As part of a “home work” assignment we were asked to come up with a short essay on an issue in Japanese schools. There are a lot of things that I think have the potential to be issues but as an outsider, I don’t feel compelled to necessarily comment on them. It’s not my place. Regardless, it was an assignment, so forth with short sided wisdom I will go.
When I first came to Japan I was surprised by many things. Too many things really. Being stared at on a regular basis was new to me. The people in the small town I inhabit are so genuinely polite it still throws me off a little bit. In particular to English the amount of Romanized script on things that don’t matter and the lack of it on things that do matter, blows me away. With the recent exception of these thirteen signs that being changed in Tokyo as a “test.”
There are several fancy hair salons, restaurants and stores near my house that all have Romanized names, “Hair & Make,” “Strawberry Cones,” and the French bakery, “La Porte.” There is also a city bus stop, a local area map, apartment buildings, and essentially everything in the grocery store without any Latin script at all. Why does Strawberry Cones have an English name but literally nothing else in their restaurant is even remotely English (including the terrible pizza)? Why does the bus system in Iwanuma operate entirely in kanji script, not even hiragana or katakana? Why does Hotto Motto even bother having a Latin script name in Japan when essentially all of their customers are Japanese? Lastly, what does any of this have to do with school or teaching English?
It isn’t a striking revelation but the Japanese are not very good at English. According to 2010 figures from TOEFL iBT (Test of English as Foreign Language) Japan scored the worst in a comparison of Asian countries over a four year span. Japanese English proficiency has been in the news quite a bit lately. Current Prime Minister Shizō Abe is pushing his, “three-arrow” path to fixing Japanese education featured in this Japan Times article. Reclaim dominance in the areas of science and math, emphasize IT education and improve English language skills. The current reform being enacted is to make English and official subject for fifth and sixth graders which the Japanese are sharply divided on.
From The Mainichi, “Benesse Educational Research and Development Center carried out an online survey in October 2011 targeting 2,688 first year public junior high school students on what they thought about the English course. Asked about their sixth grade English lessons, 36 percent said they didn’t like them. The students said they were ‘not interested’ and thought the classes were ‘difficult.'”
This isn’t a new idea. In 2002 Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI), a think tank based in Tokyo, published a paper titled, “Why the Japanese are Poor English Speakers – A proposal to reform English language instruction in Japan.” In their paper this same solution dismissed as a, “waste of time.” RIETI makes the point that in Japan, “English is merely a mandatory discipline in a college entrance test, one of many fields of study that a student must score adequately in order to get into a university.”
I can’t think of a more depressing way to think about English.
To make matters worse it seems that Japan’s English teachers are often very skilled in grammar but listening comprehension and speaking are major opportunity areas. I myself have been corrected on a grammar point by a teacher but still have trouble communicating ideas about lesson plans. The general assertion is that English conversation is superficial and isn’t tested for on high school and university exams as expressed in this paper from Yamaoka Kenji.
In a paper from Kanda University of International Studies Thomas Lockley and Stephanie Farrell examine “grammar anxiety” and how it affects Japanese students. Their study found no strong link between confidence in grammar and speaking. Moreover, “…self-perception of grammatical ability appears to have little to do with how a person performs orally.” The paper goes on to state that Japanese teachers of English have more and more been embracing a more communicative approach to teaching English in the classroom.
The most important pieces of information uncovered in this paper was that surveyed Japanese students wished to be corrected most on, “…pragmatic errors…, followed by phonology, vocabulary, grammar,and discourse.” As well as treating, “Japanese students” as a homogenous population is problematic and should be questioned.
The problem of English proficiency is deeper than the “grammar translation method isn’t good enough.” It certainly is a problem that the focus of the lesson plans and text books is grammar but perfect grammar isn’t required for effective communication. Most young Japanese have enough vocabulary to get across a point even if they leave prepositions on the wayside.
You know what the Japanese aren’t good at? Paradigm shifts. However a complete obliteration of the status quo maybe required to have any real change on the Japanese school system. It is hard to tell how serious the Japanese government is about changing their English learning in schools when, Toshiaki Endo, head of the LDP committee on education admitted to Asahi Shimbun that if he took TOEFL or TOEIC he would probably “score 10 points.” In general the media has ripped apart the LDP’s plans to improve English education in Japanese schools including tabloids like Gendai ridiculing the idea of proficient bilingual employees because it causes them to forget how to be polite Japanese.
