English in the school system
Students in Japan are required to study English in junior high school for 3 years from ages 12 to 14. Starting in 2011, 10 and 11 years olds will also attend 35 hours/year of English courses. Currently schools provide 736 hours of English study per student on average, from elementary school to university graduation. However English is not a required subject in senior high schools and universities so the actual number of hours per student is highly variable according to the school and the degree program.
English proficiency is tested as a core subject on high school and university entrance exams. Many teenagers attend private tutoring centers because the level of English knowledge required for placement in prestigious high schools and universities is more advanced than can be attained through the public system alone.
In Japanese public schools, English is taught by single-subject teachers with university or college degrees in English. Thousands of native English speakers also teach English in junior and senior high schools as assistant language teachers (ALT) through the government sponsored JET program.
18% of Japanese teenagers attend vocational high schools where they earn qualifications in agriculture, fishery, elderly care and other professions. English is not required in these programs. 16% of senior high school graduates go on to vocational colleges, which may include industry-specific English training as a part of degree programs in tourism, airline, hotel, and fashion industries.
English at Work
English is not a requirement for most employees in Japan. However, as the 5th biggest exporter in the world, English is becoming more important in many professional environments, especially in internationally expanding industries such as motor vehicles, electrical machinery, and transport equipment. Based on a 2009 survey, 51% of companies in these industries have departments that use English regularly.
Many Japanese companies recognize English as a job qualification. According to a 2009 survey conducted by IIBC, 50% of companies take candidate’s English skill level into consideration in job applications. English is now used as the corporate language in leading automotive industries and retailers, such as Nissan, Uniqlo and Rakuten, although the practice remains controversial.
Culture and Attitudes towards English
Today, English is most often associated with modernization and trendiness in Japan. The Japanese are exposed to English on a daily basis, through advertisements, radio programs, songs, and films. It is becoming increasingly common to see bilingual singers, actors and news presenters such as Hikaru Utada, Yuna Ito & Kane Kosugi. Many English phrases have been adopted in Japanese and are used conversationally. Globalization and a positive attitude towards Western culture contribute to the recent popularity of English-language media and imported products.
Due to recent pop culture successes and economic ties, there are today more Japanese people learning Korean and Mandarin than previously, however, English remains the dominant foreign language.
Despite the daily exposure to English, Japanese people generally hesitate to use English as a communication tool. This is partly because of the educational system, which focuses mainly on grammar and reading rather than speaking and listening. Japanese people are also known for their sensitivity to hierarchy and politeness. They hesitate to speak out in an unfamiliar context, afraid that they could unintentionally give offense.
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