English Language Crisis
This year Japan welcomed a new era in its history. From Heisei to Reiwa, as it stepped into the new era, Japan started preparing for a big change, from politics to education, from technology to business.
The strategy plan “Japan Vision 2020 highlights “Strengthening foreign language communication“¹ as the key element for Japan to become competitive in the rapidly changing international community.
For quite some time, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) has been ardently attracting overseas students and English-language teachers to ensure an education environment which corresponds to globalization. Back in 1987, with great hopes and expectations, it started the well-known Japan Exchange and Training (JET) recruitment program.
For close to half a century now, the initiative of bringing college students (mostly native speakers of English) to Japan as Assistance Language Teachers hasn’t had a significant impact on people’s English proficiency level. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, Japan is ranked 37th in terms of its (classified as low) proficiency.
In a way, it seems like the strategy of importing native English speakers to Japan to educate English is not producing the desired effect. In the meantime, Japan’s rapidly aging population coupled with its low birth rate has resulted in another major national concern – significant labor shortage.
The answer Japan is seeking to its manpower shortage lies in the development of robots to fill various jobs. Specialized robots are being designed to serve a wide range of applications – from assisting the elderly to educating the people. On a side note, given the shrinking, gaining population crisis, making “Caregiving” an official school subject might not be such a bad idea after all.
What the Future Holds
Wouldn’t it be great to predict the future? Can you imagine how would classrooms and classes look like 50 years from now?
With the rapid progression of technology, the teaching and learning of English (if necessary at all in the presence of high-tech language translation devices which may end everyone’s language barrier issues forever) would take on a whole new meaning.
Gone are the days when teaching English was restricted to building students’ communication and literacy skills.
Schools are no longer interested in English teachers per se. Schools are looking for teachers who can use the English language to prepare the children of today for the world of tomorrow.
Learning English nowadays is not seen as an end itself, but as a means to an end that of nurturing children’s curiosity, creativity, and problem-solving skills.
Though not as utopian as it sounds, the humanoid robot “Pepper” and all its clones would soon pepper the classrooms of schools and will be fully in charge of teaching English to learners of all ages.
Although English-teaching is a highly valued skill-set, new technologies foster the impression that English teaching as a profession will become extinct in a short time.
Still, do not take my words with a pinch of salt and rather do some research on how technology is transforming the way education works. The world is gradually moving away from the traditional classroom student-teacher interaction and adopting a tech-mediated system where technology improves the engagement and facilitates the transfer of knowledge.
Students have easy access to virtual classrooms, course content, videos, assignment and can achieve distance e-learning independently. With artificial intelligence and virtual reality students from all walks of professional backgrounds and from all corners of the world get a chance to interact with the real world through virtual platforms. Due to these technological advancements and the availability of alternative sources, the importance of teachers is gradually diminishing.
I can’t help but wonder what would teaching look like in the future? Coding and programming? Maintaining and controlling robots? Creating portals and platforms with educational content? Progressive and proactive schools have already started responding to the feedback in the internal (such as the aging population) and external environments (such as the rapid technological and scientific advancement).
The inevitability of the new order is about to loom into sight especially in the context of Japan. Consciously or not, Japanese incorporate in their conversations an increasingly large number of the so-called English borrowings – English words that have been “Nipponized” such as カフェ (Kafe) compared to the original word きっさてん (Kissaten) for “Coffee shop”. Along with western holidays, concepts, and ideas, English is gradually being imported into Japanese culture and it won’t be too long before it becomes the dominant language. Even my 3-year-old students have picked up on the trend and instead of using the Japanese word that stands for soft aka やわらかい (yawarakai), they skillfully make use of the word ソフトー(sofuto) introduced through ソフトクリーム (sofuto kuriim) when describing soft things in their native language.
The English teachers of today do not have the luxury of choice, the privilege not to deal with the twilight of the field we work in. With no offense, we cannot afford wasting our talents and skills in a dying away industry. While it is still not too late, and there is the possibility, we might need to start moonlighting in preparation to evacuate the profession.
Paradoxically, the education industry in Japan is responding quite slowly to the demands of the new technology-centered structure. English teaching positions (and the skills and competencies required to execute the tasks) haven’t been reworked based on the new technologies. The majority of jobs entail teaching English per se with the use of old-school practices – songs, stories, and chants while outside of their classrooms children live in a highly digitalized world.
The Era of Creativity
What can educators do in addition to giving way to technology to alter the entire education landscape? How do we prepare ourselves for the new era and how do we prepare our students for their future? It is as exciting as it is frightening.
“We are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.”
The children of today need encouragement to create so that they can construct the world of tomorrow.
What artificial intelligence and virtual reality cannot accomplish is nurturing students’ curiosity and helping them develop creativity, along with problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills.
Creativity is the foundation of many valuable skills that can be transferred across education. It is primarily about thinking – creative thinking – a skill still foreign to Artificial-Intelligence education.
I know that even the greatest amount of creativity can’t help us design a crystal ball or any sort of fortune-telling object but it’s crystal clear that learning a foreign language will become obsolete in the near future. With the right algorithms, I suspect it won’t be too long before engineers program robots to produce the conditions for creative learning.
A couple of years down the road the field of study Language Arts will have Arts as its end and Language as it means. And the change needs to grow from the classrooms of the youngest students.
Designing an umbrella
Designing a hat or a cap
Designing a pair of glasses or a bag
Designing a toy or a game
Designing a cellphone or a telephone
During our first semester kids freely choose what they want to make. Creations ranged from rockets to motorcycles, from maracas to PlayStation. Starting our second semester, I assign students what they need to make (usually an item we find in our school environment or an item we learn about from our GrapeSEED components) out of recycled materials. During our Show & Tell time everyone shares what they have created. If someone’s project falls short of achieving its purpose, we think collaboratively how to add an extra element or feature to make it work. With minimum guidance, kids come up with astonishing ideas and have tons of fun presenting and demonstrating the outcome of their work.
- Hashimoto, K. & Nguyen, V.T. (2018) Professional Development of English Language Teachers in Asia, Lessons from Japan and Vietnam, Routledge