The “Mild Crisis” of the English Language in Japan
With its great history, unparalleled economic development, cultural richness, and culinary diversity, Japan offers its visitors experiences marked by novelty and distinctiveness. Yet, once visitors cross the threshold of this Brave New World, the English language seizes to be the anchor dropped in a foreign country to secure one’s stay. For example, there are few signboards or warning signs in English that provide detailed directions or safety instructions. It is also not easy to ask public bus drivers for directions when you only speak English. Restaurants that offer menus in foreign languages are a rarity and the ones that do, prominently display the information.
As with most non-English speaking industrialized countries, national economic growth (including foreign trade) is based on political, social, and cultural progress, independent of the use of foreign languages, especially English (MEXT, 1963). For developing countries, whose economies are undergoing political and structural change, knowledge of English is essential for economic and human capital development. The language issue is a complex one, particularly for English, promoted as preparing people to study abroad and manage globalized conditions while others see it as a “cultural invasion” (Saitman, 2019).
A favor for the English Language depends on how developed the country is
Upon comparison between two of the most densely populated Asian cities – Jakarta and Tokyo – the results show that on average Indonesians living in Jakarta demonstrate higher levels of English language proficiency than Japanese living in Tokyo. Indonesians tend to adopt English as a means of communication not only with foreigners but also among members of the Indonesian community. I am referring only to the capitals of the two countries as capital cities and metropolitan areas drive national economic growth and are home to a big portion of the populations.
From an economic perspective, Indonesia is gradually establishing its presence on the global economic scene and this is how English has become instrumental in the process. In the developing world, English has proven to offer an economic advantage. A powerful country such as Japan, however, which has already earned its economic dominance, feels less pressured to adopt the English language as a means to enter the global market economy. In a developed country, especially one with a robust domestic economy, English, while still important, is not seen as an essential skill necessary for economic advancement.
From a social perspective, even though in varying degrees, both Japan and Indonesia look up to the West and try to emulate different aspects of it. Nevertheless, only the developing world sees the act of conversing in English as “cool”. For some Indonesians, mastery of English has become increasingly tied to social standing. The ability to speak in English is seen as a status symbol and in extreme cases, people take pride in their ability to speak poor Indonesian.
Post-colonial countries, such as Indonesia, undergo erosion of the indigenous political, cultural, social, and economic customs. As a result, the population of such countries demonstrate weak sense of national identity, making their population more susceptible and permeable to outside influence, including language acquisition and usage. The sense of cultural pride closely correlates with the population’s drive to “trade off” their native language for a language that provides better social standing. English language proficiency for people from the developing world promise higher social status followed by career advancement.
Language and culture are inter-dependent, shape each other, and are dimensions of each other (Brown, E. et.al, p. 105). Language is a system of signs, organized according to various linguistic (and cultural) codes, that encapsulates and embodies cultural values. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of a language influences the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world or otherwise affects their cognitive processes (Lucy, J.A, 2001).
Language reveals many things about the identity of a given community. Indonesian language, for example, is quite simple. There are no endings to add to verbs in order to indicate if the action is completed, taking place at the moment, or will happen in the future. You simply add a certain word depending on which tense you want to use.
As a country in political and economic transition, with the largest non-ruling communist party in the world back in the days, Indonesian culture exhibits elements of socialism and peasant-worker identity, characterized by sincerity and simplicity (Wieringa, S. p. 273). Its language, therefore, has developed to serve the communication needs of its people. Japanese language, on the other hand, with its thousands of characters, each requiring from one to twenty-three strokes to write, is much more complex than the English (p.39, Skouson). It reflects the detail-oriented mindset of the Japanese people. The kanji characters themselves, thought as pictographs of the concepts they represent, communicate an important aspect of Japanese culture and communication. The use of symbolic language is closely tied to the use of gestures and non-verbal communication.
Filled with national pride, Japanese people hold onto their culture and identity through every means possible, including language. Therefore, in order for the Japanese to take English language acquisition more ‘seriously’, English needs to be recognized as an essential element of what it means to be Japanese without the compromise of national identity. When an inseparable relationship is built between the Japanese identity and the English language, people would be naturally inclined to learn and use the language as a manifestation of their identity. English can be integrated into the identity of the citizens through textbooks, mass media (news channels, newspapers, etc), pop culture, and the environment in order to make sure that it is interwoven into the cultural fabric of the society.
