Foreign Language Activities In Japanese Primary Schools Cultural Studies Essay

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The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) of Japan published the new national curriculum, 'the Course of Study' in 2008. According to it, 'Foreign Language Activities (FLA)' will start from 2011 academic year, to fifth and sixth grades at primary schools. Because Japan takes highly centralized education system, the contents of national curriculum are obligational to all the schools whether state or public. Foreign Language has been taught from secondary schools in Japan, so teaching at primary schools will be the first time in Japan. Therefore this new curriculum of FLA commands many people's attention.

I have taught at a state primary school in Japan for four years. Although primary school teachers in Japan teach all subjects such as Japanese, mathematics, science, P.E., arts and music, I have been highly interested in English education. Unfortunately, English was not in the curriculum at primary school level at that time and the decision whether teach English or not was left to teacher's discretion. Hence there were considerable gap depends on teachers, schools and prefectures. This is one of the reasons that the Japanese government started to consider about the English education at primary school level.

With regarding other countries in Asia and Europe, which foreign language education starts to be taught in primary level, it seems reasonable for everyone to agree with the start of foreign language education at the primary level. However, since MEXT announced the start of FLA, the new concept of FLA came under the spotlight and multifold arguments were provoked.

Despite such an international and global society, what makes people to oppose foreign language education? This is the reason that made me choose this topic. This paper does not discuss whether FLA should be taught or not at primary schools, but rather discuss what is necessary for FLA to work properly, by analyzing what changes will be brought by FLA.

Actually, these arguments are closely associated with the historical background of English education in Japan. For these reasons, this paper will firstly focuses on the historical background of English education to make clear about the roots of these arguments. Then, it will explore the arguments themselves and compare them. It will be also analyzed here that the proposed FLA curriculum and the textbook published by MEXT.

Admittedly, 'Foreign Language' does not mean English directly. However, MEXT published the material textbook named 'English Notebook' for FLA. As its title mentioned not 'Foreign language Notebook' but 'English Notebook', 'Foreign Language' in this curriculum virtually means 'English'. Therefore this paper will treat "Foreign Language" as "English".

Analysis and Discussion

Historical background of English education in Japan

The present English education system in Japan derived from the system in 1947, after World Warâ…¡, as 'the School Education Act' and 'the Fundamental Low of Education' were established. Since then English has been taught in compulsory education, not primary schools but secondary schools and high schools. At that time, due to 'the history of Japan's relative isolation from English-speaking people, the English usage was largely limited to the translation' (Koike 1978 cited in Seargent 2009:45). Therefore, the importance was put into grammar and reading comprehension skills.

However, internationalization and globalization necessitated changes in the curriculum. Seargent (2009: 50) mentions that 'the Reform Act of curriculum in 1989 and 2002 was the most important innovation for English language education, in the perspective of the rise in importance of Communicative language education'. Yoshida (2003) takes similar view to Seargent, arguing that the Ministry of Education have been put importance on communication in the national curriculum, the Course of Study. He also points out the problem lies in the English education system. According to him, 'the entrance examinations have a strong influence on the way foreign languages are taught in Japan'. There are also listening and writing in the entrance examination for both high school and university entrance examinations, the importance has been putting on grammar and reading comprehension skills.

Actually, it is said that Japanese students learn English for a long time but cannot use it as a communication tool, compared with the other countries. For example, ETS TOEFL (2006: 10) shows that the average total score of Japanese TOEFL-iBT test takers was 65 and, in comparison with other Asian countries, Japanese find themselves at the foot of the table. Admittedly, it is just partial for comparing the scores, because the number of Japanese test takers is large and it is often pointed out that not only the people who plan to study abroad but also who are not interested in English take TOEFL in Japan. However, still with regarding it, the scores of the Japanese were considerably low. For these reasons, the improvement in English education has been claimed more and more recently. The new curriculum 'FLA' will start in this period of time and that is why FLA came under the spotlight.

