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  • College of Literature
  • From English as an exam subject to English as a tool
  • Professor ALLEN TAMAI Mitsue
  • College of Literature
  • From English as an exam subject to English as a tool
  • Professor ALLEN TAMAI Mitsue

From English as an exam subject to English as a tool

There is a considerable change going on in English education in Japan. Are you aware that the Guidelines for the Course of Study were revised in the following direction? In 2011, Foreign Language Activities became a regular subject for Grade 5 and Grade 6 students, in 2012, the number of classes and the required vocabulary size increased significantly at junior high school, and from 2013, classes were delivered in English at senior high school.

The lack of English proficiency of Japanese people has been an issue for some time. I consider that there is a close connection between the poor English ability and the fact that there is enough domestic demand in Japan for people to live comfortably in the island country without going to overseas. Also, there is a big contributing factor that because people learned English as an exam subject, they memorized words and grammar, but they did not learn English as a communication tool.


While English has been an exam subject one must study to be offered a place at good senior high school and university, in future, it will be essential to acquire English communication ability to survive in modern society, of which globalization is an inevitable aspect.


What is the advantage of having a good command of English? I think that people have a vague idea that English opens the door to opportunities as shown in the example below. While Japanese-style hotels specially targeting school trips go out of business, those that changed the target customers to foreign visitors survive. The hotel designs remain unchanged, but they now provide English menus; in this way, the business has been revived. If one does not leave Japan at all, there are lots of foreign visitors coming to Japan. Even for those who do not go abroad, English proficiency can expand business opportunities.


I teach English at a local elementary school as a volunteer. One of my Grade 6 students talked about their future dream:

“I want to build a library at home. This is why I study English. To collect a lot of books, I need to know English.”

The student does not receive any English instruction other than at school. Even children sense the usefulness of English, feeling that knowing English will make a difference when starting something in future.

English education in Japan and in other countries

After a two-year transition period from 2009, Foreign Language Activities for Grade 5 and Grade 6 students began. However, this puts an additional burden of teaching English on elementary school teachers, who already teach the main subjects: Japanese, math, science, social studies, and others. Also, teachers who have not been trained in English education are at loss as to how to teach the subject. These and other various issues have surfaced and remain unsolved.


In order to address these issues, The Japan Association for the Study of Teaching English to Children (JASTEC), of which I am a member, presented a petition to Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The following two are the major points of the petition.

One is to introduce English as a subject.

This is a case of the chicken and the egg; without English teachers, English cannot be taught and without English becoming a subject, English teachers cannot be trained. The Association believes that the introduction of English as a subject enables the training of teachers of English.

The other point is to start English education at Grade 3.

In Asian countries, English education starts at Grade 3. In most cases, English is taught as a subject, and when students go on to junior high school, they are equipped with the basic English skills. The Association’s request is to teach at Grade 3 and Grade 4 what is currently taught in weekly Foreign Language Activities class at Grade 5 and Grade 6 and to increase the frequency to twice a week for Grade 5 and Grade 6 students and teach English more as a subject. 

As illustrated in the above tables, Japan is lagging behind other countries in English education even at the elementary school level. However, instead of regretting what has not been done, consideration must be given to how to conduct English education in future. What is needed is not English as an exam subject or English for special people; it is to develop people who can use English at will. 


The point is how to communicate with people of different languages and cultures by using English. In Japan, there is a culture to guess without being told everything, but this does not happen with foreigners. In order to communicate with people of different languages and cultures, one must summarize one’s views and express them.

Stories lay a linguistic foundation

However, when one tries to speak in English, it is rather difficult to state one’s own views. I think that Japanese people have had little experience of stating their views. Japanese people find it presumptuous or embarrassing to speak out. They shrink from stating opinions which other people do not share and feel as if their personality were rejected when others express opinions they do not share. I highly value the Japanese culture of understanding each other without words and reading between the lines, but there are occasions when Japanese people cannot understand each other.


What Japanese people need to do is to state their opinions with their own words. Children who have grown up in an environment where parents read to them and listen and speak to them have a solid linguistic foundation.


