According to EF Education First’s English Proficiency Index for 2013, English ability among Japanese is flat-lining — and may even be falling — “despite enormous private investment.”

In a damning assessment, EF concludes that “In the past six years, Japanese adults have not improved their English. If anything, their skills have declined slightly. During the same period, other Asian countries, most notably Indonesia and Vietnam, have made enormous progress. Despite being a far wealthier and more developed country, Japan is struggling to teach its students English for use in a competitive global economy.”

Newspaper headlines constantly speak of tweaks and reforms to English education here, yet school lessons remain teacher-centered and grammar-heavy, with much of the instruction conducted in Japanese. This means “students have no opportunity to practice or apply new skills,” EF says, meaning many Japanese lack confidence when it comes to speaking English despite spending years learning the language.

“Since the ranking is always a comparison to other countries, it indicates that other Asian countries have changed their education system,” explains EF Japan President Junnosuke Nakamura. “In Japan, we have not actually changed anything at a fundamental level. For example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government recently sent their English teachers abroad to try and improve their level of English, and it is a first step. But too often in our schools, a Japanese national is teaching English in Japanese, and English must be taught in English. So we really need to change the fundamental way of teaching at the earliest level.

“Japanese people sometimes hesitate to speak English, but in reality we do not need to reach native level, with perfect English, in order to communicate,” argues Nakamura. “To communicate is the most important thing, so we need to get rid of this barrier, especially in the workplace. Trying to communicate, trying to say what you think — not speaking perfect English — that is important.”

A current global trend in language learning could help: the teaching of English as a lingua franca (ELF). Unlike the similar-looking acronym EFL (English as a foreign language), which targets native-level fluency, ELF involves approaching the language as a common tongue between non-native speakers. Literally meaning “Frankish tongue,” lingua franca originally referred to the mixture of Italian, French, Greek, Arabic, and Spanish used in Mediterranean trade for centuries. Much more recently, and particularly in Europe, the ELF approach has become increasingly popular among linguists and teachers of English, who see the idea as a natural fit for the increasingly globalized world we live in.

Advocates of English as a lingua franca are open to models of non-native English, such as Singlish (Singapore English) and variations of Indian English, emphasize communication over grammatical perfection and stress the importance of building relationships, accommodating the other speaker’s language level and working toward shared understanding. In the classroom, English is taught with specific communication goals in mind rather than with grammatical drills, even allowing for non-standard grammatical patterns, provided communication is achieved.

Mike Handford, a professor of linguistics at the University of Tokyo, welcomes this global shift toward accepting a variety of English standards.

“In terms of research into language and language teaching — and a lot of this comes from Noam Chomsky — the native speaker is the model and the idea is to become like a native speaker for success as a second language learner,” he says. “But the reality is, it is virtually impossible to become like a native speaker in another language. By setting up the native speaker as the only model, you are setting up your students to fail.”

Non-native speakers far outnumber native English speakers around the world. According to the British Council, over 750 million people use English as a foreign language compared to only 375 million people who speak it as their first language. With at least 75 countries listing English as a “special status” language, ELF opens up the linguistic floodgates to a torrent of English from a wide range of international sources.

“If Japan could become aware of different communication techniques, using English as a lingua franca for more functional purposes, that makes a lot of sense,” says linguist Paul Cunningham of Rikkyo University. “I think it’s fair to say Japan has not interfaced well with globalization and is really missing out on what globalization has to offer.”

Both professors admit there are still many hurdles to overcome before teaching English as a lingua franca takes off in Japan. A quick scroll through popular job listing sites for English teachers in Japan reveals an almost universal demand for native speakers, but Handford relates how his daughter’s current assistant language teacher at her public elementary school in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, is Filipino — something he believes “10 years ago would have been unusual, but now is more common with the acceptance of a variety of English models.”

Communication involves more than language skills, Handford argues: Flexibility and interpersonal skills are equally as important.

“The way that somebody talks to their parents about what happened at school is completely different to the way they will talk to their friends, and it is not only vocabulary — it’s body language, it’s attitude; in some ways they become different people. Once students are made aware of their multiple identities in communication, it is easier to transfer that idea to language.”

“There has been a greater recognition around the world that native monolingual speakers are often not very good in international situations another reason they may be not be the ideal language model for communication.” For example, “American or British monolingual teachers may lack empathy or the skill sets of trying to communicate in a second language,” Handford says. “A good English speaker using it as a second language in a lingua franca tradition may be much better at these kinds of interpersonal skills, making accommodations for their listener’s language level, empathizing with someone whose language skills may not be high.”

For the Japanese business world to truly accept the ELF model, all aspects of intercultural communication must be taught, Handford says — including the development of multiple identities in work situations.

