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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

"Thou Shallst Communicate!" - Reforming Foreign Language Education in Japan

October 31, 2001 / 18.30

Annette Erbe, Kyoto University

A fundamental reform of the Japanese education system has been high on the national agenda for a long time. Many public voices have demanded no less than a third complete overhaul rivaling those of the Meiji era and after World War II. However, previous attempts have yielded only modest results. Among the more prominent objectives of reform has been the ‘internationalisation’ of education. In the public debate, this buzzword has been used with very different notions in mind, ranging from education towards peace and international understanding, as the Japanese Teachers Union (Nikkyōso) among others would have it, to an education fostering a clear idea of Japaneseness, raising awareness of and respect for the different countries’ flags and anthems, beginning with one’s own, as the National Council for Educational Reform (1984-1987) recommended. In terms of concrete fields of educational policy at the school level, though, ‘internationalisation’ has come to stand for the education of Japanese children abroad, the education of returnees, education of foreign children in Japan, education for international understanding and foreign language education.

Recently, the focus has shifted to foreign language education, or more specifically English language education. This is because, whereas the public, educators and policy makers alike have been pointing out severe deficiencies in this field for decades, it seems particularly resistant to change. While Japanese students have to struggle with the intricacies of English grammar on a very advanced level, almost everyone in the country will readily declare his or her and indeed everybody’s complete inability to speak the language, after six to eight years of learning it. Whereas this judgment seems somewhat exaggerated, it is certainly true that the long-standing demands to shift the emphasis of English language instruction at schools to nurturing communication skills have not been met so far. A persisting over-emphasis on reading, writing and grammar, the teachers’ own lack of proficiency in English, the stress on (and of) exam preparation, as well as structural problems such as class size have been identified as obstacles.

Lately, an array of new educational reform measures have been decided upon, some of which tackle the issue of improving foreign language education. The new curriculum guidelines taking effect from April 2002 will introduce a ‘period of integrated studies’. At the elementary school level, this period can include ‘education for international understanding’ which again may comprise ‘English language activities’ – a challenge that will presumably be addressed by the majority of schools, considering the wish of parents to grant their children an early start. Other reform measures include making foreign language education (read: English) a required subject at middle schools and expanding the number of electives, including foreign language classes. New textbooks will put more emphasis on communication, and teachers will be encouraged to use more English in the classroom and to boost team-teaching with native speaker assistant language teachers.

This presentation addresses the issue of foreign language education reform. The current reform proposals presented by the Ministry of Education will be examined, and the chances for their success will be discussed. Several aspects of this reform will be analysed in the context of previous reform efforts and related problems. Despite apparent contradictions in official policy lines, the current reform proposals are paving the way for further moves into the right direction.