Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Life in Japan: This country wastes a lot of money teaching English

A Japanese teacher (third from right in the background), and a native English speaker, left, teach an English class at Gifu Municipal Nagara Nishi elementary school in the central Japan city of Gifu. (Mainichi)

By David McNeill

    For anyone concerned about Japan's place in a globalized world, recent surveys on its English-language skills are depressing. Japan polls 78th in English proficiency out of 112 countries, according to EF, Education First, a Swiss education company. In Asia, Japan falls below Taiwan, China, Vietnam and South Korea. For years, Japan has lagged in standard TOEFL tests, below far poorer countries such as Cambodia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

    These polls reinforce stereotypes of the Japanese as poor communicators, and typically trigger much hand-wringing. The government has repeatedly tried to use policy to improve English teaching. For example, English is now mandatory at elementary schools. As a fifth-grader, my son had to study the language for about 70 hours a year. Unfortunately, he complained that he and his friends found the classes boring.

    As far back as the late Edo period, poor language acquisition has been an issue in Japan. Many of my foreign friends in Japan came via the government-funded Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, which was started in 1987, partly to improve foreign language education. It has arguably had far more success in helping to train thousands of foreign experts, including many correspondents, academics and embassy staff, in Japanese.

    I'm sympathetic to English-learners. It is a frustrating language, with too many particles, irregular verbs and quirks, and fundamental differences in grammar, syntax and pronunciation. Like every Irish citizen, I spent a decade in school swotting compulsory Gaelic (which is far older than English), and like many of them I can barely speak a handful of phrases today.

    Japanese schools perform well enough in educating people who can understand and interpret written foreign communications. Nevertheless, it is shocking to meet university students in Japan who can barely string the simplest sentence in English together after over 10 years of language study. I taught at a private Tokyo college a few years ago and a typical conversation with my third-year students went like this:

    Me: What would you do if you won $1 million?

    Student: Imi ga wakaranai desu. (I don't understand.)

    Me: What. Would You. Do. If. You. Won. One. Million. Dollars?

    Student: Sumimasen. (I'm sorry.)

    Me: Takarakuji de hyakumandoru atattara doushimasuka? (What would you do if you won $1 million?)

    Student: Chokin suru.

    Me: Can you say that in English?

    Students try out machine translation on their smartphones at Kityakyushu City High School in Kitakyushu's Tobata Ward in this Dec. 13, 2018 file photo. (Mainichi/Yasuhisa Yamamoto)

    Student: Seibu manii (Save money.)

    This is all the more surprising when you consider the vast amounts of time and money (both public and private) that are spent on teaching English in Japan compared to poorer countries like Albania (which also scores higher). As a taxpayer, I would be asking if all this expenditure provides value for money, because it seems clear that it doesn't.

    When I ask my students why English is a turnoff, they invariably cite high school. Students must wade through a series of standardized tests created by much older bureaucrats, tailored to university entrance examinations. Many students also study at private cram schools, which compounds the problem of teaching that prioritizes grammar skills rather than real-life communication.

    My good friend Andrew Taylor, a Japan-based translator, notes that high schools feel pressure to teach "difficult" English "and end up chasing after low frequency vocabulary when what students should be doing is learning to combine the key words and phrases that they already know, and using those elements until they are almost automatic. This would provide a base to allow the language to organically expand outwards.

    I tried in my university gig to reignite interest in English by focusing on content relevant to the lives of young people. But all that hard work was undone by a simple fact: My students did not choose to be in the classroom. English was compulsory, which helped explain their sullenness. You can teach anyone except someone who doesn't want to be taught.

    What is the point of force-feeding 20-year-olds a subject most do not like? Universities might get better value for money by allowing driven, talented students to choose English as an option. High schools might get more results if they focused less on grammar-translation than on modern conversational English.

    Critics have been saying these same things for years with little impact -- polls show Japan worsening in English proficiency. Meanwhile, technology is undermining the entire rationale for difficult, expensive language-learning. Free, online automatic translators like Google Translate and instantly render Japanese into understandable English.

    AI and machines translations, which struggled over subtleties of syntax, culture and grammar have been vastly improved by deep learning -- which means that algorithms are mimicking the way our brains process information. The EU is among many organizations calling this a revolution in language.

    We are still a long way from being able to talk to each other using simultaneous translation software but lots of companies are trying to crack it. A consortium of Japanese firms is using AI to take into account context and pronunciation in conversation. In the meantime, we're still going to need to talk to each other.

    David McNeill, a professor at the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo and a former Tokyo correspondent for Britain's The Economist magazine is seen in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Dec. 20, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)


    David McNeill was born in the U.K. in 1965, and has Irish nationality. He received a doctorate from Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He lectured at Liverpool John Moores University, and later moved to Japan in 2000. He was a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, and has been a Tokyo correspondent for The Independent and The Economist newspapers, among other publications. He took up a position as professor in the Department of English Language, Communication and Cultures at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, in April 2020. He is co-author of the book "Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster" (with Lucy Birmingham), which was published in 2012 by Palgrave-Macmillan. A Japanese version was published in 2016 by Enishi Shobo. He enjoys cycling and sometimes travels around the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa Prefecture and Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture.

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media