There was a survey set in front of me a few weeks ago asking for various opinions about the relationship between ES and JHS English education in Japan. There was not nearly enough room to write out my actual opinions on the matter at the time. Given my extended amount of free time today figured I'd toss the long version here.
I'll note that my experiences are exclusively with schools within Ibaraki. The situation in other prefectures and other cities may differ. Based on what appears to be the average English fluency in Japan, however, my experiences don't seem like they are too terribly unique.
I find that, beyond those who seem to take naturally to learning other languages, there are two main motivations for learning a foreign language. One is youth. Children, if given information, are very likely to consume it fully. The other is necessity. Regardless of one's age, put in the proper environment and given enough time nearly anyone could likely develop a functional understand of any given language. Given that my work directly involves the former, however, that is the focus of my concerns.
The youngest elementary school students, their minds still open to new sounds, are most often the best at pronouncing those sounds that are otherwise not found in Japanese, their minds not yet fully entrenched in the fairly restricted syllable set of their native language. A shame, it is, that they are given a whopping six English classes per school year in the first and second grades. The opportunity to use youth to their advantage in learning a foreign language is, by this practice, both acknowledged and squandered.
As children progress through elementary school they get more classes per year, but the number remains fairly sparse until they get to junior high school. By this point a subtle form of damage has been done. For the students English has been a six year course where a person they don't really know comes in, says strange things, and plays games.
I understand the importance of all those things. Creating a fun, positive environment within children can learn is the keystone of any good class, but English education in Japan seems separated from all other subjects not only in its frequency, but in its utter lack of meaningful evaluation. Progress is difficult to measure when the time between classes is so great that many students will forget the teacher's name. ALTs who are paying attention to the situation have but to do their best to, in the meager time allowed, trick students into saying the appropriate words in the appropriate situations and hope, too often in vain, that the meaning of those words manages to somehow make its way through. (This may vary based on the homeroom teachers' willingness to involve themselves in the class, explaining things during or after, but this sort of teacher is most certainly, most unfortunately not the norm.)
So students proceed to JHS with the idea that English is the class where all the games are made up and the points don't matter. While a few students in each class with natural interest in language will do fine, the rest of come in with the last six years of English class setting up some rather unrealistic expectations which are harshly disappointed.
There is a reason every math class is not made up of having the children roll dice and playing Monopoly, every history class is not watching dramatic reenactments, every science class is not setting something on fire, and every P.E. class is not playing dodgeball. There needs to be something grounding the subject to reality so the students realize learning it can have some sort of real world impact, that they are doing it for some reason, or at the very least that their teachers take the subject seriously. Unfortunately none of these things seem to be present in most classrooms, and this instills the idea that English is fun, but not that important. They don't feel that they particularly need to take note of what is being taught for much longer after class ends that day.
So we end up with JHS students who feel that the class is a waste of time. They grow up not particularly worried about learning English. Once the JHS English course begins and they realize that the happy fun time theme has been suddenly replaced with real work, tests, and passages in the textbook hand selected by Japanese English professors who have absolutely no clue what Japanese teenagers would be interested in talking about in English, let alone in their native language, a wall forms in their minds. The product of disillusionment and engineered apathy is students who do not care to take the class seriously because they believe they will never need to know the material. The worst part is that most of them are right.
It is hard to argue that most of your students will not particularly need to be fluent in English. The mental, structural benefits of knowing a second language are difficult to explain the children, as is the benefit of knowing a language used around the world when in their minds they are never likely to speak to any foreigners for more than a few seconds, let alone leave the country. These issues are further compounded by JHS teachers who don't seem to take much notice when so many students are producing scores from 0 to 20% on English tests. "There's no helping it. It's just the way of things."
So then, with the opportunity to take advantage of their youthful minds passed over and the lack of motivation to start taking it seriously later, we end up with the unfortunate lot of the present. Japanese JHS English teachers scramble to imprint as much vocabulary and grammar as they can in the short time allotted in hopes that the students will be able to pass high school entrance exams, but any expectation or hope of the students being on a path to functional fluency has long since been abandoned.
Until a real effort is made to turn foreign language education into a real part of elementary school education and not just an entertaining side show, I do not see the situation here changing.
Worse than the small number of classes in elementary school are the restrictions put on them. We are expected to use no Japanese and to not show them, let alone have them write words. It is intended to be a fully verbal, immersive curriculum, in spite of the lack of classes and the bar on writing proving to shoot any possibility of full immersion I the foot. The one glimmer of hope I have seen are the unfortunately short textbooks for fifth and sixth graders made in the last few years which seem to be purposely adding more bits of text, but still not even close to enough.
On occasion I find opportunity to get beyond the ES curriculum and its restrictions and see what could be. Show young children some words and hand them a pencil and paper. They will start writing without hesitation. Tell them how to use those words and phrases and so they will. Children at those ages want to learn, and given a little bit of structure will take what they learn to heart. There is no wall produced by their native language that makes English impossible to learn. There is no lack of potential here. All we need is to somehow convince the system to stop wasting it.