As an ESL teacher for over a decade, I've taught a wide variety of classes. Whenever I meet new students, I naturally try to get a feel for their attitudes and experience level by asking questions like "Why do you study English?", "What are your English goals?" "How long have you studied English?”

Not surprisingly, most students want to speak fluently to live abroad or make foreign friends. Many think English is cool and greatly admire bilingual people.

Nevertheless, their response to the third question is often shocking. Many students have studied for several years, since at least high school, but seem largely inarticulate in the language. A native speaker’s accent is incomprehensible to them, and they struggle to communicate outside the realm of routine daily conversation. Sadly, it seems they do not see the fruit of years of effort and intensive study.

The Educational System

Despite Prime Minister Abe's emphasis on English education and a wide offering of English cram schools, Japanese English proficiency scores are not showing the desired result. According to a 2019 survey by EF, Education First, Japan dropped four places in English ability, placing it 53rd out of 100 nations. Despite Japan's economic prowess, its placing is lower than China, South Korea, and several ASEAN countries. These results place Japan in the “low-proficiency” range of the study.

As Japan's ranking has been falling for a while, this finding is hardly surprising. The Ministry of Education is enacting concrete steps to fight this worrying trend. In 2020, it will make English education compulsory from elementary school. Junior high and high school students have been gaining ground in recent years due to such compulsory lessons as well as the increased use of technology.

Yet, there is a long way to go to meet government targets. Several suggest that a rehaul of the English education system may be necessary, while others have gone as far as to suggest that the system is “broken by design.” Either way, many would agree there is room for improvement.

Public English education in Japan is notoriously repetitive, overly focusing on grammar rules and vocabulary. Teachers may also teach several subjects and have limited English ability or an overtly Japanese accent. Curricula are often tailored towards entrance exams while emphasizing memorization and downplaying conversations. Add to this a typical classroom size of 30 or more students, and it's easy to understand how some aspects of language learning are overlooked.

National Character

Japan is a high-context society. Most residents are reticent to express themselves directly for fear of creating disharmony. Group consensus is also vital, and individuals are, more or less, expected to "toe the line." All of this on top ofthe low self-confidence of students creates an environment inconducive to learning a foreign language.

In short, students hesitate to speak up, especially in larger settings. Some are overly sensitive towards making mistakes and less likely to attempt using structures or vocabulary with which they are only slightly familiar. Also, in my experience, ESL students in Japan often feel that there is only one correct answer, even to an open-ended question. While this may be due to the Japanese language's contextuality, it limits creative and personalized exploration of the language.

Ayako Yokogawa, an Associate Professor at Meiji University, emphasizes this and the importance of public speaking in ESL. According to the professor, traditional education in Japan does not train students on how to express their inner thoughts. Instead, students rely on communicating via implied meanings. In the West, speaker's convey their meaning directly and explicitly and imply very little. Furthermore, western students are often tasked with explaining why they think something. This type of discourse, if implicated in ESL classrooms, could greatly benefit students.

A Lack of Opportunity

Finally, as an island nation isolated from other countries, Japan may lack ample opportunities to practice English. As English proficiency is relatively low, the number of Japanese people fluent in English reflects this. In this largely homogeneous society, the number of foreign residents is also low.

As such, students likely only interact with fluent speakers at their school, if at all. While there are several private English schools available, they are not cheap: likely $40 or more for a single lesson. Owing to a save-face attitude, students also seem reticent to practice among themselves outside of the classroom.

As The Japan Time notes, these shortcomings spell disaster for language proficiency. Among the world, Japanese natives require some of the greatest amounts of training time to reach fluency. 2,400 to 2,760 hours of practice, to be exact. Compare this to French or German natives, who only require about 480 hours.

However, throughout Junior High and High schools, Japanese students receive about 787 hours of English education. This amount, far below what they require, is likely even less owing to large classroom sizes. While some students study abroad, program durations are often limited. It seems only students with excessive English exposure can hope to achieve their desired level of fluency.

So, what is Japan to do? I'd suggest that compulsory English education from elementary school is a good first step. Increasing the total lifetime exposure to the language will be positive. However, for greater proficiency, educators must step-up and push students to express themselves in the language. On the other hand, officials must reevaluate the efficacy of standardized testing and the burden it places on the curriculum.

By - Luke Mahoney.