Monday, July 15, 2013

The Collapse of English Education in Japan

Today, I went to a symposium by Kumiko Torikae, Haruo Erikawa, Yukio Otsu, and Yoshifumi Saito. The title was 英語教育、迫り来る破綻ーーみんなで考え、行動しようーー or "The Coming Collapse of English Education: Let's think and act together [to prevent it]." They recently wrote a book with the same title and the symposium was sponsored by the publishing company. The speakers discussed the following topics which were based on what they wrote in the book:
  1. Prof. Haruo Erikawa: Protecting children from the reckless demands global corporations are making on English education 「グローバル企業の無謀な英語教育要求から子どもを守るために」
  2. Prof. Yoshifumi Saito: The Puppet Show of Confusion in English Education  「英語教育混乱のカラクリ」
  3. Prof. Yukio Otsu: Three reasons why I am against Elementary School English Education 「わたくしが小学校英語教科化に反対する3つの理由」
  4. Prof. Kumiko Torikae; The Chronic Reformatory Sickness and Global Syndrome that Plagues English Education
 All four speakers are very famous in the Japanese English education world. Their reason for publish the book is this year's proposed reforms in English education. For the sake of developing "global citizens," this year politicians have proposed using the TOEFL test as either an entrance exam for universities or an exit exam for high schools. They have also proposed that English become a subject in elementary schools (Currently, fifth and sixth graders have English activities once a week but this is not considered a subject). The speakers argued convincingly that TOEFL is not the right test for high school students. High school students graduate knowing less than 3000 words but TOEFL requires a vocabulary of about 8000 words. This incredibly brief summary does not do these speakers justice. They were witty, well-informed and very convincing. They presented a range of issues with current English education policy. I did buy the book they were selling and I think that it is a worthy read for anyone who is interested in English education policy reform. I definitely look forward to reading the book and discussing it with my seminar students (advisees). 

The criticism I have of this symposium was that the title was to think and act together but we were not really able to do this. The speakers spoke for 25 minutes each and after that the participants wrote questions for them to answer on paper. Many participants wrote questions and I can understand that this enabled the speakers to get a general feeling for what the audience wanted to discuss. We had 90 minutes for question and answer in which the speakers gave their insights into the questions and problems written by the participants. At the very ending, the speakers opened the floor for further questions and comments. Five people spoke and the second to last person, quoting the Japanese teacher's union (Nikkyousou), said that he felt that the most important role for English education in Japan was to improve students' ability in Japanese. First, I will say that this is definitely one of the benefits of studying a foreign language: learning to look at your own language more objectively. At least two of the speakers answered and said that they agreed that this was very important. This actually really disappointed me because I feel that if this goal is made a priority then learners' English abilities will not be developed at all and classes will be primarily focused on translation. The speakers have all criticized "communicative English," and I think a lot of their criticisms are valid. However, I also worry that at the ending of the symposium they were encouraging teachers to maintain the status quo instead of really improving English education.

Postscript: After writing this I stumbled upon a blog post by Prof. Yosuke Yanase  which raises the same point I do (although much more convincingly) and also summarizes the main issues of the symposium very well. If you can read Japanese, check it out!