Japan launches primary push to teach English

Compulsory foreign language lessons start next month for all 10- to 12-year-olds, raising hopes among educators and industry leaders of ending a decades-long ‘English deficit’

With just weeks to go before English becomes a compulsory subject at Japan’s primary schools, doubts surround the boldest attempt in decades to improve the country’s language skills, and its ability to compete overseas with rival Asian economies.

The new curriculum is to be introduced after intense lobbying from the business community, amid fears that Japan’s competitive edge could be blunted unless it takes English communication as seriously as China and South Korea.

The new classes, which start in April, will be aimed at fifth- and sixth-grade pupils, aged 10-12, at all of Japan’s public primary schools. The lessons will be held only once a week – or 35 times a year – with each lasting 45 minutes.

By the time they leave primary school, children should know 285 English words and 50 expressions, although the education ministry is reluctant to talk of targets.

Hiroshi Noguchi, of the ministry’s international education section, said the main purpose was to ease the transition from primary to junior high school, where English has long been compulsory, and to expose young children to other cultures.

“We don’t have any specific targets,” he said. “The schools have been given the choice of how to structure their lessons and set their own targets. We believe children will leave knowing the basic expressions that will help them on their way with English learning.”

The long-term aim is to improve Japan’s lowly position in the international English proficiency standings: despite studying English for six years from the age of 12, Japanese students have among the lowest scores in Asia in the international Toefl test of English.

But many of Japan’s 400,000 primary school teachers say they are ill-equipped for their new role as language instructors. In a recent survey, 77% said they needed to improve their language skills, while a similar percentage said they required more training.

“I’ve visited lots of schools and met teachers who are worried and lacking in confidence,” says Yuri Kuno, a visiting professor at Chubu Gakuin University, who has been lobbying education authorities to introduce English tuition at an early age since the 1970s.

“The trainers are themselves not trained and most of them have no experience of teaching at primary schools.”

Primary school children have been given occasional foreign-language instruction since 2002, but South Korea made English compulsory at that level in 1997, and China in 2005. Japanese sixth-graders have, until now, received an average of 13.5 hours of English tuition a year, far fewer than their Chinese and South Korean counterparts.

Ideally, Japanese teachers will work alongside assistant language teachers from English-speaking countries.

Sarah Doherty, an ALT in Sendai, northern Japan, who has taught primary school pupils as young as seven, says she has had a positive response from the children and their parents. But she is concerned that the optional use of a new ministry textbook, Eigo Nooto [English Notebook], could take the enjoyment out of learning, particularly when Japanese teachers are left alone.

“There’s a risk that English will end up being taught like any other subject,” she said. “So I worry that the fun part will disappear. And a lot of Japanese teachers haven’t been trained properly and are shy about using English in front of the class. I worry that the kids will be shy, too.”

But the change has been welcomed by the Japan Business Federation, which says more companies complain of a dearth of English-speaking graduates. Many cannot afford to teach them in-house, hindering their ability to expand overseas as the domestic market shrinks.

The federation’s chairman, Hiromasa Yonekura, said: “It is extremely important to foster global human resources, as it is technology and international trade that have supported Japan, which has limited natural resources.”

The experience among older pupils does not bode well for the primary school scheme. In a recent report, only 20% of English teachers at public high schools taught oral communication in the target language, even though the education ministry has set a goal of 100% English usage by 2013.

“My major concerns are about the instructors who teach children,” says Kumiko Torikai a professor at the graduate school of intercultural communication at Rikkyo University. “They are elementary school teachers who teach different subjects, but they are not professionals in English language teaching.”

She accused education authorities of “wishful thinking” for believing that the new lessons would result in a marked improvement in practical language skills. “Singing English songs and repeating simple words in English for an hour once a week will not be enough to equip students with proficiency in English,” she said.

There are concerns, too, about the quality of assistant language teachers, more of whom will be needed to teach alongside Japanese colleagues.

“The trend nowadays, after the era of JET [the government sponsored exchange programme for teaching assistants], is for school boards to hire native speakers from private agencies, which charge lower prices,” said Torikai. “If you are not ready to devote a budget to teachers, you cannot expect to have qualified and committed instructors.”

The programme also faces criticism from traditionalists who claim that primary school children are too young to acquire a second language before they have mastered their own.

Noguchi disagrees. “As part of the overhaul, Japanese lesson hours will also be increased, and we believe children are quite capable of studying both languages,” he said. “That is our message: that Japanese is important, too.”

The fact that debate is taking place at all is proof of Japan’s inward-looking nature, Kuno said. “The idea that their proficiency in their mother tongue will suffer is something you hear only in Japan. Can you imagine people saying that in the US or Britain? The problem is that we have no experience of exposure to foreign languages. We take it for granted that everyone else speaks Japanese.”