Comparing the arguments over FLA

The opinions 'against' FLA

As discussed above, FLA is the totally new curriculum for the English education in Japan. Therefore the various arguments have provoked. This part will focus on the arguments which support and against FLA in order to analyze the feature of FLA.

As Ohashi (2008) states, the dominant insistence among anti-FLA is that secondary school is the appropriate time to start foreign language learning. Several reasons were raised; early foreign language learning may cause the pupils to demotivated in learning foreign language at an even earlier age than what happens now; a mere two years of study at elementary school would not make much difference, and that the introduction might distort elementary school education and make the language learning situation worse. What is more, some criticize the ability of elementary school teachers. Due to the system in which a classroom teacher teaches most of the subjects at Primary schools in Japan, teachers are not specialized in English despite of the fact that the secondary school adopts subject-based teacher assignments. They, therefore, insist that elementary school teacher should not teach English.

The important point here is that most anti-FLA arguments are based on the teaching flames and contents such as the approaches to the teaching, the curriculum and the teacher training. While, there is the other argument which criticize not the teaching flames and contents but the start of FLA at primary level.

Seageant (2009: 16) states that the concept of English language in Japan has specifically with Japanese values, that is, the idea that the foreign language may jeopardize the mother tongue and identity as Japanese, has been broadening among the Japanese. However, as recent research shows learning foreign language in early age have merits rather disturb acquiring the mother tongue. For instance, the research of bilingualism by Bialystok (2001) shows that the bilingual pupils are better at language analyzing ability and metalinguistic ability, compared with the monolingual. Thus, these issues that the learning foreign language in early age does disturb acquiring the mother tongue are not reasonable excuse to against the start of FLA.

The opinions 'for' FLA

In contrast to various anti-FLA arguments above, in fact, there are many people who support FLA. They insist that 'in the future Japanese people will need English language skills and also new way of leaning the language' (Ohashi: 2008: 26) and they are also skeptical about the way of present English teaching, referring to the fact that the Japanese people's lack of ability to communicate in English. According to him, some people who are for FLA also believe 'critical period' or 'sensitive period'. However, these concepts have been under the discussion and still vague, therefore these are beyond the scope in this paper.

As seen several major arguments above, FLA is a still controversial topic. The interesting things here is that the parents of pupils are quite approval towards FLA. The survey by Benesse: the Research institute for Education Development (2007) indicates that 76.4 percents of parents are positive for FLA. Furthermore, Japanese business communities also strongly support FLA at primary schools. As Gottlieb (2005: 69) indicates the fact that the business world in Japan 'begun to link career progression with mastery of English', acquiring English language is quite important for the business communities. In other words, there are high expectations for FLA. Next part, the proposed FLA and textbook will be analyzed to examine how much FLA can measure up to these expectations.

Analyzing the proposed the FLA curriculum and the textbook

Analyzing the FLA curriculum

As observed above, there are significant demands for FLA not only from parents and business communities, but also from the change of English education systems because of the Japanese lack of ability in English. In this part, what the aim for FLA is and what government intended for FLA will be examined by analyzing its curriculum and the textbook.

As long as seen the new curriculum, the mighty effort of the government can be seen in the new curriculum. For example, according to the national curriculum published by MEXT, the FLA overall objectives as follow:

To form the foundation of pupils' communication abilities through foreign languages while developing the understanding of languages and cultures through various experiences, fostering a positive attitude toward communication, and familiarizing pupils with the sounds and basic expressions of foreign languages. (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology - Japan. 2009b.)

The overall objectives can be divided into four parts. Firstly, as clearly stated 'Communication ability', it is important for FLA to use foreign language as a communication tool. As we saw above, Japanese government has emphasized on communication ability for latest 4 decades in secondly and high schools English education, however, the results do not show the improvements of the Japanese communication ability. Therefore, the government repeated the emphasis on the importance of communication ability in FLA again.

Secondly, government stated that not only the understanding of language but also the understanding the cultures are important for FLA. It was also emphasized that these understandings are supposed to be acquired through experiences, not desk studies. These ideas are clearly appeared in the textbook, so it will be also observed in the next part; 2.3.2 Analyzing the FLA textbook.

