Education July 2011

Learning English Earlier

Primary school lessons should boost global business

In April, elementary schools started teaching English as a foreign language to 5th and 6th graders, marking a huge step forward for the subject in Japan. This is largely the result of pressure from business, which increasingly wants staff who can use English in practical settings, and who have the international and cross-cultural skills to function well in a global marketplace.

The commercial world has, for some time, feared that Japan is in danger of losing ground to countries in the region that start teaching English early. Japanese students who, until this academic year, started English in middle school at the age of 12, are among the latest in any nation to start studying a second language.

The move courted controversy in the education sector, however, with a large, vocal faction concerned that introducing English to those under the age of 12 would adversely affect standards in Japanese-language learning. This concern is understandable, considering the effort and time required to master reading and writing in Japanese. The solution to this dilemma was pragmatic: since English is not a full subject in elementary school, students will not be assessed on their results, as they are in their other subjects.

The aim of the earlier introduction of English is to familiarise pupils with basic words and the alphabet, and to get them to enjoy and feel motivated about learning a second language. It is a common complaint in middle schools that pupils start off being motivated by the novelty of English lessons, only suddenly to suffer a huge drop in enjoyment after a few months.

Thus, the new course does not aim just to frontload middle school English but, rather, to develop enthusiasm and nurture a natural interest in foreign languages among younger children. The subject will still be introduced as a full subject in middle school.

While it is widely acknowledged that the change is not the solution to Japan’s so-called English problem, it is surely a step in the right direction.

There is also an urgent need to increase the number of appropriately qualified teachers and provide them with relevant resources. The initiative has caused great trepidation among elementary school teachers. As in the UK, Japanese elementary school teachers are mostly generalists, rather than subject specialists. And, although most have studied English for at least eight years, few speak the language or feel competent enough to teach it.

The British Council is committed to helping raise standards in the teaching and learning of English in Japan, making expert resources available to teachers nationwide, helping them through teacher training and, ultimately, establishing a portal site that can guide them to free resources.

Whether the 5th grade is sufficiently early to start learning English, and the requisite changes can be implemented soon enough to develop the global skills the country needs, is a topic likely to be debated for some years.