The Tokyo Board of Education has taken a bold move — perhaps its first ever — to raise the level of English at public schools. If its plan goes without a hitch, eventually all English teachers at Tokyo’s junior high and high schools will have to study and live in an English-speaking country for three months. The requirement is an attempt to improve English in Japan and should be warmly welcomed by anyone caring about Japan’s low level of English competence.

The project is set to start in April when the first group of 200 English teachers in the third year of their careers will be sent for home stays and direct contact with real, living English all over the globe. Tokyo currently has 3,300 English teachers at public junior high and high schools, so the first 200 is just a small beginning.

Hopefully the program will be expanded in the future so that all Tokyo English teachers can participate.

The teachers sent abroad will be given training courses in how to teach students to debate, to base classes on communicative English and, perhaps most importantly, to conduct classes without using Japanese. The Tokyo government last April revised its curriculum guidelines to encourage teachers to avoid using Japanese. Sending teachers overseas is an excellent way to make that happen.

After studying and living abroad, teachers will be ready and able, and maybe even willing to create an English-rich environment for students.

Equally important is that teachers will gain the essential experience, confidence and training to move away from the demands of preparing for college entrance exams toward communicating in real English. Teachers with more experience in the wider world will have the language ability and pedagogical foundation to move English classes toward communication, interaction and understanding, rather than correct answers and memorized patterns.

The requirement to go abroad will also help foster an understanding of different cultures and lifestyles. English has always facilitated broader contact with the world, and now that will have a clear and immediate channel — junior and senior high school English teachers. Teachers will be immersed in cultures and experiences all in English, and will bring home with them something more valuable than the usual omiyage. The best English teachers will be looking forward to this opportunity.

The new move is obviously connected to the 2020 Olympics. Perhaps Tokyo’s major infrastructure weakness is the level of English. This bold new move on the part of the Tokyo Board of Education is a welcome initiative to bringing up Tokyo’s English level — not just to save face when the world arrives for the Olympics but to improve the level of English in a world that uses the language more and more.

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