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Japan grapples with ways to boost English

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nomad soul

Joined: 31 Jan 2010
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Location: The real world

PostPosted: Thu Oct 12, 2017 5:29 am    Post subject: Japan grapples with ways to boost English Reply with quote

Japan turns to Basil Fawlty in race for Olympic English
By Matt Pickles , BBC | 29 March 2017

Japan is struggling to make sure it has enough proficient English speakers when it hosts the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020. And the classic BBC comedy series Fawlty Towers is being deployed by some teachers in an attempt to give Japanese students an example of spoken English - rather than focusing on written language and grammar.

Japan's government and businesses want to use the Olympics to boost tourism and global trade and to present a positive image of Japan to the world. So the government needs to ensure a supply of English speakers to be Olympic volunteers and work in the accommodation, tourism, and retail industries. There is also a demand for professionals, such as doctors and nurses, to speak to visitors or competitors in English.

Japan's government has been working to bridge this English language gap. The subject is now taught in school from when students are eight or nine years old and remains compulsory for the next seven years. University students and school teachers have been sent on trips abroad to learn English, and many universities are giving language lessons to prospective Olympic volunteers. There are even proposals to create an "English village" in Tokyo, populated entirely by English-speakers, where learners could immerse themselves in the language.

But early indications are that progress has been slow, and the country still comes surprisingly far down global rankings of English proficiency. Japan is 40th out of 48 countries on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), and last year it fell from "moderate proficiency" to "low proficiency" on EF's English Proficiency Index.

So why is learning English so difficult for the Japanese? Megumi Tada, an education expert at Hirosaki University, said the main reason is "the lack of teachers who can effectively use the language". When the Kyoto Board of Education asked middle school English teachers to take the TOEIC, fewer than one in four teachers reached the threshold for language skills good enough for most social demands and limited work requirements. Ms Tada said that although the government has now introduced English in primary schools, most of the teachers in these schools are not qualified to teach the language. She said a better way to improve English teaching would be to increase the number of trained teachers in primary and secondary schools, and to train them for longer.

There are also questions about the way English is taught in schools. The focus tends to be on grammar, vocabulary and writing, which are repeatedly tested in high-pressure exams. As a result, English is rarely spoken in Japanese classrooms. Junnosuke Nakamura, who leads the education company EF in Japan, has said that "too often in our schools, a Japanese national is teaching English in Japanese, and English must be taught in English". He said the government's reforms "have not actually changed anything at a fundamental level".

Helen Bentley, from communications firm Finsbury, worked on Tokyo's Olympic bid. "There are relatively few opportunities to use spoken English in Japan," she said. "As a result, many Japanese are much stronger at reading and writing than they are at speaking."

There are teachers trying a more imaginative approach to getting students to speak English - such as setting them comedies to watch for homework. Teachers in Fukuoka Prefecture have been using Fawlty Towers and Red Dwarf to get students used to hearing spoken English. It raises the prospect of a generation of Japanese students sounding like Basil, Sybil or even Manuel.

There is also a barrier from a culture of perfectionism in Japanese education, with a belief that there is a "right" way to do something. Students do not want to make mistakes and they will not attempt something until they are sure they can get it right. This might be a good thing for literacy and numeracy - Japan comes consistently near the top of global rankings such as PISA.

But it does not work so well for languages, for which speaking and making mistakes are crucial to learning. Fumiko Inoue, who lectures in Japanese language and cross-cultural management at Rotterdam Business School, pointed to the experience of one of her Dutch students who taught English in a school in Tokyo. At first, the new teacher was surprised that students were reluctant to speak English in class, but after a lot of encouragement she got them to chat to each other in the language. That is, until she was observed by a senior teacher who criticised her students for making too many grammatical mistakes.

"If you don't say anything, you don't make any mistakes either, of course," said Prof Inoue. This teaching style can have lifelong effects on how Japanese people approach the English language. "We Japanese have a strong psychological barrier to speaking English," said Kumiko Iwasaki, a professor of psychology and education at the Open University of Japan. "We have an obsession that we have to speak English perfectly."

(End of article)
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 14, 2017 2:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm amazed all the time at how poorly English in the classroom is implemented. It's like they want it to be as onerous as possible to learn. Nothing about learning English makes sense here. From classes to eikaiwa. In eikaiythe curriculum is a joke and the kids can't do anything without the teaching walking them through it.

People also talk about how low level alts are here. Yet as an alt I never needed to know anything about English. It was all about basic conversation, and repeat after me. I was never in a situation where I could be used properly. in other countries they don't spend 3 years on the very basics. The kids learn that stuff, because they're pushed. They're babied here until 8th grade, then suddenly it's serious
It's so bad that they just need to tear it down and start over. As clearly nothing is being done right.

