Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Are Teaching Standards to Blame for Japan`s Poor English Ability?

I have been teaching English in Japan for several years now. I consider myself to be pretty damn good at this gig. I have even been able to earn myself an above entry level position. Yet, if there is one issue that is considered a `big stinking elephant in the room` it is taking a hard look at the English teaching standards in Japan. A lot of teachers are happy to go to work everyday and do what is expected of them without ever considering raising the bar. Usually when I bring up the topic of teaching standards to fellow teachers, they show little interest in wanting to talk about it. A lot of them have a good thing going and don`t want to so-called rock the boat. With the economy in bad shape and jobs becoming less available, it may be time to start talking more serious about the standard of English teachers in Japan.

The fact of the matter is, most English teachers in Japan did not plan on becoming a professional teacher. The teaching profession was simply a vehicle to live in Japan. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to live in the land of raising sun. Despite all the different reasons I could cite, the fact still remains that a lot of teachers never intended to make teaching their live work. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Hell, it can be a great way to enjoy an experience of a life time while at the same time bring in a steady income.

Our problem is one which has been supported and accepted for so long that solutions are hard pressed to find. The hiring and training policy of English teachers in Japan has been holding onto one simple practice; `Be a native speaker of English and you can work as a English teacher.` While there are other factors in hiring and training English teachers, the above mentioned policy influences the English teaching profession in Japan from top to bottom. It is no secret that most people who break into the English teaching profession in Japan start with little or no experience. They also usually lack formal education in the field of teaching. Most companies or schools do not have the time, resources, or money to invest in an employee in order to get them to the level of being a high quality teacher. Instead, the hiring and training process focuses on producing a marketable and profit generating product.What most companies end up of doing is conducting training on the most basic of teaching methods. Along with very basic methods of teaching, a good amount of time is spent on appearance and how to `play the part` of a teacher. 

The type of above mentioned training can produce a marketable profit generating product with the proper follow up training and e-vals. Yet, the overall quality of lessons rarely live up to teaching standards of properly qualified teachers. The current situation of the English teaching field in Japan has created relatively low English speaking ability for many Japanese.  English being a major world language, not just for business but also as a commonly spoken language in general, is a vital skill for many Japanese people to attain the ability to speak English. Yet, it seems that for every one English teacher with the proper qualifications and skills, there are fifty teachers lacking proper qualifications. So, the big questions remains; how do we change this situation?

Currently, the industry does not seem willing to support teachers who want to get better qualifications and higher skill. A quick search around the web will show that there is little in the way of attaining English teaching qualifications in Japan. There are a few workshops around but they only offer things most good teachers already know.  Of course, anyone looking for get any kind of qualification in teaching English should be careful of money making scams which offer no real help at all.  They are all over the place and it is pretty clear they are a scam if you know what you are looking for.

If the industry does not want to support English teachers seeking to get better qualified, hence giving the English teaching profession more creditability, the teachers themselves are going to have it do it. The first level of qualification for anyone wanting to get more serious about teaching English is the CELTA. This entry level qualification is intensive yet worth every penny. Unfortunately, there is no way to get this qualification in Japan. Yet, another sign of the poor English teaching standards in Japan. If you are working as a English teacher in Japan, the best way to get CELTA qualified is going to Thailand for a few weeks.  An English teacher can get the CELTA qualification in Thailand in a matter of four weeks. It is one month of intensive study and practical experience which will mean a world of difference to your skill as a English teacher. There are two pretty good companies in Thailand offering CELTA qualifiactions; ECC Thailand and Cactus.

Getting more English teachers in Japan qualified up to at least the CELTA level will be a big first step in increasing English teaching standards in Japan. It will be good for the English teaching sector, good for teachers, and most important good for Japan. Hell, maybe a few teachers will be inspired to take it a step further and go for the DELTA qualification.


Melanie said...

Hi, thank you for this very insteresting post. I want to go live in Japan in a few years and even though I would like to work as a web developper I know I will probably have to teach English to pay the bills. I would like to teach French in Japan because it's my first language but the demand for French teachers must be low? I had a very good experience with all my English teachers and I would like to be a good teacher so that my students could gain not only English skills but a love for languages like I did.

TheGhost said...

There is a need for French teachers, but you`re right in the fact that the demand is low. For teaching French the best offers right now come from freelance gigs.
It is good to hear from someone who is excited about teaching. While you could most likely get a teaching gig with no qualifications, citing this post as proof, still look into attaining some type of qualifications. If will help you get a higher paying gig.

