Corporate English Language Education in Japan: Motivation, Customization and Accountability
Daniel P. Dolan
(Director, Global Communication Strategy, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, Japan)
Corporate English language education is a huge business in Japan, representing some significant percentage of the approximately 112 billion US dollars spent annually in Japan on education and training. In this space there is tremendous opportunity for new service providers who understand the importance of motivation, customization and accountability in education, and then act strategically on this understanding.
It is no secret that English language education in Japan has long been embarrassingly ineffective, made clear each year with Japan's consistent bottom-rung international test score rankings. Yet pressure grows within Japanese companies and from government ministries for Japan to gain proficiency in what is widely considered the world's global language. The problem is complex, changing in nature and depth depending on questions such as what constitutes "proficiency" and challenges from some quarters on the importance of Japanese speaking English at all.
Even so, I argue that there are three central issues impacting English language education in Japan -- and specifically corporate English language education -- that require attention from aspiring or reforming English language education service providers.
Put simply, motivation to improve English language skills when viewed from the perspective of students is reflected in the question "Why should I care"? Related questions are "Why should I spend money and time for this"? and "What difference will these study activities make in my life"? Many English language service providers in Japan ignore these questions because they seem both too obvious and too difficult to address. But consider what I call the "this is a pen" model of English instruction. Although this model has thankfully been banished from most corporate English programs and K-12 classes because nobody really cares deeply about pens, its spirit lives on in the absence of proactive considerations by English language educators regarding the needs of specific learners in specific contexts. The critical questions that should be asked of all potential students of corporate English language education are:
(1) What do corporations (clients) want employees to learn?
(2) What do employees (learners) need and want to learn?
Once the corporate English language education service provider identifies the specific motivations of potential (or newly acquired) clients and students, instruction must be tailored to satisfy these motivations. Teaching materials and teaching strategies need to meet (and if possible exceed) the specific needs of clients and learners. Here is where an increasingly popular trend in English language education is gaining traction. English for Specific Purposes (ESP), and its cousin Content-Based Instruction (CBI) are designed to teach English through content meaningful to the daily activities of learners. In the corporate context this might be reflected in course titles such as English for Attorneys or English for Medical Practitioners. In practice, the move is from "this is a pen" to "this is an effective script for taking a hospital patient's medical history".
Corporate clients of English language education programs should and in most cases will demand evidence of student (employee) learning. For this reason, the service provider and client should agree on specific and carefully crafted learning objectives and success criteria. Consideration also must be given to effective ways of measuring learner (and by extension service provider) performance. Pre-and post-service testing of learners provides one important quantitative measure of learning. Focused feedback from learners provides a qualitative measure of learning. Such feedback is best elicited in person from a neutral and skilled facilitator, although the service provider and client need to determine in advance how to conduct consultations with the facilitator for the purpose of discussion and interpretation of feedback data.
A recent Los Angeles Times article describes how many families in South Korea are taking their children to medical clinics to have their tongue support membranes cut in a desperate bid to improve their English language pronunciation. To prevent this ill-considered practice from landing in Japan, I propose that surgery instead be done on entrenched and lucrative corporate English language education services. Take a knife to the blind selection of general-purpose textbooks and methodologies, and implant motivation, customization and accountability. In this rapidly developing market, the winners will understand the specific needs of their clients and learners and will deliver products and services to meet these needs.