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How Can We Raise Japan’s Level of English?

The level of English in Japan ranks significantly lower than surrounding countries. One ALT shares his thoughts on ways to raise standards.

By 5 min read 1

Being an English teacher in Japan is fun. As any good teacher will tell you, the excitement and the satisfaction that comes from seeing that smile when a student finally “gets it” is probably the best legal high there is! However, in Japan’s specific case, there are a number of issues, some small in scale, others underlying structural problems, that we teachers sometimes feel undermine our efforts.

Learning English, and learning it from as early an age as possible is important not just from a language education point of view, but also for instilling a strong sense of globalism in the next generation of workers and leaders.

Take the case of England. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the lack of foreign language education in the country in previous years could be one of the core reasons behind last year’s decision to leave the EU. Second language fluency levels in England and indeed the UK as a whole trail behind most of the rest of Europe. The idea that “I don’t need to learn another language because everyone speaks my language” is an extremely arrogant but to date largely unchallenged notion there.

With the nightmare scenario that is President Trump now upon us, the onus is now on Japan to seek out new alliances and relationships with other foreign countries as America retreats into itself. There’s never been a better time for Japan to reassess its approach to foreign language education.

So, how do we begin to accomplish this?

Start earlier

One of the main problems I have noticed, particularly in teaching younger learners here in Japan is how few English lessons younger learners here get.

Although most of the Eikaiwa schools in Japan will accept students from three years and up, usually this only involves one English lesson per week, in many cases less. In public schools, although it varies from city to city, on average students currently don’t receive official English lessons until they reach at least 5th grade. From time to time you may teach an unofficial “guest lesson” to the lower grades but this is typically just once per term.

Compare this to China, Japan’s main economic rival in the region. In China, English is taught from kindergarten in many areas, and in the case of the more exclusive schools, a number of the subjects are taught using English as the medium of instruction. This facilitates passive learning, something which I’m a big supporter of.

Teach other subjects in English

This is another area where Japan could increase student’s exposure to English with minimal disruption. As part of the social studies lessons for example, when talking about foreign countries, why not have the foreign language teacher do a part of the lesson in English. Not only will this increase the student’s exposure to English, but it will also show the students a practical usage for English beyond the often contrived, occasionally condescending structure of the ALT’s lesson.

PE classes could also be conducted in English. I’ve taught soccer and martial arts to students here in Japan using English and had no problems. As sports are largely taught through a method of watching and imitating the actions of the teacher, it quickly moves to a point where the language of instruction is almost insignificant. However, by hearing and responding to English, the students are benefiting from further reinforcement of what they have learned previously in their English lessons.

Not only will this increase the student’s exposure to English, but it will also show the students a practical usage for English beyond the often contrived, occasionally condescending structure of the ALT’s lesson.

Change the image of English

Perhaps most importantly though, Japan needs to do something to address the problem of the image of English.

The fact of the matter is, to the majority of students, even those who are good at it, English is seen as an overly difficult, tiresome and turgid subject to study.

The current methodology of dressing up the lessons in games, singing and dancing may work for kindergarteners, but it’s clear to me that the older grades can see this for what it is. Indeed there were times earlier in my career when I felt less like a teacher and more like a proverbial dancing bear.

Helping students realize the practical necessity of English needs to run hand in hand with making the lessons fun and interesting. Also, there are plenty of ways to make lessons fun without having to act like Barney the Dinosaur! For example, the greater use of technology in the classroom.

English vs communication

A concerted move away from a constant stream of tests to instead focus on language acquisition and usage will also go a long way. Perhaps we could follow the example of some schools in Hong Kong, where “English” and “Use of English” are two distinctly different subjects, the latter usually being taught by a native speaker.

My current school here in Osaka is embracing this model. The class I teach each week to my students is called “Oral Communication” and is a distinctly different and separately assessed subject from English.

Whatever happens we are now only three years away from the Tokyo Olympics, and if all of Mr Abe’s rhetoric about making Japan more international ahead of the games is to be delivered on, then time is running out.

Either way, for English teachers in Japan, there are interesting times ahead.

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  • Samn says:

    I agree with you on there has to be more opportunities for students to use English they learn. I went to a high school that was very academic-centered and our teachers drilled us on grammars like crazy. (In a way, I am thankful for that, but that’s another story.) “Oral Communication” was the favorite class for many of my classmates even for those that hated regular English class. Our ALT made English relevant to our lives as high school students and teenagers in Japan and we learned those phrases very quickly!

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