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Despite unanimous agreement about the importance of learning English, Japan and the United States still harbor a misunderstanding about how to teach the subject. The result is continuing disappointment over the failure of schools to meet government targets in either country.

A survey of some 90,000 students at 500 high schools and 60,000 students at 600 junior high schools in Japan serves as evidence. It found that only about 10 to 30 percent of fourth-year high school students were proficient in reading, writing, listening and speaking English, even though they were the first generation to be taught in these areas solely in English.

Schools in the U.S. are also struggling to teach English. But students there are not as homogeneous. They are part of a foreign population that has dramatically increased from 10 million in 1970 to more than 42 million today. Half of these newcomers have Hispanic origins. Although new immigrants are learning English faster than previous newcomers, they still do not qualify as proficient.

Therein lies a lesson for Japan. Survival English is not the same as proficient English. Research has shown that it takes on average 100 hours of instruction to move up a level — e.g. from low beginner to high beginner, or high beginner to low intermediate. Since that is the case, Japan is setting unrealistic expectations.

Moreover, the effectiveness of the total-immersion policy that Japan has followed is debatable. In 1998, voters in California passed Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education. Unless parents signed a waiver requesting bilingual instruction, all classes were to be taught exclusively in English. Arizona passed a similar measure in 2000, and Massachusetts followed suit in 2002.

The results call into question the value of this strategy. Less than 40 percent of students achieved “fluent English proficiency” status after 10 years in California schools. In light of the disappointing outcomes, dual immersion has gained in popularity. Subjects like reading and math are taught in two languages. Studies have found that by late elementary or middle school, students in dual-immersion programs perform as well as or better than their peers, and are more likely to be reclassified as proficient in English.

Japan has a distinct advantage in adopting this approach because the overwhelmingly majority of students come from homes where Japanese is spoken. As a result, teachers are able to design instruction geared specifically to their needs. In contrast, teachers in the U.S. have classes with students who speak many different languages.

To accommodate their diverse needs, some programs switch halfway through the day, while others switch every other day or by the subject being taught. The workload exceeds anything teachers in other subjects face, which is reflected in the high turnover of certified teachers in this field.

The only bright side of the story is that in 10 years a small earpiece will whisper nearly simultaneously whatever is said in the wearer’s native language. According to The Wall Street Journal, the lag time is estimated to be the speed of sound. The number of languages spoken won’t matter because the voice in the earpiece will always be whispering the one language selected.

In the meantime, schools need to reassess the strategies and goals they have established. Teachers need greater support in the form of classroom assistants, instructional materials, and a lighter schedule. Anything less will intensify the frustration over the glacial pace of improvement in English proficiency.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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