A Compare and Contrast of Two EFL Programs from Opposite Sides of the Pacific

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in the land of non-English speakers, the English speaker is a teacher. This simple maxim is what makes it so easy for native English speakers, ink still wet on their four year degrees, to live abroad for a spell and gain an international-experience stamp on their resumes.

Most of these would-be teachers come from backgrounds far removed from pedagogy; business majors, journalism majors, and of course the dreaded philosophy major. They put on their teacher costumes for a year or more and find themselves, ever so easily, in front of a class full of students who are eager to acquire that ‘golden ticket to future success’, the English language. But what happens next? That all depends, naturally, on a variety of factors; but invariably, the effectiveness of this education will rely strongly on the culture of the area in which it takes place, as well as the ability of the educator.

I’ve been privileged to have experienced teaching English as a foreign language in two disparate situations during the past two years. In 2012 I taught English literature and grammar at a bilingual school in rural Honduras. Now, I teach oral communication and composition at a senior high school in rural Japan. The language education methodologies of these two schools are similar in some respects; however the language proficiencies of my Honduran and Japanese students are as different as are their cultures.

In the next few paragraphs I’ll explore these similarities and differences and maybe shed some light, from my personal experiences, on how this army of non-educators, and the cultures of these two very different regions affect EFL education. Or if no light is shed, at the very least I’ll open a dialogue on the topic.

Bilingual Education at a Honduran School

English language education doesn’t have a long history in Latin America. For a country like Honduras, Spanish speaking nations stretch thousands of miles in all directions; where is the motivation to learn a language other than Spanish? It’s not a new thing that English comes to certain parts of the world slower than others. Regions are slow to adopt English language education usually due to suspicion (it will tarnish the native language or culture) or due to lack of necessity, as in Honduras’ case. Whatever the case may be, the unequal distribution of English can lead to an unequal distribution of power. Honduras has perhaps detected this unequal distribution because more and more English language schools and programs are recently emerging. The school for which I taught, for example, was less than six years old.

Despite English language education being in its toddler years for Honduras, and in its infancy for my particular school, the students in my classes were incredibly adept at speaking English. Here’s why:

  1. The majority of students enter the school in the early primary years (the school encompasses kinder through high school) and are therefore exposed to English from a very young age.
  2. Being a true bilingual school, over half of the classes (math, science, world history, etc.) are taught entirely in English, by native speakers. This gives the advantage of students having advanced English language skills but with the caveat that their knowledge in the content of the courses taught in English often being sub-par.
  3. The school is located in an extremely small town and students encounter teachers frequently outside of the classroom, putting them in situations to use English authentically and purposefully.
  4. Latin America has a culture of interpersonal interaction and communicativeness which lends to language learning.

I taught at the lower secondary level and I would describe my students speaking and listening abilities to be high-intermediate to advanced. Their reading comprehension and writing ability was slightly lower than what it could have been given the amount of education they’ve received but it wasn’t horrible. So we can see that the above four reasons can be a formula for success in language learning, but the pedagogy also had plenty of room for improvement. Take a look at the following impediments.

  1.  Of the 16 native English speakers who taught alongside me, only 2 had prior teaching experience or a degree in education. The curricula, lesson planning, and methodology were entirely up to the individual teacher, experienced or not. The classic misunderstanding of many English teacher recruiters is that the ability to speak English at a native level also means you can teach it.
  2. A lack of quality materials leads to poor teaching methodology. Compounding the lack of teaching experience among the native speaker recruits, they are also given outdated or otherwise limited textbooks to work with. Often these textbooks are the only materials they are provided with and therefore the only thing they have to inform their teaching method in the classroom. Therefore, Grammar is taught explicitly, phonics is modeled after native speaker pronunciation models, and communicative activities are non-existent.
  3. Students who are admitted at post-primary grade levels often don’t have any English abilities at all. They are given a 6 month intensive EFL course and then placed in the classroom alongside students who have been using English for years. This creates classrooms with huge gaps in between the abilities of students and with teachers who don’t know how to deal with it.

