Last week, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) proposed a landmark change to the current public education system, opting to begin English language classes in the third grade. The proposal is set to be implemented by 2020 – the same year that Tokyo will host the Olympic games. MEXT hopes that by starting English coursework at a younger age, Japanese youths will be more prepared for an “international environment” in the future.
At present, MEXT doesn’t consider English to be an official subject – a stance that will change under the new system. From 2020, third and fourth graders will have one or two English lessons a week – with the emphasis on having fun while communicating. Fifth and sixth graders will have formalized 45-minute classes that are taught using official government-approved textbooks. They will also be graded on their basic reading and writing skills – roughly the same level as first-year Japanese junior high school students (7th grade by American standards).
The reforms are likely to boost the number of foreign English teachers, working in Japan. The Japan Times estimates that there are about 10,000 native speakers working as assistant language teachers (ALTs) across the country. Nearly half of them (4,372 in 2013) are hired by local boards of education in conjunction with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. JET, now in its 27th year, is administered by three government entities – including MEXT.
Over the years, JET has received both praise and criticism. On one hand, it allows Japanese students in some of Japan’s most rural areas to engage with foreigners – an experience that some of them might not gain otherwise. On the other hand, critics say that the English level of many Japanese hasn’t improved enough, considering the government’s costly investment in foreign teachers (who make roughly $30,000 a year).
The Japanese education system at its core, which often favors rote memorization over critical thinking, has also been criticized for its lack of practical English instruction. Textbooks tend to focus on grammar and writing – with very little time devoted to conversation. ALTs sometimes describe their job as being a “human tape recorder,” forced to follow a rigid curriculum verbatim, rather than teaching the students how to converse with an English-speaker.
Proof that English education in Japanese public schools is flawed can be seen in the form of eikaiwa. Eikiwa, private English conversation schools that offer one-on-one lessons, are a ubiquitous sight in Japan – with multiple locations often established just outside of major train stations across the country. Though the industry has declined alongside the Japanese economy, eikaiwa remains a multi-billion yen industry.
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