Primary school English debate heats up (Japan)

Francis M. Hult fmhult at
Wed Mar 29 05:05:32 UTC 2006

Primary school English debate heats up / Proposal to make classes mandatory 
raises questions about priorities, resources

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A move to make English education compulsory at primary school has begun in 
earnest, following a proposal Monday by the Central Council for Education that 
it be a required subject starting with the fifth grade. 

However, there has been strong backlash from critics who say primary school is 
a place for children to learn the Japanese language, while at the same time 
there has been much discussion over whether a sufficient number of qualified 
English teachers can be found. 

As of the current academic year, 93.6 percent of public primary schools have 
already instituted "Elementary English." Many of the schools use time set 
aside for general study to teach English, usually using songs and games to 
make it feel less foreign to the children. 

Sixth-graders spend on average of 13.7 hours per year studying English, while 
schools such as Amano Elementary School in Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture--a 
school designated by the education ministry more than 10 years ago as an 
educational research and development school--dedicates as many as 70 hours per 
class on English annually. 

Amano's first- and second-graders use songs and games as a way to get 
acquainted with the language, third- and fourth-graders use skits, and fifth- 
and sixth-graders put together a newspaper in English. 

When sixth-graders at the pilot school were given the English-listening 
portion of a high school entrance examination, the children--three years 
younger than the normal test-takers--on average correctly answered 44 percent 
or more of the questions. 

"The implementation of English education varies depending on the school," an 
official of the Education, Science and Technology Ministry said. "By making 
the language a compulsory subject, we are also hoping to level the playing 

There is also the matter of Japan falling behind other countries in English-
language education. South Korea made English compulsory at the primary school 
level in 1997. Since 2001, compulsory English education in China has been 
spreading outward from the cities. Many European countries, such as France and 
Germany, have long required their children to study the international 

Parents worry over kids' future 

Parents are particularly concerned about their children's English abilities, 
with many making their children study from an early age. 

As of the end of 2005, Yamaha English School, which has 1,600 locations 
claimed 63,000 young English learners--a 35 percent increase from five years 
ago. Particularly popular is a class for 2- and 3-year-olds. 

A ministry survey also reflects this trend, showing that 70.7 percent of 
parents who send their children to public schools agree English education at 
primary schools should be compulsory. The main reason cited by the ministry 
was "The children would be less resistant to learning if they started from an 
early age." 

There also is intense interest from the business world. The Japan Association 
of Corporate Executives in June 1999 announced a proposal that "Spoken-English 
education should be adopted from the primary school level," in order to cope 
with the market's internationalization and overseas postings. 

The association welcomed the Central Council for Education's proposal, 
saying, "It is necessary to implement this quickly, even if just to increase 
children's conversational ability." 

On the other side of the issue, though, are the many specialists who believe 
primary school-level English education is a mistake. 

In February, a group of about 100 researchers, led by Keio University Prof. 
Yukio Otsu, issued a petition to Education, Science and Technology Minister 
Kenji Kosaka opposing the introduction of English as a subject in primary 
schools. The petition said there were no persuasive data as to the merits of 
such a move, and warned that it could create confusion in the classroom. 

Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician at Ochanomizu University and noted essayist 
and critic of changes to the education system, said: "The most important 
things during primary school are Japanese and math...It's important that 
children first learn their own country's culture and traditions. Just because 
you can speak English doesn't mean you'll be an 'international person'--what 
people ask you becomes the extent of the conversation." 

Necessary resources in doubt 

One major concern if the proposal is adopted is how to ensure the necessary 
class hours. 

With the "relaxed education system" and the five-day school week, the overall 
number of classroom hours continues to decrease, and if hours are taken out of 
other subjects, there will likely be a backlash. 

Schools also face the difficulty of ensuring enough qualified teachers. 
Currently, homeroom teachers double as their students' English teachers about 
90 percent of the time. Primary school teachers usually lack the credentials, 
and it is difficult to get specialists to instruct grade-schoolers. 

Even by teaching lessons with foreign teaching assistants--known as ALTs, or 
assistant language teachers--there is a limited number, leading to a proposal 
in the council's report pointing out on how it is "indispensible to meet 
certain conditions for teachers and materials." 

(Mar. 29, 2006)

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