Friday, March 12, 2004

Ministry of Education, "Japanese with English Abilities"

The Japan Ministry of Education issued a statement in 2003. Regarding the Establishment of an Action Plan to Cultivate “Japanese with English Abilities”

It is a relief that the country still states that English is important for their people. It is also good to see that they are still willing to insitute programs and revise their objectives, and make their objectives more accessable to the world by putting them in English.

There are some points which concern me, though. First, their reliance on commercial tests to measure student and teacher proficiency. Second, their insistance on refering to non-Japanese people as "foreigners" or "native speakers." Third, their willingness to ignore fundamental flaws in the system that make most or all of these policies immaterial.

In this policy statement, the Ministry says that it will use commercially available English tests, STEP, TOEIC, and TOEFL for measuring both student and teacher proficiency levels. For example, in the "Goals" section there is the statement

"On graduation from a junior high school, students can conduct basic communication with regard to areas such as greetings, responses, or topics relating to daily life. (English-language abilities for graduates should be the third level of the Society for Testing English Proficiency (STEP) on average.)"

Why have they even brought the STEP test into the picture? The Ministry has their own objectives that they have set for English classes all over the country. They control the publication and use of texts with iron rule. What do those objectives and materials have to do with the STEP test?

Will this test be a standard, and what if a teacher/student/school/prefecture doesn't meet this standard? Will there be sanctions? My guess is that there will not be. That in turn means that aside from some of the other programs that they have already started to implement, like the "Super School" scheme, it holds little meaning.

As for teacher language proficiency, the Minstry says, " Almost all English teachers will acquire English skills (STEP pre-first level, TOEFL 550, TOEIC 730 or over) and the teaching ability to be able to conduct classes to cultivate communication abilities through the repetition of activities making using of English."

Almost all teachers? Who will be exempt? Why? Won' their students suffer if this kind of teacher proficiency is important? Again, as a goal it can't be more than hollow words. Teachers participate in training courses in their first, and eleventh years now, but there is little chance that communities will pay enough money for a majority of the English teachers to develop that kind of proficiency. It may be possible with new hires, but not with teachers who are already in the schools. They are setting the bar very high for people entering the profession. Will teachers of other disciplines be held to these kinds of standards?

Another question is how do the scores on these tests relate? The STEP test includes a speaking test, as well as the multiple choise paper test. TOEIC offers an optional speaking test for test takers who score higher than 700. TOEFL does not offer a speaking test as such. The formats are different. STEP is a paper test and an interview. TOEIC is a paper test, with an optional speaking test which is taped. TOEFL is an online exam entirely now. Do any of these tests claim to make tests that certify teachers' ability or inability to teach? Is there any relationship with the contents of the exams and the content the teachers are expected to impart to their students? And again, will boards of education be responsible for teacher development and assessment in these areas? I doubt it, so again, the goal is mute.
The Use of "Foreign(er)" to Describe All People Aside from the 150 Million who Call Themselves Japanese.

This is the number of times these words are used in the report to describe potential communication partners.
Foreign - 5
Foreigner- 1
Native- 9

There is an assumption that learners will necessarily be using Japanese with Japanese and English with non-Japanese. I have found that most of the English used in a school/university context is with other Japanese. For example in the course for English teachers that we do at Yokkaichi University, the Yokkaichi Teachers' Initiative, the teachers communicate with the coordinators during the class, but most often communicate with each other in English. That's simple math. If there are a dozen teachers and two non-Japanese coordinators, the odds are that they will be using the language with other Japanese.

I suggest less of a focus on the nationality of the interlocutor, and more on the functions of language.


The ministry isn't addressing the fundamental problems of why learners aren't literate in a second language. It is a test driven system, with students who are assertively competing for a limited number of spots in prestigeous schools and students who are not and who do not benefit from a curriculum with goals that say that communicative ability is important, and course of study that proves just the opposite. The curriculum progresses at a rate that very few students can keep up with. Most are disillusioned and frustrated enough by the time they reach college that they have given up.

The Ministry must develop reasonable goals for achievement, and must make allowances for students who are gifted with languages and those who are normal. To treat a class of 40 students like they are all the same breeds frustration and resentment.

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