The approaching 2020 Olympic Games have raised the stakes for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dream to be realized: to make significant inroads for English in classrooms and homes. But the road to that dream is full of potholes.

Little interest in the language is not the sole concern—though that is a considerable problem—but the very institutions under which it is taught, according to The Japan Times.

English is given little importance in school entrance exams, which weigh heavily on grammar and translation with no speaking component.

“It’s all about getting into university,” said Paul Underwood, a professor at Toyo Eiwa University. “How can you convince schools to adopt a more communicative approach that might potentially reduce the numbers getting into universities? Why bother changing?”

In classrooms, English is taught by teachers who lack the appropriate skill. Moreover, teaching materials used are as old the curriculum being followed.

“The Japanese teacher goes into the classroom and sings a song or plays a CD, and it’s not proper English teaching,” Rober Aspinall, a professor at Shiga University, said.

Some of the problem stems from a lack of real speaking experience on behalf of the Japanese teachers—an issue that may be partially addressed by new standards that will require English teachers to study abroad. However, another problem stems from the fact that native English teachers frequently don’t speak Japanese, or are not allowed to speak Japanese in class, which can make it more difficult for students to understand.

“The native teacher didn’t understand the students’ questions and the students didn’t understand the teacher’s English explanation, so the students stopped paying attention,” Miki Nakayama, a Tokyo mother of four said after observing her son’s English class.

A curriculum that jumps from one thing to another without taking into consideration the difference in level of each student has often created confusion in the classroom.

“Students have no need to speak English, they do not feel it is important and there is no downside to not studying,” Michael Sherwood, an ALT who has been teaching English in Japan for 11 years, said. “Most of the students get 20% on vocabulary quizzes. They are allowed to sleep in class.”

Parents’ sentiments on the matter are no different, with many saying learning English is a complete waste of time.

“It’s like they are dancing in English. Honestly, I felt this was meant for kindergartners. It’s like an additional recess period,” Tomoko Inoue, mother to a junior high school student in Osaka who observed a class where students were taught the English alphabet.

By Maesie Bertumen

Image: Bunny Bissoux