Teach English in Limin - Zhuzhou Shi

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English language education (ELE) in Japan has gone through many changes in the last two decades to improve the country’s rank on privately administered English language proficiency tests such as the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). According to EF Education First, an international education company that specializes in teaching languages, Japan is ranked 53rd on the 2019 annual survey of 100 non-English speaking countries down from 49th the previous year. Among Asian countries, Japan ranked lower than China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Japan’s proficiency level has even fallen below the world average (www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/11/09/national/japanese-ranked-53rd-english-skills-annual-wordwide-survey). Despite all the initiatives in the past two decades, Japan has not seen any remarkable improvement in their ranks. So, what problems are English language learners (ELL) facing in Japan? As an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at the elementary and junior high school level in Japan for the past four years and after reading many articles and case studies on the topic, I believe these four problems are hinderances to ELL in Japan. 1. Differences in language – The differences between Japanese and English is well documented. They differ in grammar, writing systems and phonetics. English grammar follows a ‘subject – verb – object’ construction while in Japanese it’s ‘subject – object – verb’. Many students find it difficult to formulate English sentences properly. This is even more apparent when they try to speak in English. English uses the roman alphabet while Japanese uses a combination of three writing systems. The first writing system came from China in the form of kanji. Next hiragana are simplified kanji that forms the Japanese alphabet and phonemic system and katakana which is also modified kanji are used for loan words from other countries. Lastly, the phonetic systems are very different. Japanese has 46 sounds in addition to 33 combinations. The English language has 44 phonemes. The two languages don’t share some sounds. Therefore, Japanese students tend to have difficulty speaking and differentiating between L: R and B: V sounds. Also, the sound of F is usually pronounced with an H sound. It takes many hours of practice for students to hear and speak the sounds properly. 2. Mentality towards learning English – ELE in public schools took on renewed importance in Japan after World War II ended (Cripps, 2016). Before then, Japan had been isolated for a period of about 200 years from the rest of the world particularly the west except for the Dutch and Chinese. After the isolation period ended in 1868, ELE was limited to a select few who could afford to attend private language institutions. Many Japanese today carry sentiments of the isolation period. They see no use to studying English as they don’t plan on leaving the country and don’t want to speak with foreigners who visit the country. In addition, the current education system forces students to learn English whether they want to or not. Many students are simply not motivated to learn and don’t see a future where they need to speak English. Students and Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) alike, lack the confidence to practice and speak English in a culture that strives for perfection. Students are also told from an early stage that learning English is difficult. This causes them to have a negative outlook even before they begin ELE. 3. Method of teaching English – In the period after isolation, Japan started to change its perception of western educational philosophies. According to Tony Cripps (2016), Japan initially utilized western scholars to teach English but soon started translating English text into Japanese which started the grammar-translation method of ELE in Japan. The ramifications of this method can still be felt today in ELE in Japan. JTEs mainly use this method to teach English and often tend to ignore the importance of attaining speaking and listening skills. This limits the students’ usage and applicability of the language in practical situations. In addition to the skewed approach, students are plague by many tests which they need to pass. This puts more pressure on the teachers to focus on covering course materials in an approved textbook rather than teaching English for practical use. Approved textbooks also pose another problem. The English used in the textbooks is quite different from naturally spoken and written English. According to a case study conducted at Keio University (2007), in order to enhance Japanese student communication skills in English, English in textbooks must be closer to practical and real English. 4. Unrealistic expectations – According to a news article written by Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell (www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/10/29/commentary/japan-commentary/japanese-trouble-learning-english/#.XfxzVsCRUIQ), the government of Japan has set a goal starting in 2020 for all high school graduates to achieve an English level equivalent of the B1 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) which is equivalent to a score of 550 on the TOEIC. To achieve this level, students would need to complete at least 2,500 hours of ELE. Students begin formal ELE in the first grade of junior high school. English classes are conducted in 50-minute lessons four times a week for 35 weeks. In high school, students have five 50-minute lessons for 35 weeks. The hours are insufficient and the B1 level would be impossible for students to achieve without external classes. In addition, more than 70% of JTEs from junior high schools have scored lower than 730 on the TOEIC. A score of 730 or more is considered as the benchmark for admittance to many universities or jobs. With JTEs being incompetent English speakers, students suffering from low quality English lessons and not enough ELE time, it is unrealistic for high school graduates to meet the government’s goal. Of course, the issues in ELE in Japan are not limited to these four problems. But improvements in these areas will result in better English language skills. Particularly, properly trained JTEs, more hours learning English, more focus on communicative English, updating of English textbooks and teaching methods and earlier introduction of ELE.