Day by day, more and more loanwords are appearing and are being used by Japanese. People in Japan start to appreciate the positive images that these words convey such as newness, coolness, sophistication, and so on (Ozaki, 2014). The use of imported words is gradually starting to confer status on the speaker. Thanks to local brands such as AEON and Meiji, the use of the loanword sutoroberī when referring to the flavor of yoghurt is expanding significantly. The question, however, is if learning and using individual loanwords without the ability to put them together by knowledge of the English language sentence structure would lead to successful usage of the English language. Or it merely brings about fundamental changes in the Japanese language, “drowning out perfectly good Japanese expressions” (Ebeid, 2016). At the same time, this raises the concern that this process might be alienating the Japanese from their identity.
What’s the Status of the Current English Education System in Japan?
Aware of the relatively low level of English language proficiency among the average Japanese, one would naturally call into question the English language curriculum in Japanese secondary schools (at least). Similar to many other public schools around the world, classes in Japanese schools adopt teacher-centered approaches that require students to digest passively a large amount of content by memorizing vocabulary and learning set grammar patterns. What’s missing is the practical application of the knowledge and the development of students’ communication skills in English.
One might want to conclude that the very organized and thorough approach to ESL – with the implementation of the English language curriculum in primary schools, with the introduction of the communicative approach in English language classes, and with the assistance of native English language teachers from the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program – has resulted in a generally high proficiency of English in Japan.
Outside of their classrooms, when faced by a foreigner, young Japanese students have a hard time using English in casual daily conversations (at times, they even prefer taking the shortcut by stating that they don’t speak English). Sending Japanese students abroad and ‘forcing’ them to apply the language for mere survival – asking for directions, buying food, etc – might potentially have a far more impactful result.
What can be done to improve the English language proficiency of Japanese learners?
How to provide a rich English language experience with the use of stimulating activities? Things that could be done can ensure results of varying degrees both in the short and in the long term. One thing that can be done at the present moment to help primary and secondary school students build their English communication skills and gain motivation is to integrate more creative methods of teaching such as role-play activities for primary school students and drama-based classes for secondary school students. Such an approach would help bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and application by allowing learners to functionally use the language in a more natural setting.
The second course of action, and undeniably the more promising one, in the long run, is introducing and immersing Japanese children in the English language from the earliest age. And that’s where the role of the English-language immersion kindergartens or preschools comes into play as they represent the most futile grounds for natural second language acquisition by merely exposing children to the second language and letting them absorb it and reproduce it naturally.
A common element among some of the non-native English speaking nations with the highest English language proficiency is that English language teaching starts at a very early age and can be seen and heard on a daily basis. The Netherlands followed by Sweden, Denmark, and Norway top the rankings of the most fluent English speakers.
Along with the widely held assumption that it is considerably more difficult to learn a second language in adulthood, teaching children English allows for natural, close to the first language, acquisition, in which children acquire language without thinking how it is working functionally. We should benefit from the fact that only 1% of children ages 3 to 5 show signs of an anxiety (fear of people, places, and things).
The Need for a Language
Adults must see a reason for learning something. We are ready to learn something only when we experience a need to learn it. Whether we want to continue your academic or professional career or engage in a desired passion or profession, education helps meet life- and work-related needs and objectives. With regards to language, “if the need for [it] is present in order to interact with others, study, play with friends, and so on, then that language will continue to be acquired and retained” (Grosjean, F.)
In a highly homogenous society, however, the need to learn English in order to play and interact with others on a daily basis is virtually nonexistent. Social interaction in English and experiences that are achieved through the use of foreign language is limited to the classroom.
In contrast, early age children do not need to see a reason or experience a need for learning. They use learning merely for pleasure and as a source of exploration. According to the proponents of constructivism, we do not learn a language in order to communicate. First, we try to communicate, and, in the attempt, we learn a language. Meaning is constructed by the learner through experience (Arends, 1998).
In the early to mid teens, when children become conscious of the concept of time, the learning process shifts to one of hunting, protecting, and procreating. (Brian J. Boeheim, p. 84). In our modern-day society, learning has taken the form of a source of liberation and a tool for social change.
To all those who have some experience teaching English in either a developed or developing country, what are some of your thoughts, impressions, and experiences? What else can be done to either assist older students in consciously discerning the benefit of learning English or to engage younger students with the English language in a way that allows them to comprehend and reproduce it naturally?
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Ebeid, E. Ahmed, Are Loanwords a Threat to the Japanese Language, 2016 https://www.nippon.com/en/column/g00195/#
Grosjean, François, Nurturing Bilingualism in Children: The Strategies Used to Help Children Become Bilingual, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-bilingual/201104/nurturing-bilingualism-in-children
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Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html