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How English-Taught Classes Are Failing Students At Japanese Universities

Before delving too deeply into a particular issue that may occur when studying abroad, it should be stated that this article does not encompass all academic situations. Nor should the experiences conveyed here be a template to judge the academic situations of all students who have studied abroad or may do so in the future. This article is best taken as a cautionary experience to consider when studying abroad, specifically as an English speaker within Japan.

English is Required… For the Students, that is

When applying as a study abroad to a university in Japan, it is a requirement for students to have a comprehensible level of English or an extremely advanced level of Japanese.  Such requirement is understandable as classes offered in study abroad programs will largely be conducted in either English or Japanese. Generally, study abroad students will attend a university with a large English-speaking program, supplemented by Japanese language classes.

However, those with advanced levels of Japanese are able to enroll in lectures with the general student body. The advertisements for English-speaking programs are widespread, particularly at top-tier schools like University of Tokyo, Waseda University, and Osaka University. Japanese students, foreign students, and exchange students are increasingly invited to join these programs.

The universities push towards these programs with the aim of displaying themselves as global schools and attracting a larger number of international students. However, the issue is that the universities are largely unable to afford the salaries of a large number of professors who are specifically hired for the English programs that the universities are promoting. Therefore, a comprehension problem is widespread.

Japanese Professors Teaching English Classes

When considering my two semesters spent at a highly regarded Tokyo university, I was surprisingly disappointed by the number of professors who only spoke conversational English as opposed to what was necessary for their field. While I did have a few professors I particularly enjoyed and were doing their best to get their students to learn and engage, I found an equally large amount were completely unqualified for their position.

English-Taught Classes Rakbo Tokyo

I do not mean to sound too critical of the professors at the Japanese university I was at, as I am sure they are very well-educated in their fields. Yet, whether or not their knowledge can be applied to teaching an entire section of a topic in English is a different matter completely. Due to the unfortunate circumstance as mentioned previously where universities are more concerned with prestige than education, many of the Japanese professors are unqualified to teach their subject in English.

For example, topics such a politics can be incredibly difficult to explain when one is fluent. It can be even more difficult to teach when a professor is unable to describe the most basic concepts because they are uncomfortable speaking a second language. As such, when these professors are employed to teach a class, not only do they not understand their content, but neither do the students. It is an unfair and uncomfortable situation for all involved. Yet students who are taking classes in English have little choice but to continue taking such sections since there are few English-Taught Classes Rakbo cat
other options.

Under such professors, students generally do well enough, as the professor is unwilling to test or grade with a high level of difficulty.  This can then propagate the issue as a student may receive degrees and/or jobs that they are unqualified for because they do not properly comprehend the subject.

There are some such professors who, when they are unable to comprehend an extensive English vocabulary or native speaker of English, have been known to give average marks to all to simply not have to deal with trying to understand which papers are written well and which are not. For some, this is a particularly large issue as they try their best to receive the highest grade possible but then are delegated to a Cor C equivalent simply because the professor cannot understand that writing. Of course, some may disagree and say that the professor is completely within their right to give whatever grade they see fit. But when an entire class receives the same grade, there is definitely something suspicious occurring.

However, while it is bad to base every experience off of a generalization, it should also be something taken into consideration when there are many accounts by students who have a similar issue with some of their professors.

How to Avoid Such Professors

English-Taught Classes Rakbo Hamster

Unfortunately, the only way to really be sure you do not receive a professor like the ones stated above is to choose those who are proven to be fluent English speakers. It is also useful to simply research each professor before enrolling in their class. One of the more intelligent and engaging professors I have ever had in my university career was an Australian at my Japanese university. Of course, even with non-Japanese professors, I did have a few which were lackluster. That is simply how university, and life, works. I am in no way trying to discredit those professors’ credentials or knowledge of their topic but rather am criticizing the situation that the university forced them and their students into. Of course, I am also not definitively stating that all Japanese professors are unqualified, but rather that the programs are underfunded and poorly sourced.

Don’t be Scared

Above is simply advice that I would like to give based on my personal experience. It really does pay to do research, look into your professors, and ask around. Nevertheless, it is also important to keep an open mind and realize that this is a risk of studying abroad. The experience of overcoming difficulties and finding proper solutions is valuable in your time abroad as well as for the future.

English-Taught Classes Rakbo Patrick

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Sam Schommer

Sam is an International Affairs student at Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan at Waseda University for the duration of her third undergrad year. As an international affairs major, she feels it her duty to be up to date about culture (particularly memes), politics, and social issues both in her home and abroad. An Arizona native, Sam has lived in America her whole life and her year in Japan is the first time she has been out of the country more than a few days. To see what she’s been up to in Japan as well as some other interesting places, check out her Instagram and Twitter!


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