These are typical drawbacks in EFL scenarios, yet despite these drawbacks, my Honduran school graduates students who can communicate in English incredibly well. One student even obtained a scholarship and is at a university in Florida. In the end, the mindset of the Honduran students is that English is necessary to succeed. This is not the case for my Japanese students however, so let’s take a look at them.

EFL at a Japanese senior high school

Japan has a long history with English language education, opposite from Latin America. The Japanese adopted English as their primary foreign language in the late 1940’s, and today have many programs in place that aide in the development of their English language curricula and teaching methodologies. You would think that with this experience and continued development, that Japanese students would be experts in English. This is not the case. The Japanese system suffers from the ailments that affected my Honduran school but with compounding issues. Let’s put this in list form:

  1. Japan also recruits from a pool of inexperienced educators; however these teachers are almost never given their own classrooms. They are put in the role of assistant and work with a Japanese teacher of English who decide how to utilize them, if at all. This results in the English classes being taught mostly in Japanese.
  2. Although Japanese textbooks and other teaching materials are more developed and are specific for Japanese EFL classrooms they are not geared toward communicative ability, but toward grammatical competency. Japanese university entrance exams focus mainly on grammar, very few have speaking components so teachers and students alike see little reason to speak English.

There are also several successful aspects of my Honduran school’s system which are non-existent or underdeveloped in Japan:

  1. Students don’t begin receiving English instruction until late primary school, and even then it’s just a few hours a week, in classes that are English language specific. As mentioned earlier, my Honduran school taught half its total curricula in English, starting at the kindergarten level.
  2. There is practically zero exposure to English outside the classroom. Japanese students spend hours at school, not just in classes but in club activities that go into the evening hours and even on weekends. What little free time they have is spent with their friends or families, speaking Japanese.
  3. Japan has a culture of group uniformity and togetherness which has at least two influences on language learning. One, is it makes all things foreign categorized differently psychologically, making it difficult to fully adopt another language. The other, is that students who may be naturally skilled at English will not exercise their skill because they don’t want to stand out.

In teaching senior high school, I’m getting the students who are graduating; the final products of the Japanese compulsory education system. I would evaluate them to be, at best, high-beginners in English speaking and listening, with reading and writing perhaps slightly better. None of the 200+ graduating students this year decided to pursue a higher education abroad, nor would they have been prepared to if they had decided on it. This is due in part to the fact that many Japanese businesses recruit solely from Japanese universities, and many students feel that a foreign university might hurt their chances of getting a good job in Japan. Both those businesses and the students are seemingly not considering international employment opportunities or the other strengths of bilingualism in English.

Why is all this important?

Let’s take a quick step back. It isn’t fair to compare a private bilingual school in Honduras to a national curriculum in Japan. Private bilingual schools are small, profit making enterprises; Japan’s English education system affects millions of students across thousands of schools. However, both entities have room for improvement, and looking at the English abilities of their graduates, Japan has more room. Yet although eager for improvement, Japanese students and teachers are like chips, mired in a cultural dip that slows their progress toward change.

But what changes can, or should, be made? Some of the issues affecting English language Education mentioned above are very difficult to change; the grade level at which students begin learning English for instance. But the more serious of ailments mentioned above have a simple cure: textbooks geared towards grammar, and lack of effective teaching methodologies can both be alleviated by a skilled and qualified English language educator. All English language institutions, Japan’s especially, need to stop hiring people to teach English merely because they are degree holding native speakers of the language. Fish are expert swimmers, but notoriously bad at teaching people how to swim.

In the end the responsibility always lays with the individual. The individual teacher is responsible to ensure they’re qualified to give the students the education they need and deserve. The individual hiring entities, to make sure they are giving their students a qualified teacher. And of course, the individual students are responsible to be active participants in their education.