06 June 2008

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #5

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #5

Note: This is the fifth of a series that will run for at least ten parts. However, readers' comments are welcomed and, where relevant, will be added as reasons in the main series, with full credit given.

Reason #5: Lack of national consensus on foreign language education

This reason, once it is grasped, leads the analysis to many specific problems that are embedded in education in Japan. If you ask many Japanese, they will complain quite strongly about English language teaching and learning in the country's schools, from the junior highs/middle schools (where EFL first becomes a part of the official curriculum) right on up to its colleges and universities. So you might think that there is some sort of consensus for change. But it is not enough to agree that something is wrong with English Language Teaching (ELT) and classroom learning in Japan. There has to be some sort of consensus about what to do about the inadequacy of ELT and learning in order to improve it.

Instead of a consensus, what you will find in actual advocacy and practice breaks down along contradictory lines. Some advocate the education of more translators and interpreters. Some think that the current generations of Japanese who finish secondary and tertiary levels of education (and this is now the majority of young people now) ought to be able to read and even write within their specialties and professions. This thought is similar to the policy that drove EFL learning in Japan between the first and second wars. And to this day you will see the legacy of that period's 'Reading Method' (often misleadingly called 'Grammar Translation') in current EFL classes from the middle school level upwards. Still yet another voice of reform says that Japanese need practical English, and they often cite oral English or 'English conversation' being the best example of what they advocate.

All these priorities bring with them problems. First, you can not train most people to be translators and interpreters, so the education system here needs to be better at selecting talented students for these specialties. Also, if the nation's needs are for people to translate or interpret Japanese into English, more native speakers of English also have to be involved. Second, it can be excessively difficult and boring to be forced to read a FL you can't speak. In effect, it turns English into dead Latin, and most students simply flounder in Japanese translations and related 'grammar explanations' of the English texts rather than read in English. Third, most Japanese don't experience a pressing need for oral English skills, except when they travel overseas or if they work in a business or a branch of government that conducts its international activities at a level beyond translation and interpretation services.

Many in Japan have identified the same problem--an education system that fails at foreign languages. Now they have to take stock of why specifically their system fails and then forge some sort of working consensus for each level and type of education.

At the university level this might be centered on working language policies across the curriculum addressing FL learning's place in the wider general education curriculum. Reform could also be concentrated on better integration of FLT and FLL with majors and specialties for which foreign languages are a key skill.

As for general education, so much of EFL in Japan now falls in this area. There are actually very few programs for majoring in EFL or even majors that require it as integral to a given specialty. Instead, EFL is in effect an ill-fitting part of general education. If institutions do not take foreign language teaching and learning within general education seriously, should they be surprised that the students do not?

1 comment:

CEJ said...

Case in point:


Early-years English lessons seen ineffective

The Yomiuri Shimbun

About 40 percent of parents of primary and middle school students have low expectations regarding the effectiveness of English classes for fifth- and sixth-grade primary schoolers, which will be made compulsory in the 2011 academic year, according to a survey by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers Associations of Japan.

The survey showed many parents are concerned primary school teachers lack necessary English-teaching skills, with about 70 percent of the respondents saying professional English teachers are needed to ensure the language is taught effectively.

"In past surveys, most parents supported the idea [of making English compulsory at primary school level], but from the results of the latest survey, I feel parents really want primary schools to have suitable teachers in charge of English classes and introduce effective English-teaching methods," said Masahiro Konno, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, who analyzed the survey results.

The survey was conducted in November and December on 4,800 parents of students in the fifth grade of primary school and in the second year of middle school.

A combined 59 percent of parents of primary school students said they had "high expectations" or "fairly high expectations" for the English lessons. Of these, 18 percent said they had "high expectations."

However, 37 percent said they expected either "little" or "nothing" from the classes; of which 33 percent said they did not expect "very much."

The survey also showed disparities between parents' expectations and the government's education policy.

Asked what they felt were the necessary requirements for English to be taught effectively, 71 percent cited professional English teachers; 67 percent said it was necessary to introduce teaching methods appropriate for primary school education; and 58 percent said they wanted native English speakers to teach at primary schools.

On the other hand, less than 20 percent of respondents supported measures the Education, Science and Technology Ministry is considering introducing, such as educational CDs and DVDs and English-speaking volunteers who would act in a supporting role.
(May. 18, 2008)

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