Benjamin L. Belcher said...

IMHO, Japan's poor English ability is the result of two things:

1) the ridiculously unfair linguistic disadvantage (Japanese, its huge difference in grammar and lack of articles, past progressive tenses etc.) I cannot count the number of times I hear people talk and it's so obviously a Japanese sentence pattern translated directly into English. This is huge.

2) the poor education system in regards to teaching English. This is supposedly changing in a few years though.

my 2 yen!

Orchid64 said...

A huge part of the problem is that Japanese are not taught by native speakers in their formative years. They are taught by Japanese people who are not fluent and they pass on all of their mistakes (in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation) to the students. By the time they are adults, the problems are set in stone and almost impossible to shake.

There is also the fact that the focus is not on English for actual communication, but English for test-taking. They look mainly at grammar and do a lot of translation (which often means katakana pronunciation in the future). Qualified Japanese junior and senior high school teachers are the issue, not unqualified foreigners.

Also, many people do not get the point of eikaiwa. Yes, people ostensibly go there to learn English and some are even serious about skill improvement. The vast majority though, are there to spend time with people from foreign cultures in a controlled setting. They want to be with foreigners, but not in a setting that gives the foreigner the latitude to act of his or her own accord.

By going to schools, they get to be around foreigners who are paid to treat them as customers. The foreigners are obliged to be patient, control the conversation (which allows the Japanese to be as passive as they want to be which is more comfortable for them), and responsible for the entire experience. It's the same reason the Japanese go on package tours instead of traveling on their own - someone else is responsible for making the experience a good one.

In a country as xenophobic and misinformed about life abroad as Japan, language schools serve as safe places to touch foreign culture without being too frightened. This is one of the reasons people don't improve. They don't really prioritize doing so. The fact of the matter is that true language skill improvement comes from independent study coupled with practice at the school, not the teacher's gifts at imbuing people with skills in the limited time he or she is in contact with the student. Very few Japanese people study independently because they don't really deeply care about their skill, though they claim that they do as a way of justifying attending classes. They're never going to admit (even to themselves) that they're really going there just for a chance to have psuedo-friendships with foreigners.

I have students who want to improve, but a lot of my students really just want to talk to me in a manner that they can't talk with their Japanese friends. A lot of them are more interested in having an hour of talk about a topic they don't normally discuss than practicing in a manner which improves their skills. I'm not a monkey in my classes, but I am also not a drill sergeant. Each student gets the type of lesson they want based on what they tell me they want out of it. And some of them really just want to talk about life, society, etc. with occasional correction of their English. This will never help them improve (at best, they will maintain), but it is what they want.

T. McAlpine said...

I strongly disagree with everything you wrote, and I think it's unfair for you to even question teaching standards in Japan without mentioning pay increases and better treatment of teachers.

There should be higher standards for customers and students who are serious about learning, and then we can question the teacher's committment.

TheGhost said...

You make a good point about the real reason some Japanese attend English schools. They want to be in contact with foreigners. Yet, in order to improve the overall level of English speaking ability in Japan teachers must find ingenious ways to inspire students to speak better. Providing an interesting topic which the students really want to talk about is one such method.

I am used to you disagreeing with me because you are a troll. The whole `pay us more and we will be better teachers` argument is one held by self-interested unions which care little for the overall health of the teaching sector and more about lining the pockets of its members.
Teachers with qualifications usually earn more money. This is a fact Jack!
Also, people study another language for many different reasons. You cannot judge if they are worthy of learning English. That is unethical.

poopypants said...

i think you have perhaps completely missed a big angle here. as a fellow american, i know how hard it is to get a visa to this country. with that being said, if you come here from a country where it is hard to get a japanese visa, then you are probably going to be more serious about what you are doing here.

on the other hand, the countries that have a working holiday visa setup with japan hardly have to try to get a visa. this being said, they generally aren't as serious about teaching and realize that its just a job that they can use to get funds while they are here for their short stay. there is nothing you can do about that, short of not allowing working holiday visas.

i also agree with a previous comment about the problem stemming, not from us, but from their early years when they are taught by a japanese person, typically in japanese, how to speak english. really all they are taught is what will be on the test. rote education FTL.

