Raising English language standards: Japan case studies

English in Japan case studies

In today’s globalized world being able to communicate effectively in English is more important than ever.

If we take Japan for example – a country where previously there were relatively low levels of foreign visitors, little to no immigration and a tendency to keep business local (with the exception of huge multinationals like Sony, Toyota or Nintendo) – there was simply no real need for the majority of the population to speak English.

But things are on the change. Based on statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) the number of visitors has risen from around six million in 2011 to nearly 30 million in 2017. This means that those working in the tourism and hospitality industries – especially in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – are finding that being able to communicate in English is essential. What’s more with the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020 – the number of visitors is going to skyrocket.

The current state of English in Japan

As we’ve seen – English is becoming increasingly important in Japan. But how does Japan rank in terms of English language proficiency compared to other countries in the region?

According to the EF English Proficiency Index 2017, Japan is ranked 37th in a list of 80 countries. Although they are still in the top half of the table – a score of 52.34 puts Japan in the low proficiency category, falling behind South Korea, Vietnam and China. Their position in the table has also fallen over the last seven years. What’s the reason for this?

Other than a lack of necessity and access to native speakers to practice with there are other reasons why proficiency levels are low.

One of the biggest challenges is the format of the entrance exams at universities. The ability to communicate effectively is not currently measured, and therefore teachers are primarily focused on reading, writing and listening skills. This leads to teaching to the test, where students are encouraged to memorize lists of words, translate sentences from Japanese and give importance to accuracy over fluency. And although this will help students pass exams and get into the university they want – it won’t equip them with the skills they need to use English to speak to people in the street or at work.

Making mistakes is an essential part of learning a language. And until entrance exams start including a communicative element to them it’s unlikely that teachers will risk their reputations and their students’ futures in order to teach real-world English skills.

Japanese is also an extremely complex language and very different from English and other European languages. Students need to learn a new alphabet, study difficult grammar rules and get their heads around idiomatic expressions which seem to make no sense. Therefore, a Japanese student will often require many more hours to learn English than someone who speaks French or German as their native language.

Moving forward

Things are beginning to change thanks to a number of new government initiatives and collaborations with leading educational experts such as Pearson English.

The latest target set by the Ministry of Education is to get 50% of senior high school students to be at A2 ~B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) by graduation. To help achieve this, introductory classes are also now being offered in 3rd grade and English is being made compulsory from 5th grade.

The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme also sends native English college graduates to Japanese schools to assist language teachers, giving students more exposure to English speakers.

Finally, at Pearson English, we’ve been working closely with a number of Private Language Schools and Universities. It’s our aim to help them reform their curriculum, improve placement testing and assessment selection, and focus more on communication skills using the Global Scale of English (GSE)

You can see for yourself in the three video case studies below how the GSE – a global English language scale that uses a granular approach to pinpoint what needs to be mastered for the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing – is being used to raise English language standards in Japan.

Achieving success through personalized learning journeys

Our first case study is from Toraiz Private Language Schools – a group of seven schools located in Tokyo and Osaka, who design personalized courses for Business English learners. They offer intensive 1,000-hour courses with a ‘personal trainer’ type of approach to self-study. In this setting, the learner is in frequent contact with their consultant to ensure they’re motivated, on-track and progressing to the level of English that they require to be successful in their English goals.

They use the learning objectives from the GSE to identify clear goals and measure their progress each month using Versant assessments. It’s an inspiring story of a uniquely personalized approach, from a successful private language school group.  

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Building student confidence through active learning

Meikai University is a private college located on the outskirts of Tokyo. They decided to set a higher level of English requirement at the University and the English department found that their existing curriculum wasn’t sufficient to deliver an equal balance across the four skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking.

They only had a short period of time to revise and improve their curriculum before the new academic year began. To do this they used the GSE to create a common framework to roll out across the department. This enabled a much more cohesive, sustainable and scalable approach to future program development and now offers their students a more comprehensive education in English.

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Easing the pressure – using assessment to motivate and empower students

Finally, we come to Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University – a progressive and ambitious multicultural university located in Beppu, Japan. They were looking for a way to adapt their curriculum to meet the needs of their diverse student intake.

They looked to the GSE to help them establish a common framework from which to diversify their course content to address the mixed-ability of their students, but also to help their students better prepare for high-stakes assessments.

The English department also had to meet the new requirements for English proficiency set by the university. Working closely with Pearson, they have not only diversified their curriculum but also used Placement to accurately ‘place’ their students into the right program and adopted Progress tests as a tool to help manage student and teacher expectations. This, in turn, informs teaching decisions and takes some of the stress out of taking the final TOEFL test. As a result, students are more motivated and invested in their English journeys and bolstered with new confidence as they approach end of year exams.

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Discover more about the Global Scale of English and how you can use it to design curriculum, track learner progress and plan engaging and appropriate lessons.

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