Disappointing levels of English

The education ministry reported last month that high school English-proficiency scores fell far short of its goals. That report will come as no surprise to most people in Japan, but it is additional evidence that the English education system in Japan is still in desperate need of reform.

The test carried out last summer at 480 randomly selected public high schools found that third-year high school students’ English skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing were far below government targets. In each section, a majority of students scored at or below the equivalent of Grade 3 on the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency. The results were much lower than the government’s hope of having 50 percent of high school graduates scoring at Eiken Grade 2 or pre-2, the levels above Grade 3.

Students’ English proficiency was especially low on the more active, productive skills of speaking and writing. On the exam, 29.2 percent of students scored zero on the writing section and 13.3 percent also scored zero on the speaking portion. That is even more disappointing considering that only 20 percent of students even took the speaking portion at all. It is doubtful that the other 80 percent of students would have performed any better.

The difficulty with speaking and writing reveals once again that junior high and high schools continue to teach English to pass university entrance exams, instead of working toward students’ learning functioning and creative English. Speaking and writing skills require a lot of consistent practice to be acquired, even at lower levels. The students are not getting much practice in speaking and writing.

Speaking and writing must also be acquired in the context of realistic and useful content. It is easier to understand how grammar, listening and even reading can be learned through relatively passive methods with materials that have little or no serious content.

However, for students to really function in a language, they need active and regular practice in producing meaningful, content-filled communication. Communication that contains meaningful content connects language study with students’ innate curiosity and motivates them to keep learning.

The disappointing results show those conditions have yet to take hold in most public English classrooms.

Unsurprisingly, in a related survey of students’ attitudes toward English, nearly 60 percent said they did not like studying English. Students do not need to be entertained or to love English. If they are challenged in age- and level-appropriate ways, they will likely be less resistant.

Students’ receiving a zero in writing or speaking is evidence of tremendous resistance.

Surely such tests do not reveal all the learning that has taken place in classrooms. But if the tests indicate anything, it is that much more basic reform is needed in Japan’s English language classrooms.

  • Liars N. Fools

    English is actually an extremely difficult language. It is easy for me because it is my native language. Having studied East Asian languages, I know they are difficult, too, in a different way.

    Whether one likes it or not English is the language of globalization and we live in a globalize world. I have many “old boy” OB friends who are retired from large manufacturers and trading companies, and they ate proud of their individual efforts to make Japan an enormous power in international commerce and economics.

    They now decry the lack of curiosity and drive among younger generations who are in essence just resting on the laurels of their parents and grandparents, they say. The statistics bear their views out. As recently as 2007, there were 30,000 Japanese students in America (2002 saw almost 65,000), but now number under 20,000. From ranking number three, Japanese fell to number seven and below. By contrast, there are close to 200,000 Chinese, 100,000 Indians, and close to 70,000 Koreans.

    The impact is great economically and increasingly politically. The inward looking perspective of the Japanese lessens their energy, dynamism, and influence. The disinterest in globalization by younger Japanese is having an impact. For an island power, this is not a healthy trend.

    • smith

      This barrier would be crushed if only the US would teach Japanese in high schools. English is a difficult language. More exchange student programs are needed to let the future generations of each country immerse themselves in foreign culture first hand.
      Japan is (in my opinion) a country that needs to be held in higher regard by the US.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        If the stated aim is to achieve English fluency in Japanese students, how does Americans learning Japanese help that?

      • smith

        I believe that the effort to breech a language barrier should not be one sided. Why would students try to learn a foreign language of a nationality who fail to reciprocate the effort as an educational requirement? Most People I meet appreciate an honest effort to communicate in a language they are comfortable using.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        I assume that you are Japanese Smith, as you seem to think that all non-Japanese are American. Or did you just lump every other nationality in with Americans?

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but apart from maybe a short period in 2020, the reasoning behind Japan’s quest for English competency is to compete in the global business market. Statistics show that most Americans have no interest in traveling overseas and don’t. A good percentage apparently don’t even have a passport. So I fail to see what could be gained by forcing them to learn Japanese.