“Japan has historically emphasized or exaggerated its cultural differences, the cultural uniqueness of Japan. It causes problems for Japanese speakers of another language, as they immediately feel the differences, and this can hamper communication,” Handford argues. “Developing a more dynamic notion of identity, realizing there are far more similarities across cultures than differences — to encourage learners to appreciate this can be quite empowering. By making students aware of their multiple identities when using other languages, it allows them to behave differently in appropriate situations more consciously and strategically.”

Cunningham adds: “Language is the basis of building intercultural awareness, and Japanese as a language can be quite insular. Japan’s culture and society emphasize sameness. There’s positives, of course, as that attitude builds a cohesive structure for society here, but at the same time, it can make it difficult to communicate outside the cultural norm.”

Cunningham believes the best way for anyone to develop an idea of multiple identities for intercultural communication is by traveling outside their home countries. A requirement in Rikkyo’s Intercultural Communication Department, where Cunningham works, is that every student spends one full semester overseas.

“Living abroad and having that experience to live immersed in a different perspective is an invaluable experience,” says Cunningham. “It’s not all about language. By looking at the world through a different lens, students can build off that experience to become more receptive to different contexts and situations, and that is an accomplishment towards intercultural communication.”

According to Handford, “The key theme is really looking at communication from a cultural perspective and not just from a perspective on nationality. A lot of people assume it is only about the different nationalities or English levels of the speakers, but in work situations, often intercultural communication has more to do with the organizational culture or the professional cultures. So when engineers are talking to salespeople, for example, there can be a cultural divide that will cause problems. What is important is to step outside whatever cultural frame exists — ‘I am Japanese, and this is how we do things,’ or ‘I am an architect, this is how I communicate’ — and recognize we all have different identities in different situations.”

Handford uses presentation skills as a further illustration.

“It is quite acceptable in Japan to put a lot of the information on one slide, in companies or in universities, and the justification is that the slides are also the official record of what is presented,” he says. “Yet in the U.K., Japanese presenters would be criticized for reading off the slides without much eye contact, even if their language skills are perfect. It’s a different set of norms, and it is important to encourage language learners to develop their multiple identities for communication along with their language use, to be aware that there are different norms out there for good communication.”

Like any educational trend, ELF has plenty of detractors. Handford admits sometimes the students themselves are resistant to the idea of communicating in less than “perfect” English.

“Students still typically look at the native speaker as their model, so it is a tricky issue,” he says. “You do not want to demotivate students, but just in terms of pronunciation, if you start studying a new language after the age of 12, native-level pronunciation may be physically impossible in any language.”

Leslie Lorimer, author of “First Encounter with Real English” and the head of International Academic Consultants, a language school in Kamakura, finds native speakers are still in demand from her main clients: children of returnees and bicultural families who have a base in bilingualism to begin with.

“As for the lingua franca model, I completely agree that a language should be taught to enable the student to communicate with others. As long as the student is communicating, whether it’s with body language or a string of words, whether the sentence is grammatically correct or not, we try not to stop them and correct them,” Lorimer says. “However, I do believe that it is best for the children to learn from native English speakers so that they don’t have to try to unlearn the ‘katakana English’ that they will inevitably learn in school,” Lorimer says. “Whether this is right or wrong could no doubt be debated, but at the moment there is a demand, and I try very hard to find native English speakers for my students. This isn’t to say that I hire them just because they are native speakers, though, since I don’t believe that you’re a natural teacher just because you speak the language.”

Incorporating the lingua franca model into business English may be a start, but Cunningham believes it is important to influence students at a young age, not only with language study but with techniques of intercultural communication. At the end of July, Rikkyo University hosted the first Super Global Summer Course, pairing up with Tamagawa Academy, a private school in Machida, Tokyo, to offer three days of workshops “aimed at increasing intercultural awareness and competency” among high school students. Seminar topics included the role of culture and language in diplomatic relations and how to use critical thinking skills when defining the concept of culture. Based on its success, Cunningham hopes there will be more opportunities to promote collaborative learning across all levels of education.

“It is a great thing to reach out and try to implement some of the MEXT (education ministry) directives in education, to spread the ideas of intercultural communication, to give high school students a different way to look at what they’ve been learning, and to provide them with different tools to encourage critical thinking skills and learning autonomy from a wider perspective, regardless of their English language level,” he says.

Handford continues: “Organizational levels, differences in profession, age or gender — all these cultures impact communication, and miscommunication occurs when we misjudge other people’s intentions, when we judge according to our own cultural framework. Encouraging speakers to reserve judgment, to be open — it’s a lifelong learning process that expands beyond language acquisition.”

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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.