i remember sometime early last year the government was trying to push for all english classes through high school to be taught in english and wouldn't you know it there was a huge push back. imagine that. they have unqualified people who got a high TOEIC (did you know that 80% of TOEIC test taking is done in japan) score, so naturally their english is perfect. i think that the first problem really lies in this countries obsession with "certifications."

in my many years of studying japanese i have seen many a chinese student with a japanese speaking level somewhere in the realm of absolutely nothing pass level 1 of the JLPT. yet when you ask them a simple question like "what did you do yesterday?" the answer that comes out is nothing short of shocking. pronunciation is so bad that it still sounds like chinese, grammar is so bad that you wonder how they survived so many years in this country.

what you are asking would not only require an overhaul of the standards of english teachers, but an overhaul to their entire way of educating their students. and since its a foreigner wanting to make the changes, you would be lucky if anyone listened. hell, you would probably be arrested and deported.

Benjamin L. Belcher said...

As I alluded earlier, said push for a "change in public schooling methods of English Education" was a success, and it WILL be changing, I forget exactly 2012 or 2013. A lot old farts with steady jobs are pissing their pants about this, I'm sure.

Wouter said...

You do make a good point, but the fix is not as straight-forward. The fact of the matter is that many people come to Japan not to teach but end up doing it anyway. Many loath teaching but do it because it supports their adventure in Japan, do as mediocre a job as they can get away with and are not at all interested to learn how to become better at what they dislike.

I have been working in eikaiwa for three years, two of which I've spent in an above entry level position like yourself, and the only thing that we as supervisors can do is to try help our teachers as much joy out of their work as they can. Happier teachers are better teachers.

Another point I'd like to bring up is that many of the schools develop their own curriculum. The way it works in the company I work for is the curriculum department is staffed by the same unqualified foreigners that we have in all our classrooms. I'm sure they try very very hard, but don't know a lot about the science of learning and as a result curriculum can be haphazard. Curriculum is generally the backbone for a lesson. I think that a substantial increase in quality can be gained if schools develop or outsource the development of better curriculum.

In my modest opinion, happier teachers and better curriculum will be a good step in the right direction. Beyond that the government might want to start certifying English schools strictly.

chibaraki said...

You didn't distinguish between the many kinds of English teaching situations in Japan. There are Eikaiwa teachers, ALTs, EFL teachers who deliver the core curriculum at high schools, and international school teachers. The latter two kinds of teachers must be experienced and hold either licenses or diplomas to be acceptable to schools and agencies that hire teachers.

The lack of distinction made between these kinds of teachers, and the assumption that, because I teach English in a high school I must be teaching eikaiwa, is a sore point. Foreigners and Japanese alike do not understand that I teach the core curriculum.

You missed two huge problems with English education in schools - "yakudoku", grammar translation as taught by most Japanese high school teachers, and the lack of rigorous training in English language and teaching approaches offered to Japanese teachers. Teacher training, at least, up until recently, was a process of senior teachers mentoring juniors, and juniors copying the methods of their seniors. Nothing changes if no new approaches are introduced into the mix via scholarship through the universities. Granted, curious and determined teachers go abroad or go to night school in big centers to do TESOL MA degrees to help broaden their repertoire of teaching skills. But these folks are stymied by curricula that prevent them from implementing their ideas.

Sure, the lack of standards for foreign English teachers means that there is no motivation to improve their skills, and in turn, no change in the system. You're right that they don't help, and I'd actually say that unskilled native teachers can actually harm the students' communication ability (I won't go into that here, maybe another time). But this is a side effect of a larger broken system.

Keep writing, though! Don't take my criticism too hard. I like what you write.

T said...

I'm going to just bypass the whole blame game and what levels of English ability actually are in Japan and get to something for motivated teachers to do.

As usual, they will have to do it for themselves. Good, solid, interesting professional development will come from your fellow teachers who are engaged and looking for improvement the way you are. Teachers should look into JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching). Despite JALT's seeming emphasis on uni teachers they have a very strong focus on teaching children also in JALT Junior. (Full disclosure: I'm a past JALT officer).

Want a taste of the MA TESOL for free? Temple offers free lectures from their faculty several times a year.

BTW All of the above are also ways to improve your professional network and get a better job too.

TheGhost said...

Well, it is great to see a lot of people offering their opinion on this topic. I feel this is an issue which is not discussed enough in Japan.
There is no easy answer to English teaching standards in Japan. Any meaningful change in a positive direction will take a lot of effort by everyone involved.

sixmats said...

