I heard that the average TOEFL score of Japanese examinees was lower than the examinees from other Asian countries. Some people criticized the English education in the Japanese public education system based on this data. (Not only English but all public education might be criticized.)
In fact it might be difficult to learn English skills, which are suitable for practical use, only through public education, but it doesn't necessarily mean that English education in Japanese schools has critical problems. Generally I don't expect so much from the public education system and I think that we should accept that the fact that the public education system can't provide practical skills not only in English but also in the other subjects for students. School hours are limited and there are a lot of things to be taught. If a student wants to acquire a practical skill, they should learn it not only in their schools but also by themselves. The minimum mission of public education is to provide the basis of self-leaning after graduation from their schools. And the levels of English skills that each student requires are various but the public education system should be standardized and common to all schools, so the public education system can't aim for a level of English skills that is too high.
I have written the weblog "A Daily Life in Uptown Tokyo" for nine months. I have become able to express almost everything that I want to express in English and the readers of my weblog might understand what I want to say judging from their comments.
In my weblog I have used only English grammar which I learned in my high school (I don't know the level of English grammars which are taught in high school nowadays). Of course I couldn't write this weblog when I graduated from the high school. After that, my English skills have got better through education at the university, self-learning and business, but I learned the basic knowledge about English through high school education.
Students can't have enough experiences of using English to get English skills. Class hours are limited and the numbers of one class are too many to learn practical English. Native Teaching Assistants aren't enough, either. I myself had never used English for a practical purpose before and communicated using English until I graduated from high school. It was natural that I couldn't get practical English skills only through high school education. But I doubt the public education system should ensure that students get practical English skills. I think that most students don’t actually master English skills educated whilst being educated in high school. If this is the case, the public education system needs to reduce the class hours of other subjects other than English in order to make high school students’ English skills improved. I don't know the appropriate balance between class hours of subjects, but it might cause side effects to increase class hours of English.
I practically had to use English, when I majored in cultural anthropology in university. To tell the truth there were few anthropologists in Japan and little achievement by Japanese anthropologists, so I had to read a pile of papers written in English in order to write a graduation thesis. At first it took a long time to read a page of papers and I was afraid that I could finish my thesis, but the more I read English papers, the faster I could read them. At the end I could manage to finish my thesis before the deadline. It's necessary to read a good amount of books or papers in English in order to get a practical ability to read English, and I had these chance to read English at university. Although my thesis adviser said to me that I could barely read English, I became to be able to read English, because I had gotten a basic ability of English in my high school days.
After I got a job, I also had the need to read documents published by foreign governments and international organizations through the Internet. Formerly I made business trips to interview oversees (most interviewees were non English native speakers) and exchanged e-mails in English to the persons in charge of foreign subcontractors. Whenever I have to use English on business, I could manage to perform the job and my English improved.
Recently I'm enjoying learning English. On my way to the office I listen to the ESL Podcast or news programs in English on podcast. I have my compositions corrected on lang-8 and, as I mentioned, I try to write on weblog, twitter and facebook in English. At least my writing ability in English has improved.
But one of the main problems with the English education in Japanese public education system is teaching proper pronunciations. I took a Chinese language class at university. Since Chinese has many pronunciations that Japanese doesn’t have, it’s difficult for Japanese people to master Chinese pronunciations. Our teacher took plenty of time to train pronunciations early in our class. I'm just a beginner of Chinese, but I can pronounce Chinese better than English. I don't have any experience where Chinese speakers don’t understand what I say in Chinese. But I can't distinguish between "R" and "L", so sometimes I can't communicate in English that well. I wish I could have mastered English pronunciation when I began to learn English in junior high school. Now I have the opportunity to get used to conversations in English, but it’s difficult to correct my English pronunciation.
In Japan English education in primary school is being discussed I don't mind it. To master a foreign language, learners have to be immersed in it deeply for a certain amount of time and they can't do it only in public education. It may be no matter when students begin to study English. The only thing which I want to advise is teaching pronunciation enough at the beginning of English education.