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Exploring the value of bilingual language assistants with Japanese English as a foreign language learnersWe report on a small-scale exploratory study of Japanese students’ reactions to the use of a bilingual language assistant on an EFL study-abroad course in the UK and we give an insight into the possible effect of using bilingual assistants on speaking production. First-year university students were divided into three groups all taught by a monolingual (native) speaker of English. Two teachers had monolingual assistants to help them; the third group had a bilingual (Japanese–English) assistant. In the third group, students were encouraged to ask the assistant for help with English meanings and to provide English equivalents for Japanese phrases, especially during student-centred activities. Moreover, the students in the third group were encouraged to code-switch rather than speak hesitantly or clam up in English. In the first two groups, the students were actively discouraged from using Japanese among themselves in the classroom. The data from an open-ended questionnaire suggest that attitudes to having a bilingual assistant were generally positive. Moreover the ‘bilingual’ group made the biggest gains over the three week period in fluency and in overall speaking scores although these gains were not statistically significant. Suggestions for further research are explored particularly in relation to whether a bilingual assistant may provide support with the cross-cultural challenges faced by EFL learners.
Testing four skills in JapanThis paper considers arguments for the testing of spoken language skills in Japan and the contribution the use of such tests might make to language education. The Japanese government, recognising the importance of spontaneous social interaction in English to participation in regional and global communities, mandates the development of all ‘four skills’ (Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking) in schools. However, university entrance tests continue to emphasize the written language. Because they control access to opportunities, entrance tests tend to dominate teaching and learning. They are widely believed to encourage traditional forms of teaching and to inhibit speaking and listening activities in the classroom. Comprehensive testing of spoken language skills should, in contrast, encourage (or at least not discourage) the teaching and learning of these skills. On the other hand, testing spoken language skills also represents a substantial challenge. New organisational structures are needed to support new testing formats and these will be unfamiliar to all involved, resulting in an increased risk of system failures. Introducing radical change to any educational system is likely to provoke a reaction from those who benefit most from the status quo. For this reason, critics will be ready to exploit any perceived shortcomings to reverse innovative policies. Experience suggests that radical changes in approaches to testing are unlikely to deliver benefits for the education system unless they are well supported by teacher training, new materials and public relations initiatives. The introduction of spoken language tests is no doubt essential to the success of Japan’s language policies, but is not without risk and needs to be carefully integrated with other aspects of the education system.