Education politics should consider reasons to learn English

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Students learning English by playing a card game.

Takao Yamamoto is a master of active learning in English. Changing students’ pair work partners like a folk dance, the 52-year-old teacher inspires them to learn by themselves while having fun. When he was teaching at a public high school, this method helped his students pass the Eiken English proficiency test and succeed on entrance examinations. The results were so remarkable that teachers from all over Japan came to see his classes almost every day.

When he moved a few years ago to Nitobe Bunka Junior & Senior High School, a private school where he now teaches, many of his techniques did not work. “I tried English picture books, games, chants and all the other techniques, but in vain,” he confesses in his book, “Manabi no Mirai Chizu no Egakikata” (“How to draw a learning map to the future”). The students seemed to be wondering, “Why do we need to learn English?” and this proved to be the reason for his failure. In schools where students and teachers work together for better results on entrance exams, that would have been enough. But in his new school, passing entrance exams was not sufficient motivation to study English.

Why do children have to learn English? The government and the ruling parties want children to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to survive amidst the ongoing globalization of the economy and society.

The need to adapt to globalization had already been recognized at the time of the Ad Hoc Council on Education in the 1980s. Around the turn of the century, English was taught in elementary schools as part of sogo gakushu (integrated studies) to encourage international understanding. Current education reform was spurred by the “Lehman shock” of 2008, as many companies suddenly began to look for global human resources. English proficiency was considered essential for global human resources, and the expansion of English education accelerated under political leadership.

A lot of people used to study English in order to enjoy traveling abroad, but that is not necessarily the case anymore. Travelers can now use inexpensive pocket translators that can handle not only English, but also French, German, Southeast Asian languages and many others. Websites in various languages can be converted to Japanese at the click of a button.

One of the reasons I was assigned to write a column for The Japan News is because of my English language skills. As a reporter, I spent days thinking up questions in English to interview kings, presidents, prime ministers and world-class intellectuals. When the interviews were over, I spent more days listening to the tapes, transcribing them, translating them into Japanese and writing the articles.

But now it’s different. I don’t have to think in English or listen to English tapes and struggle with listening comprehension anymore. Artificial intelligence does most of the work for me.

Just recently I interviewed a French scholar in English for a series of articles on digital textbooks. I used web conferencing software installed on a company-issued computer. I clicked on the subtitle button so that the English the French scholar spoke was displayed through voice recognition as text in a corner of the screen in real time. The language of the voice recognition could be switched between options including American English, British English and Australian English. I asked the scholar which English he spoke to make sure; he answered, “American English with a French accent.” I chose American English and it worked very well. The automatically saved subtitle data was translated into Japanese with a single click using the AI translation function built into the word processing software.

According to the new National Courses of Study, which were implemented in elementary, junior high and high schools from fiscal 2020, students are to learn the four English skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking in a balanced manner. If you consider the availability of AI tools, you should change this balance, giving for example higher priority to reading so that students can gauge how well their AI tools are working. As experts pointed out even before AI translation came along: If you can read, you can handle the rest of the four skills.

Some say we may have to review the teaching of the Japanese language, because without a sufficient command of one’s mother tongue, the proper use of AI tools may not be possible. We may have to increase the class hours for Japanese language at schools. In junior high schools, Japanese language education is given 140 hours per year in the first and second years, the same as English, and 105 hours in the third year, which is less than English.

In the process of revising the National Courses of Study, which I covered as a journalist and took part in as an expert member of the Central Council for Education, AI was not taken into consideration for English education. Programming studies were introduced because of the rapid development of AI technology. But when it comes to English education, experts thought AI translation was not good enough for practical use at that time.

As you may know, now we have pocket translators and other devices that are sometimes referred to as “AI interpreters.” In some schools, these high-tech devices are already being utilized in international exchange studies. Students can use various free translation software with PCs and tablets provided to ensure education amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Since the failure of active learning, Yamamoto has tried to spend more time on having his students draw a road map to their future every so often, giving them a sense of how they will need English along the way. Some say on the map that they want to interact with people from various cultural backgrounds, while others want to see foreign movies without the help of subtitles in Japanese. No matter what the motivation is, they enjoy learning English by themselves, using textbooks, dictionaries and AI translation, which they are taught how to use in advance.

Politics always has a crucial role in determining the framework of education, especially for English. The Council for the Creation of Future Education, chaired by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and comprising ministers and experts, recently finalized its first education reform proposal. It is mainly for universities and lifelong learning, which are expected to be driving forces for the future of Japan. I hope the way children learn English in the AI age will be discussed more for the next proposal.

To train tough negotiators on the global stage is not the only objective of English education.

Children may find various reasons. If they are motivated to learn English for their own reasons, they will have a wider range of choices and the path to the future will be brighter.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Makoto Hattori

Hattori is a staff writer in the Education News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.