The “Lowe-down” on English language education

No one knows the Asian educational publishing market better than John Lowe. He was recruited by Thomson Publishing (now known as Cengage) in 1994 to head up their newly established English language learning division from Singapore before moving to Tokyo to act as their Sales and Marketing Director for Asia between 2000 – 2007. How does Japan compare to the rest of Asia in their English language learning (ELL) education? Beacon Reports spoke to John to get the ‘Lowe- down’.

According to John, the major ELL publishers divide Asia into three distinct markets. The Northern Asian market of China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea collectively represents 90% of overseas ELL publisher’s sales. The former British colonial territories of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia represent a smaller bilingual market, although Pearson and Oxford University Press both have a thriving school business there. The newly industrializing Southeast Asian territories of Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand make up the third market. Because of its significance, this article focuses exclusively on the Northern Asian ELL market.

While Japan withers, the peoples of China and Korea are catapulting ahead in the study of English. The number of Chinese and Korean students collectively studying in the United States more than doubled between 2000 and 2011 from 105,626 to 231,000. Those of Japan halved from 46,497 to 21,290.

John has experienced these trends firsthand. “When I first started selling books at Thomson in 1994, we used to sell the same number of books at an elementary level in Korea and in Japan. After about 10 years I was selling more high-level books to Korea than I was to Japan. This suggested to me that the Japanese were not improving their English language skills.”

John cites a number of reasons Japan is the laggard at learning the language of international business, ironically at a time when the country’s future growth opportunities lie in foreign markets. First and foremost he believes the Japanese do not aspire to learn English as a communicative tool. John also notes that whereas in Korea, China and Taiwan, learning English leads to career enhancement, the opposite can be true in Japan. He also points to the failure of the Japanese educational system that he believes encourages rote learning rather than mastery over the language. John recounted, “When I interviewed students entering English language schools, I would ask, ‘Why do you want to study English?’ Students would often reply, ‘Because I want to travel abroad’ or ‘I want to be able to speak to foreigners’ or ‘I want a hobby.’ The basic thing about Japan versus Korea, China, and Taiwan is that English in the latter is perceived as a career enhancement where mastery of the language can lead to English speakers earning up to 30% more in salary. In Japan, on the other hand, a proficient English speaker is not guaranteed to earn more or to progress within the company.”

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Indeed, John felt that companies he taught at in the 1980s were slightly suspicious of students who spoke English proficiently. Company employees who had lived in New York or London and had not been brought up in the Japanese way, were often not seen as real assets by the company. They were put into minor departments; they weren’t seen as the real vanguards of that company. If you look at the background of most business leaders and politicians in Japan, they have gone to the same elite Japanese universities, be it Tokyo, Waseda or Keio. John believes stigmatization holds the Japanese back from going abroad to learn the language. This is a similar view aired by David Satterwhite, Executive Director of the Japan-United States Educational Commission’s Fulbright Grant Program. Satterwhite was recently quoted by the Nikkei Weekly as saying, “Because companies start their recruitment process early, more and more students think that studying abroad could give them a disadvantage in their job search.” Satterwhite added, “Despite all the fuss about globalization, there are many companies that do not appreciate the value of overseas experience very much at the time of hiring.”

With Japanese students concerned about job prospects, it is not surprising that students are focused more on passing the English reading and writing university entrance exams rather than on learning the English language as a communicative tool. John said, “Within the Japanese state school system, English is presented as if it were a grammatical problem that needs to be solved.” Also, he believes that teachers within the Japanese state schools are not proficient in English. “How do you expect students to become proficient in English,” asks John “when teachers were educated in the same state system?” As a consequence, the level of verbal skills upon graduating from high school are low. John believes it is not until students enter university that they begin to study English as a communicative language.

One major difference between Japan and other North Asian countries is that in the latter the parents perceive English to be an aspirational language. In thinking back to the 1980s, John recalled that Koreans and Japanese were at the time similarly proficient in English. “The entrance exams and schools systems were much the same in Korea as they were in Japan,” John said. The difference, he noted, was that “Korean mothers ensured from a very early age that their kids learn and become proficient in English by investing a lot of money in private tuition. This is reflected in the current size of the private language school sector, which has grown quickly in Korea.” About 3 million Korean children take private English lessons, whereas in Japan the number is roughly half that.

In China, English is also an aspirational language. John noted that by the mid-80s the Chinese government had realized that English was an important tool for globalization. In 2001, it introduced a new curriculum into the state schools. This opened up communicative language learning to the masses, even though the level of English language teaching was poor. To supplement state school education, middle-class Chinese families in urban areas have invested heavily in private English education for their offspring. “Under China’s one child policy,” John said “where up to six pockets (two parents and four grandparents) invest in the next generation, as much as 25% of disposable income has been spent on children’s English education. This caused a massive explosion in the studying of English. In China, Thomson didn’t sell any books until the year 2000. After that, the business in China exploded. Now when you go to China in the big cities, everyone wants to speak to you in English. In Korea it is much the same. But in Japan, there’s still a reluctance to speak English.”

There is a growing awareness that Japan needs to improve the language skills of its people. With its shrinking population and lack of domestic demand, Japan has no choice other than to seek growth from overseas markets. That means working with non-Japanese, often in the English language. “I think there is a growing awareness of the need for change in Japan,” John opined. “The Japanese government has introduced English into the elementary schools with a greater desire to improve English skills. But the introduction of English into grades five and six last year is not going to be enough. Thirty five periods per year of extra study is not going to turn Japan in five to six years time into a nation of English speakers.” John could well be correct. In 1997 South Korea made English classes compulsory from the third grade as did China in 2001. In comparison, Japan remains the laggard.

John Lowe is Managing Director of Mosaic 8 and an independent consultant to the English Language Learning Industry. John works with companies like Hit Entertainment, The History Channel, Cartoon Network and Guinness (Book of World Records) to sell their products and leverage their brands.


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