Really, the answer to this question is quite obvious and the fact that students continue to sign up and make great strides is proof of it. The ability to communicate well in English will most certainly continue to grow in importance year by year and I think this trend is already accelerating with the current economic situation: A situation which is causing both an increased need for good English communication skills and, unfortunately, a drop in the number of students attending English conversation schools.
A friend of mine told me that perhaps the English conversation school market in Japan has shrunk quite a bit over that past two years. It is understandable given how many students have had their money taken by the big schools who simply went out of business with little remorse for their irresponsible behavior.
As you all know two big schools collapsed since autumn 2007 and one of them was said to have had 60% of the market and over 450,000 students at the time. If that was true, then there must have been about 750,000 active students of English conversation at the time. Although that is extremely small considering the population of Japan and the fact that most of Japan’s livelihood is derived from offshore business requiring the use of English by many Japanese people every day, it was only 0.6% of the population at the time. If we take out about 23% of the population who are 65 or older as they may not need English ability from now on, it was only about .78% of the working-age population. That means that at that time only about 8 people in every 1000 active working people and students were actively trying to acquire good verbal English communication skills. That may have been at its peak time in Japan’s history.
Now my friend estimates that the market may only include about 250,000 total. That drops it to less than 3 people per 1000 working-age people and students. I am sorry to be honest but that is pathetically low. Yes, many people are studying at home, on the trains and more are using free lessons on the Internet but this situation is actually quite dire considering Japan’s future. A future in which more and more people will have to work abroad to support Japan’s economy.
I have a lot of students and among them there are junior high and high school students who are working very hard to master English as they really seem to understand how important it WILL be in their future. Unfortunately the majority of young people in Japan seem to be completely oblivious to how much good English communication skills will positively affect their future. They content themselves by saying “EIGO WA ZUTTO NIGATE DESHITA” (「英語はずっと苦手でした」), meaning roughly “I”ve always been no good at English” and then they usually laugh and feel comfort when they hear those around them saying “WATASHI MO” (Me too!). However, I am pretty sure that none of them are really satisfied with themselves or their effort to gain English communication skills and given a chance to study in an environment where there is necessity to learn, I am sure they CAN DO IT!
From my experience teaching, the seriousness about studying and trying to master English is, with these few exceptions, almost directly proportional to the age of students. Most of my older students do the reading and all the homework before they come to the class. Then in the class they actually enjoy discussing the topic in more detail. And their English ability improves very steadily. Of course some of younger students that don’t do the reading and homework, may have valid reasons for not studying the material before the class, such as other homework etc. If so, that is fine. If not, then what can I say? The level of their success and the speed at which they become confident English communicators depends on their effort. All that we can do as teachers or coaches is to offer them the opportunity to do the best they can do. I do have several hard working young students and their hard work is paying off. Week by week they are growing to enjoy communicating in English. This is a pleasure to see and my biggest motivation to keep going.
So now with all the lecturing done, I now look back at myself. I am an American which is often what Europeans call someone who is the opposite of bilingual. Maybe the number of Americans who try to master a second language is similar to that of Japanese who try to master English. But there are a few important differences. First, few Americans study a major foreign language for 6 years through secondary school. Second, unlike English, Japanese as a first language is unfortunately a minor language in the world. Be that as it may, my second language is Japanese which I learned in my 20s. So, despite the insignificance of Japanese on the world stage, I did study and become capable to speak and write it pretty well. Of course, I had good reasons to learn it since I was living in Japan. I assure you that I am not a gifted language student. So while I spent a lot of time learning to really use this minor foreign language, It actually bothers me how few young Japanese, even after studying English for 6 years or more, actually strive to become able to speak, read and write it well.
They often say that education, more than anything else, represents the future of a country. In this extremely difficult economic environment and societal circumstance that Japan now finds itself in, I hope that more effort will be given to improve education in Japan overall but especially to create a necessity for Japanese youth to learn and become able to use English for real communication. If so I am sure Japan’s future will be much brighter.
Here, I want to propose a huge change to the way English is taught and used. It is really a simple idea and I think everything will fall into place nicely after this change. And this is just my opinion. Having university professors studying with me and seeing them prepare to present their scholarly papers in English overseas, has brought me to the realization that it is now time for Japanese universities to change the curriculum so that half of the classes are instructed in English. Students will be required to do everything in English including taking notes, tests and even making presentations and speeches in English. It is my honest feeling that this is very best way to assure that Japanese young people will be ready for their future. This creates real necessity and that is what is missing in Japanese English education. The current system continues to allow young Japanese students to avoid what they really need to be doing: becoming able to communicate well in English for a real purpose.
Please note that there are some universities in Japan where many classes are already being taught in English. I believe that these universities are creating the leaders of Japan’s corporations, governmental and educational institutions of the future. I hope that more Japanese universities will also begin to take this step.
Of course, after mastering English, Chinese is the next language that many students need to be striving to learn. Think of it, they will be able to talk and work with about half of the world’s people and many more students will take the challenge to study overseas for both undergraduate and graduate studies. It would be a breakthrough for Japan and even the number of foreign students studying at Japanese universities will increase which will help Japanese universities come to the forefront among the world’s top universities.
Also, as I have said before in prior posts, I think Japan would benefit a lot by actively trying to increase its tourism numbers. There are currently about 8 million visitors to Japan each year and 3 million of whom are Chinese. Although Japan is an island country making it harder than a country like France to attract foreign visitors, Japan should still strive to increase the number 10 fold to reach the level that France sees. As visitors spend an average of $4,000 each in while visiting Japan, I am sure that another $288 billion a year would have a good impact on the Japanese economy. A big step toward realizing that would be to emphasize the need for more police and customer service people to be able to speak and understand English. Even though I have no problem whatsoever to speak and comprehend Japanese, nothing makes me happier that to have a shop assistant make the effort to speak to me in English. I have experienced this only twice in Japan in the past 4 years (once at a NITORI furniture store and once at a Mr. Donut’s shop.). It certainly felt great and I was very impressed with these individuals. If many more people become able to do that, it would go long way toward making Japan a hugely popular tourist destination. Wouldn’t that be great for Japan! Also, if more Japanese websites offered an English page it would have a big impact as well. These pages would be viewable and readable by people around the world and would certainly increase interest in Japan.
I truly hope that Japan will take these few simple but important steps forward. I am convinced these steps would make a huge difference for Japan’s future. And I am here to help people prepare themselves for that future. They only have to decide to the take the first step. Let’s get started! Time is wasting!