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?