[EDLING:1255] How low can Japan go?
Francis M. Hult
fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Sat Feb 18 22:30:40 UTC 2006
How low can Japan go?
A multimillion-dollar boom in preschool English tuition is exposing a rift
between parents and state educators wary about adding more English to the
primary curriculum, reports Justin McCurry
Friday February 17, 2006
Japan may have one of world's most elderly populations, but the face of the
country's English language education is younger than ever. Students in
business suits are being joined by those in nappies, and teachers accustomed
to dealing with sleepy heads in class must now put up with learners who
dribble and cry for their mothers.
Japan is in the grip of a boom in preschool English learning. Parents,
frustrated at the glacial pace of change in the formal education system, are
exposing their children to English before they can even walk, driving a
multimillion-dollar industry in materials and instruction in the process.
According to the Yano Research Institute, a private thinktank, the English
conversation market for preschoolers through to 15-year-olds was worth $768m
in 2004. The same year parents spent $388m on books, cassettes, games and
A recent survey by Benesse Corp, which runs the Berlitz chain of language
schools and produces learning materials, found that 14% of households with
children of preschool age sent their offspring to English lessons. An
estimated 21% of Japanese five-year-olds are studying English - the figure was
just 6% in 2000 - and have a choice of 140 schools around the country.
While education officials and teachers continue to resist calls for more
English instruction at the preschool and primary school stages, parents must
rely on private schools that, at their worst, use a mishmash of homegrown
methodologies and operate without inspection or regulation.
The education ministry does not inspect private language schools or check that
staff are qualified to teach very young children.
"Parents really need to think carefully before they choose where to send their
children," said Keith Jacobsen, education director at Hiroo International
Kindergarten, which opened 13 years ago in the smart Azabu district of Tokyo
and has 40 pupils aged one to five on its books. The school employs only
qualified, experienced teachers (one for every two children in the classroom).
"There has been a surge of interest and a surge of business, but a lot of
[schools] don't seem to have any plan, although I'm sure they had the kids'
best interests at heart," said Jacobsen. "Some are more like daycare centres,
with lots of toys and games, but not much else."
Some parents have long regarded English skills as crucial to their child's
chances of entering a top university and embarking on a career in medicine,
law or the upper echelons of the central government bureaucracy. But the rise
in the number of private playschools and preschool English courses offered by
private language-school chains is meeting demand from parents whose ambitions,
they say, go beyond academic success.
Yukari Tominaga, a 36-year-old Tokyo housewife, said she had started taking
her son, Manato, to occasional English lessons taught by a neighbour from New
Zealand when he was 18 months old because she feared that waiting until he
started learning English formally at age 12 would leave him intellectually and
socially out of the loop.
"The Japanese spend years learning English at school but they are not very
good when it comes to conversation," she said. "I don't want my son to have
the same problem when he is older. It isn't just about English; he is learning
about other people and cultures, and having fun, too. Of course I'd like him
to go to a good university, but this is about giving him more choices when the
In 2002 the education ministry permitted primary schools to use English-based
activities as part of "comprehensive studies" classes. More than 90% of
Japan's 22,481 primary schools do so, but for many pupils English instruction
means little more than occasional visits from native English speakers.
Many parents welcome calls by Kenji Kosaka, the education minister, for
English to be made compulsory at primary schools, but teachers and bureaucrats
are not convinced: in a government survey more than 70% of parents supported
the move, but only 36% of teachers agreed.
"Inviting a foreign teacher to visit a school or playschool a few times a year
is a step in the right direction, but it's not going to improve children's
English skills," says Kazuko Nakajima, a professor specialising in bilingual
education at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.
The boom in preschool English has ignited a debate about the ability of very
young children to acquire a foreign language while they are still mastering
their mother tongue.
Nakajima agrees that striking the right balance can be tricky: "Of course you
can have too much stress on English at a young age, but the way the Japanese
education system is set up, children are not getting enough exposure to
English," she said.
"Concentrating on the language itself would be a mistake. It needs to be
incorporated into all sorts of activities - painting, singing and so on.
Children only start to grasp words and phrases later on. It's no different
from when they are learning Japanese."
Yoji Ishizuka, an official in the preschool education section of the education
ministry, says the state preschool sector is free to organise activities based
around English, but only up to a point.
"We are not against the idea, particularly in parts of Japan where interaction
with foreigners is quite common," he said.
"There are those who say that English should be taught like a proper subject,
even at the preschool level. The problem is that English is not a subject at
primary school, so there would be a [six-year] gap in English before children
start middle school. Primary schools themselves have not told us they want to
make English a regular subject.
"If the purpose is to put English at the core of the curriculum then I would
be concerned, as that could affect children's ability in Japanese and other
subjects. First they must master a proper knowledge of their mother tongue.
The rest, including English, follows from that."
The idea that children are intellectually unable to learn two languages in
tandem barely registers with parents like Tominaga, who happily recounts the
time her son, now two and a half, called her "mummy".
"English makes up such a small part of his vocabulary, and my husband and I
speak only Japanese at home, so I'm not worried at all. His first language is
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