I think the English is hard mentality is defeatism and it spreads like wild fire in classes.
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 14, 2017 4:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nothing seems to be working to improve the quality of English education in Japan, despite years and years of discussion. I don't think it ever will improve. We all know that many (most?) Japanese are terrified of making mistakes in the classroom. But it's not just that: many are afraid of being perceived as too good in English, and therefore less of a Japanese....the Japanese student is defeated from both sides. And then there's the whole issue of exams, which means English is treated as a math or science class. Of course, there are exceptions and I am sure many great teachers here work with the exceptions and will chime in how they have made progress, how they are able to implement functional and communicative aspects to their lessons. I hope they can influence the future of English education.
It's, of course, not just Japan that has poor results from their way of teaching English. But I do think the world has higher expectations from Japan, an economically advanced country.
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 14, 2017 11:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It depends where you work but I think some teachers sabotage the process, although maybe not on purpose.

I currently teach 30 in a discussion class that is not divided by level. I think the school just wants to save money. It is just a required class.
Discussion? Really? The students need reading and writing just to prepare to speak since they are not ready.

Or when I taught writing to classes with 30-40 students, I just thought the university is not that serious or they just care about money, and want to hire fewer teachers.
I knew a teacher at Chiba University who had 60 students in a class, and one at a university with 60 for academic writing.

At a high school I saw students sleep and chat, and some students who make no effort but nobody fails so why bother?

Some universities want to get tough and require a certain score on the TOEIC or TOEFL for graduation, but some students really struggle.
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 18, 2017 1:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Japanese don't really care whether they learn English or not. Most don't care about learning English unless it helps them get what they REALLY want e.g graduate from Todai, get a good job, earn more money, get a promotion. All things that do not sustain long term motivation for learning a language. English in Japan is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It always has been.

Finally, the political and power elite in Japan do not want Japanese people to achieve proficiency in English. Everything about this culture is designed in a way to prevent Japanese people from becoming fluent in English. The Japanese have spent billions of dollars on English education, and they cannot speak English. It's sham. The owners of the eikaiwas and jukus and test makers, etc., all have a stake in it.

The goal has never been to have the Japanese obtain any fluency in English.
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 21, 2017 4:30 am    Post subject: Re: Japan grapples with ways to boost English Reply with quote

nomad soul wrote:

There are also questions about the way English is taught in schools. The focus tends to be on grammar, vocabulary and writing, which are repeatedly tested in high-pressure exams.

That bit in bold is wrong--indeed, it's never been true. (And yes, I have data to back this up.) Most Japanese never learn to write, or read, or speak English because Japanese students are not being taught in school how to write, or speak or read English, and what vocabulary instruction they do receive tends to be the rote memorization of one definition for each word (and ignoring all other definitions). As numerous researchers have documented, the actual focus of most English classes is on grammar...and often Japanese grammar.

That said, each year quite a few of my students--and by extension students at colleges/universities throughout Japan--somehow do graduate with extremely high levels of English proficiency. However, until recently, they too often didn't get hired there were no good jobs for them. This phenomenon highlights two additional issues in this country: 1) the job market for fluent English speakers in this country has long been saturated, and 2) even when English fluency has been required for hire, there has been a tendency (again, I have data) to prefer the "genki but not fluent (though hopefully trainable)" males over extremely fluent female (and sometimes even fluent male) applicants. The reasons for #2 are complex (and include an almost xenophobic distrust of Japanese who are "too" good in English), but I don't have the time or energy to delve into them now.

Finally, at least here, this has all changed with the Olympics--in recent years, all my best students have been finding great jobs. I also don't think there will be issues with the amount and quality of English-language support available during the Olympic. (The much more serious question is who will pay the salaries of those providing this support--the government currently is looking for "volunteers," underlining its desire to avoid this issue.)
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nomad soul

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 21, 2017 10:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Insightful points! Another interesting personal perspective from a Japanese educator...

Freeing Japanese from English trauma
by Yoko Ishikura, Japan Times | 8 October 2017

Recently, I have seen two trends going on regarding English communication skills in Japan. One is the heightened interest in developing English skills among young children. The other is the high expectation for auto-translation, particularly for English-Japanese. Both reflect the decade-long but renewed interest for English communication capability in Japan. They also reflect the recognition that we have tried and failed to develop English communication capability among Japanese in general.

