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Learning Business English: A Possible Hedge against Corporate Downsizing in Japan

11, 01. 2004

   The fever to learn English is suddenly becoming heated in Japan. Of course, the popularity of undergoing English language training is nothing new in Japan, but the current boom is marked by the fact that people are showing a high level of interest in acquiring practical workplace English conversation skills.

   The tagline at Nova, a foreign language school that offers lessons in English conversation, is "You can talk a lot with native speakers," and "Just go to a Nova located at a nearby a train station for a study-abroad experience." In the past, many students taking English language lessons were young women, but today you see a great number of businessmen, especially those middle-aged and older. The objective of most of the students is to learn English that will be useful in their work. Unlike the past, only a handful of people go to the school because they simply want to become friends with a foreign national.
   The style of going abroad for the purpose of studying English is also changing. What is popular now are working internships. People want to go to a firm abroad for a fixed period of time so that they can acquire business English skills as well as experience overseas business practices firsthand. The number of people going abroad to acquire international qualifications, such as MBAs, is also on the rise.

Illustration by Yamanoi Norio
Yamanoi Norio

English Education TV Programs and Business English Magazines Flooding the Market

   English education programs have been mushrooming on TV in the past two to three years, and they are devising new ways to teach English, such as by using big-name talent on their programs. "Eigo de Shabera Naito (Gotta Speak English Night)," which Japanese public broadcaster NHK launched in 2003 is just one example. Other programs include "Mini Eikaiwa: Tossano Hitokoto (Mini-English Conversation: Spur-of-the-moment English), "100 Go de Start (Start with 100 Words)," and "Jissen Business Eikaiwa (Practical Business English)" and a host of others. Books and magazines related to business English is also doing well, and there has even been a magazine launched just for women.
    Popular English proficiency tests are the STEP Test in Practical English Proficiency (known as Eiken in Japanese) and the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). In 2003, 2.5 million people applied for the STEP Test, a certification test which has seven stages (starting with the 5th Grade and moving up to the 1st Grade). Meanwhile, TOEIC, used to measure the English skills of people working in an international setting, is a score-based system determined by the number of correct answers. While there are less and less people taking the STEP test, there has been a rapid rise in the number of those taking the TOEIC exam, and it is threatening STEP's position in Japan. 3.4-million people worldwide took the TOEIC exam in 2003. The majority of the examinees were from Korea (1.68 million), which is showing especially steep growth in the number of those taking the test, and Japan (1.42 million).
   In September 2003, STEP mounted a counteroffensive by launching "STEP BULATS (Business Language Testing Service)" for working adults. STEP BULATS was jointly developed with Cambridge ESOL.
   One of the reasons behind the heightened fever to learn practical English can be said to be the current state of the Japanese economy and the resulting difficult employment situation.

Increase of foreign language conversation classrooms

Increase in In-house Meetings conducted in English

   With a stream of foreign-affiliated companies advancing to Japan, there are more than a few Japanese firms where the CEOs are Americans or Europeans. Such companies often conduct their in-house meetings in English, and the acquisition of communication skills in practical business English can become a possible hedge against being downsized.
   The prolonged state of employment insecurity and increases in the loss of employment is causing people to scramble to acquire specialized skills and qualifications.
   As part of its measures to address employment issues, the Japanese government introduced a Training and Education Benefits System in 1998. Under this system, a portion of the tuition for voluntarily received training or education at vocational schools, etc. is covered by social insurance. A large portion of the fees are reimbursed through the benefits system. There are many salaried workers scrambling to attend schools so that they may acquire professional skills or qualifications. Vocational schools, etc. are doing brisk business thanks to this system, with English language schools proving especially popular.

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