To stay competitive in a global economy, countries often look to education. In Northeast Asia, an intense pursuit of education has made the region renowned for its numerous entrance-exams at every level of schooling and flourishing cram-school cultures. In recent years, Japan has planned to take it up a notch. In October 2013, the Japanese government attempted to introduce compulsory English-language education at the third grade in the elementary school – two years earlier than the current fifth grade. The aim is to tackle its longstanding concern that, despite being one of the world’s most developed nations, Japan lacks English fluency. Some have argued that earlier exposure to English learning could efficiently help to address the deficiency. However, the structural problems in the Japanese English education system cannot be fixed solely by adding a couple more years of English studies.
Start with the students themselves, who have little incentive to speak English given the nature of the school entrance exams, which stress grammar and translation but downplay verbal fluency. Not surprisingly, students would rather spend time on the skills required for the admissions exams, and understandably see studying for the speaking component as a waste of time. For Japanese students, English learning is strictly for exams, not for career prospects or personal enrichment.
And what of their teachers? English teaching in Japanese schools suffers from a lack of education training for local and foreign English teachers, and a lack of communication between them. Local teachers do not need to fulfill an English requirement to obtain a teaching certification, while the native English speakers who serve as assistant language teachers (ALTs), introduced through government-sponsored JET programs or by privately run dispatch companies, can also lack professional training and teaching experience. Moreover, local Japanese teachers often struggle to find the time to coordinate with ALTs, who are then not utilized effectively. Diverse backgrounds in the language complicate the teaching environment. Different choices of investment in English education, such as public schools, private schools, tutoring or cram schools, all play significant roles in creating this diversity.
Many of the problems in English language learning can be traced to the role of the government in the English education system. Designed by the government, the Japanese English curriculum lacks continuity at every schooling transition – from elementary to junior high school and from junior high to high school – leaving students perplexed and struggling to learn. At elementary school, students mainly enjoy English activities, which involve “singing songs, playing games and engaging in basic conversations;” however, on entering junior high school, they suddenly find themselves overwhelmed with reading and writing requirements.
If Japan is truly to correct its English education system, all of these issues will need to be addressed. One approach could be to start at the university level. Japanese college students are the most likely to have the free time to focus on language training, and intense English learning in college could prepare them for job-hunting after graduation. Whichever approach is taken, though, revising the system of English education in Japan will not be an easy task.
Emily S Chen is a graduate student in the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University with a focus on international relations.