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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Japan's English Proficiency Drops

EF Education First Japan Ltd. announced on January 29, 2014 that Japan was ranked 26th out of 60 countries in the third EF Education First (EF) English Proficiency Index (EPI).

Japan’s EPI score in the survey was 53.21, which was down 0.96 points from the first edition, which used test data from 2007-2009.

Among Asian countries, Malaysia and Singapore scored highest, coming 11th and 12th respectively, with Hong Kong 22nd, South Korea 24th and China 34th.

The EPI found that in the past six years, Japanese adults have not improved their English. If anything, their skills have declined slightly. During the same period, other Asian countries, most notably Indonesia and Vietnam, have made enormous progress. Despite being a far wealthier and more developed country, Japan is struggling to teach its students English for use in a competitive global economy.

Wow... a decline. Can you imagine just how good the English spoken by the Japanese while I was there between 1990-1993? They must have spoken better than myself or Matthew, even though he's a native New Yorker.

I'm kidding about all of that.

Matthew and I were on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme in 1990-1993, living in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken. I certainly did not have any experience prior to to that in teaching English, and I am unsure if what I did in Japan truly qualified as teaching, but certainly I embraced my role in trying to establish English as a language worth learning.

And yes, while at the end of three years there were a handful of kids who could only say: "Mayonaise Tanaka-san" (My name is Tanaka-san), there were far more kids who could actually converse with me - without dictionaries - about a whole variety of subjects.

I should point out that Matthew and I taught English to junior high school students... and while we are sure they learned more English in high school, we would bet all the money that Matthew has (I don't have any) that English learning, speaking, reading, writing and comprehension all became invisible as many may never again have been afforded the opportunity to speak to another English-speaker.

EF Japan president Nakamura Junnosuke said (in good English, I might add): “In Japan’s increasingly globalized environment, many people are now diligently studying English. There is greater focus on English in elementary and junior high schools, and companies are increasingly adopting English as their official language. However, in the Japanese education system, most English classes are delivered in Japanese as lectures, with little emphasis on developing actual communication skills. The resulting inability of many people to express themselves in English and actually communicate remains a serious issue.

With English today being the international language, talented speakers will surely find themselves increasingly in demand. We will also see greater motivation to learn English as a result of Tokyo’s successful Olympic bid.”

I agree that there are MORE Japanese adults trying to learn more English for business, as well as for pleasure. But... I think that a lot of the joy of learning a new language is lost.

Kids in elementary and junior high schools clearly have a lot of fun learning English, especially when they can connect with a foreigner assistant English teacher (AET) - who, like Matthew and myself, loved to have fun and learn from the kids, too. That was the "exchange" part of JET.

But in high school... English as a school subject is just another class they need to pass to do well in their University Entrance exams. Yes, they have fine AETs in high school - but it's not the fun times it was back in the lower grades.

And then, let's suppose the kids get into university - is English required? Maybe if you want to study to be a Japanese teacher of English (JTE)... but it's not a focus.

Then graduating and gaining that first job... the goal is to survive the first few years, working insane hours for little remuneration or recognition.

By the time English might be required to move up to another level, it's been a few years... and it's a pain in the ass...

Even if you are lucky enough to have your office provide you with English lessons, there's still the pressure from the workplace to succeed... but at least as an adult you can focus better and can learn the English lessons.

It's why I think that despite the presence of JET, students need continued exposure to the JET Programme and the encouragement and opportunity to speak English.

Although I'm sure it's not economically feasible, every student should be afforded the opportunity to go to an English-speaking country for four weeks as part of an immersion program... perhaps after high school and just before university.

I know, dreaming... but there must be some way to make the English lessons learned, actually learned.     

Further details of the EPI findings are to be discussed at an EF event in Tokyo, where over 190 people from Japan’s English-language education industry will gather to debate the future of English education in Japan and the implications for industry and the economy.

Please let them have their discussions in English.

The third EPI was based on a unique set of data gathered from 750,000 adults in 60 countries over a period of six years, from 2007 to 2012.

Now... here's the thing about data... it's based on averages. Maybe the wrong people were tested... you, know, one's not as proficient as others... I mean really... how often do you hear of a poll or a study and they have 5000 people take part... and you wonder why you have NEVER ever been asked to be part of these numbers. Just bad luck.

It's like making a judgement call about a country just because a news report shows 1000 people chanting "Death to Canada!"... but what you don't see are the 3-million other people sitting at home thinking their fellow countrymen are dicks.

Perhaps there really is nothing to worry about as far as Japan's English proficiencies... but maybe there is... nothing wrong in at least talking things over.

Andrew Joseph

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