I agree with the formative years comments above. But I also think it has a lot to do with expectations and curriculum. Look at the plans that ALTs are asked to teach in public schools. How many weeks should it take the kids to learn to remember "good morning"?

Jim said...

Japanese speaks better english than american(or any native english speaker) in japanese.(in general)

Japanese are not good in english, because they don't have to. 99,5% of people speak japanese in Japan and almost everything is available in japanese.

I live in Canada, 73% speaks english as a first language and 23% for french.

Almost all french canadian are able to communicate at a basic level in english and more than 50% are able to work or live in english. And for "english canadian", only 1 or 2% are good enough in french to work or live in french.

French canadian aren't smarter, they have the same amount of course in the second language and french is not more difficult to learn than english. Why the results are not similar? Because it's useful to learn english in Canada and it's not really useful to speak french outside the province of Quebec and some french community.

Trust me, second language english course are not good. But omnipresence of english is a good reason to learn it. Some movies, video games, books, tv shows, products,... are only available in english. By being forced to learn english to acquired some knowledge forced french canadian(at least well-educated) to know english.

Japanese are not good(in general) in english, because they don't have to. The same reason why english native speakers are usually really bad any other language.

You can learn a language without a teacher so if the student cannot learn the language with a teacher, it's mostly student's fault. The student doesn't want to really learn the language because it doesn't seem really useful.

Anonymous said...

Well I acquiesce in but I dream the post should prepare more info then it has.

Michael said...

One of the things that constantly amazes me is running into supposed English teachers who've lived here for a decade yet haven't lifted a finger to learn Japanese. One time that serves as an example: at the immigration office I was chatting with two other English-speaking foreigners making a living here as English teachers. Neither could read any of the basics on the form (name, address). One of them had been here a dozens years yet had never learned to read hiragana. How can supposed language teachers function if they themselves refuse to engage in the language-learning process?

Thanks for posting this, it's good to see the wide range of responses.

keynix said...

Hi, very interesting. I'm agree with you in everything, so I wanted to ask, how hard can it be to get a job as english teacher in Japan? I'll apreciate your answer :) thanks beforehand.^_^

Chris said...

I'm glad the topic is getting so many responses. Good on you Freedom!

As a person who has been running a School of about 100 students for around 5 years I think the poor quality of teachers is the biggest problem.
I used to work for a dispatch company and found the whole experience to be depressing, constraining and completely unsatisfying. I was a spoke in a wheel and I couldn't add myself to the lesson without running into a problem.
Creative control is everything to me and listening to other people with inferior social/communication skills can get really annoying really fast!!

TheGhost said...

Well, the market is kind of tight right now but I am sure you could score a gig.

Having too many limits in place is a common issue for teachers who give a damn enough to be good at their job. It can be really frustrating to be locked into using one textbook with only one method.
Poor quality teachers with only cookie cutter lessons plans as their product have kept standards low for a long time.
I agree with you that creative control is a big part of being a good teacher. As your website proves, a creative teacher produces a great product and well schooled students.

andreajanik said...

Hi, thanks for the post you initiated. There have been a variety of responses which has given me some insight into the experiences others have had in Japan with a variety of English schools.

Currently my partner and I are contemplating a one year commitment to teaching in Japan but it has been difficult finding accurate and reliable information or even up to date sources. I was hoping I might ask you a few questions and I would be appreciative if you could help me out by just giving me more information.

I am currently an English/SOSE/Politics teacher at a secondary school in Melbourne, Victoria and my partner has a degree majoring in Linguistics so both of us feel that we have the qualifications to teach in Japan and of course we would have to assume we would be incredibly talented at it too ;)

I guess I am pretty naive when it comes to the notion of teaching overseas ultimately because it would be a new experience for me and I was wondering...

1. Is there a particular school/organisation you might recommend?
2. What would be the best way to secure a position for early 2011?
3. What are the chances of securing a position considering the death of those so called inefficient and corrupt organisations like Nova?
4. And I guess my last question is about the 'experience'...are you still having a great time over there and meeting a diverse group of people or is it just the remnants of the teaching abroad enthusiasts that persevered ater the 90's boom?

Thanks so much and I hope I don't sound too much like I've come out of the military. Hoping just to be informed and prepared!