When I used to teach English at university, I was sure to leave an impression on my students on their first day of class. I’d tell them that as Japanese speakers, they could only speak with a mere 130 million people. But if they could learn English, they would be able to communicate with 500 million to 1 billion people. This is why you need to learn English, I told them. Heads invariably nodded, and students turned to each other and exclaimed “naruhodo!” (Indeed!). I had caught their attention.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The average person could never communicate with 130 million people, let alone 1 billion. Most people have meaningful interaction with only a few hundred. Perhaps thousands in an entire lifetime. You may reach millions via media such as TV or Twitter, but if one-way communication is all you’re after, you could get a translator to do that for you. Even Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara had people translating their message throughout the world via the media.

But one thing I learned as a teacher was that students were only as good as I expected them to be. If I expected them to do nothing, they would do nothing. Expect them to scale Mount Everest, however, and they would try, even with no specialized climbing skills. And they would get frostbite trying.

So it’s no surprise that I wake up sweating some nights. The nightmare is always the same: an irate student, forcing her twisted frostbitten fingers into a fist, and holding it to my face while screaming, “You promised me a bright future if I learned English! You said learning English would help my employability and that I’d gain an international perspective! You and your haughty institution lured me to your school with glossy brochures showing Japanese students sharing conversations with beautiful blue-eyed foreigners, suggesting that their beauty and worldliness would rub off on me, or that at least I’d get a date with one of them. I believed those TV commercials with Ryo Ishikawa saying Speed-Learning had helped him rise to the top of his golf career. I was led to believe that I’d be a better person, a more beautiful human being, a successful golfer — all if I could just learn English! Yet look at me now. I speak fluent English, I’m unemployed, ugly and un-datable. Besides that, I have a terrible personality. No one will even play golf with me.”

One thing Japanese people don’t seem to have considered is the possibility that English communication savvy depends more on your personality and social skills than it does on language skills. Which is why so many Japanese people who speak beautiful English languish in the sidelines of the more robust, debate-laden English conversation that foreigners speak.

It’s not the language that’s so hard to acquire, it’s the culture. Once I understood the power of the word “hazukashii” (shy) and its importance to Japanese society, I realized most students don’t have a chance when it comes to English conversation with foreigners. In Japan shy is cute, shy is polite and shy is good manners. Indeed, it is one of the factors that makes Japan so docile and bearable. No verbal diatribes, no imposing demands, no road rage. People are patient and wait their turn without complaint. Students will never question their teacher’s judgment.

Unless a Japanese person lives abroad for at least a year, it’s tough for them to shake the notion that this weak, unimposing persona is a virtue. And one can hardly expect them to change personas on demand every time they speak English.

But even if you speak only broken English, if you can jump over that cultural barrier, you can make yourself understood better than the person sitting patiently on the sidelines for a chance to get in a word of articulate English.

Usually, it is those Japanese who have spent time abroad who learn English conversation techniques needed for robust English interaction. They learn to debate, how to disagree, how to accept compliments, and when to throw consensus out the window.

Bilinguals don’t seem to have this problem — they automatically change personas when switching between two languages. Why can they do this so easily? Because they’re not second-language learners! The fact that they are bilingual, and learned both languages as native languages, allows them to sail across the cultural alligator pit.

So it’s no wonder more Japanese are heading to Southeast Asian countries to live, with one of the goals being to give their children an international experience where they can learn English in a competitive environment. Once in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand or the Philippines, they enroll their children in international schools with the confidence that their children will not only learn the English language, but will also learn how to use it in an international environment. They understand that the cultural is just as important as the language when it comes to jumping over alligator pits.

It was once widely believed that English fluency was the answer to Japan’s problems. Maybe it was, when Japan was headed towards internationalization and had a chance to make fundamental changes. But it’s a different world now. Japan is a nation in decline. No amount of English is going to cure the larger ills of corruption, a stagnating economy, and population decline.

If we’re going to teach college students English, we need to also teach them cultural skills needed to apply their English. Like a good coach who knows theory but must also make sure his players have the skills and experience to play the game, teachers must prepare students with the skills necessary to implement their English. Going a step further, we should also be grooming students in English ethics, economics, immigration, and of course, alligator wrestling.

Because English on its own is just that — English. If that’s all it is ever going to be, then I suggest a change in curriculum. We may as well replace the English classes with knitting classes.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.