      • smith

        Is this a sensitive subject for you? Maybe there is a error in translation. When I type US, the nationality is already a combination. Which is why the “statistic” you mentioned are meaningless. The US has Hispanic, African, European, middle eastern, Russian, and more. Some of these people are recent immigrants to the US, so they have no interest in further travel. Also the cost of a passport is considered by some to be a luxury.
        In the US learning a language is a choice. I stand by my earlier statement, make the Japanese language available to those who would like to experience Japan during highschool. This effort would show respect to a person from Japan. A foreign person visiting Japan should not rely on the English of others.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Back at you, is this a sensitive subject for you? Your postings have the ring of a petulant child “We have to do it, so they should too!” No-one outside of Japan is forcing anyone in Japan to learn a language. If you aren’t happy about it, complain to your government.

      • smith

        I never said the quote you posted. It was never a issue of being happy, or forcing students to learn. The fact is if two strangers are willing learn the language of each other then a mutual respect is often gained during any meaningful communication. The effort of learning should never be one sided. By having US high schools offer Japanese as a language the ability to communicate with even more people is a strength we as a species must not disregard.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Of course you didn’t say that in so many words, but to me, that’s the gist of your argument. And once again you talk only about America. You DO realise not EVERY foreigner here is American, don’t you? Why the fixation with the U.S.? Whatever your agenda is, it seems to be entirely tangential to the story here, which is, the disappointing inability of the majority of students studying English in Japan to achieve the results expected by the government. I don’t disagree that it behooves anyone planning on spending any decent length of time in a foreign country to learn the local language. How, or why, the above mentioned results would be changed by American citizens learning Japanese escapes me.

      • smith

        “The disappointing inability of the majority of students studying English in Japan to achieve the results expected by the government.” “How, or why, the above mentioned results would be changed by Americans citizens learning Japanese escapes me.”

        Last attempt. (then I count this thread as a troll) Poor English speaking in japan is probably due to the mentality of Japanese citizens who have no desire to leave japan, or seek employment in a foreign company whether in Japan or abroad. Introducing Japanese as a learning choice to English speaking students might encourage them to visit Japan. More English speaking persons in japan might encourage Japanese students to practice their English. A person who learned English staying in a non English speaking region, seems like a step back.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        …and again, right back at you, I have NEVER trolled. And again (though I seem to be shouting to a deaf person) your logic escapes me. You place the onus for Japanese students doing better in English upon the (American only? Again you failed to answer my question as to why you only mention America, a hallmark of trolls…) native English speakers, and them then coming to Japan. Twisted logic to me Smith. And if you’re just going to continue with more of the same (as you no doubt will), then it’s goodnight from me.

      • smith

        Please take a deep breath. This is a discussion. I purposely typed English instead of putting a location, obviously not enough for you. I apologize if I in any way offended America. Obviously this topic is lost in translation.

  • Baruch Obamawitz

    The last thing the inbred, lazy and worthless Japanese elite wants is the people abandoning Japan for a better life abroad.. Handicapping the foreign language skills of people in Japan is deliberate policy.

    • Ron NJ

      Unironically, I sort of agree with your basic argument. Keeping people invested in the “cult of Japan” is part and parcel of policy now. Giving them the tools to divest themselves of the brainwashing and see the world for what it really is outside of the borders of Japan without having to look through the carefully controlled and filtered devices provided by the powers that be isn’t on the agenda.

  • jr_hkkdo

    I have another perspective on this issue: The biggest constraint on learning English (or any other foreign language) in Japan is time. There are only 24 hours in a day. Students have the other obligatory tasks of (1) memorizing thousands of kanji during their student years (absolute scholastic must), (2) extra-curricular activities (absolute social must), (3) a pervasive weakness in Japanese teachers’ English proficiency, and (4) the other scholastic demands in a normal high school education. It’s a real Gordian knot.