When I teach at elementary school, I feel that children with a foundation in their native Japanese language are different. They listen to others properly and try to think. When their linguistic ability is polished further, they will be able to express their views logically, listen to other people’s views, and summarize and present them.


There is interesting research conducted by Professor Katsumi Tokuda of University of Tsukuba Graduate School and others. The research explores children’s knowledge about old folktales. According to the research, when asked who went with Momotaro to defeat an ogre, in 1990, 49% of the three-year-olds and 89% of the five-to-six-year-olds gave the right answer. However, 20 years later, in 2010, the accuracy rate dropped to 22% among the three-year-olds and 50% among the five-to-six-year-olds.


The research results illustrate that parents do not read to their children. The process of acquisition of a language is similar to that of a flower coming to bloom. With the roots interconnected under the ground, linguistic ability develops, nourishing on a lot of words, and just as a bud comes out and a flower blooms, words come out. Linguistic ability develops by being nourished on coherent language. Stories are a very effective tool to learn a language.


I use old tales and children’s stories in teaching English to elementary school students. Some might think that it is nonsense to read Little Red Riding Hood to elementary school students, but it is not nonsense when the story is told in English. As students know the story, they feel they have followed it even when there are unfamiliar words and lots of sentences. Before long, they start to use the phrases in the story and play word games, thus developing their English language skills, “My English.” I recommend the picture books listed below for child learners. I think it an effective English learning method for not only children but also secondary school students and adults to read old tales and children’s stories.

Be a good communicator with “My English”

At a training session for elementary school teachers, although teachers give me blank looks when I introduce myself in French, they understand me when I use English. This is because Japanese people know English. I usually tell them that we know some English after studying it for six years at junior high- and high schools. I continue, “Though you tend to focus on what you lack, thinking your English is not good enough, I want you to think about what you already possess. That’s what I mean by “My English”.


I want these teachers to think about how to use “My English” and how to improve it. They should not worry about speaking English fluently. Firstly, speak “My English” out loud. Unless they move their mouths and speak, their speaking ability and pronunciation will not be improved. They also need the courage to speak without being afraid of making mistakes and they need the resilience to cope with situations when they make mistakes or are not understood. Courage and resilience are keys for nurturing “My English.”


Also, in the future, we will have more opportunities to communicate in English with non-native speakers of English, such as Chinese and Koreans, than with native speakers. Because non-native speakers of English usually have various accents, we need to listen to each other more attentively and speak more clearly to make our meaning come across than when we speak with native speakers. In fact, there is research showing that there are fewer misunderstandings in conversations between non-native speakers. This is because both sides make efforts and talk until they understand what the other side is saying in order to know each other.


Learning a foreign language develops empathy, the ability to think how other people think and feel. The experience of being deprived of language, the best communicative tool, gives people a new understanding about humans. Monolingual people have fewer opportunities to acquire this kind of ability. In order to create a good relationship with people of different languages and cultures, we need develop the courage to express and exchange our ideas openly in “My English” and the flexibility to accept different people. I would like those who start learning English or pick up the language again to aim at becoming good communicators with “My English.”


Note that the content of this article is as of the time when the interview took place. The new Guidelines for the Course of Study have already been announced, and English education in tandem with globalization is now being promoted. According to the guidelines, the foreign language (English) will be taught as a regular subject at Grade 5 and Grade 6 in elementary school and be introduced as Foreign Language Activities for Grade 3 and Grade 4. At junior high school, classes of the foreign language (English) will basically be offered in English. English education that integrates four skills (or five when the speaking skill is further classified into interaction and production) will more widely and actively be provided.


(This column is as of 2013.)

  • College of Literature
  • Professor ALLEN TAMAI Mitsue
  • Affiliation : Department of English, College of Literature, Aoyama Gakuin University
  • College of Literature
  • Professor ALLEN TAMAI Mitsue
  • Affiliation : Department of English, College of Literature, Aoyama Gakuin University

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