11 March 2008

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #1

Note: This is the first of a series that is supposed to make it to at least ten short installments (Ten reasons why...). However, readers' comments are welcomed and will be added as reasons in the main series, with full credit given.

Reason #1: Japan is linguistically and culturally self-sufficient

Japan is linguistically and culturally self-sufficient.

That is an overstatement because modern, developed Japan clearly imports and assimilates ideas, cultural products, technology, etc. from the rest of the world. It does this in much the same way many developed countries do. However, that does not mean I agree with the long-held view that Japan (and other Asian cultures) are simply imitators, not originators. That is one of those numerous self-swallowing, clich├ęd assumptions held by many that one could waste a lifetime arguing against because one has to assume it is true simply to discuss it.

So let us look at some basic facts. Japan has a population of just under 128 million; that makes it one of the world's 'populous' countries. It is also the world's number two political economy in terms of size and always ranks high in per capita measurements and development indicators.

Most of Japan's relatively large population is considered 'native-born' Japanese. This description also could be used to include the single largest ethnic group, 'Korean'. Despite considerable dialect variation in the spoken language (including Okinawan, which could be considered a separate language or group of dialects) , most native-born Japanese learn and use a standard dialect of Japanese for education, literacy, and formal social relations (such as the conduct of business).

Unlike a country with a relatively small population, Japan's national language is not threatened--not even perturbed--by such phenomena as 'global English'. Most Japanese do not need to access directly information, news and innovative ideas from outside their culture through the use of global English. Instead, most Japanese live in a country that uses translation and interpretation on an enormous, commercial scale in order to bring in outside information.

In addition to translation and interpretation, there is another important process that keeps Japan using Japanese almost exclusively. The Japanese language brings in a large amount of vocabulary from foreign languages. The first main source is Chinese. The impact of Chinese on modern Japanese is something like that of Norman French and Latin on modern English.

The second main source providing new vocabulary (and sound sequences too) is English.
A good indication of the level to which Japanese 'nativizes' the English it borrows is the role elements acquired from English's lexicon now play in the derivation of new words for the lexicon of Japanese. This is sometimes called 'Japlish'.

Some of these new Japanese Japlish terms have even made it back into English, at least amongst the people who are interested in Japan: OL, salaryman, anime, etc. This sort of phenomenon is hardly unique. First, the Japanese language has already done it quite prominently with morphemes got from long-term contact with Chinese (for example, the Japanese term for 'automobile', 'ji-dou-sha'). Second, look at how new terms in English are derived from discrete elements from Latin and Greek (sometimes the two different types are joined together based on English's own rules for lexical derivation).

Despite the concern of language conservatives that foreign influences are overwhelming Japanese, one could plausibly argue the exact opposite: Because Japanese so readily adopts and adapts vocabulary and morphemes originally from English, the language has become enriched, nuanced and even more capable of expressing ideas and information. Therefore, loan words help to make Japan and Japanese linguistically self-sufficient and lessen the need for most Japanese to engage meaning directly in a foreign language.

Now some proponents and enthusiasts of globalization have said that translation and interpretation can not keep up with the proliferation of new knowledge in order to integrate and assimilate it across cultures and languages. So the concept of 'global English' has been enlisted in support of the larger mission of globalization. A basic formulation is the following: Japan must drastically raise its overall low level of English in its population in order to compete with developed and newly industrialized countries. Some in the government and education have even called for the adoption of English as Japan's official second language.

But most people are going to be practical about knowledge and learning EFL. If they need English to get knowledge, they will try to learn English. That can be stated even more specifically. If they need English to get USABLE knowledge and information for their jobs and personal lives, they will try to learn English.

Another important factor is the non-linguistic aspect of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic contact: that is the social side, or human relations. Since most human relations are created and maintained in Japan using a form of Japanese, there is very little need for inter-personal communication in English.

A good indicator of Japan's relative cultural and linguistic self-sufficiency is its ability to export cultural products, such as J-Pop music, films, television dramas, manga/comics, and anime/animated films.


David Ochi said...

I have heard it said that "the Japanese like to study English, but aren't very interested in learning it."

Do you agree with this sort of assessment?

CEJ said...

The study of English has the potential to be a negative with a lot of individuals because it creates a lot of spread in test scores on entrance examinations to high school and university. Therefore, it can be a disqualifier in high stakes testing.

Some students at universities will say they like learning English with a foreigner because the usual approach is so different than what they have experienced. Actually, we could push this back to the high schools, where there are many JET Programme ALTs, and a class with a foreign teacher is often associated with things like 'pair work' conversation activities.

Many Japanese don't know where their actual English ability is, and therefore they have great difficulty in setting goals for their English study and learning.

Does any of that make sense in answer to the question? I think I could agree with the statement somewhat, but would flip it as well: there are many Japanese keen to study and learn English, but don't know how, and much of education here doesn't serve them. The universities are glaringly deficient because they typically don't place or track students based on abilities, tested proficiencies, or expressed wants and needs.

THANKS for your comments.

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