The Reading Matrix
Vol. 4, No. 1, April 2004

A Commentary on Junior High School English in Japan in Comparison to the Core French Program in Ontario, Canada

Toshiyuki Takagaki


Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbusho, 1998) revised the national curriculum guidelines for public junior high school English, which took effect in April, 2002. The major change lies in more emphasis on a communication-oriented class so that students will develop basic speaking and listening skills in English. This move may be in the right direction considering the fact that Japan needs more people who are competent in English (Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, Sports and Technology, 2002). The English course, nonetheless, needs careful examination to see if it will serve the stated purpose or not. Research on the core French program in Canada, to which little attention has been paid in relation to English education in Japan, is a useful resource from which we can draw some implications for improving junior high school English programs. (1)

Core French has been implemented in Canada for over 30 years (Foley, Harley & d’Anglejan, 1988). It has the general aim of developing basic communication skills, language knowledge, and an appreciation of French culture. Unlike French immersion programs in which students study French as a medium of instruction, French is taught as a subject in the core French program. About 90 percent of the students who study French as a second language are enrolled in the core French program, but the programs vary depending on the province, territory or school board (Turnbull, 2000).

This essay compares the core French program in Ontario where extensive research has been conducted with the junior high school English program in Japan. Then, I critique the effectiveness of current junior high school English in Japan and give some suggestions based on the problems of core French.

Core French in Ontario v.s. Junior High School English in Japan

With the use of Carrol’s language learning model, selected aspects of L2 learning are highlighted in order to holistically understand the core French program in Ontario and junior high school English program in Japan. Carrol’s language learning model is comprised of language knowledge at present time, cognitive and biological factors, motivation, and opportunity for learning the language (Spolsky, 1989). In the following discussion, it is assumed that there is little difference between Canadian and Japanese students in terms of cognitive and biological elements.

Starting with language knowledge at present time, students’ L1 should be taken into consideration. Students in Ontario are predominantly English speakers while students in Japan are Japanese speakers. Linguistic distance between L1 and L2 is an important factor in learning L2. The closer the two languages are, the more likely learners will succeed to acquire L2 (Spolsky, 1989). Thus, Canadian students studying French are considered to have more advantages than Japanese students studying English from the outset.

As for motivation, the status of the target language in the country plays an important role in acquiring the language. French being an official language in Canada, Canadian students are more likely to develop both integrative and instrumental motivation (Gardner & Lambert, 1972) than Japanese students studying English in a foreign language context. This difference in language environment also implies that L2 retention will be more difficult for Japanese students studying English than Canadian students studying French in their respective countries.

Opportunity is the most relevant to the program evaluation in Carrol’s model. Concerning the total instructional hours per year, core French offers slightly more hours than junior high school English in Japan (2). In Ontario, core French is mandated from Grade 4 to Grade 8. Every year, 120 instructional hours are accumulated, with a 40-minute class every day. From Grades 9 to 12 at secondary schools, 110 hours are offered each year, and Grade 9 French is normally a compulsory subject. In Japan, 105 hours are provided a year, in 50-minute classes, usually three days a week in junior high school.

When total instructional hours at the primary school level are included, Canadian students receive much more instructional hours to study the target language than Japanese students. In Japan, at the primary school level, little more than 50 percent of the public elementary schools teach English as part of “The Period of Integrated Study,” and about 65 percent of them provide less than 11 instructional hours in grade 3 and above per year (Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Technology, 2003).

It should be also pointed out that Japanese class size is larger than Canadian class size. One class typically consists of around 40 students in Japan (3), with around 25 students in Canada (Government of Ontario, 2003). Needless to say, large class size makes it difficult to conduct commonly-used communicative activities.

With all the learning conditions mentioned above, it is fair to say that core French in Ontario is more likely to produce better L2 outcomes than junior high school English in Japan. However, despite the strengths of the core French program, it has been seen as unsatisfactory because many students fail to acquire basic French communication skills (Calman & Daniel, 1998). In response, issues such as instructional time, distribution of program time, teaching content, exchange programs, and teacher training have been examined (e.g., Warden, Lapkin, Swain & Hart 1995; Calman & Daniel 1998; Carr 1999).


It is important to face the fact that even the core French program in Ontario is not adequate. Researchers and teachers in Japan have been seriously tackling issues related to the improvement of junior high school English. But, if the Japanese government expects students to develop basic communicative skills in L2 at all, we need to overcome the weakness of our junior high school English programs, with such drastic measures as implementing intensive English programs and overseas programs. For instance, Lapkin, Hart, and Harley (1998) report the effectiveness of half-day intensive core French instruction over a ten-week period.

The most crucial point, in my view, is how teachers can motivate students to study English outside the school independently. With the limited opportunity to learn the language compared with Canada, that would be the only way which teachers can expect students to develop L2 proficiency. To facilitate students’ willingness to study English both in and outside the school, an attractive class, which is meaningful, fun, and authentic, is a must. Inevitably, the classroom activities become eclectic, at least to some degree, in order to meet students’ different cognitive styles and intellectual development, as well as different personal interests and needs.

At the same time, evaluation of students’ performance should be carefully done by adopting multiple-sources of information which leads to positive wash-back effect (Brown & Hudson, 1998). High school entrance examinations, which are considered as a significant reason for many students to study English in Japan, should be also geared toward assessing overall L2 proficiency instead of focusing on grammar and reading comprehension. By so doing, students will gain healthier attitudes toward studying a foreign language in their junior high school days.


1. Also see Takagaki (2003) for an examination of elementary school English in Japan from the Canadian perspective.

2. Japanese junior high school students correspond with Canadian students from grades 7 to 9.

3. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2003) revealed only about 10 percent of public junior high schools surveyed adopt small-group teaching according to proficiency level in required English courses.


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Calman, R. and Daniel I. (1998). A board’s-eye view of core French: The North York Board of Education. In Sharon Lapkin (ed.), French second language education in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 281-323.

Carr, W. (1999). Challenges faced by generalist teachers. The Canadian Modern Language Journal 56(1). 155-179.

Foley, K. S., Harley, B., and d’Anglejan. A. (1988). Research in core French: A bibliographic review. The Canadian Modern Language Review 44. 593-618.

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Monbusho (1998). Chugakko Shido Yoryo Kaisetsu [Annotation on Course of Study for Junior High School]. Tokyo: Tokyo Shoseki.

Ontario Ministry of Education and Training (1998). The Ontario Curriculum: French as a second language: Core French Grades 4-8. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

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Takagaki, T. (2003). A critical look at elementary school English in Japan from the perspective of the core French program in Ontario, Canada. The Language Teacher 27(6). 17-19.

Turnbull, M. (2000). Second language education in Canada: A focus on core French in elementary schools. In Nikolav, Marianne & Helena Curtain (eds.), An early start: Young learners and modern language in Europe and beyond. Graz, Austria: European Center for Modern Languages. 173-188.

Warden, M., Lapkin, S., Swain, M., and Hart, D. (1995). Adolescent language learners on a three-month exchange: Insights from their diaries. Foreign Language Annals 28(4). 537-550.