Improving Japan’s English Gets Lost in Translation

  • Category:Experience

The country’s English-language proficiency is falling behind China’s, according to a survey

TOKYO—Japan’s English-language proficiency is falling behind China’s owing to an education system that doesn’t prioritize real-life communication skills, according to a survey that comes days after a political row over the issue erupted in Tokyo.

Japan’s 2019 English proficiency was ranked low for the fourth straight year, and the country placed below the likes of Albania and Vietnam in an annual survey released Tuesday by EF Education First, a Switzerland-based company that offers language training. China, meanwhile, moved up to moderate proficiency for the first time.

Minh Tran, co-author of a report accompanying the findings, credited Chinese curriculum revisions that put priority on communicating in English. Testing communication skills “has proven essential in increasing a nation’s fluency,” Mr. Tran said.

While entrance exams in Japan and South Korea test only passive reading and listening skills, China’s national college-entrance exam also has a writing section, and another test that many students must pass to graduate has a speaking section.

The company’s 2019 ranking is based on the results of a free online proficiency exam taken by 2.3 million people world-wide. It placed the Netherlands No. 1 in the world, while Singapore topped the Asian rankings. The EF Education First results echo findings last year by the U.S.-based Educational Testing Service, in which Japanese takers of the International Test of English for International Communication, known as Toeic, finished 44th out of 49 countries, eight spots below China.

Japan’s leaders, few of whom can communicate fluently in English, have long been aware of the problem. With the nation’s population shrinking and aging, more companies are looking to expand abroad, and the country has brought in more foreigners to fill labor gaps. Meanwhile, Japan is getting ready to welcome even more tourists for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

But an attempt by Tokyo to address the shortage of fluent English speakers collapsed last week amid a political uproar.

The plan had been to let students take private English proficiency tests that have a speaking component as part of their university applications starting in 2020. The official government English test used for college applications doesn’t have any section testing students’ ability to speak the language, which is why many elite university graduates can read English articles without being able to hold a basic conversation.

As the date for the change approached, students and teachers began to voice concerns that the new system would disadvantage poorer students living in rural areas. Some of the private tests are offered only in larger cities, and they can cost up to $200.

Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda, a close ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, poured fuel on the fire with a comment suggesting those who couldn’t afford the test would just have to accept that life is unfair. He later apologized, and within days the plan was scrapped.

“A minister who doesn’t understand the first thing about equal opportunities for children’s education should not be in the position of minister of education,” opposition lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima said last week, ahead of a parliamentary session this week where opposition parties are set to attack the Abe government over the issue. “The Abe administration has lost touch.”

“Japan is changing and trying to increase communication-based learning, but it will take decades to catch up with China.”
—Aki Higuchi, founder of an English-education company

The government said it would look to put in place a new English testing system by 2024. It hasn’t decided whether to include a role for private tests. The government could revise the official test to include more speaking and writing, but that could stretch its resources.

The South Korean government attempted to overhaul its national college-exam system in 2012 by investing tens of millions of dollars in designing a test that focused more on speaking and writing skills. The test was later scrapped owing to its costs and a shortage of teachers with sufficient skills.

Makiko Nakamuro, a professor at Keio University specializing in economics and education, said the issue wasn’t going to go away despite the political sensitivities. “Japan is starting to realize that the world is not going to change, but rather that Japan’s education system needs to change,” she said.

Aki Higuchi, the founder of a Tokyo-based English education company, said the students her company tutors in preparation for the private tests develop better English communication skills than students studying for national exams. “Japan is changing and trying to increase communication-based learning, but it will take decades to catch up with China,” she said.

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