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  Jenie Gabriel

English education in Japan: Challenges and changes

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Ranked at number 30 out of 70 countries in the 2015 EF English Proficiency Index, Japan has a moderate proficiency compared to other developed countries around the world. As a mostly homogenous country, Japan seems to be torn between remaining loyal to tradition and keeping up with globalization.

While most Asian education systems dominate globally in math, science and reading, Japan is one of the few wealthy countries in Asia that has faced issues and challenges in its English education system for decades. However, in recent years, the government has been making efforts toward significant improvements.

1) Emphasis on grammar

Challenges

Like most second-language curriculums, Japan’s English education system has placed emphasis on theory over practice. Junior- and high-school teachers focus on grammar and written skills that are needed for exams such as EIKEN. So, for most Japanese students, English learning is usually a requirement to achieve high grades and pass admission exams, rather than a skill for personal enrichment or future career prospects.

Changes

In recent years, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has recommended elevating the importance of speaking and listening as well as modifying English assessments on high school and university entrance exams. The government has also begun subsidizing private-sector exams, using these results to push high schools and universities to teach more practical English skills that could benefit students in their future lives and careers.

2) Low exposure to the language

Challenges

Earlier exposure to English learning could help address the language deficiency problem. Students don’t spend enough time listening to and speaking the language—repeating after the instructor isn’t the same as speaking it. Because students’ exposure is limited to the classroom and (generally) low-quality textbooks, a majority disengage from the language and lose interest in it.

Changes

In late 2013, MEXT attempted to move up compulsory English-language education to the third grade instead of fifth grade of elementary school. The education ministry proposed upgrading the lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders to full-fledged language classes, including written English with classes taking place three times per week, instead of only once.

3) Lack of continuity in school

Challenges

In 2004, The Japan Times reported that the Japanese-English curriculum lacks continuity at every schooling transition, from elementary to junior high school and from junior high to high school. The curriculum doesn’t have an integrated education for elementary students and junior high school students. There should also be seamless progress in teaching the language in university to improve students’ conversational skills.

Changes

The Central Council of Education, an advisory board to MEXT, has proposed unifying the existing elementary and junior high school system. The council has also been building a comprehensive language program that would follow students from grade school through university.

4) Quality of teaching

Challenges

The qualifications of English teachers have, in the past, been questioned. Some reports say that Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) often teach grammar in Japanese, and check that the students can follow the textbook by translating the English into Japanese. Similarly, local teachers were previously not required to obtain a teaching certification, while the native English speakers (who serve as assistant language teachers (ALTs) from government-sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programs or by privately-run companies) may also lack professional training and substantial teaching experience.

Changes

Since 2008, under the OECD Globalisation and Linguistic Competency project, all teachers have been required to pass the teacher recruitment test conducted by the prefectural Board of Education for public schools, or take a test given by private schools to acquire a 10-year teaching license. MEXT have been better facilitating recruitment and comprehensive training programs for ALTs from overseas, too.

What are other effective measures that should be taken by the government to improve English proficiency? Let us know in the comments below!

Jenie Gabriel
THE AUTHOR
Jenie Gabriel
Jenie assists in creating online content for Gengo's marketing team. Originally from the Philippines, she was an advertising creative in Singapore before moving to Tokyo. In her spare time, you’ll find her glued to social networks or daydreaming about her next escapade.
  • Thomas R. Whitehead

    Showing some factors regarding on those changes and challenges may be a good thing to be shown especially to those people who might need to understand and promote some new ideas on how to cope up with that certain matters.

  • Grow Forward JP

    Good evening Ms. Jenie Gabriel, I am Angelie from Philippines. I read your article and I have a lot of realizations. I am the manager of an online ESL company teaching Japanese and we are making our curriculum but we have the problem of knowing if it would be that effective or not since I am not totally knowledgeable with how they are teaching English in Japan. I want to keep in touch with you to ask for assistance and as well as some questions. I am hoping for your response.

    • Jenie Gabriel

      Hi Angelie! I’m glad this article was insightful for you :) If you have some questions, you may email me at jenie.gabriel@gengo.com. Thanks!

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