Sophians Talk about Japan and the World

Hindrances to the Acquisition of Communicative English: The Attitudes of the Japanese Education Community and the Japanese People

Kensaku Yoshida
(Professor, Center for Language Education and Research)

Sophia University Still Retains Its Old Familial Atmosphere

Kensaku Yoshida Professor, Center for Language Education and Research

I left Japan during my first year of elementary school and lived in the United States and Canada for a number of years. I returned to Japan when I was a seventh grader. In those days, there were hardly any Japanese schools for children living abroad, so my Japanese was very shaky when I returned, making it doubtful at one point whether my school, which was a combined junior high and high school, would allow me to move up to the high school.

In my first year of high school, a member of my English club (ESS) was runner-up for the Takamatsunomiya Cup, a national English speech contest for junior high school students. I oversaw the entire preparation from writing the script to practicing the delivery of the speech and was commended for that in front of the entire student body at a morning assembly. This was a major boost to my confidence. It also made me aware of the fun and joy of teaching. It was then that I decided to do work related to English education in the future.

That's why I enrolled in the Department of English Studies (part of the Faculty of Foreign Studies) at Sophia University. It happened to be a time of severe campus strife. Sophia was no exception, and there were days when the university had to close its gates to all students. In a situation where we couldn't enter the campus, let alone attend lectures, we students turned to the university's Jesuit fathers for solace and guidance. For me, it was Father Forbes. I used to visit him in his room frequently and listen to him speak on a wide variety of topics. When I think of Sophia, I think of a big family revolving around the priests, including Father Joseph Pittau, who served as president of Sophia at one time. Sophia's culture of caring about each and every student was built by these priests, I think.

Today the environment is very different, with more students and fewer priests. But I feel that the familial atmosphere created by the Jesuit fathers has naturally been passed down to the faculty and staff members, including myself, who attended Sophia in those days, as well as those members who joined Sophia from the other universities.

So I'm still here at Sophia and involved in foreign language education as director of the Center for Language Education and Research. The Center's role is to develop and implement diverse educational programs for a total of 22 European, Asian, and African languages, including English. In particular, the content and language integrated learning (CLIL) program we developed has attracted a lot of attention for being a pioneering effort. The program consists of teaching content courses in English and linking that to language learning. The Center, one might say, is the keystone of Sophia University's initiatives to develop people capable of working in the global arena.

Why English Language Teaching in Japan Cannot Change

Kensaku Yoshida Professor, Center for Language Education and Research

The development of globally capable people is not just Sophia's goal. It's a common goal held by all universities—in fact, by organizations in all sectors, including education, industry, and government. Since acquiring the ability to communicate in English—gaining communicative English skills—is a prerequisite, various educational reforms to enable this have been implemented for some time now. The new guidelines for teaching English established by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) call for emphasis to be placed on all four skills. However, it can readily be seen that high school as well as university entrance exams have changed hardly at all, and junior high and high school students continue to study in the same way as before.

In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan ranks at or near the top in all subjects tested. But it ranks fifth from the bottom in TOEFL scores. Why is that?

In the June issue of "Sophians Talk—Japan and the World," Tetsuya Yasukochi (Toshin High School lecturer), who was one of my students, stressed the fact that the kind of questions asked in university entrance exams for English remains unchanged. This is certainly a major factor. To solve this issue, Sophia University has developed an innovative test called Test of English for Academic Purposes, or TEAP. It tests the four skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—and can be used as an entrance exam as well. I was one of the key persons involved in the development process.

Another factor that I would like to mention is that the attitudes of English language teachers at junior high and high schools have not changed. Their choice of MEXT-approved textbooks is an example. I've contributed to the writing and editing of such textbooks. Those that have been entirely rewritten in line with MEXT's new guidelines do not sell well and tend to be rejected because the teachers are not familiar with them. It's the ones that have been revised only slightly that are chosen.

The other day, at a lecture I gave for English language teachers, I asked who had read the new MEXT guidelines. Non-Japanese teachers, who are obligated to read them as part of their training, raised their hands. But hardly any of the Japanese teachers did. It is highly likely that some of the teachers do not even know how the guidelines have been revised. This is a serious situation.

I travel all over Japan to try to raise awareness among teachers. I do receive good reactions, but one must realize that those who come to my seminars are highly motivated to learn how to teach English better. Those teachers who have low awareness rarely bother to attend, so it's difficult to get my message across to them. In addition, in some places, changes are needed in the attitudes of school board members, teacher's consultants, school principals, and people in administrative positions.

You Don't Have to Be Like a Native English Speaker

Kensaku Yoshida Professor, Center for Language Education and Research

Some areas of English language education have visibly changed. The introduction of foreign language activities in the fifth and sixth grades of elementary school is an example. At present, an accelerated plan for introducing such activities in the third grade and for making English a formal subject of study in the fifth grade is being considered.

Meanwhile, some people are questioning the benefit of teaching children a foreign language before they have mastered their own mother tongue. Setting aside cases such as mine, where a child is placed in a totally English-speaking environment, it is unlikely that spending a few hours a week in an English environment would affect a child's ability to acquire Japanese.

This brings up the question of whether such minimal English study has any benefits at all. In elementary school, the emphasis should be on experiential learning rather than on the explicit learning of knowledge. This is true in English learning as well as other subjects. If a child accumulates instances of success in understanding as well as being understood in English, the child will be motivated to learn more. There are many survey results that indicate that children who study English in elementary school develop more positive attitudes toward foreign languages and cultures. More worrisome perhaps is the danger of parents forcing their children to study English so much that they come to dislike the language.

Many elementary school teachers may feel worried about teaching English when they themselves can't speak the language fluently. While a certain amount of training is necessary, there is an encouraging research finding. In general, prerecorded teaching materials attached to textbooks use native English speakers. When materials using nonnative speakers were employed for teaching English in a certain Japanese high school, the results showed that the students felt more confident about speaking the language as Japanese speakers of English and communicated more in the language.

The above research comes from the PhD dissertation of a Sophia graduate. It corroborates something that I have long asserted: the importance of international English—namely, English as a common global language, separate from the English of native speakers. Two-thirds of the English that is spoken around the world is spoken by nonnative speakers, whose pronunciation and grammar can be different from that of native speakers. Even so, people can understand each other, and discussions and negotiations are being conducted successfully. Japanese people have a strong preconception that they have to speak English like a native speaker, but they must discard this notion.

If elementary school teachers start teaching English to children with confidence, and more and more children show interest in speaking English, the way English is taught at junior high and high schools is likely to undergo change. While there are many challenges to overcome before this can happen, it is also true that English language education in Japan is starting to move in the right direction.

Kensaku Yoshida Professor, Center for Language Education and Research
Kensaku Yoshida
Professor, Center for Language Education and Research

Professor Yoshida was born in 1948 in Kyoto. He graduated from the Department of English Studies in the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University. He received a master's degree in linguistics from Sophia University and completed his doctoral course work at the University of Michigan. At present, he is director of the Center for Language Education and Research and a professor at the Center. He is a leading authority on English language teaching, bilingualism, and intercultural communication education. He is a member of various committees on foreign language education for MEXT and other organizations and is involved in research and other activities concerning the acquisition of communicative English skills by native Japanese speakers.

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