How do the Japanese handle their lack of English skills? Are they bothered by it at all?
Recently the Wall Street Journal published an article that reads more like the Onion than a real newspaper but current Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said in regard to Japan being relatively insulated from the 2008 sub-prime mortgage meltdown, “Japanese bank managers didn’t understand English much, so they couldn’t get drawn into the trouble.” While that may look like quote poaching, his analysis of the situation was that Japanese companies are too risk averse and the Wall Street Journal failed in at least asking a follow up question regarding English skills in business.
On the other end of the spectrum starting on July 2, 2012 Rakuten Inc. started a policy that all business meetings would be conducted in English. Average scores for Rakuten’s employees on the TOEIC test had gone up 160 points in the two years preceding the big English switch according to Hiroshi Mikitani, President of Rakuten Inc. The article from the Asahi Shimbun also points out that some people are having trouble sharing opinions and even being passed over for promotions due to lack of English skills.
In an article from the Harvard Business Review, Honda’s CEO, Takanobu Ito, publicly asserted, “It’s stupid for a Japanese company to only use English in Japan when the workforce is mainly Japanese.” In spite of the evidence from HBR that English is the future and any company that wants to be competitive economically will need to have solid English skills, Japanese companies are still ambivalent.
English education outside of Japan is treated quite differently. In neighboring South Korea, math, science, English and social studies are considered to the most important subjects. In Germany if you attend a gymnasium style school, by the time high school comes around, a student is working on his third language on top of English and German. In Singapore, the main language of instruction IS English. The point here is not that Japan should abandon Japanese in favor English but to create an environment for English practice far different than the one that exists today.
A major issue regarding competency for Japanese students is speaking practice. They speak when they are spoken to in class, period. To speak effectively beyond simply knowing a plethora of vocabulary, speaking practice must be a much larger part of the curriculum. Teaching to the TOEFL test is unlikely to improve true speaking ability not to mention they haven’t figured out how they will pay for all the extra TOEFL testing. This May 2013 editorial from Japan Times quite rightly points out that, “Schools must first give students a reason to communicate, and learning English for the purpose of improving one’s employment chances in the future is not a compelling one. All the testing in the world won’t make a difference.”
On a similar note from the paper by REITI, “For those people who derive pleasure from learning the language, the effort is an act of consumption. At the other end, for those who study it as a means to advance a career, further one’s refinement, or enhance a hobby, the acquiring of English skills serves as an investment.”
Remember how I mentioned paradigm shift? The REITI paper goes on to suggest, “why not make English an elective?” Yes, why not? Well because that is a terrible idea.
What Japan needs to do is create demand. In a true economic sense give the students a reason to consume in English. Create a system that shows English is great outside of being a successful businessman. My suggestion would be broadening the curriculum to include far more exposure to English literature. Create demand by making the acquisition of English worth something in and of itself through the expansion of liberal arts approaches in the classroom. Everyone consumes in English. Creating a reason for the students to enjoy what they are consuming creates a demand for better English education.
This is not a catch all solution either. A demand for better English education by parents needs to force the hand of local Boards of Education. Local BOE’s need to hold Japanese teachers of English to a much higher standard of communication. Furthermore I would suggest that teachers of English in Japanese schools should be native English speakers who are fluent in Japanese. The Japanese teacher’s union Nikkyoso would likely never let that happen.
Sadly in my case I am left with unanswered questions about Hotto Motto and Strawberry Cones but I am now far more knowledgable about English education in Japan. Japanese English education in my limited experience is a minefield rife with polarizing ideas, opinions and solutions. The grey area between the right answer or total solution and the real world is vast. There is no silver bullet to improve the overall English education system in Japan. In my minute understanding of the situation I’ve reached the following conclusions.
1) If Japan is serious about changing their English education for the better they must be willing to embrace massive amounts of change.
2) Increasing the volume of English grammar and vocabulary learning will not produce better English speakers.
3) The Ministry of Education needs to “Create a Demand” for English in a way that has not been addressed previously through the expansion of eclectic and liberal arts approaches.
4) The Japanese culture needs to welcome the “Investment in English” to be a competitive economy for the future.
Ok, Japan, now go fix it.
Feel free to offer counter opinions, agree with me or say nasty things about me in the comments!