I’ve just come back from a two-week trip to the Philippines, where English is an official language along with the local Filipino language.
English was brought to the Philippines during the 1896-1946 American occupation and it still enjoys official status. This does not mean that everyone understands or speaks English, but it does mean that exposure to the language is so widespread that those who do speak it can communicate quite fluently. I was also impressed that people who had never stepped outside the Philippines were nevertheless fluent in English.
How can a nation acquire a second language so proficiently despite some claims that as many as 27.8 percent of Filipino school-age children either don’t attend, or never finish, elementary school?
It’s all in the approach to learning English. The Philippines not only teaches English in its schools but also provides its population with another tool crucial to language acquisition: exposure.
In all parts of the country, English signs abound, and they are not there for foreign tourists. “Don’t block the driveway,” say signs on the roads in Cebu. “House for sale,” informs a signboard in front of a dwelling in the countryside. Company logos, road signs and advertisements are in English. (Think about it: Are any of those things taught in a regular textbook-based English-language class?) As a result, most Filipinos learn English both inside and outside the classroom. It is not just about teaching English in schools but learning it through life experience too.
When I stepped into a taxi in Manila, the driver was listening to a radio program that featured two pundits discussing a recent bus accident in both official languages. The discussion took place in Filipino, with the commentator repeating the arguments and conclusions in English. This not only encourages English acquisition; it also allows people like me, an English-only speaker, to understand the conversations and issues in the program. While the bus accident may have been newsworthy enough to make it into the mainstream English news, I never could have hoped to hear such in-depth analysis of the event from a local point of view in the way this radio program allowed me to.
I should mention that the commentator used natural English, not the slow, instructional English you often hear in Japan that is used specifically for teaching. Rather than being an English language-learning radio program, this was regular radio reporting in the Philippines.
The country also presents national and world news in English on TV. These are not translations of Filipino-language news but news reported in English by Filipino anchors. In Japan, if you don’t speak or read Japanese, you must rely on slow, painful interpretation into often-unnatural English provided by Japan’s select TV news stations. This means that the news media themselves decide what Japanese news should be available in the English language.
If the government hopes to meet its goal of attracting 300,000 international students to Japanese universities by 2020, it should consider how the Philippines has significantly increased its foreign student enrollment: Top universities in the country teach all their classes in English. As a result, the Philippines is attracting foreign students from Iran, Libya, Brazil, Russia, China and yes, even Japan, to earn graduate and postgraduate degrees.
The Philippines offers one more alternative for people who would normally look at much more expensive schools in the United States, Britain and Australia. For Japan, teaching university classes in English would surely help attract more foreign students, as well as potentially position more Japanese universities in the world’s top 100.
It is hard to overemphasize the role of exposure in learning a second language. Not only does it allow people to experience the language firsthand in real situations, but exposure provides reinforcement — something Japanese students rarely, if ever, get outside the classroom.
Perhaps this is why Japanese students often major in English at university — as if English were a career — rather than choosing a profession such as teaching, engineering or medicine, where a knowledge of English would enhance their qualifications. As long as English is treated as a subject rather than a method of communication, students will get little exposure outside the classroom.
Some Japanese companies realize the importance of English for communication. The Renault-Nissan alliance implemented an English-only policy for its global communications more than 10 years ago, while other Japanese firms have done so more recently: Rakuten (2010), Fast Retailing (2012), Bridgestone (2013) and, in November, Honda, have all designated English as their global working language; Honda expects its employees to learn English if they don’t already speak it, or to use an interpreter.
It takes a certain amount of determination to learn a second language, and this is what the Japanese government lacks. Adding more English classes earlier in elementary school and having some lessons taught in the target language are all improvements, but the real problem is that Japan doesn’t treat English as a means of communication, nor as a vital way to make Japan globally competitive. Japan should consider not just better ways to teach English but better ways to learn it.
English is an official language in 60 countries. While making it an official language in Japan might be going a bit far, it couldn’t hurt to make English the de facto language of education.