Observations on One Japanese University's
General English Program
John Westby (Associate Professor, Meijo University,
Faculty of Human Studies)
Philip Beech (Lecturer, Meijo University,
Faculty of Human Studies)
After years of teaching and encountering students in one
university's general English program, we perceived declining
language skills among the students as compared to students
taught under an earlier curriculum. This paper is an attempt
to explain some of the reasons for that perceived decline.
We believe that the problems with the program are both conceptual
The program claims to be based on the Common European Framework
of Reference (CEFR) for modern/foreign languages adopted by
the Council of Europe in 2001. As James Milton, head of the
Applied Linguistics Department at Swansea University, points
out, "The existing Framework has been constructed so
we can, or should be able to, make interlanguage comparisons"
(Milton 108). For example, students of English in France should
be comparable with students of German in the UK. Since interlanguage
comparability is the purpose of the framework, we believe
that it has little relevance to the teaching of English as
a foreign language (EFL) in Japan where as unlike in the EU
no such comparisons are likely to be done or necessary.
The larger problem with CEFR is its reliance on competence
statements to measure learning outcomes. Milton bemoans:
"The absence of any quantifiable or objective measures
of language knowledge and competence in the CEFR…The
attempt to make the Framework as inclusive and flexible as
possible has resulted in an emphasis in the Framework document
which is skills-based almost to the exclusion of the evaluation
of language knowledge. It is almost as though it is a system
which has tried to divorce competence from knowledge such
as vocabulary knowledge" (108).
The Framework omits any "quantifiable or fixed measures
of knowledge" including any vocabulary lists (109).
This lack leaves the system open to abuse by publishers and
ministries. Milton goes on to describe the problem:
"The danger with such a system, and the absence of
quantifiable or fixed measures of knowledge, is that it is
often possible to place a learner or an exam in any one of
several bands. While the CEFR itself may be language neutral
and apolitical, its application is not, and is in the hands
of ministries and publishers who have their own agendas. Currently,
the rationale for exactly what is placed where in this system
often appears to have more to do with aspiration or convenience
than with the scientific application of language descriptors"
One publisher that has highlighted the adherence of its
exams and materials to the Framework is Cambridge. Milton
describes Cambridge's approach:
"Cambridge ESOL's hierarchy of exams pre-dates the
language framework and appears to have been placed within
the Framework system of levels almost regardless of the descriptors.
There have been no adaptations of level or content that I
am aware of to make the existing exams match the Framework
In fact, Cambridge's approach to the Framework could
be described as a convenient marketing ploy. Milton concludes:
"For Cambridge ESOL, the Framework classification appears
to be a convenient nomenclature for characterizing their exam
hierarchy within an increasingly competitive international
market. In Britain, faced with the same challenge of positioning
an existing foreign language system within the Framework,
the placements appear to be made in hope or intention rather
than on any empirical basis" (109).
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