Two stories from Japan recently caught our eye. You might remember in May that we reported on the crises facing the private English Language teaching academies in Japan, namely the collapse of GEOS and the following statistic:
The Ministry of Trade and Industry says enrolment at language schools has dropped from 826,858 students in February 2006 to 335,604 this year (2010).
Well firstly, Letsjapan report on action taken against the unfortunately named Fortress Japan School. According to Letsjapan, the Japanese Consumer Affairs Agency have closed Fortress Japan down for six months, owing to what was seen as coercive methods of enrolment. Locked in a room, prospective students were shown newspaper clippings and explained the importance of being able to speak English and how it would benefit them in the severe job market. Now, there is an interesting idea. Perhaps the next stage will be to criminalise all employers demanding language skills from job applicants where the existing post does not actually require them. This discrimination (without locked doors, of course) has proved highly profitable for the language teaching industry. Now, of course, employers might be anticipating future changes to the company but we rather think this is a way of consolidating inequalities in the job market and ensuring compliant workers who are prepared to surrender their private lives for the whims of employers.
This further decline in faith in the merits of English Language learning is furthered evidenced by a Government review of its JET scheme. You can read about this review both on Letsjapan and here on the ex-Jet participants’ blog, Jetwit.com. The Jet scheme was introduced 23 years ago to encourage graduates from outside Japan to live in Japan for a few years and to experience Japanese culture in return for sharing their culture and skills, principally helping to teach English in the state education system. At its peak in 2003 there were 6,221 participants from 41 different countries. In 2009 there were already only 4,436 participants from a total of 36 countries (the vast majority of participants from the US).
It appears, however, that in a general climate of state expenditure cuts, the scheme has been earmarked for either a systemic overall in the manner in which it functions or simply scrapping it all together. The scheme currently costs over 45 billion yen (US$ 400 million). Ex participants have organised a petition to save the scheme and there has been something of a backlash in Japan against the review panels, for the lack of thoroughness and expertise they have brought to these budget review meetings. It is unclear, therefore, exactly what, if anything, will happen to the programme.
What is clear, however, is that in this economic climate voices which have questioned the relative importance of English Language learning and the efficacy of the native English Speaking Teacher model are beginning to grow louder. This is what one Japanese economist, CH Kwan, had to say way back in 2002:
One much discussed solution is to expand the period of English instruction by starting from elementary school instead of from junior high school. But I am against this idea, which I believe is tantamount to wasting more time on the top of six to eight years most Japanese have already spent in vain. The more time allocated to teach English, the less available for the instruction of other subjects. That is far too high a price to pay. In the United States, Japan’s principal competitor, students do not spend much time on foreign language studies, and instead allocate that time to learn mathematics or computer science, for example.
Rather than increasing the time allocated to teaching English, the priority should be on improving the quality of the teachers themselves. If they are unable to improve the quality of their instruction, then teachers from overseas should be brought in to do the job. While native speakers have already been employed to teach English at some schools, this system is clearly inadequate as the number of students simply overwhelms the number of available instructors. Furthermore, as long as English remains a curricular requirement and if the system should be expanded to include every school in Japan, then a veritable army of native English instructors would have to be hired. Yet a policy of limiting English instruction to those who really need it would keep the demand for qualified teachers to a more manageable level.
Fortunately, the average Japanese, aside from the time he or she sits in class, is hardly ever placed in a situation where English must be used. Rather than force the language upon students as a required subject, why not make it an elective? Schools would not have to scrap their English curriculum entirely. Rather, they should limit instruction to the alphabet instead, so children can learn to use an alphanumeric keyboard. Under this proposed system, a full year of English class would be more than enough for the task. In exchange, a quality program should be provided for those students who are serious about mastering the language.
Now naturally we have specific issues ourselves with the writer (principally nationalism and elitism) but the text serves to show that in terms of the capitalist world order itself, there are questions to both the “enormous” need for and the actual efficacy of English Language Training. Indeed, we have long since argued that English, like education generally, has been expanded as a result of financial speculation which is heavily debt funded and incapable of offering the returns it promises. The crises in English Language Learning in Japan does not mean the end of ELT as we know it, but it does show contradictions; contradictions which have existed under the surface for so long and are now coming very much to the surface. English, like any language, should be taught for the pleasure and necessities of being human and not the anarchic needs of a market inacable of meeting basic human needs.