Three ways to jump-start English abilities in time for 2020

Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,

Although most people know a great deal about your “Abenomics” project by now, one of its most important goals is not well known or appreciated: to increase English proficiency in the country. The main plank of the plan is to increase the number of English teachers and assistant language teachers (ALTs) in Japan, a move that should help the country greatly.

However, you should be aware that many people in Tokyo already speak reasonably good English. The real problem is that they are afraid of making mistakes, which is why they decline to speak it.

I have worked for eight years at a company in Tokyo but speak only halting Japanese. Some of my colleagues speak very good English while others don’t — or at least I supposed they didn’t. During one internal seminar, however, one of the co-workers that I thought did not speak English was asked a question in the language and, to my great surprise, he responded in perfect English. This is an extreme example, but I often find that if I speak slowly and am willing to pause for an answer, Japanese people will speak to me in English. It’s all about increasing the comfort level to the point that people are unafraid to try.

Your government and the Japanese people are of course eager to deliver a successful Olympics, and part of this will depend on how well you communicate in the most common language spoken among the visitors. Thus, there will likely be many further efforts made to encourage English in the run-up to the games. You, Prime Minister, and your Liberal Democratic Party have a number of ideas about how to boost English levels in schools, and this is a good long-term strategic goal. Other plans could be adopted that would address the same issue among the workforce that will interact with foreigners through 2020.

It is difficult to force people to learn English, and thus, programs such as those outlined below would encourage this effort, while at the same time providing jobs for English teachers and ALTs:

1. Corporate English-speaking days: Already, several Japanese companies, such as Bridgestone, Fast Retailing and Rakuten, have made English their official language at work. At the very least, you should suggest that most Tokyo-based companies begin designating two workdays per month as English-speaking days. This would not need to be strictly enforced, but, coupled with other efforts along the same lines, it should increase the comfort with speaking English among a wide array of professionals.

2. “Let’s Try English” lapel buttons could be worn by taxi drivers and other workers that foreigners are likely to encounter. Of course, this would be voluntary, but it would encourage foreigners (and likely some Japanese as well) to make the crucial first step in striking up conversation and thereby boosting fluency. After five years of wearing these buttons, English could be a second language for a great many more Tokyoites.

3. English-speaking high school and college students should be encouraged to volunteer two hours a week to tutor Tokyo adults via Skype or phone. Foreign workers should also be encouraged to spend some time each week tutoring voluntarily. Simple educational material could be provided by the government on the Internet, and conversations could be free-flowing.

These plans would greatly assist Japan. The country should not become too Western, but supporting the Olympics and increasing the competitiveness of Japan, both in international markets and as a tourist destination, are worthy goals.


Chief Global Strategist, Nikko Asset Management Co., Ltd., Tokyo

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