Why the Japanese are Poor English Speakers - A Proposal to Reform English Language Instruction in Japan

C. H. Kwan
Senior Fellow, RIETI

Most Japanese fare poorly in English, as widely acknowledged by both foreigners and the Japanese themselves. Indeed, the Japanese ineptitude over English often serves as comedic relief on television in Japan. This is no laughing matter, however, given the reality that very few grown-up Japanese are capable of giving foreigners directions despite six years of English language education - three years each at junior high school and high school - or eight years for those who have gone on to university or college.

English Language Education Needs Reform.

In a recent incident in the Japanese Counsel-General in Shengyang, China, in which five North Koreans seeking asylum were captured by Chinese police officers, a Japanese vice counsel returned the letter one of the refugees handed over to him because the letter was in English and he was unable to understand it. This episode shows that maladies of Japan's failed English language education are beginning to cause troubles even on the diplomatic front. Furthermore, it is widely recognized that the English language ability of its people must be upgraded if Japan is to ride on the wave of information technology revolution and globalization. Accordingly, various proposals have been made, including one calling for designating English as a semi-official language. To get real results, however, English education reform is indispensable.

On July 12, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology announced a strategic vision to foster Japanese English education in Japan. It sets as a goal the attainment of the pre-1st grade in the Society for Testing English Proficiency (STEP) test for English language teachers. At the same time, high school graduates are expected to pass the pre-2nd grade or higher of the same test, which is supposed to enable them to handle everyday conversation in English. Toward this end, the vision calls for subjecting a total 60,000 English language teachers to special training for the next five years and introducing a listening comprehension test to preliminary university entrance examinations administered by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations from 2006 onward.

Can this vision elevate the English language skill of the Japanese to a "usable" level? Even if high school graduates attain the pre-2nd grade, it is unlikely that they will be able to speak English, which probably requires the pre-1st grade as urged on teachers. Thus chances are high that the vision will end up to be a total failure.

My Diagnosis

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. For those people who derive pleasure from learning English, the effort is an act of consumption, and for those who study it as a means to advance a career, 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.

Turning to the supply side, the problem rests with the inferior quality of English instruction provided by Japanese teachers. Although foreigners find it hard to believe, 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.

My Prescription

One much discussed solution is to expand the period of English instruction by starting from elementary school instead of from junior high school. But I am against this idea, which I believe is tantamount to wasting more time on the top of six to eight years most Japanese have already spent in vain. 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 overseas 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 subject, 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 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 only those who meet a certain level of competence would be allowed 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 model to better other areas in dire need of reform in Japan today.

July 23, 2002

July 23, 2002