Can Japan, with the Asia’s Lowest TOEFL Speaking Score, Change?

December 18, 2017

Can Japan, with the Asia’s Lowest TOEFL Speaking Score, Change?

Ayako Yokogawa
Associate Professor,
Organization for International Collaboration,
Meiji University

Under the English educational reforms set to take effect in the 2020 academic year, English language will become a compulsory subject beginning in the third year of elementary school. Regarding the university admission screening process, English language proficiency tests assessing the four skills, namely listening, reading, speaking, and writing, will be incorporated into the system. Allegedly, the changes will be made to create an educational environment that meets the needs of our rapidly globalizing society. What then are the problems with the current English education curriculum and how will they be addressed?

 

The Flaws of English Education in Japan Contributed to Poor Speaking Skills

One way to gauge the current state of English education in Japan is to examine the average test scores (classified by native language) of the TOEFL iBT® Speaking section. When looking at results, speakers of Japanese mark the lowest score in Asia. This is attributable to a variety of factors. One possible consideration is the size of English classes at junior high and high schools. It is an enormous amount of work for one teacher to teach all four skills and evaluate each student’s progress in a class with 30 to 40 students. Consequently, teachers are left with no other option but to limit the amount of teaching or establish an order of priority. On top of that, the Education Ministry guidelines pose limitations such as the following: if the material covered varies depending on the teacher, it creates a sense of unfairness; all classes must progress at the same pace; the periodic tests must cover the same material and must consist of the same test questions. This makes it difficult for teachers to place a stronger emphasis on speaking based on their own judgment or incorporate their own teaching methods. In order that teachers can teach and monitor student’s progress effectively, each English class may need to have 20 students or less.

Furthermore, while some people criticize “cramming” education, memorization is an essential component of language acquisition. What then should students be memorizing? For example, grammar is very important. Knowing the rules of the language enables students to express themselves in English so that anyone can understand. No matter how well they know the rules, if their vocabulary consists of only 50 words, they won’t be able to take advantage of the knowledge. If students are able to acquire 1,000 or 2,000 words that will serve as ammunition loaded with ideas they want to convey, the rules can be an effective weapon for communication. Remember babies acquire their native language without being taught grammar explicitly. Starting in 2020, Japanese school children will begin studying English in the third grade. While this is a good thing, simply transferring the current curriculum for the first year of junior high school to the third year of elementary school is ineffective. Teachers may need to teach vocabulary strategically, an area where little emphasis has been placed. Moreover, rather than memorizing Japanese translations or studying words or phrases by reading them silently and writing them down, just like many English learners are doing, students should pronounce words just as they sound, try copying sounds of the words, and recite the words while being conscious of their meanings. While spelling is important, listening to a word or phrase, pronouncing it, and storing it in your memory will make it easier to remember the word or phrase during conversation. Being able to quickly say the word, phrase, or sentence construction closest to the idea you want to convey is an extremely important component of the ability to speak.

Meiji University and Top Global University Project
Beginning in the 2020 academic year, the university entrance exam system will undergo a fundamental change. For the English component of the exam, English proficiency tests evaluating all four skills will be utilized. These changes will undoubtedly result in positive washback, as high school students will aim to adapt to the changes by acquiring the necessary skills. Since students with stronger listening and speaking skills will enroll in universities, universities are responsible for providing education that helps students improve their skills further. In efforts to create such learning environment, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is now promoting a network development initiative to globalize universities. The ministry has selected 37 universities from all over Japan as “Top Global Universities” and is providing them with financial support. Our university, one of the 37 Top Global Universities, has been receiving governmental support over the past 15 years, beginning with “The Global 30 Project” to establish an inter-university network for internationalization, and has engaged in globalization and university reform ever since. The Organization for International Collaboration, which I work for, has played a key role in those efforts, such as launching “Practical English Proficiency Development Program” for students aiming to study abroad. The organization is also actively engaged in bringing in international students from overseas.

