Is ESL in Japan a big joke?

According to an NHK report in 2000, Japan has the largest commercial English language education market in the world, valued at $20 billion. So, you would expect most Japanese to be fairly proficient in English, right? Wrong! Official TOEIC figures for 1997-1998 showed Japan to have the lowest average score among the 17 countries in which TOEIC test taking is most popular.

As an ESL teacher in Japan, I should consider myself fortunate that people are willing to spend so much money on learning English. I wouldn’t have a job otherwise. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t take pride in teaching my students to speak the language. After all, that is what they are paying for, right? Wrong again, it would seem.

Time and time again, I hear of students frustrated about using the textbook too much in class, or having too much homework, while many simply forget to do their homework completely. Remember that in most ESL schools in Japan, students only take one class a week, so common sense would suggest that if they really wanted to learn English, they would take their lessons seriously and devote some of their free time to self-study.

Okay, fair enough, a lot of adults just study ESL as a hobby. Hey, it’s cool to tell their friends they study English, regardless of whether they are learning anything or not. But how about children? Surely the parents are paying these huge fees so that their sons and daughters can learn English. Well, that’s debatable.

You’ve got two kinds of schools in Japan, the English Conversation eikaiwa schools, and juku, or cram schools. Eikaiwa are where the foreigners like myself teach, while juku are heads down, study, study, study, Japanese teacher-led classes. Although English lessons at juku focus soley on reading and writing English, I always thought that eikaiwa were equally important for learning communication. Now, though, I’m changing my mind…

After disciplining one of my elementary school students for atrocious behaviour, his mother kicked up an enormous fuss.

“This isn’t a school!”, she said. “We don’t pay this money for you to discipline our children! They come here to have fun! If I wanted my child to learn English then I’d send him to juku!”

Well, that knocked me for six.

The next couple of days I walked around shell-shocked. If I’m not supposed to teach English, then what am I here for? Why did I bother studying to be a teacher? Do all the mothers feel this way? Why have I spent the last few years developing a curriculum to teach English, when I should have just pulled out a copy of 101 Great Games for Kids?

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the boy’s mother is right, and I should not worry about teaching, and just have fun with the kids instead. I mean, from a business point of view, going head-to-head with the grammar and vocabulary-based English curriculum of juku is a no-win situation, as the Japanese will always consider juku as real education. Instead, I think I’ll just go in the opposite direction altogther and play game after game after game, perhaps throwing in a bit of English here and there just to appease the teacher in me. Who knows, maybe the kids will have so much fun, none of them will ever want to go to juku!

As things stand however, until high schools, universities and companies start requiring English communication skills over the ability to read a book and memorize 10,000 words, Japan will continue to produce the most educated yet worst English speakers in Asia.

If you like, you can find me on Twitter at @nick_ramsay. I'd love to hear from you!

9 thoughts on “Is ESL in Japan a big joke?

  1. in malaysia secondary (and some primary) school students tend to go to tuition classes during non-school hours on weekdays+weekends, so i can quite understad the concept of ‘cram school’. though we don’t exactly implement cramming like crazy during the sessions. =P

    however, concerning the teaching in english issue, it fascinates me to find a person who is so dedicated in teaching. i have some teachers who just do it for the money/no job they are qualified for and they do it without passion. it doesn’t give a good impression on the subjects they teach, which is vital because i tend to be picky abotu stduying ^_^;; .

    anyhow, i’m glad that you’re passionate in your job.

    btw, i’m a stranger on the web that has stumbled upon your blog from blogsearchengine.com because i was bored.

    oh, and i’m currently doing my foundation, and after this i might be taking TESL. i think your blog is pretty helpful in understanding the workings of a student’s mind. ^_^ hope to see updates often! see ya around. =)

  2. Thanks for the comments Zaty.

    “i have some teachers who just do it for the money/no job they are qualified for and they do it without passion.”

    I think a large number of ESL teachers are simply here for the experience of living in Asia. Teaching is just what they do to earn their keep and pay for their travels. Of course, during the interview process they’ll claim to be passionate about teaching, some may have even gotten qualified, but only to help them get that job abroad. I just feel sorry for the students.

  3. Hi Nick just found your site and find it very interesting! I was looking for info about mortgages etc, and read your experiences. I think i would have kicked and punched the bank “manager” instead of the poor lift..!

    I had a similar experience to you, but from the opposite end. Parents were asking their kids, “what did you learn today Tomo??” “I dunno.” “But what did you do in class?” “We played games…”
    So they’d go and complain that their kids were playing too many games, and not learning english. And Buggins here got it in the neck!

