If you’re an English teacher working in Japan, perhaps you’ve had experiences of working in other Asian countries. If so, maybe you got a nasty surprise on arriving in Japan and discovering that the language ability of students here is lower than what you expected. While Japanese students are studious, well-behaved and polite, their ability in spoken English tends to be low compared to places like Korea and Taiwan. Why does Japan seem to be lagging behind other Asian countries on the English Language frontier and what are the reasons behind it?
In May 2015, the Japan Times published an article exposing the lack of proficiency in English amongst English teachers in Japan (Japanese public high school teachers.) In this article, they referred to a 2014 survey conducted to discover how well public high school teachers understand the English language. The results were not good. Only half of the English teachers in high schools scored ‘advanced’ in the proficiency test, and less than 30% of junior high school teachers achieved the same.
Equivalent to a TOEIC score of 730, the Eiken-Grade 1 or pre-1 of English proficiency was not reached by the majority of teachers tested – people who teach English as part of their day job. The test results were collected by prefecture, making it easy to identify the places where high-level English ability is most prevalent, and most lacking.
Fukui Prefecture scored highest for both high school and junior high school teachers ability in English, scoring 86.3% and 49.4% respectively. Toyama, Tokyo and Kagawa also did well in the results. However, at the lowest end of the scale, poorly scoring prefectures managed to scrape just 13.3% for junior high school teachers and 36.0% for high school teachers. Kumamoto, the city I work in, was fairly mid-range amongst the featured prefectures.
With the language ability of English teachers being so low in Japan, it’s no wonder that the students are also less than proficient themselves. If you encounter a junior high school student on the street (someone who has been learning English in school for years) it is often the case that, when asking you a simple question in English (with forced intonation in a sing-song voice that tells you they’re copying it exactly how their teacher says it) they are often unable to understand the answer to what they have asked you, even if it’s just a one word reply. More than once I’ve had a teenager in Japan ask me where I’m from, but when I answer ‘England’ they are completely clueless.
The Ministry of Education in Japan has set high goals for English teachers, as they hope to improve proficiency levels for high school and junior high school students to 75% and 50% respectively by 2017. However, for busy teachers with already tight schedules, finding the time to improve their English that quickly isn’t a realistic solution.
So why is it that the Japanese seem to have a lower ability in English compared to other Asian countries, such as China, Korea and Taiwan? After all, there has been a heavy American influence in Japan since the Second World War, evident in how many street signs in Japan feature both Japanese and English, whereas signs in China and Korea are often just in the native language.
The JET scheme is famous throughout the world for introducing more native English teachers into Japanese schools, and there are a plethora of Eikaiwa’s and English Clubs for kids to go to after school – but how effective are these?
Apply to teach English in China without at least a basic TEFL qualification and you’ll be hard pushed to find any kind of decent work. But in Japan, many major companies will hire teachers with no teaching qualification at all – including the JET program. Many of these English schools offer their own in-house training (of varying quality…) and will hire pretty much anyone who speaks English as a native. Of course, teaching experience and qualifications give you the edge and result in some great teachers being hired – but it’s not the norm. It has been suggested that one way the Japanese Ministry of Education could raise the funds to get their local English teachers up to standard in English would be to stop hiring unqualified ALT’s and Eikaiwa teachers who bring very little to the table.
Another issue with why other Asian countries seem to excel in English more often than the Japanese is down to culture. While it’s true that students from most Asian countries seem shy and quiet compared to students, for example, from South America, Spain or Russia, it also seems to be true that out of these shy, quiet kids, the shyest and quietest of all are the Japanese.
If you’ve taught a number of kids in Japan, perhaps there will be one or two who stick out in your mind as being confident, outspoken, willing to communicate and self-motivated to improve. Those kids, if you’ve had the pleasure to teach them, are such a nice change from the usual students you get who you can barely manage to get a squeak out of. The fact is that you can’t improve your spoken English if you don’t speak! Japanese students are often unwilling to practice and will rarely say more than the bare minimum, contributing to a repetitive circle of consistent poor ability. But this isn’t the fault of the students – it’s down to the way they learn in schools that produces this sort of attitude towards foreign languages.
Japan is not a multicultural place. You could say the same about China which was closed off to the rest of the world until very recently, but in some respects Japan often gives off the impression that it would like to be closed off from the rest of the world. Other Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea and China are becoming more global and international all the time. But Japan is a country that really values its traditions and customs and doesn’t seem to change quickly, especially with regards to foreign languages.
But Japan is not alone in this issue. When I think back to my schooldays language lessons in French, we had many of the same problems. After studying the language for five years, I was barely able to string a few sentences together, and now ten years later, I understand almost nothing of the language. This is because the way I was taught French in school was very much in the surface learning style – taught for the test and not for long-term, practical usage. Similarly in Japan where high test grades are hugely important, many children are learning English just to pass the test – once the test is done, that learning is no longer needed and forgotten as quickly as it was learnt.
In 2014, EF (Education First) ranked Japan as 26th out of 60 countries on its EPI (English Proficiency Index). Other ranking Asian countries were South Korea (24th), Hong Kong (22nd), Singapore (12th), and Malaysia (11th). China scored worse than Japan, coming in at 34th. Looking at six years worth of evidence, EF stated that Japanese adults appeared to be getting worse at English, whereas other countries in the same time period (such as Vietnam and Indonesia) had made considerable progress. While there is much focus in Japan on children learning English at school, lessons are delivered in such a way that do not actually facilitate active learning with a CLT approach (communicative language teaching.) If the Japanese Ministry of Education really wants to make the changes that will help students leave school with better English, they need to look at the root of the problem – the way in which these students are being taught is what is hindering their progress in the language class.