A Case Study of Learning in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Japan: High School Students' English Proficiency Levels and Fostering Positive Cross-Cultural Attitudes

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study reports on aspects of a larger study of over 600 Japanese high school students taken from ten schools in one prefecture and their attitudes towards learning English as a foreign language (Ingram, Kono, O'Neill & Sasaki, 2008). It compares the cross-cultural attitudes of those who performed highly on the STEP Test with those who had low performance on the STEP Test Students rated seventeen items on a semantic differential scale to elicit their attitudes towards English speaking people, Japanese people, European people, Asian people, the Japanese, Indigenous Ainu people, their own English language teachers and themselves. They also provided their opinions about cultural diversity in society, foreign language learning and their preferred ways of learning EFL at school. Based on percentage positive response ratings the results showed that those students who had achieved higher levels of English proficiency on the STEP Test tended to be more positive towards English speaking people and Europeans in general, and to a little extent more critical of their own culture, Asian people in general and themselves but in some respects more positive towards the Ainu people. There was also evidence of students who had higher proficiency levels recognising the need to engage more frequently in learning experiences that involved the English language and culture, and meaningful communication.

Key words: Cross-cultural attitudes, English as a foreign language, Language Policy, Language testing, High School Students

Background

This research is a part of a much larger study of Japanese high school students' and their teachers' cross-cultural attitudes and opinions about language and culture, and language learning and teaching as reported in Ingram, Kono, O'Neill and Sasaki (2008)1. Such research is important because those working in the global field of English as a foreign or second language (EFL/ESL), together with the languages education policy and syllabus documents typically expect language learners will develop favourable attitudes towards the language and culture of the language being learned (the target language). The present paper2 explores the responses of two sub-samples of the main study to consider in more detail whether these Japanese high school students' crosscultural attitudes and opinions about language learning differed on the basis of their level of English language proficiency as categorised by their self-reported STEP Test results. The responses of students with higher English language proficiency levels were compared with those of students with lower English language proficiency levels.

Current issues in languages teaching

Methods and approaches to teaching languages have changed dramatically over the years with contemporary pedagogy advocating an eclectic approach that may draw upon the most effective aspects of past and recent teaching and learning strategies. Importantly, since the advent of the communicative approach (Canale & Swain, 1980) which recognised the necessity for languages learners to be involved in authentic, purposeful/meaningful communicative tasks and assessment, the additional need for intercultural literacy has been established (Kramsch, 2002; Nault, 2006).

O'Neill and Gish (2008, p. 226) state:

Language learning materials and resources should assist language learners to identify and understand their own culture and thinking as well as the culture and thinking of the target language. Intercultural literacy as a basis for effective cross-cultural communication demands an awareness of cultural and linguistic diversity, the ability to reflect on one's own language and culture and that of the target language.

This acknowledgment and emphasis on intercultural literacy for effective cross-cultural communication has provided a new impetus for all teachers who are involved in teaching students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds to acquire the appropriate knowledge and pedagogical skills to be effective. …