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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

February 12, 2014

Mike’s Handy Dandy Five-Step Guide to Fixing the Japanese English Education System

Unless you’ve been living in a Gaijin bar for the past few years it is hard to deny that the Japanese government has been intent on revitalizing public English education. Among the reforms we have seen introduced or proposed recently are:

- lowering the age of introduction of English into the formal education system
- requiring that classes be conducted only in English
- reforming the university entrance exam system so that the emphasis will now be placed more upon communicative proficiency (meaning-based proficiency, not conversation) and less upon memorization of discrete and decontextualized facts about the language.
- encouraging a wider variety of standards (read: more holistic) for entry into universities (not just composite test scores)
- providing for specialized English classes and schools that focus upon more interactive and cognitive functions using English (note- this most certainly does NOT mean practicing conversation!)
- increasing the number of assistant language teachers recruited from abroad

However, a quick online cruise through both a handful of English teacher blogs and online English media in Japan reveals to me that many practitioners connected to English language teaching, and foreign teachers in particular, seem to be unaware of these policy shifts. The criticisms and solutions routinely offered for Japan's alleged 'English problems' (see a representative sample here) seem to me to be well behind the wider English education discourse curve—it’s still stuck in the Juliana’s era of policy criticism. To be frank, a lot of the ‘solutions’ proffered also seem to me to be either glib pop, soundbites and/or maintain a grossly misinformed or unrealistic view of English education.

So, under the banner of glibness, I present to you today:

1. Stop propagating the false and unhelpful notion that ‘Japan’ has to learn English.

This popular fallacy is, if put into practice, a recipe for mediocrity. First, countries don’t learn English-- people do.
(I hope I’m not the only one who thinks that substituting ‘Japan’ for ‘each and every soul in Japan’ allows for specious, and often dubious, jumps in logic. If you count yourself among those who see think in terms of the unified, monolithic entity ‘Team Japan’ you should consider yourself in an intellectual bunkbed with the most virulent Nihonjin-ron spouting Japanese nationalists- May God have mercy on your soul).

Second, not everyone in Japan needs to learn English. The vast majority will never have reason to use it. Since both learners and Japanese teachers are very aware of this inescapable fact, as long as English is advertised as being a ‘necessity for your- Yes, yours, Taro and Hanako! —internationalization, teaching and learning will become an exercise in meaninglessness and drudgery. The lowest common denominator will be targeted in the name of universal and equal education. Spread wide, spread thin.

Why? Because the goal of international communication is so far removed from the average Japanese junior high school student’s list of perceived needs that the whole pretense of English's imminent instrumental importance is for them a transparent sham. This decreases interest in the language--heightening the belief that learning English is a matter of jumping through hoops-- and, worse, spreads more thinly the number of qualified teachers, watering down the quality of lessons, and lowers the bar for what can realistically be achieved.

Instead, the entire English education system in Japan should heed the call to...

2. Streamline! Streamline! Streamline!

Recent government proposals to implement specially designated schools for advanced and/or intensive English education are a good start. This had already existed to some degree with the SELHI (Super English Language High Schools) designations that have been around since the turn of the millennium but have been hampered by the cumbersome university entrance requirements (more on that later). English should be offered to those who want to learn it and be required only for those who need it.

Who needs it? I teach medical students-- they need it. Check the Required box. Izumi wants to become a pilot. Check. Takuma wants to be the go-to ‘global’ guy for his company. Check. Hiro thinks he'll stay in Niigata and work at his Dad's cake shop. Fine. But uncheck.

Of course, we often don’t know what our needs are at a young age. Such students could take an elective English course that will provide a foundation for future advancement in English skills, if someday they so choose to follow a serious English path (or another language, if they wish- and no, a late start is not an automatic impediment).

How about adult students who now need English but bypassed it earlier? Well, that’s what Eikaiwa schools and Community Center-sponsored English classes could deal with, not to mention what proficiency test prep classes (TOEIC, TOEFL) might offer.