Many Japanese have become aware how other Asian countries have surpassed Japan in developing English capability. South Korea and China, which used to have similar problems about poor English capability, have made significant progress, as their youths have had better scores on TOEFL tests than those of Japanese. Differences between these countries and Japan are identified as to when they start learning English and the hours spent learning the language. Thus, the initiative to start early and focus on young children has been proposed in Japan, as indicated by the education ministry’s recent guidelines and policy to include English in the formal curriculum for fifth- and sixth-grade students starting in 2020.

English has been a required subject starting with the seventh grade and many Japanese spend some 10 years taking English classes. In addition to learning in school, many young business people invest considerable time and money to develop English communication skills by taking English conversation classes. Some try online courses where you can speak with natives, such as RareJob. Despite the considerable investment, however, many Japanese still have difficulty communicating in English.

There even remains a notion that a lack of English ability is a big hurdle for the Japanese to engage with the international community, now that English is the de facto global standard. I am often surprised that a lack of communication capability in English is raised as one of the reasons why young people stay away from overseas study, travel and collaboration beyond borders. Recently I approached the principal of an innovative high school in Tokyo about the possibility of joining an international program headquartered in Washington. To my surprise, I received the response that English ability may be a big obstacle to recruiting applicants.

I also find that English is picked as not only the “reason” for not engaging with the international community, but also as an “excuse” for difficulties faced in certain activities or for an inability to solve problems. Feedback from participants in workshop series I run for global talent indicates that English is the major reason for a project’s slow progress, when in fact a willingness to explore external data sources and conduct field work, which take time and effort, is lacking, rather than use or nonuse of English.

Auto-translation software has, meanwhile, made significant progress due to big data and deep learning. Many applications, including those by Google and Microsoft, have become available and progress continues. Some even say that we need not learn another language as we can rely on smartphones with an auto-translation app.

By starting early with children and/or having auto-translation available and accessible, many seem to hope that we can finally become free from the trauma about English and eliminate, even partially, our headache over English communication.

I have concerns with each of these two developments. Teaching English from an early age is fine as English is a “tool” of communication. Without encouraging them to think about what to say, in addition to how to say it, however, we may end up producing many who are fluent in English but have nothing of substance to communicate. We need to make sure they have something of value to say. We need to develop children’s ability to think from different perspectives and explore solutions. As the Japanese are good at “How to’s” and tend to shift focus from why we do certain things to how we do it and “measurable how’s,” we should emphasize that language is a tool and means of communicating something. I hope that by taking English classes early on, young children learn how to think and develop their own conclusions, not just how to express them. As for auto-translation, my concern is that it may make learning new languages less significant and that people may become reluctant to do so.

One of the benefits of knowing/using more than one language is the exposure to diversity. Knowing more than one language exposes us to different ways of thinking and doing things. It enables us to realize there are other value systems with which people of different cultures and languages live by. It gives us the opportunity to review our own value systems and revisit our own culture and ways of thinking. In the recent trend toward nationalism and emphasis on national sovereignty over global collaboration, I am convinced that the knowledge and awareness of different value systems and culture, for which language plays a significant role, is needed now more than ever.

Whether we like it or not, technology has and will continue to connect the world. To make sure that we reap the benefits of interconnectedness, while avoiding issues such as extremism and inequality, we need to have the means and tools to share our thinking and voices.

We have some research which shows that learning another language sharpens cognitive skills such as attention, decision-making, creativity, problem-solving and so on. The ability to read/listen to news articles in other languages makes you aware of the subjective nature of reporting — what they report, and what they do not report, as well as how they report. For example, I read/listen to news podcasts from U.S. and European media, as well as Japanese. I am often surprised that some news related to Japan is reported by overseas news media, but not by Japanese media.

Auto-translation can probably help us to go partially on this road toward diverse sources of information, but being able to read/listen to the original reporting still has value. Knowing more than one language also helps check the logic of your writing when you translate your writing in your mother tongue into a foreign language. Some researchers do this to check their logic.

My recommendation, in the face of these factors, is that we remind ourselves of the original objective of language in today’s interconnected world. When we realize that we have something to say, we need the means to express it. Language is a great tool for self-expression, as writing down our ideas clarifies our thoughts. In addition, the objective of language is to share our thoughts with others so that we can identify differences and similarities, and to collaborate based on the shared understanding.

Developing communication capability in English is to build a bridge among us. It is not simply speaking fluently. It is not simply expressing our views using strong words out loud, without listening to others. It is to understand the different way of thinking, values and background of each one of us, and go beyond the differences to create a better world.

It is time for us to remember why language exists.

(Yoko Ishikura, a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University, serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.)

(End of commentary)
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