Thirdly, the attitude toward communication was also one of the objects in FLA. Fostering the attitude toward communication is also emphasized in the other subjects at the primary school level. That is, this is not only achieved by FLA but still government showed that it is necessary when learning languages.

Fourthly, it, the most related to the language acquisition, is that familiarizing pupils with the sounds and basic expressions of foreign languages. The important things here are that government does not mention about specific grammar or specific ability to reach in FLA curriculum, but emphasize on familiarizing pupils with the sounds; that is listening and basic expressions; that is speaking.

To sum up, the overall objectives emphasized in the FLA curriculum is that communication ability, pupil's experience, the attitude for understanding languages and cultures, and listening and speaking. These features are specialized in FLA and these are the one of the challenges by government to the criticism of the previous English education.

Analyzing the FLA textbook

The MEXT also published the textbook, called 'English Notebook' when announced the new curriculum. Usually, MEXT just announce the curriculum and it is private sectors that publish textbooks in Japan, so this is the special treatment for FLA granted by the government. Actually, the huge budget and the time were put on the project to draw up the 'English Notebook', which has several unique aspects.

First unique feature is that the textbook consists of almost all pictures. These are rather workbooks than textbook from the perspective that pupils can write down, draw and paint. The another reason that the textbook are full with pictures is that probably government emphasize more on listening and speaking than writing and reading.

Second feature is that the textbook suggests various activities which make the situations that pupils have to communicate with others. For instance, lesson5 in English Notebook, the situation of shopping, pupils are required to choose what they want to wear, by saying colors and the name of cloth such as T-shirts and pants. These task-based syllabuses are widely adopted in the whole textbook, which may enable pupils to communicate with others and to experience the real situations required to speak English.

Third feature is that not only English but also the other languages are dealt in. For example, when pupils learn how to count the numbers in English, the way of counting in other languages are also introduced such as Spanish, French, Chinese and Korean (MEXT: 2009a. see Appendix#1). In this lesson, it is also encouraged for pupils to find the similarities and differences between the ways of counting in several languages. This is reflected the feature of objectives in FLA curriculum to developing the understanding of languages and cultures.

Furthermore, it contented the topic which let pupils know the interesting aspect of a language. For example, 'English Notebook' (MEXT: 2009a. see Appendix#2) picked up Chinese language when they teach some English vocabulary, such as 'starfish'. The word 'starfish' can be divided into two words 'star' and 'fish'; 'star' came from its shape, 'fish' came from the creatures which lives in ocean. As well as English, starfish is in Chinese written as '海星(starfish)'; '海'means ocean, '星'means stars. Because Japanese language have some Chinese characters in common, the Japanese pupils understand what '海(ocean)' and '星(star)' means. Therefore pupils may notice the similarity of language between English and Chinese in this activity. These activities, which cannot be seen in previous language learning textbook in Japan, probably catch pupils' interests of learning languages effectively.

Moreover, another new aspect of English Notebook is that government encouraged teachers to use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in FLA, which is defined as 'the technology used to manage information and aid communication' (Elston 2007). At the same time the 'English Notebook' is published, the DVDs were distributed to each school. These DVDs were designed to use with electric whiteboard. It matches 'English Notebook' and can provide audio with illustration and pictures when just touched on the screen. It also includes chants, listening activities and the examples of students' expressions. It was criticized in the arguments that elementary school teacher's ability of English teaching, so this is also designed to help teachers at primary schools who are not specialized in English.

Overall, the curriculum and the textbook of FLA are established with careful studies by the governments, based on the lessons and reflections from the arguments over English education and FLA. There are multifold features such as communication based contents and the practical use of ICT. Hence, it can be said that the FLA will bring the big changes to the English education in Japan.


It has been discussed and analyzed FLA in the previous parts that the FLA can be one of the new endeavors for English education in Japan. However, due to its new and unique aspects, there are at least three recommendations for FLA to enrich its activities.

