Are 'advanced' Japanese language programs sustainable? A look at Australia, New Zealand and Singapore

Carol Hayes, Nakane Ikuko, Nagisa Fukui, Masanori Nagami, Masayoshi Ogino, Emi Otsuji

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Economic, strategic and cultural connections to Japan have never been stronger and more students across the breadth of our education system, primary through to tertiary, continue to be interested in studying Japanese. But what, beyond Demon Slayer and Pokemon, motivates them and how can that knowledge help universities to build effective and engaging language programs? Japanese is one of the most popular Asian languages taught at tertiary institutions around the world. According to the Survey Report on Japanese-language Education Abroad 2018 (Japan Foundation, 2020), the number of learners outside Japan reached 3,851,774, the second highest on record, and the number of institutions and teachers was the highest since the Foundation’s 1979 survey. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, enrolment in Japanese language subjects has remained relatively strong, even in 2021. Oceania (the majority from Australia and New Zealand) has the highest number of learners per 100,000 population globally. However, as the authors of this article, we have become increasingly concerned about the sustainability of advanced Japanese language programs in our region—specifically Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Language education policies (at the governmental and institutional level) and diminishing investment into language education in the higher education sector have put many Japanese Studies/language programs under strain. Advanced-level subjects generally have lower enrolment numbers than beginner- and intermediate-level subjects, and so are most at risk of being merged, cut back or dropped altogether. According to the US Foreign Services Institute (FSI), Japanese is considered to be one of the ‘super-hard languages’ that require English native speakers three times as long as French or Italian to attain ‘professional working proficiency’. This means that without students’ long-term commitment (retention to advanced levels) and well supported, quality education, there can be no sustainable future for Japanese language programs producing highly advanced users of Japanese in those nations. Against this backdrop, we recently launched the Network for Teaching Advanced Japanese Project (上級日本語Network), supported by a Japan Foundation Sakura Mini Grant 2020. This project provides a platform to collect data through surveys and interviews to better understand the current state of advanced Japanese language programs at university level in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, and advocate for communities of practice and ongoing support across the sector. This collaboration involves countries that are members of the Commonwealth. Not only are their universities’ medium of instruction English, but they also share similar program structures. The Network for Teaching Advanced Japanese Project approached colleagues from universities in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore in 2020, gathering data on Japanese language programs at 25 institutions in total (Australia 19, New Zealand four, Singapore two). In total, 76 participants responded to the survey and among those respondents, 38 teachers (34 from Australia, two from New Zeland and two from Singapore) participated in online interviews between December 2020 and January 2021. Our survey results show that the ‘advanced’ level was broadly defined by: the stage of progression at the institution, a proficiency level equivalent to external criteria such as the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages; and the demonstration of specific skills through engagement with types of learning activities or resources (eg progression through language textbooks). What emerged from this is that there is a disparity in what is categorised as constituting the ‘advanced level’ within different institutional frameworks. Although this may seem merely a comparison with European languages these definitions have significant impact on institutional support for Japanese language. If institutions only support languages through to what we as teachers define as intermediate then it becomes harder for us to graduate advanced users of Japanese. We found that there are subjects with similar content and resources (for example the same textbook) that are called ‘advanced’ by some universities and ‘intermediate’ by others. It is common practice that in a three-year university degree program, students who start as beginners can progress to an ‘advanced’ level in their final year of study, but in many cases, realistically speaking, this ‘advanced’ level of study is nevertheless perceived as an ‘intermediate’ level of language acquisition by tertiary teachers of Japanese. The majority of students from the institutions we surveyed usually have three to four hours of class per week (five to six hours at most) during the semester or term. This gives them an average of around 100 class hours per year, and a total of around 300 over their three-year university degree program. It is clear this is insufficient when compared with 2,200 class hours deemed necessary to reach ‘professional working proficiency’ for Japanese in the aforementioned FSI estimate (for French and Spanish 600-700 and for German 900 class hours). It should be noted that ‘class hours’ here may assume that language learning does not occur beyond the classroom. Thus, the need to take account of the fact that tertiary students in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore increasingly engage in language learning outside the classroom, for example doing online tasks as part of a blended-learning curriculum, watching Japanese dramas or participating in in-country studies. Our project also found that there is a tendency for the teaching of Asian languages to be adapted to the framework used in the teaching of European languages. It is for example, common practice for universities to offer Levels 1 – 6 in each language with Levels 5 – 6 defined as ‘advanced’. This ignores the fact that students progress differently in different languages. The proficiency level reached by students in Japanese language programs at the official ‘advanced’ level may well be behind those in European language programs. All three countries involved in this project—Australia, New Zealand and Singapore—operate in an English-speaking context associated with the UK tradition of language education which may explain why European languages (which share the Roman alphabet based writing system with English) tend to be privileged in the institutional frameworks. There has been enthusiastic promotion of Asian language education (including Japanese) by the Australian and New Zealand governments since late 1990s, and the ongoing social commitment to multiculturalism. Australia, for example, has released several strategic plans such as the National Asian Language Studies in Australian Schools Strategy (NALSAS, 1995-2002) and recommendations on Asian language studies in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper (2012). The New Zealand government implemented the Asian Language Learning in Schools (ALLiS) program in 2014, and have committed to a total of $10 million over five years, aiming to support schools by setting up new Asian language learning programs, or strengthening existing ones. In Singapore, mainly in response to industrial demand, the Ministry of Education established their Foreign Language Centre in 1978 to offer couses of French, German and Japanese for secondary school students (the Centre expanded to Ministry of Education Language Centre to offer language couses in wider age groups). Universities and polytechnics in Singapore also established Japanese language programs from the1980s. The development of Asian literacy can be better supported with a less Eurocentric and less English-monolingual mindset. A recent report (May 30, 2021) on the current state of school language programs and assessment in the Australian state of New South Wales suggests European languages such as French are advantaged over Japanese and Arabic, pointing to just such a bias. Further, the dominance of English in the global arena is creating a societal apathy for learning languages other than English. Despite acknowledgement that languages provide a key pathway to fostering ‘generalised national multilingualism, social harmony, and economic prosperity’ as noted by scholars Shannon Mason and John Hajek, representations of language education in the media can often exacerbate the precarious position of language education in Australia by presenting only superficial, narrow and negative editorial debate.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-10
    JournalMelbourne Asia Review
    Publication statusPublished - 2021


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