The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The Current State of Japanese Language Education in Australian Schools

December 15, 2010

Ms. Anne de Kretser, Director of the Melbourne Centre for Japanese Language Education (MCJLE), a NF-JLEP endowed institution in Australia, and Dr. Robyn Spence-Brown, Senior Lecturer at the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University, were asked by the Australian Government to engage in a prestigious assignment—conducting research on Japanese language education in the country. The report, the first major national report since 1994 to uncover the situation of Japanese language education across the country, was released in early 2010. In this article, Ms. de Kretser shares some of the key findings and recommendations from the report, and informs us of MCJLE’s plans for further improvement of Japanese language education in Australia.

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In 2008 the Australian Government announced significant funding to be available to increase the numbers of Australian students to become proficient at learning the languages and cultures of Australia’s Asian neighbours, China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea.

The Australian Government announced The National Asian and Languages Studies in Schools Programs [NALSSP] which would operate over 2008-9-2011-12 and allocated AU$ 62.4m funding to achieve this.

Part of the NALSSP funding was allocated to research and the Melbourne Centre for Japanese Language Education was asked to research and write a report on ‘The Current State of Japanese Language Education in Australian Schools’, similar reports were commissioned for Indonesian, and Korean and in 2008 a report had been written on Chinese.

The First Major National Report on Japanese Language Education Since 1994

Dr. Robyn Spence-Brown, Senior Lecturer at Monash University and Anne de Kretser, Director of the Melbourne Centre for Japanese Language Education took a year to research and write a report about Japanese language education in Australian schools. Data from all states and territories and the government, independent and Catholic sectors was collected and over 100 people were interviewed.

At this stage Australia does not have a national curriculum for languages [although one is being developed], so every state and territory, 8 in total has different education systems and curriculums. This is why this report is so important. It represents a comprehensive picture of Japanese language education in 2008. Language education is not compulsory until the end of high school and in most states or territories is only compulsory in the first year or two of secondary school.

Japanese is the most popular foreign language studied in schools in Australia. There are reports of Japanese being taught in Melbourne as early as 1906 and in Sydney in 1918, however it was introduced at many major Australian universities in the 1960’s and by the 1980’s and 1990’s saw massive growth and popularity first in the tertiary and then the secondary sector.

Major Findings


After three decades of sustained growth, enrolments in Japanese have fallen over the last six to eight years, particularly at the primary level.

  • In 2008 approximately 351,579 students studying Japanese in Australian schools
  • Japanese remains the most widely studied language in Australian schools and universities. Over 10% of students across all year levels studied Japanese in 2008
  • There has been a decrease of approximately 16% in overall student numbers since 2000.
  • The number of years in which language is compulsory has decreased in many primary and secondary schools (leading to students studying for fewer years).
  • There is a large rate of attrition after language becomes an elective (Years 8, 9 and 10), relating not only to student disengagement but to structural factors in schools and in course requirements.
  • Total enrolments in the final units of senior secondary Japanese (‘Year 12’) have been comparatively stable over the last decade, with the number of students completing year 12 units falling from a high of 5,196 in 2002 to 4,910 in 2008.


  • At primary level, there is no agreed common content or progression in terms of specific language or other skills, and conditions for delivery (especially time) differ widely.
  • The teaching of reading and writing skills is a problem for teachers and a barrier for students.
  • Senior secondary curriculums and assessment standards and criteria are regarded by teachers in several States as too demanding for ‘continuing’ students and are unsuitable for students with a home background in Japanese.
  • Many students at both primary and secondary levels have the opportunity to engage with Japan through sister school and exchange programs – probably more than for any other language commonly taught.


  • The supply of Japanese teachers is adequate in most urban areas, but quality remains an issue. Supply problems exist in some rural and outer-suburban locations, and sectors that offer poor working conditions are often unable to attract sufficient teachers.
  • Japanese teachers are generally regarded as energetic and resourceful. They have a high level of engagement in professional associations and have developed excellent support networks.
  • The lack of appropriate Japanese-specific ‘methods’ components in teacher training programs has resulted in important gaps in practical pedagogic skills and theoretical understanding for many teachers.
  • Most existing teachers who are non-native speakers need support in further developing and maintaining their Japanese language competence and socio-cultural knowledge and understanding.
  • Teachers educated overseas need more support in coping with the Australian educational environment.
  • Native speaker language assistants provide an extremely valuable resource in schools which have access to them. However, availability, quality and preparedness for the Australian environment vary, as do the abilities of teachers to make best use of assistants.

Recommendations – A Process for Leading Change

1 .Establishment of a National Council for Japanese Language Education

A national expert council should be established to provide leadership and advocacy for Japanese language education across primary to tertiary levels, opportunities for the sharing of expertise and information, and representation in consultations with key stakeholders. The council should work closely with groups supporting other languages and languages in general.

An outcome of the council’s work will be a National Plan of Action for Japanese Language Education, in 2010-2020

2. Research into Factors Relating to Retention and Attrition at Senior Secondary Level

This report has identified important factors which may be affecting retention in Japanese but has noted a lack of clear research into their extent and significance. Detailed research is required into the effects of the following factors:

Transition arrangements, school course and timetable structures (including provision for separate senior classes), senior secondary certificate structures and tertiary entrance rank calculation procedures, perceptions of career relevance, relative difficulty.

This research should be directed at formulating an agenda for structural and other changes to support retention.

3. Reform for Japanese in Primary Schools

The teaching of Japanese in primary schools requires urgent reform at the curriculum and structural levels. Education authorities should support school trials of innovative staffing models and delivery.

4. Detailed Curriculum and Materials Development

In conjunction with the development of a national curriculum for languages, curriculum authorities should develop a comprehensive and fully resourced Japanese program covering primary and secondary levels, including a detailed scope and sequence, based on mandated minimum time allocations.

5. Profiling teachers

The Australian Government should coordinate a collection by all sectors of comprehensive information on Japanese teachers, including linguistic and pedagogic qualifications and age to allow for informed planning for recruitment and professional development.

6. Partnerships to Support opportunities for Authentic Interaction

Wider support is required to develop and expand programs which allow for learning beyond the classroom. Education authorities in partnership with governments and universities in Australia and Japan should establish professionally run programs to recruit, train and support native-speaker assistants from Japan to work in Australian schools. Schools, governments and industry should collaborate to expand opportunities for students to apply and develop their skills in authentic situations through virtual and face to face interaction, internships and/or work experience and travel to Japan.

On the basis of the data collected and the findings of the report the MCJLE has identified areas in which it will become more pro-active and has already made plans for further research.

Research projects

1. Profiling Diploma of Education students that have completed the MCJLE seminar training series over the past 5 years. The research project which will profile the participants to track the career paths of recently trained teachers and the reasons for their career choices.

2. Research into the factors of attrition at senior secondary level, including motivation, structures within schools and senior secondary course structures and university entrance ranking systems

Activity Plans

The MCJLE is planning a national conference for Japanese language educators. The conference will provide opportunities for the sharing of research findings, discussion of best teaching practice and networking.

The MCJLE has developed its professional development calendar and seminar series based on the findings of the teacher training needs in the report.

The full text of the report can be viewed here (PDF 1.1MB ) .

    • Director, The Melbourne Centre for Japanese Language Education
    • Anne De Kretser
    • Anne De Kretser

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