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Systematic Problems for Learners of English in Japan

Systematic Problems for Learners of English in Japan | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Next year, Japan will host the thirty-second Olympiad in the capital city of Tokyo. To correspond with the timing of the 2020 Olympics, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (hereafter MEXT) has laid out a plan for the reform of English education to meet the future needs of Japanese students in a globalized world. However, this plan presents several challenges for current and future learners of English in the Japanese educational system.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Philippa K. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Education System Modernization

The thrust of MEXT’s plan is to roll back English education in Japan so that students in the public education system can become bilingual when they enter the school system. As a result, English education has become vital not only for students but for elementary school teachers. However, many Japanese elementary school teachers began their teacher training well before the roll-out of MEXT’s plan. As a result, the ability of elementary students can quickly outstrip that of their teachers. In turn, this necessitates the retraining of adult teachers to not only be proficient in English but also to care about English as a subject enough to motivate their students. Young learners of English are often curious and highly motivated, yet if the teacher is unable to respond to this enthusiasm, the opportunity to cultivate a life-long relationship with English can be stifled.

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Demand in English-Speaking Professional Teachers

A solution to providing sufficient English language support to young Japanese learners is to hire native speakers of English to teach in the classroom. Known as Assistant Language Teachers, or ALTs, these native speakers come from all over the English-speaking world to teach in Japan. Currently, one of the largest and most prestigious programs bringing ALTs into Japan is the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program, or JET Program. According to their website, the aim of the program is “promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations.”

JET Program Peculiarities

In other words, although the program is a large provider of native-language speakers to classrooms throughout Japan, the stated aim of the program is not the improvement of English education. While “adept” English language skills are listed as a criterion for eligibility, successful JET applicants are not required to have any formal training in teaching English as a second language. ALTs are expected to learn how to teach ‘on the job’, and while preference is given to applicants with teaching experience, it is not necessary to be successfully admitted to the program. Moreover, the duration of stay in Japan is decided by the ALT. For some schools and districts, this results in a high turnover of English-language teachers, and therefore a lack of consistency for students in their English-language education. This lack of consistency can adversely affect a student’s ability to excel in English according to the desires of the MEXT framework.

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International Examination for Japanese English Learners

One of the stated goals of MEXT’s plan is to enable students to pass external examinations that measure English proficiency, such as TOEFL and the Test in Practical English Proficiency. While TOEFL has recently been overhauled to include testing of all four English language skills, the same is not true of the internal examinations many middle and high school students undertake. English exams in Japan at these levels are still primarily written, often multi-choice, and limited to no more than an hour. While students are tested on vocabulary, reading, listening, and writing, there is no spoken component to these exams. Verbal communication is arguably the most important skill for any learner of any language, yet the current style of examination in Japanese schools does not sufficiently prepare students for spontaneous conversation.

While individual school districts and prefectures have begun testing spoken response examination components, this cannot compare to the interview-style component of the TEFOL exam. Students must, therefore, rely on external factors to develop their conversation skills. One way to do this is through private tutoring or attending cram schools (known as juku) outside of their compulsory educational commitments. Another way is to speak with English teachers, particularly ALTs, as much as possible. However, both of these solutions are imperfect, as they put students who come from low-income backgrounds or shy students at a distinct disadvantage.

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MEXT’s plan for English Education Reform is good. It addresses the changing nature of the world in a way that an isolationist, even xenophobic society has been slow to adapt to. It will encourage Japanese students to engage with a world that exists beyond their own country and connect with others in a meaningful way in a global society. However, the implementation of the Reforms has been imperfect. It can be difficult for teachers to understand the importance of second language skills when they do not value them already. Native speakers of English who are trained specifically in TESOL are still in the minority.

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The traditional style of internal examinations in schools does not sufficiently prepare students for success in external examinations. With the Tokyo Olympics less than one year from commencement, Japanese students still face many systemic challenges in the years to come to meet the lofty goals that have been set for them by their government.

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