TOEFL or not TOEFL? For Abe, the answer is clear

TOKYO - An acceptable score in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which measures proficiency in the language, is required for entry into many universities in the English-speaking world.

But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has hit upon the idea of using TOEFL to raise the standard of English of his fellow countrymen.

Starting in 2015, he wants young Japanese who aspire to become part of the country’s elite national bureaucracy to obtain a good pass in the TOEFL, in the conviction that Japan needs more civil servants who can communicate in English.

Currently, applicants are only tested in English reading comprehension. The TOEFL exam tests listening comprehension as well.

In what could possibly be a far-reaching move, Mr Abe also wants all Japanese students to sit for the TOEFL exam before they apply for a Japanese university and also before they are allowed to graduate.

The idea of requiring students to submit TOEFL scores in order to enter university in Japan has been touted by experts before.

But requiring students to also submit TOEFL scores in order to graduate is quite a novelty.

Naturally, students will have to do reasonably well in the test.

Universities will be expected to independently set their own minimum TOEFL standards for admission and graduation.

But a plan drawn up by Mr Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party suggests that for the 30 universities or so that will be designated as world-class research facilities, their students may have to score at least 70 per cent to graduate.

Since the maximum score for the Internet-based TOEFL test is 120, students hoping to graduate will need to get at least 84 points.

How does this compare internationally?

According to the global results for the 2011 test released by Educational Testing Service (ETS), TOEFL’s administrators, Japan scored an average of only 69 out of 120, to place among the bottom three countries out of 33 Asian countries.

Only Cambodia and Laos ranked lower.

Japan was well below Singapore (99), which not surprisingly topped the whole of Asia.

But to Japan’s chagrin, it was also far behind its three closest neighbours - South Korea (82), North Korea (78) and China (77).

It has, however, been pointed out that comparing scores between nations is not very meaningful.

In some countries, only people who have a reasonable command of English take the test as part of their university applications.

In Japan, it is said that many people sit for the test even though they are not fully prepared, thus ending up with poor scores that drag down the national average.

Mr Abe’s TOEFL strategy is part of a set of educational reforms for which he is prepared to put aside some 1 trillion yen.

But he has not said how much of it will go towards his TOEFL initiative.

The Internet-based version of the test costs US$225 in Japan or about 21,000 yen.

It will be a big burden on students if they have to pay for the test themselves, especially as many are likely to sit for it more than once in the hope of improving their scores.

Although students - and their parents - will be grateful if the government subsidises the cost of the test, critics say that Mr Abe should be spending more money on training English teachers, resources and learning materials instead.

The government is no doubt well aware that raising the level of English education in Japan requires more than just improving test scores.

There is no guarantee that a high TOEFL score equals fluency in English.

The big problem, as has long been pointed out, is that most Japanese teachers who have to teach English in schools are themselves unable to speak the language effortlessly.

But so far, the Abe administration has not said anything about whether and how it will overhaul the present English language curriculum and teaching methods in schools.

Currently, most Japanese go through at least eight years of English classes before they graduate from university.

But few are proficient at speaking the language since classes generally focus on grammar and comprehension rather than on communication skills.

Determined to improve their speaking ability, many Japanese enroll in the ubiquitous English conversation schools that dot the country.

But as many people have found out to their dismay, informal chit-chatting sessions with an instructor does not help much if they do not put in much effort to practice after classes.

Well aware that English proficiency is the key to their success abroad, some companies in recent years have taken to making English the official language at work.

Casual clothing chain Uniqlo, which is expanding overseas aggressively, has made English the language of meetings at headquarters when foreign, non-Japanese speaking employees are involved.

Internet shopping mall operator Rakuten has gone even further, making English the official in-house language even among Japanese employees.

Many companies these days use a test called TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), which is also run by ETS, when hiring employees, or for promotion and placement purposes.

Mr Abe’s faith in TOEFL, which is said to be more difficult than TOEIC, may encourage companies to switch to TOEFL instead.