Asia Life

English from 3rd Grade for Japanese Students?

Will students benefit without fundamental changes to the current system? Teachers weigh in.

J.T. Quigley

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.

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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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The Diplomat spoke with several foreign teachers across Japan to ask their opinion about the proposed education reforms.

“Working with students from a very wide range of backgrounds and skill levels I feel that starting English education earlier – but continuing with a 'grammar first' approach – will at best see an increase in test scores, but very little in the way of practical application,” John Jones, an American eikaiwa teacher in central Tokyo whose students range from kindergarten to adult, told The Diplomat.

Jones, who has been teaching English in Japan for four years, added, “The students I have had in eikaiwa whose parents allow a conversation-based class schedule have kids more confident in their basic language use – which only goes to benefit the speed and efficiency with which they gain more complex language skills.”

Taylor Read, a JET Program participant in Hokkaido, agrees that starting English education at an early age is beneficial, but is concerned about the timing of the proposed changes.

“I think the roles of foreign English teachers are better suited towards teaching younger learners. High school students tend in some cases to be either too busy for or simply too uninterested in much of what foreign English teachers set out to do,” he stated. “Younger learners tend to be better suited to language learning in any case.”

Read, who teaches at two public high schools, concluded, “It seems like a good idea, but 2020 is half a decade away. What are they waiting for?”

Alex Nicholls, a TESL-certified instructor from Canada and ex-JET program ALT, has mixed feelings about the proposed changes.

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“In my opinion, it might change the child's view of the language, but unless there is a major overhaul in the way English is taught in Japan, it will not make a large impact,” said Nicholls, who teaches at an international nursery school in Nagoya. “I feel there is a lack of balance in the current system. There is too much focus on receptive skills.” She did, however, agree that starting English younger is a good thing – “if done properly.”

Gojo Tajiri, a Kansai University professor and expert on English language education in Japan, told The Japan Times that public schools are not ready for the reforms.

“Most teachers handling English lessons in elementary schools have not had specialized language-teaching training, and some end up teaching incorrect pronunciation and grammar,” he said. “There [won’t] be enough time to retrain them or develop good English-teaching materials for them to use.”

The declining quality of English education in Japan is creating a ripple effect of “deglobalization.” According to Asia Pathways, Japanese enrollment in U.S. universities has dropped from nearly 50,000 in 2000-2001 to less than 20,000 in 2011-2012. On the contrary, an increasing number of other Asian students are opting to study there.

“[Japan’s] national security apparatus is woefully short of men and women who can participate in international meetings, negotiate with foes, work with allies, and understand the outside world,” Asia Pathways said. “Change is unlikely [because] an internationalized Japan would delegitimize the idea of the archipelago as a unique harmonious, homogenous, and ‘Japanese’ homeland and open the door to a more liberal society with different values and new elites. This runs contrary to Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s cabinet’s emphasis on Japanese values and history.”

EF Education First, a Switzerland-based teaching company that specializes in language training and study-abroad programs, conducted a global survey of English-language proficiency in non-native English-speaking countries. Japan ranked 22nd, behind South Korea, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Singapore.

Perhaps reforms are in order in Japan wants to remain competitive with its increasingly ambitious Asian neighbors.

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