    • ProjektKobra

      I concur..when I taught English in Osaka we had a girl there who wanted to be a wedding planner..she came to the school, each and every day…weekends too…and you could actually hear and see her getting better..in 4 months she went from utterly basic beginner to really decent intermediate…the only thing holding her back was the lack of imagination of the school and its teachers…it was at that level she should have stopped spending money at the school, and started booking a home stay for 6 months in Australia or Canada or wherever.
      Contrast that however with one character only known as “Tadaaki Duck”…whose 3 inch thick file, filled with hundreds of pages of recorded lessons for 10 years, and a “Mercy Level-Up” to Basic Intermediate…a triumph of just utterly not getting it.

  • Steve van Dresser

    The solution to this problem seems obvious.. Japanese students will learn English better when their English teachers in Japan are fluent in the language, If the Education ministry can’t find enough local teachers who can actually speak English, they should “qualify” foreign teachers to teach in the public schools. English teachers who cannot speak English can only teach grammar rules, a pointless exercise that does not lead anyone to fluency.

    I can’t even imagine a teacher of the Japanese language, anywhere in the developed world, who is not fluent in reading, writing, listening and speaking Japanese. I am sure that Japanese teachers anywhere are mostly native speakers. At a minimum, they will be people who have studied the Japanese language in Japan for many years.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    How many times does this kind of result need to be seen? Who, if anyone, does it surprise? It really seems there’s no legitimate interest in changing this situation as the powers that be have been told again and again how to change it, but don’t. Start next month, from the new school year in April, put more focus on listening and speaking, and within 10 years there’d be almost no “Eigo-panic” anymore.

  • It’s easy to understand why Japanese dom’t like English: the pronunciation is one of the difficulties. However, Japanese could be the language that has the most foreign phrases – esp. from English. These two facts are actually contradictory.

  • Hanten

    I read articles like this one about the disappointing English test results and I’m reassured that there’ll be work for me in Japan for decades to come. Sadly, the reward for that work is becoming less and less attractive.

  • Richard Solomon

    Per this report things are not much better now than they were when I lived and taught English in Tokyo from 1969-71. The vast majority of students in Japan are dismally inadequate when it comes to English language fluency.

    IF the Ministry of Education is really serious about improving its English language instruction policies/system, it should send its representatives to countries like Holland or Denmark. Young people there become quite fluent in English….as well as other languages. As the Japanese did during the early Meiji period, they should learn from people/governments which do it successfully. Then come home and really apply these lessons learned by investing the resources that will be needed to accomplish the goal of improving their students’ language fluency.

    Otherwise, stop this silly charade of ‘educating’ students to speak English on a massive scale. Instead, encourage/allow those who truly want to speak English and have the capacity to do so to study in special, intensive programs. Let the others go on with their own preferences.

  • Jay

    Is it any surprise that teachers “teach to the test”? The fastest way to see improvements in practical English ability would be to change the university entrance exams to reflect the desired outcome.

  • KobayashiDamien TakijiLucas

    English is completely unnecessary for most of the population.

  • Toolonggone

    The result is predictable. No argument about that. Too many constraints in school system. Top-down approach completely relies on standard benchmarking and ignores the empirical evidence for second language acquisition. Don’t expect students and teachers to become fluent in English if they have only 1,000-1,200 hours of instruction and language exposure in total 8 years of curriculum through elementary school to high school. It’s not gonna work. There’s no promise for improvement unless the MEXT officials clarify their language understandable to both parents and students, abandon their chauvinistic ‘follow-the-guidelines’ attitude to teachers and schools, and make drastic change in school funding, resource allocations, significant improvement of teacher’s working condition, professional training, etc.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    Have you met “most native English teachers in Japan”? I could introduce you to my well educated friends…

  • Abha Prakash

    Though there may be qualified native teachers available in Japan, I agree that the Japanese recruiting agencies should screen prospective teachers’ credentials including educational qualifications and experience before hiring. If the focus is only on “verbal conversational skills” then yes, a native speaker will do. But if the Ministry of Education really wants an in-depth reform in English education, then they need to attract well-qualified teachers with multicultural teaching experience regardless of the fact whether they are native or non-native.