Firstly, FLA should be secured as a subject. As MEXT announced, FLA is not counted as a subject at present. As MEXT explained, this is because FLA should not be scored by the examination. It may be reflected the criticism that the examinations have been put importance on reading comprehension and grammar and it showed government's intension that FLA should not be put importance on them. However, the position as non-subject is unstable in the regard to its future. It is also concerned that teachers depreciate FLA because of its non-subject aspect.

Secondly, teacher's trainings are necessary for FLA. Although government started to training, it is only limited for teachers who are interested in FLA. As the criticism discussed above, it is fact that teachers at elementary school have not trained teaching English, therefore new trainings are needed. It is criticized by Neustupny et al. (2004) that the government has been attentive to the need for a reform of English language teaching, but the reforms do not necessarily change the teacher's way of thinking. In other words, 'all attempts by the government have so far been lukewarm and unsuccessful' (ibid: 21), because of the lack of teacher trainings. Hence, the teacher trainings are momentous for the new curriculums of FLA to work it properly and effective.

Thirdly, the budget for FLA should be kept as high at least in the next few years, because FLA is the new attempting and need to review its materials and the contents. Unfortunately, due to the conversion of policy caused by the change of major political party in 2010, the budget of FLA has decreased dramatically, and it has fear of crumbling at FLA's foundation. It is the important time for FLA to improve its contents, so the government should rethink about the budget on FLA. Actually, many people opposed for the reduction of FLA budget, government may be forced to reconsider about the budget.


This paper has highlighted what changes will the new curriculum FLA bring about in Japan, with regarding to the historical background of English education and the FLA arguments. Historical background of English education suggested the reason why FLA is still highly controversial and revealed the roots of FLA arguments.

FLA was one of the new conversion for the English education in Japan because the present English education system is forced to be improved in the perspective of Japanese people's lack of English communicative ability. The FLA has been supported by scholars, parents and business communities, while the problems of FLA have also been recognized, most of which, however, are the teaching flames and contents, not starts of FLA itself. In other words, focusing on the points raised as a criticism rather will give us the hint for improving FLA.

In this paper, the proposed curriculum and the textbook were also analyzed to make clear what government aims for FLA. MEXT emphasized again on the communication ability in the curriculum and textbook, and the various measures for the new attempt can be seen in them such as the practical use of ICT and the attractive introductions for language learning.

As discussed, however, there are some recommendations such as FLA should be secured as a subject. Actually, MEXT announced that FLA was considered to be introduced not only fifth and sixth grades but younger grades too. It can be said that the changes that FLA brought to the English education was considerably big and the possibility of FLA in the future is also highly expected. FLA is one of the keys for Japanese to activate in international and global society. (3141words at present)


Benesse: the Research institute for Education Development. (2007). The basic survey of English education at Primary schools. Online. Acailable from: (Accessed on 18 August,2010)

Bialystok, E. (2001).Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, & cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge university press.

ETS TOEFL. (2006). Test and Score Data Summary for TOEFL Internet-Based Test : September 2005-December 2006 Test data :Test of English as a Foreign Language. Online. Available from: (Accessed on 17 August, 2010)

Elston, C. (2007) Using ICT in the primary school. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Gottlieb, N. (2005). Language and Society in Japan.Cambridge: Cambridge university press

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology - Japan. (2009) Eigo Noto (English Notebook) . Tokyo: Kyoiku syuppan

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology - Japan. (2009) Gaikokugo Katsudo, Gakusyu Shido Yoryo (English version of Foreign Language Activities. In the Course of Study). Tokyo: MEXT. Online. Available from: (Accessed on 10 August, 2010)

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Yoshida, K. (2003).Language Education Policy in Japan: The Problem of Espoused Objectives versus Practice, The Modern Language Journal, 87(2), 290-292. Online. Available from : (Accessed on 10 August, 2010)


Appendix #1

Sample activity from the FLA textbook (English Notebook 1: p.17: lesson3).