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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 for four years at state primary school in Japan. 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 in Japan at that time and the decision whether teach English or not was left to teacher's discretion. Hence there were significant 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. It seems reasonable to start English education in primary levels, with regarding to other countries in Asian and Europe which foreign language education starts to be taught in primary level. However, since MEXT announced the start of FLA, the new concept of FLA came under the spotlight and multifold arguments were provoked.
In this international and global society, what makes people to oppose foreign language education? This is the reason that made me choose this topic. Actually, these arguments are closely associated with the historical background of English education in Japan. This paper does not discuss whether FLA should be taught or not at primary schools, but rather what are the needs for FLA to work properly by analyzing what changes will be brought by FLA.
For these reasons, this paper firstly focuses on the historical background of English education to make clear about the roots of these arguments. Then, it explores the arguments themselves and compares the advantage and disadvantage brought by FLA. It is also analyzed here that the proposed FLA and 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:iv-v cited in Seargent 2009:45). Therefore, the importance was put into the reading comprehension skills.
However, internationalization and globalization necessitated a change 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, 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 reading comprehension and grammar.
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 not fare to compare just 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 was considerably low. For these reasons, the improvement in Japanese English education has been claimed more and more recently. The new curriculum 'FLA' will start in this time of period and that is why FLA came under the spotlight.
The arguments over FLA
The opinion 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 cannot 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. It rather imply the hints to the improvement of FLA, therefore they will be discussed in the next part. 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) points out 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, it can be said that the learning foreign language in early age does not disturb acquiring the mother tongue.
The opinion for FLA
Although there are various anti-FLA arguments, many people support FLA. They insist that 'in the future Japanese people will need English language skills and also new way of leaning the language' (Ohashi: 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 percent of parents are positive for FLA. Furthermore, Japanese business communities also strongly support FLA at primary schools. 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 FLA curriculum ant the textbook
Analyzing the curriculum
As observed above, there are significant demands for FLT not only from parents and business communities, but also for change the English education systems because of the Japanese lack of ability in English. In this part, what the aim for FLT is and what government intended for FLT will be examined by analyzing FLA curriculum and the textbook.
As long as seen the new curriculum, the mighty effort of the government can be seen in the new curriculum, the Course of Study to make the curriculum to attend these demands for the English education.
For example, according to the national curriculum published by MEXT, the FLA overall objectives as follows:
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. 2009. English version)
Firstly, as clearly stated 'Communication ability', it is important for FLA to use foreign language as a communication tool. As discussed 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 repeats 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.
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 communication ability, pupil's experience and the attitude for understanding languages and cultures.
These features are specialized in FLA and these are the one of the challenge by government for criticism of the previous English education.
Analyzing the textbooks
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 the textbooks in Japan, so this is the special treatment to 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 textbooks consist of almost all pictures. These are rather workbooks than textbook from the perspective that pupils can write down, draw and paint, which are not seen in the textbook in secondary and high schools.
Second feature is that the textbooks suggest various activities which make the situations that pupils have to communicate with others. For instance, in lesson5, 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. Taskbased, contents based 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, Japanese, French, Chinese and Korean.
What is more, it is encouraged for pupils to find the similarities and differences between 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 the pupils know the interest aspect as a language. For example, 'English Notebook' (p.46) picked up Chinese 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 written as 'æµ·æ˜Ÿ' in Chinese; 'æµ·'means ocean, 'æ˜Ÿ'means stars. Because Japanese language have some Chinese characters in common, the Japanese pupils understand what 'æµ·' and 'æ˜Ÿ' means. These activities, which cannot be seen in previous language learning textbook in Japan, probably catch pupils' interests 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. This 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 is 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 carefully-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 is the changes government challenge to the English education in Japan.
As seen above, FLA has entirely new curriculums and for that reason there is large expectation. It can be said that the FLA is one of the new endeavor for English education in Japan. However, due to its new and unique aspects, there are some recommendations for FLA to make it more effectively.
Firstly, FLA should be secured as a subject. As MEXT announced, FLA is not counted as a subject and MEXT told the reason that FLA should not be scored by the examination. It may reflect 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 to teach FLA. Although government started to training, it is only limited for teachers who interested in FLA. As the criticism, it is fact that teachers in elementary schools have not trained teaching languages, because the previous teacher trainings were just focused on the subjects which were taught in primary schools. FLA is the new curriculum, therefore new training are needed. Moreover, it is also necessary that readjustment of teacher training course in universities. It is not required how to teach languages at primary levels at the presence, but it should be also required to learn how to teach FLA as the way of teach in other subjects are taught.
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 the materials and the contents of textbooks. Unfortunately, due to the change of policy caused by the changes 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, government should rethink about the budget on FLA. Actually, many people opposed for the reduction of FLA budget, government may be forced to rethink 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 challenges 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 pointed out, most of which, however, is the hardware side, not FLA curriculum itself. In other words, anti-FLA arguments gave the hint for improving the FLA such as teachers training.
In this paper, the proposed curriculum and the textbook were also analyzed to make clear what government aimed for FLA. MEXT emphasized again on the communication ability in the curriculum and textbooks, 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.
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