JHS and HS English teachers would be more motivated with a streamlined English system because their students would be more motivated. Higher-level functions could be practiced with smaller classes. Content and methods would be more tailored to local needs with fewer teachers-- but those who teach would really know their stuff.

And speaking of qualified teachers...

3. Hire qualified teachers who can actually teach the language (not merely ‘native speakers’)

Let’s face facts, call a spade a spade, and get down to brass tacks. Being a native speaker of a language qualifies a person in precisely zero ways for teaching that language. I truly don’t understand the implicit, underlying belief that somehow listening to Johnny Anglophone will have some sort of osmosis effect upon students, as if hearing Johnny's ‘real’ English will magically manifest itself in student competency.

The average native speaker of English doesn’t know English any better than a five year old child playing in a playground knows the mechanics of running. Untrained, unqualified ‘teachers’ don’t know how to put a reasonable language teaching syllabus together, how to choose or pitch adequate content, they lack systematic and objective understanding of how languages work (no, that doesn’t just refer to a knowledge of grammatical minutiae), they don’t know how languages are typically acquired, or the cultural/environmental affective factors that may impede acquisition, and they often have no idea how to manage a Japanese school classroom. So let’s stop hiring such people with our tax money and school fees and hoisting them upon our children.
(I hope you know that the JET program was never considered for teaching purposes-- the stated ideal is for JETs to serve as something more akin to being mini-cultural ambassadors. How very Meiji period!)

Instead, hire qualified teachers who know how to teach, dammit! There are many experienced, qualified people in Japan scrambling for piecemeal work, while 22 year olds armed with nothing more than a BA in Psych from Some Western U. are imported from the great beyond at greater cost but with precious little return.

I don’t care if the qualified teachers are from Canada, Japan, or the Iraqi Marshlands. I don’t even care if their English doesn’t precisely conform to that found in style books or match Queen E’s clipped version (insistence upon conforming to 'correct' native standards is to fall into the abyss of hard prescriptivism and, more to the point, implies that Japanese students should be focusing upon achieving the level of instinctive grammatical correctness/awareness that native speakers have by intuition).

The above points may come across as a slight to JETs and some ALTs. It’s not (although I am pointing my finger at those without qualifications who feel that they should be given the responsibility of a full syllabus and lesson planning simply by virtue of the fact that they happened to be born in a certain country-- Don’t go near my kids flashing your English teaching creds, please!).

It is true that many former JETs and other ALT’s, recognizing their need to increase their qualifications, have gone on to eventually become excellent English teachers. But these are the people who need to be hired-- and duly valued and compensated-- in the first place!

4. Get English far away from the Center Shiken or any similarly unified national university entrance test

As I’ve said countless times elsewhere, the English portion of the Center Shiken is a well-designed test. Even exemplary, I'd say. Except for the minor intonation/stress section (too random and specific for my liking) I doubt I could make a better exam, given the severe constraints they have-- and testing is my thing, man!

The key word above is ‘constraints’. The problem is not the construct validity or inherent reliability of the test itself, but rather the fact that every Center Shiken candidate (usually 400,000 plus) is required to take it! This means that the test will always be focused upon receptive skills and be required to include ‘objective’ tasks-- so that the results can be considered uniformly fair, be machine readable within a week, and be used to bolster a nationwide ranking system. The very nature of the test means that English will be reduced to a shell of its real self.

English should appear on the entrance exams only at the individual university level-- as per the expressed purpose of that individual university or faculty. This would mean that examinees number in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands, and thus candidates could be asked to carry out productive and holistic tasks on the exam, further buttressed by essays or interviews, all allowing for a more well-rounded picture of Jane Jukensei. Now imagine, the washback effect that approach would have on high school English education!

To be honest, it baffles me that some universities still trot out a localized version of the Center Shiken as their second-stage English exam. I mean, what’s the point? They’ve already had those types of skills measured on the Center Shiken, so why repeat the process? Yes, I am here implying that universities should have people who know something about test design serve on the entrance exam committee, as opposed to old Prof. Teinen who gets a seat solely because he is a greybeard nenpai but actually knows diddly squat about testing.

