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The Ill-Considered Reform of Japanese University Entrance Exams

Abe Masahiko [Profile]

[2018.07.13]

Following the reform of Japan’s university entrance examination system in 2020, private-sector organizations will conduct the tests of English language ability that form a key element of the exams. Speaking is one of the skills to be tested, and some assert that its inclusion will lead to improvement in Japanese people’s ability to communicate in English. But such hopes are unlikely to be met. The very idea of treating “speaking” as a skill that can be taught separately is flawed.

A Reform That Will Profit the English Teaching and Testing Industry

Japan’s university entrance examination system is scheduled for an overhaul in 2020. The planned changes in English-language testing are a particular target of attention. English is one of the subjects included in the National Center Test for University Admissions, but under the new system seven private-sector English tests are to be used instead. Third-year high school students will be able to choose a test and take it either once or twice during the period from April (when the school year begins) through December. Supporters of the reform assert that it will lead to an improvement in students’ English ability because unlike the current test, which they say is tilted toward reading and listening, the private tests measure all four basic language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. They are particularly enthusiastic about the addition of speaking as one of the tested skills, believing that this will produce a dramatic rise in usable English competence.

If one considers the matter, though, these assertions are suspect. How is the introduction of a new testing system supposed to lead to greater competence even though there are no particular plans to change the methods of instruction? The only significant new feature that will accompany adoption of a “four skills” approach will be the addition of a speaking-skill section. And the formats of each of the seven private-sector tests follow set patterns. Both students and teachers are likely to concentrate on preparing for the test the students will take, using methods tailored to achieving quick gains in scores, and relegate conventional English studies to second place. With this sort of focus, the tests are highly unlikely to promote “usable” English ability; on the contrary, they are liable to cause competence to decline. Furthermore, the organizations that operate the tests also sell collections of sample questions to help students prepare. And there are reports that the rival organizations have started to compete with each other for examinees by inflating their scores. This hardly seems like a picture of fair testing.

Frankly, the adoption of the “four skills” concept is little more than an excuse for getting private-sector organizations involved in the testing process. The division of language capabilities into four categories is just for convenience; when we use English we are not relying on four different parts of our brain. And the idea that just having a speaking test will lead to speaking ability is an illusion. If students are required to practice speaking for a test, they will get tense and find it harder to speak. Furthermore, the reliability of the scoring system is poor. What we should actually be aiming for is not an outdated system of teaching separated skills but a system of integrated learning with students’ own interests and choices as the core.

Some media reports suggest that collusion was a factor behind the move to involve private-sector organizations in the testing process—collusion between Shimomura Hakubun, education minister from 2012 to 2015, and businesses involved in teaching and testing English. A number of individuals involved in the English testing business were in fact members of the government panel that deliberated the introduction of private-sector testing as part of the university entrance examination system. This policy, which seems to have been adopted to advance the interests of particular organizations, is riddled with faults and should be ended immediately. But the lack of proper direction in our country’s English-teaching policies is also due in part to our own deep-seated misconceptions regarding the language-learning process. We must recognize and correct these misconceptions. Otherwise, even if we manage to improve the contents of the upcoming reforms, we will run into similar problems in the future. And we will be unable to improve students’ English abilities or to achieve greater international competitive strength. In what follows I will address one misconception in particular: the illusion of speaking ability as something that can be studied and acquired as a distinct skill.

The Postwar Boom in English Studies

When universities were first established in Japan in the early part of the Meiji era (1868–1912), instruction was conducted by foreign teachers speaking in foreign languages and using foreign texts. Japanese translations of the teaching materials did not exist, and so foreign-language instruction was the only option. I might ironically note that it was in this period that Japan was more “global” than ever before or since.

Eventually, though, the situation changed. University textbooks and reference materials were translated into Japanese, and Japanese-speaking instructors became qualified to teach university classes. It thus became possible to pursue academic studies in Japanese. Scholars devoted great efforts to the creation of Japanese terms to express foreign concepts. And through the processes of translation and conversion, the Japanese developed the intellectual ability to relativize Western culture and consider matters from multiple perspectives.

As Japan developed a new culture of its own, however, English-language learning was adversely affected. The availability of translations and the use of Japanese as the medium of instruction reduced the motivation to learn English. And as university attendance became more widespread during the decades preceding World War II, increasing numbers of students ended up taking English classes without any special motivation to master the language. Even during the Taishō era (1912–26) some people were questioning the point of learning English and suggesting that universities close their English departments.

During the war years English was banished from the curriculum as an enemy language, but after the war American culture took Japan by storm. The desire to learn English grew, but the number of people who actually needed to know the language did not increase all that sharply. People feeling a vague attraction to America’s language flocked to the language schools that sprang up, inflating a bubble of sorts in the English-teaching industry. And though the shape of the bubble has changed over the years, it remains in existence to this day.

English as a “Cool” Product

People in Japan nowadays talk about the rapid progress of globalization. And this globalization is often taken to mean the use of English. But occasions requiring the use of English in the course of people’s everyday lives are still relatively uncommon. This is probably the biggest reason for the general lack of English ability among Japanese people.