Our university exemplifies the fact that Japanese universities have the vision of becoming globally recognized as the knowledge base on a global scale. On top of that, the efforts are being made to address the decreasing advantage of being Japanese even in the domestic job market. For instance, top tier students in emerging Asian countries have excellent language skills. Quite a few of them are proficient not only in English but in Japanese. Given that, you can easily see who will be preferred job candidates. Furthermore, job seekers will need to compete with talented human resources from all across the globe. Can we assume that companies faced with the challenge of competing in the global market, whether a head office of a Japanese company or a Japanese branch office, will keep hiring Japanese monolingual speakers? English proficiency is already a must for global workforce as a language of commerce, and the question is the skills candidates possess besides English proficiency. That is why the globalization of universities is indispensable in educating students facing that reality.

English Education and Japanese Language Education should be Integrated

English education should be conducted in accordance with Japanese Language Education. For instance, in English classes of English-speaking countries, students tell the class about something they like in the form of a presentation (“Show and Tell”) or gather thoughts and share them with the class during discussions on a regular basis. Such activities provide students with opportunities to practice verbalizing their thoughts clearly. Through rigorous practice for public speaking, students develop the ability to present their opinions effectively. Mainly because Japan is an insular country and Japanese speakers share much of their cultures behind the language, they wouldn’t explain everything and let listeners guess what they really mean when communicating their thoughts. For that reason, Japanese language education focuses on the ability to read between the lines, in other words, reading comprehension skills, which is eventually drilled into students. In contrast, I am under the impression that the ability to verbalize thoughts is not taken seriously. Consequently, Japanese students are unable to do this in English, simply because they are unable to do so in their first language either. In the English-speaking world, however, the responsibility for communication lies with the speaker or writer. If the thoughts are not conveyed, it is the speaker or writer’s fault. At one university in Japan, first-year students are required to take a course entitled “Writing in Japanese”. In this course, students learn methods for writing papers and dissertations. This type of practice will serve as the building blocks that enable students to improve their ability to express themselves in English. In that respect, the curriculum is noteworthy. Considering that English speaking countries begin public speaking practice in elementary school, we need to incorporate training for communication into the curriculum of Japanese language education much earlier, before they enter college. Developing the ability to communicate in one’s native language and honing it further in English is the ideal approach to language education in integration.


Avoiding English Will Make Your Life Less Fulfilling
As our society continues to globalize, English education in Japan may seem full of room for improvement. To take one example, however, so-called juken eigo (entrance exam English) is a well-designed package that efficiently enables students to grasp an understanding of the structure of English sentences as well as their meanings. I myself was able to improve my English proficiency with juken eigo, through high school education of three years. Instead of being overwhelmed by newcomers with high English proficiencies, working adults in the business world should have confidence in their basic English skills and brush up on the skills so that they can adapt to the globalizing society. Even accomplished Japanese businesspeople or scholars can have a Japanese accent or speak English with limited fluency, but people will listen to them because their message is worth listening. No one will listen to fluent native speakers of English unless their message has any value. I’ve seen such situations so many times. Japanese businesspersons are equipped with social experience and knowledge, and negotiation skills. All you need to do is to simply do the same thing in English. Rather than trying to speak a completely fluent, smooth-flowing English, try copying a person who speaks English so that the listener can understand easily. With your English skills acquired by studying juken eigo, you should be able to reach the level of an effective communicator by intensive training in a short period of time. After that, you can begin speaking English and improve your proficiency through trial and error. Let’s go into the playing field. You will gain the richness of life and sense of fulfillment you have missed by avoiding English.

Profile

Ayako Yokogawa

Associate Professor, Organization for International Collaboration, Meiji University

Research fields:
TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), Global Competency Education

Main books and papers:
◆ “Report and Analysis of a Newly-Introduced TOEIC® 600 Score Requirement for the Fourth-Year Curriculum: The Ambitious Attempt of a Small Science University. Journal of Global Competency Education Vol.3, No. 2 (2016). Award-winning paper of The Japan Association for Global Competency Education.
◆ “Introduction to English Writing Skills Every American Learns in Elementary School” coauthored with Sumiko Leeper. ALC Press Inc.
And numerous other works

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