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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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English Village in Tokyo

May 14, 2015

The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are just five years away - and ahead of the event Tokyo is making plans to turn itself into a truly global city. Standing in the way of Tokyo’s aim is the challenge posed by the English language. Many people are eager to learn English, and both the public and private sectors are offering English study programs. But the reality is harsh.

Japanese takers of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) rank 26th among 31 countries and territories in Asia for their average overall scores. And they rank at the very bottom in the test for their speaking abilities.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has launched a special program: an English Village. The Village will give visitors a taste of daily life in an English-speaking country, without leaving Tokyo. Participants are supposed to use English only to deal with the various situations they encounter during their stay.

The Village targets pupils from primary through to high school. The idea is to immerse their young and still-flexible brains in English to help them transform into globally minded people.

The facility is scheduled to open in fiscal 2018 and an expert panel has been convened by the government to study the program’s specifics. Panel member Professor Sachiko Kitazume of Kinki University is a leading proponent of immersive English environments. Eight years ago, she opened an English village on her university’s campus. The facilities include a cafe, a library and a basketball court. Students who enter have to speak English.

Professor Kitazume has big hopes for the new program: “I admire the positive attitude of Tokyo Government to build an English Village for the education of elementary, junior and senior high school students.”

“Tokyo, as the host city of the 2020 Olympics, is going to take this opportunity to educate young people who will be able to cope with a rapidly changing international society. I hope this program in Tokyo will be successful and spread out to other areas so that other prefectures and cities have their own unique English Villages, which will lead to the globalization of not only Tokyo but also all local areas in Japan,” she says.

Officials in Tokyo drew inspiration from similar projects in South Korea. Dozens of local governments there have invested in English Villages, with mixed results.

South Korea’s Paju English Village opened nine years ago with sponsorship from the central government. Officials had made it their mission to improve the English skills of people across the country. At that time, parents were sending their children to English classes at ever-younger ages and some were sending students overseas to experience the language in a natural environment. Municipal authorities across South Korea wanted to help parents who could not afford such measures.

The result was a network of English Villages, constructed across the nation. "We have to adopt the global standard, but we want to add our own initiatives and creativity to the curriculum,” then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said at the time.

Many of South Korea’s English Villages are now facing financial problems. A facility in Ansan that once attracted 30,000 visitors a year was forced to close in 2012 after amassing heavy debt.

South Korea had 32 public English Villages in 2010, and seven have since closed for financial reasons. More than half of the municipalities who operate English Villages have asked private companies to take over.

Many of the facilities were unattractive for students in terms of content and accessibility. Some students are only interested in learning enough English to pass exams for high school or university.

"High school students focus mostly on entrance exams for universities. They cannot pass the tests even if they speak English well,” explains teacher Kim Ji-min of the English Clinic school.

At the Paju English Village, operators struggled to attract students and ran up a $2 million deficit in just five years. They were forced to hire locals in place of native English speakers and say they had no choice but to change their business model.

Managers have started encouraging tourists to visit and they are promoting the center as a wedding location. They are also renting out space to other companies. An English camp has been set up to attract overseas students to stay and study with South Koreans.

“We are conducting various kinds of research and talking about creating our own kind of English Village,” says president of the Gyeonggi English Village, Kim Chung-jin.

“We want to keep operating the English village for 10 or 20 more years. But we have not yet figured out how to revive the village. I think we need to change it drastically."

South Korea rushed to build English Villages in the push to improve communication skills. Now they are at a crossroads, as they decide how best to make their society more international.

Professor Kitazume has suggestions to ensure Tokyo’s English Villages do not struggle like their South Korean counterparts. “I have visited the English Village in Paju, South Korea. I think it is an attractive place where people can have a simulated experience of life in an English-speaking country without leaving their own country. It is not an authentic life, like a school life on a study abroad program, but it has a great advantage in that people do not have to spend a large amount of money for the trip and do not have to disrupt their ordinary lives,” she says.

“However, camp-type English Villages have a problem as institutions for English education, because effective language learning requires daily practice. You should have a place where you can communicate in English daily, even for a short time.

“The English Village in Kinki University is successful in having welcomed more than 866,000 visitors...since its opening in 2006. The building is located in campus, where students can easily drop in for a chat with native staff whenever they have free time between classes, or lunchtime, or before and after school. It is large enough to have a big monthly event with a special guest and various daily activities by the native staff. These events and activities provide our students with exciting experiences in English.

“As to the English Village in Tokyo, I suggest a mixture of both types: a big English Hall which can provide various events and activities, and a small English-cafe type place in the neighborhood for ordinary use. You can use a classroom, a community center, a city hall, or a public place in such a way. In England, a public library is in the building of a supermarket and is very convenient for the general public. A small corner in a station or a shopping center can be an ideal English cafe for most people.”

Professor Kitazume adds education must extend beyond language skills.

“In order for students to be global citizens, learning English communication skills is not enough. Nurturing a deep understanding of international cultures is a prerequisite. In addition, having a flexible way of thinking is very important, but it is actually very difficult for everyone. People tend to think, feel, judge and behave based on the common sense of the society in which they are brought up,” she explains.