Concern over use of Japanese language in English conversation classes at high schools

Less than 20 percent of public high schools have been enforcing an English-only rule in their English conversation classes during the 2010 school year according to a survey, causing alarm at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

Oral communication (OC) classes were introduced for English studies at high schools in 1994 to help students improve their speaking and listening skills. Japanese students are often said to be poor at using English, even when they understand English grammar academically.

In revisions to MEXT’s national educational guidelines in 2009, it was clearly written that, “Beginning from the 2013 academic year, OC is to be a mandatory subject, and all OC classes are to be conducted entirely in English.”

The survey results, however, show that meeting that deadline might not be easy. MEXT surveyed around 3,600 public high schools on their use of English in OC classes, excluding Japanese-language lessons focusing on international study. Although still preliminary, the results suggest that in the 2010 academic year only 19.6 percent of high schools conducted their OC classes “mostly” in English, and only 32.8 percent conducted “more than half” of their OC study time in English. The values found by the previous MEXT survey — conducted for the 2007 academic year — were both higher, at 20.7 percent and 33.9 percent, respectively.

Furthermore, the number of OC teachers who meet MEXT’s stated guidelines for a teacher qualified to administer an OC class — pre-1 certification on the EIKEN English proficiency exam or a TOEIC proficiency exam score of 730 or higher — fell from 50.6 percent in the 2007 academic year to 48.9 percent in the 2010 academic year.