China in Transition

Why the Japanese are Poor English Speakers
- A proposal to reform English language instruction in Japan

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Whenever I visit a company or government institution in China, I come away impressed by the great number of Chinese who are proficient in English. Many of them have never gone abroad, a fact that attests to the superior level of English language instruction in China.

In contrast, most Japanese fare poorly in English. This perception is largely acknowledged to be fact by both foreigners and the Japanese themselves, a contention for which an international comparison of average TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores need not be consulted to confirm. Indeed, the Japanese ineptitude over English often serves as comedic relief on television in Japan. Yet, the average Japanese has undergone six years of English language instruction, taught in middle school and high school, by the time he or she becomes an adult (eight years if foreign language curricula at the university level is included). But the great majority of Japanese still find it daunting merely to give directions in English.

The shortcoming is hardly a laughing matter. Most Japanese subscribe to the view that English proficiency is now more important than ever if Japan is to stay at the forefront of the revolution in information technology in a globalized world. A plethora of solutions have been suggested, the positioning of English as a second official language among them. In order to achieve genuine results, however, it is imperative to introduce reforms in the way English is taught in schools.

First of all, why are Japanese so adverse to English? The answer to this question involves both supply-side as well as demand-side considerations. On the demand side, students lack the incentive to master the language, while on the supply-side the problem rests with the inferior quality of English instruction provided by Japanese teachers.

Let's continue with the economics analogy to explain why the Japanese study English. For those people who derive pleasure from learning the language, the effort is an act of consumption. At the other end, for those who study it as a means to advance a career, further one's refinement, or enhance a hobby, the acquiring of English skills serves as an investment.

The majority of Japanese do not belong to either category, however. English is merely a mandatory discipline in a college entrance test, one of many fields of study that a student must score adequately in order to get into a university. It could be described as an investment of sorts for the individual, but given the fact that the correlation between the English to get into college and actual English efficacy is poor at best, the investment yields very little social value. Meanwhile, people in China willingly become diligent students of the language because English proficiency is a prerequisite in obtaining a highly prized opportunity to study abroad, or a position at a Chinese subsidiary of a foreign company.

Meanwhile, much to the gaping disbelief of foreigners, most Japanese teachers of English cannot speak the very language they are supposed to teach. Indeed, the problem today is not this appalling truth itself, but the fact that it has eluded redress for so long. The teachers have naturally opposed attempts to reform the system because they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

How, then, can this predicament be resolved?

One much discussed solution is to expand the period of English instruction, which begins from middle school now to elementary school in the future. I contend that this proposal would be a waste of additional time, given that the average Japanese already spends eight years studying English with very little to show for it. The more time allocated to teach English, the less available for the instruction of other subjects. That is far too high a price to pay. In the United States, Japan's principal competitor, students do not spend much time on foreign language studies, and instead allocate that time to learn mathematics or computer science, for example.

Rather than increasing the time allocated to teaching English, the priority should be on improving the quality of the teachers themselves. If they are unable to improve the quality of their instruction, then teachers from other countries should be brought in to do the job. While native speakers have already been employed to teach English at some schools, this system is clearly inadequate as the number of students simply overwhelms the number of available instructors. Furthermore, as long as English remains a curricular requirement and if the system should be expanded to include every school in Japan, then a veritable army of native English instructors would have to be hired. Yet a policy of limiting English instruction to those who really need it would keep the demand for qualified teachers to a more manageable level.

Fortunately, the average Japanese, aside from the time he or she sits in class, is hardly ever placed in a situation where English must be used. Rather than force the language upon students as a required course, why not make it an elective? Schools would not have to scrap their English curriculum entirely. Rather, they should limit instruction to the alphabet instead, so children can learn to use an alphanumeric keyboard. Under this proposed system, a full year of English class would be more than enough for the task. In exchange, a quality program should be provided for those students who are serious about mastering the language. For all its merits, the proposed system would most certainly earn the enmity of English teachers in Japan today. In order to reform the present system of English instruction with as little contention as possible, then the interests of Japanese instructors will have to be addressed.

One possible solution is to test their teaching skills and allow those who meet a certain level of competence to continue as English teachers. Those who do not meet the criteria would be guaranteed their present salaries but retrained in other professions. Moreover, an early retirement program could be instituted, with a series of incentives-including a lump-sum payment in addition to pension payments-offering older teachers a viable exit option.

The successful transformation of the way English is taught in Japan, one in which the thorny issue of vested interests is effectively tackled, would have far-reaching ramifications. It would, for one, provide a serviceable model to better other areas in dire need of reform in Japan today.

March 22, 2002

March 22, 2002