Japan and China have always been in close competition. Not just economically, but also culturally and sadly sometimes militarily and until recently, Japan always had the upper hand economically. This has now changed however with the rise of China as a global player, both in finance and in politics.
Nowhere is this new found Chinese self-confidence more apparent than in the burgeoning metropolis that is the city of Hong Kong. Since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, inward investment has seen the city grow to become a centre of commerce not just for Asia but for the entire world.
As someone who has worked as a teacher and a writer both in Japan and Hong Kong, it is interesting to compare the two. Japan certainly retains the upper hand in terms of quality of life and salary; however there is one area where Hong Kong is currently streets ahead: English language acquisition.
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between Tokyo and Hong Kong. Both are massive, crowded and extremely dense cities, centres of commerce and industry. Yet, Hong Kong consistently scores among the highest in Asia for performance in the various English exams, Japan among the lowest.
A report published in late 2013 by ETS, the administrators of the internationally recognised TOEFL iBT English proficiency assessment, showed that Japanese candidates averaged a score of 18 out of a possible 25 for speaking, placing the country below the likes of Uzbekistan and North Korea in the rankings. Hong Kong on the other hand averaged a speaking score of 22, making it the third highest scorer in Asia.
What can Japan learn from our Cantonese colleagues?
In Hong Kong kids begin English classes at a far earlier stage than their Japanese counterparts. English is taught from kindergarten, with a number of other subjects also taught in English. This trend continues through elementary school, middle school and even into high school and university. Schooling in Hong Kong is a truly bilingual experience. Though plans are afoot to start classes at an earlier age, most students in Japan do not start learning English until elementary school 5th grade at the earliest.
There have been a multitude of studies conducted over the years into second and even third language acquisition in children. Results have varied but the generally accepted position is that children’s brains are best suited to learning to speak another language between the ages of 3 and 7 years old. Hence, this is why Hong Kong’s English speaking kindergartens are proving so successful.
Additionally, Hong Kong, with its British colonial past, has a history of bilingualism. These days, with mainland China exerting greater influence over HK many of today’s students are trilingual, speaking not only English and Cantonese but also the Putonghua language of their mainland cousins. Japan, despite various government initiatives such as The JET Programme, remains, by and large, a monolingual society.
Societal attitudes do seem to play a big role here too.
As a centre of global capitalism, Hong Kong truly is a city where money talks. And when it does talk, more often than not, the conversation is in English. To put it bluntly, the Chinese love of money and wealth is in their DNA. They have long since realized that speaking English is good for business.
This one area where, sadly, Japan just doesn’t get it!
With the economy remaining stagnant, Japan needs to boost international trade. Having more English speakers is a key part of the puzzle. And yet still, the vast majority of corporate wheeling and dealing in Japan is done exclusively in Japanese.
It isn’t all doom and gloom however. There are some simple steps Japan can take to follow Hong Kong’s lead and raise English standards.
For most university courses in Hong Kong, having at least a rudimentary grasp of English is essential. Were Japan to adopt a similar standard in its university admissions policy, then surely this would have the knock-on effect of driving students to raise their English levels. The idea of making English proficiency exams such as TOEFL a mandatory part of all university entrance exams in Japan is currently a hot topic among academics.
Those in favour say it will encourage students to take English more seriously in junior and senior high school. Opponents however argue that it could lead to teachers simply “teaching to test” and as such students may not be able to enjoy the fully rounded experience of learning a language.
Another area where I believe Japan could progress is by dropping the TOEIC test as their most important assessment criteria for English in the workplace. Since its inception in 1979, the test has produced generations of people with flawless writing and grammar skills. Yet, if you try to have a two minute conversation with them at natural speed the limitations of the test quickly become apparent.
TOEIC did not have a speaking element until 2006 and even then, the listening and reading exam is still administered separately from the speaking and writing element.
From my experience in Hong Kong, I found that tests such as IELTS provide a far more rounded measure of a candidate’s actual language ability. IELTS measures each of the candidates 4 core skills, reading, writing, listening and speaking with an equal weighting given to each in the overall final grade. No exam system is perfect, but certainly having worked with students of both systems, IELTS does seem to give a far truer reflection of a person’s overall English ability level.
But perhaps the most important area where change is needed is in the school classroom. It is here that English is first introduced. It is also here that study habits are established and prejudices formed. English education in Japan needs to make a move away from the constant grammar drills and rote learning.
Whilst this teaching methodology has allowed Japan to become a world leader in areas such as mathematics, computing and the sciences, anyone who has ever worked in a public school will tell you that these methods are not conducive to language acquisition. English is a skill that must be practiced, not a series of formulas to be memorized.
As the Tokyo Olympics draws closer, many within the Japanese government and especially the education ministry finally seem to be waking up to the importance of English. As we get nearer to the event I expect a number of initiatives to be rolled out. Progress is slow, but such is always the case in Japan. Change will come eventually.