The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Society



English Education in School: How to Produce Definite Results

Kenichi Namai
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

New Schoolteaching Guidelines

Under the new guidelines for schoolteaching announced on March 31 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), an ungraded English activity class is going to be introduced to third and fourth grade in elementary school in 2020. For fifth and sixth graders, English then becomes a graded subject. It has long been said that the Japanese are very poor at using English; hence, it is easily surmised that the MEXT decided to introduce English training to school curriculum earlier, hoping to put an end to this perennial problem.

As a mere teacher, I am not in a position to criticize the MEXT or its new guidelines. Just like the late Professor Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University (now famous for his very inspiring last lecture), I too will just play the hand, since we cannot change the cards we are dealt. I have always devoted myself, within the given rules and regulations, to the teaching of linguistics as well as the writing of high school English textbooks, and this will not change, even with the advent of the new guidelines.

However, there is a lot of skepticism surrounding elementary school English education, and I have been asked for my views on it. Therefore, in what follows, I would like to offer my humble opinions.

High School Baseball

Third and fourth graders are going to attend only one 45-minute class of "English activities" a week. If this is simply meant as an opportunity for students to experience English, I suppose it is good enough. However, it is clearly stated in the new guidelines that students are expected to develop the ability to understand familiar topics, carry out simple information exchanges, and describe familiar matters by presenting concrete examples –– all in English. If this expectation is to be taken seriously, 45 minutes a week seems far from sufficient. I feel this way, because almost 30 years ago, I had a chance to teach conversational English to working adults. These adults were always busy with their work and hardly had any time for studying English on their own. They attended two 90-minute classes a week, but most of them did not even care to memorize even the simplest words, much less slightly longer phrases. But this was not surprising, since English was just another "fashion item" for them, who had no real life opportunity or need to use the language. I fear that the same will be true of elementary school children, who too have absolutely no need to use English, except in the 45-minute-a-week class that they are required to sit in.

So, I would like to make a suggestion. Why don't we establish a rule that requires all elementary schools to have an extracurricular club activity that focuses on developing English language skills and make it open to anybody who likes the language? This club should work exactly like high school baseball clubs in Japan. It is well-known that Japanese high school baseball players are always practicing very hard –– before school, after school, and on weekends, all year around –– hoping to make it to the prestigious Koshien tournament. I believe the reason why the level of Japanese baseball is so high is that baseball is not a compulsory subject. Because it is an extracurricular club activity, only students who love the sport join the club and willingly undergo strenuous training; thus, their skills naturally improve. Imagine Japanese kids who love English receive this kind of rigorous training every single day until they graduate from high school. As far as English is concerned, they will never have a hard time even if they go to university in an English-speaking country.

Can We Emulate Singapore?

Students with a strong command of English studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS)

It is true that my suggestion leaves out non-English club members. But is that a problem? Let's face it. No matter what the new guidelines say, the reality is that not everyone in Japan is really expected to gain a practical command of English. But with all the graduates of English clubs in the future, I am certain that Japan will be able to fulfill its expected responsibilities in the international arena quite easily. With only 3.6 percent of Japan's population, we have as many people as New Zealand does. With 18.7 percent, we reach the population of Australia. Suppose one in every ten students joins the English club. Then, we will surely have more than enough English speakers in order for our nation to work well with any foreign country in the world.

If, on the other hand, everybody in Japan is now expected to gain a strong command of English somehow, I suggest that we look to Singapore as a model. It is entirely coincidental, but since April, I have been on sabbatical leave and am currently teaching at the National University of Singapore as a visiting professor. The more I learn about Singapore's language policy and its history, the more I realize the inadequacy of the English education system in Japan.

As a multi-ethnic country that is home to people of mostly Chinese, Malay and Indian descent, Singapore adopted English as a linguistic means to unite all citizens. English has since been the official language of government, law, administration and business. However, the cultural heritage of each ethnic group is also deemed important, so schools offer compulsory Chinese (Mandarin), Malay and Tamil language classes as well. (These languages are called "mother tongues" in Singapore.) The time allocated for these language classes is roughly the same as that for English classes in Japanese junior and senior high schools. Since there are still students who speak their "mother tongue" at home, their ethnic cultural heritage seems to be preserved domestically as well.

This is an ideal setting for mastering the English language. Although I have met a few Singaporeans who express uncertainty about their individual identity, no Singaporeans would seriously oppose their country's language policy, as they have been witnessing Singapore's remarkable financial and academic successes, most of which can reasonably be attributed to the fact that Singapore is now an English-speaking country. Therefore, if we expect all Japanese citizens to be English speakers, why not follow the example of Singapore and start conducting all school classes entirely in English, except for a few hours of Japanese language/culture instruction, just to ensure the continuation of traditional Japanese values? Government and business matters should also be conducted in English as well. But we can still speak Japanese at home, so the Japanese language and culture will not disappear right away. After all, the acquisition and maintenance of a language requires an enormous amount of time. Unless we use English as the main means of communication, the current miserable state of English in Japan will no doubt continue.

I understand that this would be a very painful and difficult language policy reform for most Japanese people. But Singapore successfully completed the adoption of English in less than 50 years. The question is, are we willing (or do we even see a need) to embark on such a drastic reform in Japan?

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Masanori Nagami, a lecturer at the National University of Singapore, Aika Sato, an exchange student from Waseda University, and my 17 Singaporean students for providing me with valuable information.

National University of Singapore, Centre for Language Studies
Masanori Nagami

NUS-Waseda Double Degree Program
Aika Sato

Singapore, a lively nation currently leading Asia in both economics and academics

Kenichi Namai
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Kenichi Namai earned a Ph.D. from the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University. His specialties are linguistics and English language education. In 1999, he joined the School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University as an assistant professor. In 2004, he moved to the School of International Liberal Studies within Waseda University. In 2006, he was a visiting professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in the U.S. He is currently a visiting professor, teaching theoretical linguistics in the University Scholars Program at the National University of Singapore. He is also the leading author of the Discovery English Communication and New Discovery English Communication series (Kairyudo), which are senior high school textbooks officially recognized by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. His recent publications include TOEFL Test iBT Reading: Practice for Success (Nan'undo) and Toward the Fusion of Language, Culture, and Education: From the Perspectives of International and Interdisciplinary Research (Kaitakusha).