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A decision by three Japanese companies to band together to launch a new test in March to measure English listening and speaking skills in five business sectors comes as no surprise. For too long, schools in Japan have done a poor job of preparing English-language learners for the real world.

That’s why Obunsha Co., Casio Computer Co., and Mainichi Newspapers Co. have taken matters into their own hands. Although Japanese students learn English for six years starting in junior high school, too many still can’t speak the language. A closer look at instruction reveals the reasons.

Almost all lessons are designed to help students pass the written university entrance exams. These measure only writing and grammar, rather than conversation. There’s nothing at all wrong with learning the former, but it’s highly unlikely that they will transfer to the latter.

That’s because they violate what in athletics is known as “specificity of training.” The closer what happens in the gymnasium mimics what happens on the playing field, the higher the likelihood of transfer. Therefore, if the goal is for students to speak English, students should be given appropriate practice in the classroom speaking English.

Proficiency in speaking any foreign language is directly dependent on the number of hours spent speaking the language in question. The hours devoted to learning grammar have little carryover to speaking. Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers,” is famous for his 10,000-hour rule. That’s the number of hours spent practicing he maintains it takes to master any skill. But those hours need to be focused on the precise behavior.

It was altogether predictable, therefore, that the education ministry’s targets for reading, listening, writing, and speaking English by junior high and high school students were not reached. A survey of 90,000 students at 500 public high schools and 60,000 public junior high schools chosen at random confirmed the importance of appropriate practice. By mixing together four English skills, the ministry assured the disappointing outcomes.

The United States has learned that lesson. There are close to five million students who are learning English in public schools. Nearly 80 percent come from Spanish-speaking homes. But the rest may speak any one of hundreds of other languages. Unlike public schools in Japan, however, those in the U.S. rely heavily on teaching conversation, rather than grammar. As a result, students quickly learn “social” or “playground” English.

Purists will decry their failure to first learn how to read and write English. But given the importance of conversation as the final objective, they are better prepared than their counterparts in Japan. Their relative success is due to a popular revolt in favor of total immersion that began in 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227 in California by a 61 percent majority.

Total immersion force students to first learn to listen and speak only in English. Arizona voters passed a similar measure in 2000, and Massachusetts followed in 2002. Opposition soon faded when students began to progress far faster than in old-style bilingual programs.

There’s no reason that Japanese students can’t profit from the same approach to learning English. If total immersion is too big a pill to swallow, dual immersion may be more palatable. Students study in two languages, gaining fluency in both. The hard part is convincing teachers to rethink their instruction.

Walt Gardner, who taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years, writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week.

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