5. Stop propagating the ‘Japanese need conversation skills/daily English’ trope without understanding what it really implies

This is where some corners of the foreign teaching community have to get their heads out of their collective assumptions. I’m talking about the false dilemma that pits the mechanical teaching of grammatical detail against ‘having conversations’ and thus reduces English education to a superficial methodological binary, a pedagogical either-or, when it comes to English teaching content.

First, while it may be convenient for rescuing your dear old Aunt Gladys when she gets lost in darkest Koenji while visiting you in Japan, the bald-faced fact is --cue repetition mode-- that most Japanese don’t need and don’t use English conversation in their daily lives. Junior high school and high school English should be academic. School-- compulsory education-- is, by definition, divorced from the street. Let’s stop pretending that our classrooms are supposed to be Maple Street, South Dakota. Having Japanese students in Morioka practice this stuff is about a relevant as a Kenyan colonial subject memorizing lists of British monarchs back in the thirties as the brunt of her 'history' lesson..

Academic English can be practical, whereas English conversation, for most Japanese, is not, I repeat not, practical. Please, let’s decouple the rhetorical train which assumes that English practicality is tied to the ability to converse in real time. Pssst buddy, you wanna know what’s really practical? At the early stages, building up a foundation in a second language so that you can read it comfortably and gain a feel for how it is put together to express meaning. Now that is practical.

Later, practicality would mean having business people learning English to be able to decode and compose correspondence adequately. Being able to give an English presentation or to understand another person’s presentation if you are a professional of some sort. Being able to expound a point logically in English to a non-Japanese audience if your office in life calls for it (and not merely to toe the government's implicit line that every Nippon-jin abroad should master English to serve as a national apologist-- explaining the 'Japanese' point of view to gaijin)

So how does conversation-- let's call them interactive skills please, it's much more befitting-- fit in here? Well, going back to Amy Chavez’ JT piece linked earlier, Japanese English learners need, for one, strategic competence-- the ability to manage breakdown and repair, to deal with vagueness and the inevitabe, ongoing negotiation of meaning that characterizes much non-native speech (which, as you know, constitutes most of the English that is spoken on this planet). Unfortunately, Ms. Chavez seems to have confused strategic competence with ‘critical thinking’, which itself becomes glossed over as 'speaking skills' in the subsequent commentary. Strategic competence is an interactive skill whose value goes well beyond manufactured conversation practice.

Getting past our cherished but outdated ideals

English education policy makers in Japan have been aware for years that there are problems inherent in the system and have been trying to act upon some of the better educational principles (the MEXT homepage for the rationale behind the guidelines says all the 'right' things), but sadly, certain corners in the foreign teaching community have long lagged behind in the dialogue.

Outdated ideals cherished by many in this community (ideals such as hiring more NSs simply because they are NSs and therefore can 'speak English correctly', the belief that ‘Japan’ must speak English, believing TOEFL to be a reasonable measure of proficiency for university entrance in Japan, the belief that practical English is reducible to average Japanese people learning how to converse, that starting English study earlier in life-- as opposed to learning it better-- will raise the national Eigo standard, or believing that English lessons should be taught completely in English-- hey, somebody just discovered the audio-lingual method!) have actually influenced government policy-- sometimes negatively.

Juliana’s is done and gone, folks. Let's get past it.

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You can't fix the English education system in Japan. There are too many people making too much money from the bad system and as long as they look after their own interests first nothing will change.

The average Japanese English teacher couldn't get a job as a hotel receptionist in most countries and the 'native speaker' is in Japan for fun.

The Ministry of Education can say what they like but unless they implement standards that have to be strictly adhered by it is just hot air.

The gravy train will come to end soon anyway and this discussion will be done. The fact is that Japan doesn't have the money anymore to bring thousands of unqualified foreigners in their early twenties to have a party on the tax payers dime. Perhaps when they have to watch the pennies they will start caring about hiring qualified, trained and experienced teachers. My guess is that by that time a lot of us will have left Japan.

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