In countries like India, the Philippines, and Singapore, which were formerly under English-language colonial administrations, and which continue to use English as one of their official languages, the ability to use it is much more widespread than in Japan. This is because people have needed to know it well in order to achieve social status. But in Japan, where no such need has been present, it is hard for people to get seriously committed to learning English. And the amount of time devoted to English instruction—about five hours a week starting in junior high school—is inadequate. Furthermore, in a country like Japan, where all official systems are operated in a single language, it is hard for people to develop the habit of switching between languages. Even if they know some English, without opportunities to use it they cannot put their knowledge to work.

This is the state of English language ability in Japan. Tinkering with the entrance examination system will not change it. Interestingly, though, Japanese people consider English to be “cool.” It has achieved the position of a poorly understood but vaguely longed-after consumer good. People think, “It might be nice to know English”—a sentiment rather similar to the desire to own brand-name products that people feel only after seeing them advertised.

The Japanese own all sorts of consumer goods, but few of them have acquired English competence, and so such competence has rarity value. The demand for it is based on casual acquisitiveness. Meanwhile, the bloated English-teaching industry is struggling to sell English as a product, doing whatever it can to improve the image of what it is offering. And now some of the organizations in the industry have gone so far as to join hands with politicians in reforming the university entrance exam system.

Listening Comprehension Is More Important than Speaking Ability

We really need to reconsider the basic question of why students take English as a school subject. And if they truly want to acquire competence in the language, we must also ask what “competence” refers to. Note that people who say they like English have various different interests and strong points. Some like to read English, and others like to write it. Some like to study vocabulary, and others enjoy working on their pronunciation.

Regardless of this diversity in actual students’ motivations, when we talk about competence in English, we generally think not so much about the ability to read or write as about the ability to speak the language fluently. The sort of scene that tends to come to mind is one of somewhat lightly dressed people sitting on a sunny lawn and chatting with each other cheerfully in American English. This is the image of “beautiful English conversation” that we have come to hold.

As consumers we are susceptible to the appeal of this sort of image. But those who actually need to use English for their work or in their research must patiently devote themselves to the solitary tasks of studying vocabulary, practicing listening comprehension, and reading aloud. It is no use to focus just on speaking. The biggest hurdle for most Japanese is probably listening comprehension. You cannot have a conversation unless you can grasp what the other person is saying and respond appropriately. But since the phonetics of English and Japanese are very different, it takes considerable practice for Japanese to understand normal English speech. Japanese who study abroad all have a hard time with this. So this is the area to which the most time needs to be devoted.

But the biggest appeal of English as a brand-name product is the idea of leaping straight into “beautiful English conversation.” This image was popularized back in the 1980s, during the go-go years of Japan’s bubble economy. And people in their fifties, who came of age back then, are now drawing on this image to promote their message that tests of speaking ability are of prime importance for the university entrance exam system.

Dim Prospects for Improvement

One of the advocates of prompt reform of the entrance exam system is Mikitani Hiroshi, chief executive officer of Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce giant that has made English its official language for internal communication. Mikitani and some other Japanese executives complain that the English taught at school is no use on the job. But the primary objective of English studies at school is to teach the vocabulary that serves as the core and foundation for building competence. There is naturally a limit to how much students can learn. It is unreasonable to expect them to master the words used in every situation by the time they graduate from high school. So they must work at enlarging their vocabulary in line with their own needs, adding words to the basic core that they have learned at school. Even if the exams are redesigned to look like tests of “practical English” that will give students the ability to use the language from day one when they start working, their studies will be in vain unless they have gained a firm hold on the core vocabulary. And they need to supplement their classroom studies by spending large amounts of additional time listening to and reading English.

In order to speak English well, it is also necessary to be able to grasp situations, to imagine what others are thinking, and of course to have things to say. But the promoters of the overhaul of the exams slated for 2020 have delivered a mistaken message, namely, that people can learn to converse in English just by doing superficial speaking drills. This is truly irresponsible. In fact, “speaking” should not be considered a distinct skill that can be separated from other forms of language competence.

It is not right for a major policy change relating to English-language education to have been based on the agenda of a small group of insiders. Part of the responsibility is ours, for permitting this to happen. And implementation of the reformed examination system will do nothing to change the fact that few Japanese are good at English.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 31, 2018. Banner photo: Staffers hand out devices for students to use in the English listening comprehension portion of the National Center Test for University Admissions held at the University of Tokyo on January 13, 2018. © Jiji.)

  • [2018.07.13]

Professor in English at the University of Tokyo. Born in 1966. Studies British and American literature and reviews general literature. Graduated from the Faculty of Literature at the University of Tokyo and received his master’s degree there; earned his PhD at Cambridge University. Has held his current position since 2001. Won the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2013 for Bungaku o gyōshi suru (Staring and Literature). His other works include Shijō saiaku no Eigo seisaku (The Worst-Ever English Policy), Shōsetsuteki shikō no susume (Understanding Japanese Fiction: Some Notes and Insights), Eishi no wakarikata (An Introduction to Poetry in English), and a Japanese translation of The Magic Barrel collection of 13 short stories by Bernard Malamud

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