In Japan, English education was first introduced at the nation’s primary school level in 2002 as a means to promote global understanding. Now, the language is compulsory for fifth- and sixth- graders under the revised teaching guidelines that were implemented in April this year. Under these guidelines, the goal of English education at primary school is defined as helping children “become familiar” with the language, mainly through listening and speaking. Therefore, no official textbook subject to the screening system has been produced, and teachers do not grade but just evaluate their students. In line with this goal, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has encouraged primary schools to take advantage of ALTs in the classroom. According to a survey conducted in 2008 by the ministry, 67% of English classes at primary schools were taught by ALTs. In principle it is the responsibility of local governments to secure ALTs. However, it is difficult for them to assign one ALT to every school because of the financial burden of hiring such assignments. Faced with this situation, the ministry has changed its stance over the use of ALTs. It now encourages homeroom teachers to conduct English classes, and merely says it is “certainly effective” to include native speakers in the classroom, but that they “should play a supporting role” for homeroom teachers. At the same time, the ministry has distributed to primary schools CDs and other audio materials featuring authentic English pronunciation so that primary school teachers can teach English lessons even when no native-speaking assistants are available.
On the other hand, the financial trouble has caused another serious problem of bad labor condition of ALTs. There are three ways for ALTs to work here; direct employment by local education committee, JET program which is promoted by the government, and hiring by temporary agencies. Among those, last one is worst for ALTs. Dispatched ALTs can be fired without any particular reasons, and their salaries are lower than other foreign workers. Sometimes they suffer from illegal contract between temporary and local education committee. It is said that not a small number of ALTs go back because of this bad situation though they love Japan.
In my opinion, Japanese government and local government should do their utmost to assign ALTs to as many classes as possible. I think it is exactly important for small children to communicate with people from other countries. If children can make themselves understood in English to people from abroad, such actually experiences can help them develop an interest in the language. Moreover, we should arrange the condition of not only securing but also accepting ALTs in Japanese society. One of my friend, who is a 22-year-old man from England, wants to become ALT and is about to do from next year. His dream will come true. I’d like more and more people like him to come to Japan to teach us the joy of learning the language and culture.
By Chisato Morito