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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (VII) - English Education in Japan -

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In July 1997, according to the 15th session of the Central Council for Education, the Ministry of Education issued two reform proposals for consideration at the Curriculum Council: "Interdisciplinary Study" (Translated by the Ministry of Education as "Period for Integrated Study"), and "Approaches to Foreign Language Education in Primary Schools." Here, foreign language education actually means English language education, and these reports addressed the issue of international understanding in general, discussing the implementation of activities, from the third year of primary school, like exposure to conversational English and developing a familiarity with foreign lifestyles and cultures during cross-subject "Interdisciplinary Study" (Period for Integrated Study), that emphasizes ingenuity at each school and the interests and concerns of pupils.

Up to now there have been many arguments concerning the state of English-language education, and much energy has been devoted to improving it. Fundamentally, there have been these two questions: "How can we increase the English proficiency of the Japanese?" and "How can we decrease the dislike the Japanese have for English?" This is because, despite the fact that they study English for six years from junior through senior high school, it is said that "Japanese are internationally famous for being bad at English," and there are many people who develop a dislike of English as they progress through junior and senior high school. And it has come to be said that the source of this is examination English, which focuses on "reading and writing" and grammar.

Given this situation, in junior and senior high schools, more emphasis than ever before is being placed on "listening and speaking," and there has been an increase in the number of universities that make listening a subject in entrance examinations. Also, the Ministry of Education has introduced a policy to make it possible to convert the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language, a requirement for foreign students' entrance into American universities) and TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) to college credit, in the same way as its own English "Eiken" test by STEP (The Society for Testing English Proficiency). Also, the policy of starting English education from primary school is part of comprehensive English education reform.

This approach to reform, which includes some things that are still under review, are at first reasonable. However, among these arguments there is no shortage of questionable ideas. The first is that people hate English because of the emphasis on reading and writing, and that an emphasis on listening and speaking will reduce this dislike, but these arguments are inappropriate. That is to say, the reason they are inappropriate is that empirically speaking, "listening and speaking" was introduced some time ago, yet people's dislike of English has not decreased. Furthermore, logically, it is inevitable that the number of students who dislike any subject including English will increase as grades proceed, insofar as school learning is more or less compulsory and activities are regulated and this increasingly results in a difference in ability among students.

Two, a theory is going around that Japanese people's lack of proficiency in English is the result of examination English, that is centered on "reading and writing." However, if we must treat "Japanese people's lack of proficiency in English" as a problem, this applies to those engaged in international activities, businesspeople or researchers. For them, the important thing is not whether they can handle a little everyday conversation, but to what extent they are conversant in basic English skills, vocabulary, speaking, and comprehension, and to what extent they play an important role in a given setting.

Third, it is said that English is important as a communication tool, rather than as an ability focused on "reading and writing," and for this purpose, listening ability is also important. However, both language learning and communication are extremely comprehensive in contemporary society. Whatever it might have been like in the days before the development of literate culture, in today's society, there are few cases where a high level of foreign language proficiency does not also require proficiency in reading and writing. This being the case, foreign language education in the schools must also be comprehensive. While it may be said that internationalization has made great strides, the average person living in Japan does not need a high level of English language proficiency. Those who operate in international settings are a different matter, but for people who do not, when English is needed for business transactions, it would be better for them to rely on professional interpreters and translators rather than trying to handle the important transactions themselves. Also, the more the Internet spreads and international communication proliferates, the more the importance of "reading and writing" proficiency will grow.

As we turn toward instituting a five-day school week and reducing the number of classroom hours, I hope that the content and standard of learning and teaching will not be diluted or oversimplified by placing too much emphasis on enjoyability and personal expression.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" October, 1997 issue published by Benesse Corporation]

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