Japan should take English lessons from Philippines


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.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • windontree

    Probably the best ‘exposure’ to language are the TV shows and Movies. If kids are engrossed in trying to understand and follow the storylines, they will be better equpped to pick up the nuances of conversational English. On the other hand, soon enough Google translate and other techy “aids” might eventually start degrading the advances of trying to learn new languages.

    • Agreed! TV shows and movies helped me a lot in learning English since my elementary school days. Learning became natural. American English is so different from textbook English. You should also learn how to use idioms.

  • Perhaps the best reform would be to stop testing students on English and direct elementry school and high school English teaching to learning and using idiomatic English. I think a testing regime may be good for math and sciences, but the emphasis on testing in English discourages use.

  • Ur Septim

    I think it would be a mistake to force a nation to adopt another language so it can field more people to multinational corporations. What about cultural preservation? Japan is renowned for its cultural history. Learning a language that originate from another place other than your country, may it be English or not, is a gateway in diminishing one’s cultural identities. I know it because I experienced it first hand along with millions of Filipinos. I believe it should be the motivation of an individual to learn a language not a policy of the nation. May I remind the writer that the Philippines was subjugated to learn a new language (Spanish) when Spain conquered us, but replaced with yet another language (English) when America occupied us.

    • Armored Knight

      So when Japanese and other immigrants come to America and don’t learn English its defended as celebrating “Diversity”..but in homogenous Japan its called “protecting culture”…Fail

  • Firas Kraïem

    “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.”

    Without meaning any offense to the Philippines, the country is not really comparable to Japan. It would be more accurate to compare Japan to, say, Germany or France. Would you suggest those countries “make English the de facto language of education” in lieu of German and French?

  • djstout

    Oh dear this is going to far! What article is this? So English should be an official? Why not French, Italian, German or even Chinese? Japan has never been colonised in the past and thats the reason why they don’t speak any other languages than Japanese. Why are some native English so self-centered? Not everybody can speak English and it is a totally normal thing, plus most foreigners visiting or living in Japan are native Chinese (Taiwanese, Chinese) so actually Japan could easily exchange English for Chinese at school.

    • Ashley Simpson

      @djstout…didn’t the Japanese try to destroy the chinese during WW2? I read somewhere that they’re not “han” like the chinese/taiwanese/koreans are, so there still seems to be a lot of hate/animosity against the chinese and also several disputes beween them over the years as well. The Japanese’ strong & very close links with the Americans will probably favour English too.

      • djstout

        Well that’s where you are wrong, I lived in Taiwan (played for a Japanese football team there), I am married to a Chinese (living in Japan) and I work with Chinese, the media are brain washing us with those things. None of my friends (Chinese or Taiwanese) have any problems with Japanese, they actually love it here and like Japanese very much. When I was playing for that Japanese team in Taiwan, those Taiwanese were very nice and polite to us, while those white guys (I am white too) often made awful jokes about us while playing, I heard many times the words “sushi, monkey, yellow and others” to describe my team mates.

      • djstout

        Oh and by the way, Philippines were taken by Americans, they had no choice, it was like Taiwan by the Japanese.

  • mark_john21

    I agree. As a Filipino who was schooled in the English medium of instruction, I really find it easy to learn other foreign languages. Some years back when I first arrived in Egypt, I thought Arabic was too difficult to learn. With a sound background in English, learning it became easy for me compared to those other international students who can only speak their own native languages.

    • Franz Pichler

      so a sound background in English helped you learn arabic… hm, so so…… isn’t it that you’re just smart? English and arabic can’t be more different from each other….

      • mark_john21

        I agree. But English has the best word reference to Arabic when looking for word meanings and even the grammar.

  • Kenji Chida

    English is one of the official languages of the Philippines but even there how could you live a full life without knowing one of the local languages? So you can imagine the situation in Japan. The costs of studying in Japan outweigh the benefits at this point. Looking at the Philippines, Hong Kong or wherever does not translate here. In a nutshell, Japan would have to overcome some serious chauvinistic tendencies to be attractive to foreign students.

  • happyjapan

    The most effective exposure to English would be to hire native English speaking qualified teachers as proper full time employees and allow them to deliver their own curricula in core subjects through English.However, Japan is too racist to do this. Until people in Japan start to address the flat out racism in how NJ are treated, this country will continue its downward slide, IMO

  • Rubeno

    Expecting the entire world to watch English-language programs “to improve their English” rather than local ones is completely Anglo-centric in itself.
    As for “forcing personal ideas over reality”: I’ve met expatriates that after 10 years hadn’t even bothered to learn how to say ‘hello’ in the local language because, “you know, it’s nationally restricted”, but this would actually describe themselves.
    Finally, you seem to think that respect and reciprocity are not a “practical issue”. Yet, medium and attitudes are part of human communication, sometimes the most important. The issue remains that non-English speakers are expected to shut up, listen and learn, and are advised on how to learn English by people blatantly monolingual.