Re-Thinking English Education in Japan
John de Boer (University of Tokyo, currently in Tel Aviv)
Japan is the sole G-7 country whose official language is limited to its borders. France, England, Italy, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. all have official languages that are spoken outside of their geographical borders. For example, German, although limited in its usage outside Germany is also spoken in Switzerland, French in many parts of Africa, English in three G-7 countries and Italian is very similar to both Spanish and Portuguese. Despite its lingual limitations Japan has managed to become the second largest economic power in the world. At first glance, this may indicate that English is in fact not a pre-requisite for success. However, once examined a little closer the limitations and costs of this lingual limitation become evident. Japan's economic success is almost solely attributed to technology exports. Japan has had very little success exporting its literature, its movies, its history and academic works. The few cultural and academic successes that Japan has achieved internationally can largely be attributed to the fact that these works have been translated into one or more world languages. Japan's language limitation has prohibited Japan from sharing its most highly refined aspects with the rest of the world.
As Daniel Dolan has pointed out it is not as though Japan has not made great investments into improving its English language proficiency. In fact, Japan spends more than any other country in the world on English language education. With this money Japan has created a highly profitable language training system that is extremely ineffective and largely unable to produce quality English language speakers. This brings us to the question that Daniel Dolan poses: Is TOEIC Really the Answer? Daniel Dolan discusses the possible alternatives.
Re-Thinking English Language Education for Professionals in Japan
Daniel P. Dolan (GLOCOM)
As Japan's Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture relaxes its control over English language education in Japanese schools and corporations increasingly require English language skills as evidenced by TOEIC scores among employees, it is a good opportunity to reflect on these trends and their implications. The focus in this essay is on English language training for adult professionals rather than for students still in school.
According to a NHK report in 2000, Japan has the largest commercial English language education market in the world, valued at $20 billion. Globalization pressures and recent restructuring at companies has resulted in greatly increased importance put on daily use of English within many companies. At Nissan, for example, the March 1999 tie-up with Renault left Japanese and French employees no simple alternative but to adopt English and Japanese as two official company languages. In Japan, 860,000 people took the TOEIC test in 1997-1998.
However, according to official TOEIC figures for 1997-1998, Japan scored lowest among the 17 countries in which TOEIC test taking is most popular, with an average score of 451. The TOEIC test has two components, Reading and Listening, and Japan scored lowest among the 17 countries in both categories. Despite such comparatively low scores, according to a February 2000 report by the Japan Economic Institute many companies in Japan require employees to score a minimum of 600 on TOEIC before being eligible for overseas assignment. The report also reveals that 60 percent of companies surveyed by the TOEIC Steering Committee consider TOEIC scores when hiring employees.
Is TOEIC Really the Answer?
The popularity of TOEIC among Japanese organizations obscures an important question that apparently is too seldom asked: Does TOEIC accurately measure the language skills required of Japanese assigned to overseas posts or to positions in Japan that require frequent and complex communication with native English speakers?
Clearly it does not, because there is no oral communication component to TOEIC. Japanese students of English understand quite well from experience that reading and listening skills alone will not assure smooth communication in actual face-to-face conversational situations. Speaking skilfully in a foreign language involves not only sufficient vocabulary for a given communicative task, but also an understanding of a complicated web of culturally appropriate rules for speaking. So a person who scores high on TOEIC may be demonstrating proficiency in reading and listening, but this score indicates nothing at all about the person's actual speaking abilities.
This view is supported by a 1998 study of Japanese engineers working in the United States conducted by Professor Chisato Furuya of Nagaoka University of Technology. Although these engineers apparently had TOEIC scores deemed sufficient by company executives, the engineers themselves recommended that the following communication items be given more attention during training: interactive oral communication; listening skills; speaking skills (e.g., selecting topics and choosing appropriate discourse); and cross-cultural skills.
The English for Specific Purposes Alternative
What is needed is to move away from a focus on TOEIC scores to a focus on English language skills that (1) promote oral communication abilities, and (2) have direct relevance to the professional goals of English language students. One promising trend is growing recognition in Japan of the value of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) training. The basic premise of ESP is that English language students will be maximally motivated to succeed by improving communication skills that are necessary for success in narrowly targeted professional specialties of their choice. For example English for Medical Professionals, English for Legal Professionals, English for Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), or English for Academic Preparation. Good ESP training recognizes the critical importance of oral communication skills, and uses situations, vocabulary and communication rules specific to particular professions to accomplish clearly identified learning objectives.
Adoption of ESP does not necessarily require dropping TOEIC testing as a measure of English language competence. It may be that TOEIC does in fact measure listening and reading skills reasonably well and therefore does have at least limited value. The important issue to recognize for both TOEIC test takers and organizations who require employees to take the test is that TOEIC does not directly measure oral communication ability.
Testing Oral Communication Skills
Instead of or in addition to TOEIC, organizations and individuals should consider using tests designed specifically to assess oral communication skills. One such test is offered by Educational Testing Service, the creators and owners of TOEIC, as an extension of TOEIC called the Language Proficiency Interview, available to TOEIC scorers of 730 and above. The test involves a 20-30 minute interview and test-takers are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5 by specially trained native English speakers. Other widely used tests of oral communication ability include Educational Testing Service's Test of Spoken English (TSE), the Spoken Proficiency English Assessment Kit (SPEAK), and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Oral Interview. I currently am designing a ten minute oral skills test in interview format that should be efficient and valuable for organizations.
A shift from reading and listening skills training only to inclusion of oral communication skills, combined with testing that measures all three areas is a win-win proposition: English language students gain ability to communicate, and organizations benefit from this increased ability and improve the accuracy with which they can identify employees' practical English communication skills. This transition will be gradual, but it is coming.
Comment on Daniel Dolan's Essay
Takahiro Miyao (GLOCOM)
Daniel Dolan's essay maintains that it is worthwhile to increase ability to assess English speaking ability in Japan. Although I do not deny his premise, I am afraid that it might well be a mistake to emphasize a shift to oral communication skill training too much without reassessing Japan's English education as a whole. What is really needed is a more comprehensive approach to English and other foreign languages in general in order to overcome the serious deficiencies of foreign language ability on the part of the Japanese public. That means that more efficient and effective use of resources should be made in every aspect of foregin language education in general and English education in particular.
In fact, the Japanese need more training in writing and reading in English at school and in business as well, since more communications are being conducted in written English than ever before, via the Internet, for example. Also in business, writing and reading skills are as important as oral communication skills in formal contracts and correspondence.
Also, personally, I feel that one of the weakest points in English ability among Japanese professionals is that they have trouble distinguishing among various kinds of nouns, abstract nouns, proper nouns, collective nouns, etc., and in fact many of them cannot handle singular and plural forms of nouns properly. I am afraid that they would never get trained sufficiently in this respect by moving away from reading and writing skill training to oral communication, where communication is more emphasized than detailed rules and concepts.
I would also like to argue that communication is not a matter of skills, but rather a matter of motivation and messages, which seem lacking among many Japanese. In this sense, English education reform should be reconsidered as a part of more comprehensive education reform for the Japanese people as a whole, requiring more efficient and effective use of resources in education in general. It might not be appropriate to simply focus on a shift to oral communication in English education per se, which would only reshuffle the existing resources from one segment to another, possibly making the situation even worse in term of basic language skills.