Internationalization and Foreign Language Education

One of the buzzwords of Japanese educational reform in the 1980s was “internationalization” (kokusaika) (Goodman 2007). Yet a quarter-century later, there is still good reason to think that the education system fails to equip Japanese people well enough for international engagement. The average performance of Japanese students in the test of english as a Foreign Language (tOeFL) has been among the lowest in asia (Ogawa 2011). The falling numbers of Japanese students studying abroad has also caused concern (Fukushima 2010; nae and Fraysse-Kim 2012). Such is the case despite government initiatives to improve the situation, such as the Japan exchange and teaching (Jet) Program, which has placed thousands of native-speaker language Assistants in schools each year since the late 1980s, and the super english High school (seLHi) program, which funded about 150 high schools across Japan to undertake action research into improved english teaching (aspinall 2011, 135–136). Since the early 1990s, a limited number of high schools have set up specialized programs for students who wish to focus on english study. Such programs may allow students to spend as many as ten or more hours a week studying english by their second or third year, and they usually include special events such as weekend “english camps” and opportunities for short-term or long-term study abroad.5 such programs do result in better teaching and improved english abilities for some students. However, they are not necessarily found at the top-level high schools that take Japan's most able students. The opportunities for the latter can be illustrated by two lessons observed in fall 2011 at terakawa, a top-level public high school in the Kansai region. The first is a regular lesson for first-year students, taught by a young teacher who is himself a graduate of a specialized english high school program and who speaks english well. Despite the teacher's qualifications, a major feature of the lesson is memorization and repetition of the reading text being studied. Students are hardly required to produce any english of their own, whether written or spoken. The number of students in the class—close to forty, as is standard—does not help. The second lesson is a third-year elective english lesson. This is very different; a mere ten or so students work in pairs, debating in english using their pre-prepared notes and switching partners every few minutes. Though their english is not perfect, they communicate successfully and enthusiastically. However, there are only two or three hours a week of electives, meaning that english lessons like this one are the experience of a small minority. It seems clear that the improvement of foreign language standards at the high school level still has a long way to go.

Overall, Japan's foreign language education continues to be inadequate; the reluctance of university students to study abroad is the result partly of this inadequacy and partly of employers' surprising apparent lack of interest in the qualities gained through overseas study.6 the introduction of “english activities” for one hour a week in the fifth and sixth grades of elementary school from 2011 (Ogawa 2011) is a half-hearted measure whose timidity speaks volumes about the deep ambivalence within Japan toward engagement with the outside world (aspinall 2011). Similarly striking is the apparent lack of any sense that foreign language education in schools might need to encompass the teaching of Chinese, the language of Japan's giant neighbor and surely one of the major global powers of the next century.

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