The “Mild Crisis” of the English Language in Japan
With its great history, unparalleled economic development, cultural richness and culinary diversity, Japan acts as a magnet for all those who are hungry for a journey marked by novelty and distinctiveness. Yet, once visitors to Japan cross the threshold of this Brave New World, they experience a dramatic communication-clash. They are shaken by the reality of Japan as not quite internationalized as they had understandably anticipated as a result of its economic, technological, and scientific development. For example, there are few signboards in English that provide detailed directions and it is also not easy to ask public bus drivers for directions when you only speak English. It is often said that many Japanese feel hesitant to speak in English and do not seem confident about spontaneously communicating in English. As the world is getting smaller and flatter, English is seen as the major facilitator in this inevitable process of globalization. If one desires to benefit from all that the global village has to offer, a certain level of English language proficiency, especially in oral skills, is essential.
The Developed World Seems to Show Less Favor for the English Language
Eager to dive into a more developed and “civilized” country than Indonesia, I was literally shocked by the fact that on average Indonesians living in Jakarta are better off than Japanese living in Tokyo in terms of discerning the value of learning English. I am referring only to the capitals of the two countries as they are the major economic and financial hubs where people must be more likely to see the benefits the English language offers. From an economic perspective, Indonesia is gradually establishing its presence on the world (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, does not feel the urgency and need to adopt the English language as a way to enter the play. In a developed country, especially one with a robust domestic economy, English, while still important, is not considered as a necessary skill 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, speaking in English is seen as “cool” only in the developing world. For some Indonesians, mastery of English has become increasingly tied to social standing. The ability to speak English is seen as a status symbol and in extreme cases people take pride in their ability to speak poor Indonesian . Unlike that of Japan, Indonesian’s identity is more diffused and weaker hence making Indonesia more susceptible and permeable to Western influence, including language acquisition and usage.
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 which 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 would assume that with the introduction of the communicative approach in English language classes, with the assistance of native English language teachers from the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, and with the implementation of the English language curriculum in primary schools, the level of students’ English language abilities would increase significantly yet that’s not quite the case. Outside of their classrooms, when faced by a foreigner, Japanese youngsters 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).
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 which could be done can ensure results of varying degrees both in the short and in the long term. One thing which 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 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.
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?