Is English in retreat (at least in Japan)?

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, 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.



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9 responses to “Is English in retreat (at least in Japan)?

  1. The first paragraph from C.H. Kwan is rather silly. First off, the American economy is hardly a model to be striving for.. and secondly, the situation is totally different. In the past Americans could get away without foreign languages because the world bent to accomodate them in English. As it stands now, monolinguals in any language are going to be at a disadvantage.

    However, I agree that it is not the quantity of English alone that matters – more poor quality instruction is a waste of time for everyone. I’m not saying that all junior high school and high school English teachers are poor, just that they will struggle to find enough well qualified teachers to meet this new demand.

    Surprised you didn’t mention Rakuten and Uniqlo, two very important companies in Japan, both adopting English as their company language recently.

  2. Pingback: Is English in retreat (at least in Japan)? « Marxist TEFL Group | TEFL Japan

  3. marxistelf

    Thanks Darren, great to have your comments as usual.

    The article is great and certainly provides some strong counter-evidence against our suggestion that there may be, at present, declining interest in learning English (in Japan at least).

    We would add two health warnings, however,
    1. To claim a company is English speaking because it holds the occasional meeting “in English” when representatives from subsidaries abroad visit for a week and meet their counterparts (usually marketing and finance) does not equate to an English speaking organisation.

    I’m sure teachers working in multi-nationals in Europe (not the UK) are aware of the limited extent of the English of some particpants who attend Japan on “incentive trips” and teachers in Japan likewise will be aware of the limitations in English use of some of the staff who receive them.

    2. Any organisation serious about raising standards of operational English is likely to invest serious money in the undertaking. Obtaining a special discount offer from Berlitz Japan does not strike one as a serious investment. Although, of course, there are good quality teachers in Berlitz, their low pay, poor working conditions, and aggresive management style means there is a high turnover of staff and the staff best-positioned to provide good quality English instruction are leaving or trying to leave. Not the organisation a company serious about quality would choose.

    Moreover, we are still left with the smoking gun of declining numbers in the academies. There are possible explanations (new local schools not counted in government, better prepared younger students in the state system, or a simple temporary disillusionment with Academies following five/six years of financial incompetence and irregularities) but this phenomena needs to be explained.

    We are not clear ourselves, however, whether there is a sea-change in attitude or not with respect to Japan and ELT, what we do see are some interesting developments which, as we have said, require explanation.

    Finally, in your comments we believe you have offered two Graddolisms (“facts” made popular by Brit Council Guru, David Graddol) which require further exploration
    The unattractiveness of America as a model for modern capitalism (inevitable decline thesis).
    and the disadvantages of mono-lingualism (a similar shifting of economic power thesis).

    We hope to deal with both points more fully in our next article.

    Thanks again Darren. For us analysis of “TEFL” is not a closed and simple matter, rather it is like receiving contradictory reports in the midst of battle out of which one must make sense of key movements. Your interventions in these matters are always to the point and food for thought.

  4. So you see America as an attractive model for modern capitalism, and monolingualism as advantageous?

    • No, no on both counts. We are preparing an article to explain this position in some depth but suffice to say we find no model of capitalism attractive to us; nor as language teachers do we necesarily admire monolingualism. What we want to avoid, however, is erroneous views concerning American capitalism in particular, and world capitalism in general. We also believe that power and language is more complex than the assertion that monlingualism is a disadvantage for advanced capitalist countries. It is rather like saying “high wages” or an “under-developed tourist industry ” are a disadvantage. Of course, low wages help secure certain types of production and the tourist industry generates much needed cash but both are not necessarily the path to booming advanced capitalist economies. It has been said before, but worth stressing again, that the Phillipines (post war) has been relatively succesful in promoting English and very low wages when compared to Japan, and Greece (again post war) has been more successful at promoting tourism but the two countries certainly haven’t been as successful (and are unlikely to be) in overall economic terms as Japan. Somewhat, disadvantageous in human terms maybe but in economic terms to an advanced capitalist countries like the US and Japan,we doubt it. The case has to be proven not asserted.

  5. Good read and summary of some important issues.

    However, I think that what we are seeing isn’t “English” in retreat and the post title would be better if it said, “English teaching” in retreat.

    Learning English is in the ascendancy but teaching English will soon begin to drop off at least in the formal vein as we see with programs like JET. Sooner or later, it will be clear that “teaching” English in formalized settings and/or just throwing a foreigner into a school is really not an effective way to foster, “English learning” (I didn’t write, “waste of money” because I don’t see budgets/money in such a plus/minus way).

    So let’s not kid ourselves that English is not becoming an important and necessary 2nd language lingua franca in the world (but you can argue about the forms/types of English). IMHO anyway.


    • marxistelf

      Excellent comments David (real food for thought),

      The picture is really complicated and it is difficult to quantify the different forms of “English learning”. We agree that the traditional TEFL model in Japan is in crisis (the figures are indisputable) but we don’t share your “optimism” that people in Japan are finding new ways of learning English or indeed any other language (clearly some are but not, we think, in numbers which compensate for the decline in numbers enrolling in academies).
      We do, however, agree entirely that English is not diminishing in importance, rather what we see is a decline in numbers of people studying English in a time of economic crises. This does not mean that the “need” (practical/status led) for languages amongst “select groups” of the population is not increasing. It is quite possible (indeed probable), that more and more of those who “need” English are taking trips abroad, finding private tutoring, etc (spending more money upfront) whilst those where English is not such a necessity are reviewing their attitudes towards language learning and deprioritising it (postponing enrolling on courses until further notice).
      As we have been preparing an article on the economic benefits of language learning, it has become so apparent that despite the claims of the industry (“English is a passport to wealth and opportunity for all”) there is very little statistical work on the actual relation between earnings and language learning. Obviously, it is not in the interests of the industry to undertake work which could undermine that claim in any manner, it is better to keep repeating it despite declining enrollment in academies.
      Clearly, in many countries, the work of academies is being undermined by better and better language learning in state and private schools, more opportunities to practise through work and leisure contacts, resources on-line. etc. Maybe its not the English the academies would approve of but maybe it is “working”.
      What we have then is an incomplete picture distorted by the ideology of the industry. We are still a very long way from knowing the truth. What we know for sure though, is the industry and its bankrupt teaching model in Japan is under severe pressure.

  6. Pingback: The inevitable decline of the US and the role of monolingualism in that decline. Two Graddolisms considered. « Marxist TEFL Group

  7. Pingback: Sri Lanka, South Korea and ELT, For Whom the Bomb Ticks. « Marxist TEFL Group

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