Miyakodayori 36

The Economics of "Engrish:" How to fix Japan's English language deficit

Most Japanese fare poorly in English, as acknowledged by both foreigners and the Japanese themselves Indeed, the average score of Japanese candidates sitting for the Test of English as a Foreign language (TOEFL) ranks lowest among all Asian nations except North Korea. In fact, Japan ranks just below Myanmar (Burma). The Japanese ineptitude in 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). Nevertheless, the great majority of Japanese still find it daunting merely to give directions in English.

This shortcoming is hardly a laughing matter: Most Japanese believe English proficiency is now more important than ever, if Japan is to stay at the forefront of the information technology revolution, 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 of 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, the acquiring of English skills serves as an investment.

The majority of Japanese do not belong to either category. 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, to the 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 alone, 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 popular solution is to expand the period of English instruction, which begins in middle school now but may begin in elementary school in the future. I contend that this proposal would be a waste of 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 they must use English. 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, limiting its instruction to the alphabet instead, so children can learn to use an alphanumeric keyboard. Under this 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, this 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 expected 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 would be 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.

Author, C.H. Kwan
Senior Fellow
Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI)

Dr. Kwan speaks Chinese, Japanese, and English fluently.

Editor-in-Chief, Ichiro Araki
Director of Research
Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI)
e-mail: araki-ichiro@rieti.go.jp
tel: 03-3501-8248 fax: 03-3501-8416

RIETI invites you to visit its English website

The opinions expressed or implied in this paper are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), or of the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI).

May 7, 2002