    1. Ain’t that the truth! Then when you play less games, the kids tell their parents the class is boring, so the mums ask for more games! Viscious circle.

  4. You are right Nick, English in Japan is a joke, and everyday I live here it makes me laugh. It used to bother me but now I just play the game like you. And as long as they pay me each day who really cares right. I guess the bottom line is the only thing Japanese people are failing at is TOEIC, which is useless outside of Japan. Maybe this is why my Australian dollar now buys 106 yen;-) Long live English in Japan and long live TOEIC, and thank you America for keeping the Japanese people illiterate.

  5. I agree with you. I hold a bachelors degree and masters degree in second language acquisition and teaching, plus a few years teaching under my belt. But managing (not my own school though) a small eikaiwa school is a real balance between entertainment and education, and a fine balance between a school and a business.

    I wanted to move some of the students to different classes, so they were in classes all of a similar age and learning level, working on the same textbook (god knows when I came here why there were 3 different textbooks in use in the same class). When I explained to the mother about more scaffolded learning and challenging curriculum for her daughter, she threw out the idea, because the two other students in the class were her friends children. She didn’t care about educational outcomes, just wanted to have coffee time with her friends while they were all ‘learning’ English.

    So, I studied for 6 years to become a babysitter….

    1. Thanks S, I know exactly where you’re coming from and you have my sympathy. Another equally depressing angle is that to those mothers, you’re no different from any other foreigner “teaching” English in Japan. They don’t know (or care that) you’re more qualified than the rest, so all that’s left is to work at being the kids’ favorite babysitter and try to find some satisfaction in that. Better still, get a university job or start your own school and employ your own teachers (easier said than done).

  6. What’s not been mentioned here is the effect of the factory eikaiwa that turn all the parts of the system, students, teachers and the J-staff in to wholly replaceable parts of a machine that simply process money. After all, it was never in Nova’s interest to have their students actually learn anything. After years and years of this as the dominant model of English exposure, it becomes what is expected. It wasn’t, as was shown by the rapidity of its demise, built on continued learner attendance either, but instead on a constant new stream of students. So there is a get out clause if the learner benefits fall short and the students move on (I wouldn’t suggest that there isn’t pressure to keep students mind you, only that the business model accommodates a turnover level that other countries would probably find surprising, though there are many other aspects of the TEFL industry in Japan that would surprise outsiders too).

    The most popular teacher I worked with would simply come up with a new game, usually based on throwing something, possibly then hitting it and shouting, that he would work through all his classes that week. Then come up with something new the next. Hell, I wanted to be in his class more than my own with reticent OLs biding time before the ikebana class down the hallway…

  7. Not that much of a difference in Indonesia, although formal ESL lessons usually start in grade 3. It’s mostly rote learning about two times a week, sometimes interspersed with short reciting lessons. The gap in aural learning is usually patched up by pop culture: songs, movies, games etc.

    Indonesians, too, in general would love to think they speak alright English. Spoken Indonglish rates somewhat more discernible to the average English native speaker. I do think that it’s generally down to English-language pop culture influences and useof Latin alphabet that makes communicating in English easier for most Indonesians (as opposed to the average Japanese, who would have to overcome vastly different syllabic pronounciation systems AND another writing system to be able to communicate in English.)

    As for myself… I’m one of those overprivileged kids who had weekly eikawa lessons with an overseas-educated tutor starting from grade 3 (formal ESL lessons started at grade 7 back in those days), attended about 3 two-hour English language class taught by native speakers every week in junior high, and got sent overseas to study at 14. Even then, I still got a language shock as English changed from “a language I used in classrooms” into “a language I can’t escape from using”.

    Encouraging a love of learning and reading will definitely help. Do cram schools use overly formal texts that students seem unable to ‘connect’ and be interested to learn the language? Can students in eikawa lessons relate what they are learning by speaking and listening to what they are reading? If the two types of English language learning (reading/writing v speaking/listening) can be synchronised, maybe students will be able to make better sense of both lessons.

    note: I taught English literature to native-speaking students back in my ‘brainy academic’ university days (if that adds up to anything), and found it extremely irritating many of them couldn’t spell properly. I don’t think it’s a second language thing; I do the same with pretty much every other language I communicate in. I guess that makes me pedantic.

    note #2: girls may have an easier time because their brains are better predisposed towards learning languages… no gender-based attacks here, just plain ol’ science.

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