|Bilingual Japanese Classroom- some teachers work hard at it|
Recent reports of TOEIC ability show that China is leading the world in not only achieving high scores on international tests of English, but also sending almost 50% of their secondary and college aged kids abroad to study. Japan, on the other hand, has been showing falling rates of TOEIC scores compared to near neighbors Korea and China as well as falling in numbers of students studying abroad. Korea is an interesting comparison as it is suffering similar social problems like a growing retired population and decreasing birthrate, as well as gender inequality. However, despite these similarities and having a population half the size of Japan's, Korea has twice as many students studying abroad and much higher scores on TOEIC and TOEFL tests.
According to the TOEFL score data from 2011, when comparing countries by non-English native language, Korea is ranked similarly to France and Spain in total score at 82 whereas China trails at 77 and Japan at 69. The highest scores are found in multilingual countries in Europe where multilingual education has been part of mainstream curriculum for many years: Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Holland, Finland and Denmark. When comparing only countries in the Asian region, Japan is in the bottom 3 of all Asian scores. The only countries ranking lower than Japan were Cambodia and Laos. On the other side of the scale, the top 5 countries in Asia in 2011 were Singapore, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Philippines- all countries where multiculturalism and multiple language education is an accepted part of education and daily life.
If living in Japan, is multilingualism a possibility? There are many failures with the English language curriculum in Japanese schools such as outdated rote teaching style classes, or teachers who can't speak English themselves and who have never had experience abroad. Japanese students in recent years have also shown less interest in studying English, studying, or working abroad which reflects poorly on the quality of English education in Japan and negatively feeds into the motivation problems. I have also heard stories of bilingual children in Japanese schools who received poor marks on English tests for writing style or technical errors while a friend's technically correct answer was incomprehensible. As a teacher in Japanese junior and senior high school myself I saw the focus in classes on techniques, not communication skills, it's a frustrating situation. I'm not sure "adding" another language to the curriculum in Japanese public schools will happen anytime soon.
Of course, there are international schools where students can be immersed in quality classes taught in English. Many of these schools also offer courses in Japanese and Japanese students at these schools often speak Japanese at home or go to Juku (cram schools) in Japanese after-school.
There are also some specialty, language focused public schools, like Funairi high school in Hiroshima city, offers language study in Chinese, Korean, French as well as English through CALL and the Language Lab. Classes are kept to 10 students and at least once a year students host international students visiting Japan as well as take part in study abroad programs themselves. In 2010, Funairi high school was presented with a certificate of excellence in communicative international education by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
However, if your child can't get into an international language focused school or you can't afford the tuition of an international school, are there are other options to consider?
Living in Japan, there are Chinese and Korean residents living in our communities. Appreciation of their language and culture by hiring them for language classes for our children is a great next step. There are online skype lessons available in English, Japanese, Chinese and many other languages also worth considering.
As we are choosing to raise our children in an international environment, it doesn't seem to take much more effort to increase their exposure and experience in various languages and cultures and make them more prepared for a successful future in a global world. So bilingualism may or may not be enough to guarantee future success, but it certainly seems like a functional communication ability in more than one language is certainly an asset for kids growing up in Japan.
The Daily Yomiuri- The Language Connection: features, editorials and news reports focusing on language education in Japan.