young people’s interest and leaves little time for communicating and understanding. Shifting the focus of English study from passing narrow multiple-choice exams to a broader view of using English in a globalizing world would be a good first step. Less pressure and more inspiration would be another.

The results of this survey should remind educators of the first principle of medical ethics, included in the Hippocratic Oath: at least do no harm. It is long past time to make English interesting and exciting for students. That does not mean making class all fun and games but rather helping students build bridges between their current studies and what is important for their future.

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