Comparing Foreign Language Learning in Japan and Canada
Globalization has been changing our world. Once foreign cultures have become more and more familiar, and some even hit the global mainstream, such as Bollywood film and the recent wave of K-pop. One thing aiding in bridging this gap would be the rise of interest in bilingualism and multilingualism.
Many children are in education systems where a second language is mandatory to study from a young age. For example, In Canada, my home country, French is taught in the Anglophone provinces from grade 4 (about 10 years of age). In Japan, my current address, the English curriculum is changing, and now students will begin learning from 三年生 sannensei, about 9 years of age. Of course, many more curriculums of multitudes of languages exist, but what all of these courses have in common, is that they are taught in a way that coincides with the values of said country.
To contrast foreign language learning between different cultures and countries, I will focus on how Anglophone-Canadian curriculums tend to lean towards fluency and productive skills, while Japan leans towards accuracy and reception skills.
Canada: Fluency and Productive Skills
We hear these words and have a general understanding of what it means and use it accordingly. But, have you ever met someone with seemingly perfect second or multi-language skills, and they say, “Well I’m not fluent yet,” or someone who may struggle with these skills and proudly say “I’m fluent at this point.”? It’s time to clear up the meaning of this expression!
Fluency doesn’t necessarily mean native-like skills in a language, rather, it refers to the fluidity and how well someone can express themselves. Someone who is fluent can still be making mistakes (that don’t interfere with the listener’s understanding), as long as they have a natural flow and can articulate their thoughts, one way or another. Productive skills refer to speaking and writing, as learners need to produce language themselves. You may also hear these being referred to as “active skills”. These are the targets for French learning in Canada.
Students are encouraged to write presentations, film videos, or role-play skits to wrap-up the unit of study. Creativity is key for this kind of classroom work, and often the more outlandish, the better the result. The general fluency is more important than accuracy, within reason. After all, everybody is human and makes mistakes! As well, classroom participation is key, so if a student genuinely tries but needs help from the teacher, they’ll at least receive a “G” for effort (Effort marks are given alongside grades, G for “Good”, S for “Satisfactory”, and N for “Needs Improvement”).
It’s thought that meaningful, interesting use of the language will encourage students to use the language outside the classroom environment, such as when traveling or within local French-speaking communities. It may even pique interest to work within the Canadian government or work alongside French-based businesses in the future.
Japan: Accuracy and Reception Skills
If fluency is the general flow and expression of the speaker, allowing for mistakes, then accuracy is the opposite. Accuracy calls for textbook-like answers, where correct, rather than expressive, phrases are more valued. The idea is that accuracy helps achieve high exam scores, which is crucial for entering a prestigious high school, and later, university. Rather than a communication tool, English is treated as any other subject where the goal is to collect as much knowledge as possible. Further, reception skills refer to listening and reading, as the information is received and understood, rather than created, and they are sometimes called “passive skills.” These are the skills that are emphasized in Japanese EFL classrooms.
As most exams are limited in how they can be conducted, it is far easier to gauge these reception skills on a larger scale. Resources would be far too stretched if every high school or university had a speaking portion alongside a written portion of the exam, and is used only for specialized courses or majors. Students are encouraged to memorize passages, spelling, and grammar through rote learning, as well as how to write essay-style answers, and scanning techniques for reading comprehension.
With these skills under their belts, students should be able to score highly in the exams, despite having very basic oral capabilities. After all, while Tokyo and Osaka are international hubs, outside of these cities there are very few instances where speaking English in the workplace would ever be useful, where correspondence with international companies is conducted through emails. Of course, with those that have an interest in speaking English with more confidence and fluency, there are 塾 juku cram schools or conversation clubs that facilitate a more tailored learning experience for the individual.
Balacing Fluency and Accuracy
Of course, in a perfect world, it would be best to emphasize both fluency and accuracy, as well as all four parts of language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Unfortunately for many educational institutions around the world, resources and time are limited. Budgets for education are often difficult to work around, and new, updated textbooks, alongside new technologies are too expensive for the public setting. As well, one teacher can only effectively teach several students before the work becomes too burdensome. So, is a more production-based foreign language curriculum better than a reception-based one? Is there any one way of teaching that’s “better” than the rest?
It’s up to the goals of the individual and the learning institution, so not one answer is correct. Which way would you prefer to learn a new language? Or to teach a language?
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