Reservations about ‘Abecation’

Recently we’ve had an earful of “Abenomics.” And now it looks like (wow!) “Abecation”! While any improvement in English education in Japan should be welcome, reservations regarding the prime minister’s proposals demonstrate, at best, skepticism if not mistrust.

The first question we should be asking is why the Liberal Democratic Party has waited so long to do so little. In 1987, a former teacher of junior high school English, Noboru Takeshita, occupied the prime minister’s spot. So why has it taken the LDP additional decades to consider that English may be important?

English has long been the de facto global language — whether Japanese language purists like it or not — and it now occupies a large chunk of Japanese people’s communication, although it would be unrecognizable to most speakers of English elsewhere.

A more practical and specific question must be, why TOEFL? It certainly isn’t the only or most obvious choice as a high school yardstick of progress in English communication, which is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stated goal.

Indeed, the TOEFL is designed primarily for those wishing to study at an American university to show that they can follow high-level classes in specific academic subjects.

So how can we expect the TOEFL to be applied so effortlessly to Japanese high school students, especially considering that English teaching in Japan has largely been an unsuccessful industry that has cost the Japanese billions?

The conclusion must be that money and ivory tower goals won’t translate so easily into results. The painful struggle this decade to turn Japanese elementary school teachers overnight into qualified English teachers is a case in point. Newly arriving junior high schoolers have yet to show that this poorly funded and implemented effort to overhaul language education has demonstrated any signs of dramatic improvement. The gakuryoku (academic ability) tests now being conducted far and wide are another indication of unachieved goals.

These tests merely underscore what we already know — students still don’t know enough!

Abecation has about the same likelihood of success as Abenomics. Look for smoke and mirrors, massive fanfare and squandered resources followed by the realization that not much will be done for ordinary Japanese shouldering reconstruction costs, utility charge hikes and the huge debts surrounding a broken social services system for generations to come.

Perversely I welcome Abe’s initiative, but only because it may draw enough attention to its shortcomings, not least of which is the terse manner of its suddenly being thrust onto the public with no consensus from the thousands of teachers who ultimately will take the blame when the initiative collapses.

What’s needed most of all is a comprehensive program to upgrade the abilities of Japanese teachers of English so that they can communicate well enough in English and are kept completely up to date with the necessary methodologies and pedagogical developments that teachers of English in most of the other advanced countries have been mastering steadily for many years.

The bottom line is, how many people in the Diet could pass the TOEFL exam?

david john
chikushino, fukuoka

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.