Could the lingua franca approach to learning break Japan’s English curse?


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

  • Firas Kraïem

    While it’s undeniable that being able to communicate in broken English is preferable to not being able to communicate in English at all, it seems to me that making it the primary objective has the risk of creating an “underclass” of English speakers who won’t be able to communicate in any situation beyond daily conversation. Would someone with ELF level be able to read Shakespeare or Hemingway? Or this article, for that matter? What about doing any kind of formal writing, from academic articles to a simple letter to one’s boss? Sure thing, not everyone wants to become an academic or read Hemingway in the original language, and that’s fine, but setting children up right from the start so that they will not even have a chance seems dangerous to me.

    Contrary to what Handford implies, there are many, many people who learned English as a second language, and became perhaps not identical to a native, but indistinguishable from one in virtually every context. How about using *them* as ALTs, as well as “EFL” people?

    • Michael Handford

      Hi, Mike Handford here. I absolutely agree that expert users of English, who are not ‘native speakers’ should be used as ALTs. That was kind of my point. Personally I have problems with the very term ‘native speaker’, and am not suggesting that first language users of English are superior in ELF contexts – in many situations the opposite may be the case. My point was that, following people like David Graddol, the teaching of English as a foreign language often sets people up to fail, by comparing them to an idealized ‘native speaker’ model.

      • James

        That’s exactly right. They’re the same conclusions a lot of applied linguists have come to as well, most notably Jenkins who came up with it originally if my memory serves me right. The thing that really brings this home is Kachru’s three circles; Japanese people are *much* more likely to speak English to non-native English speakers in real life, and therefore it makes sense that non-native English varieties should be used when it comes to learning English. It is very good to see this approach getting some attention.

        I’ve seen some very recent (2014) studies where they use non-native but comprehensible and intelligible English for listening and speaking training (one in particular used Javier Bardem’s English) to good effect. Non-native language is also a very great way to improve coping strategies too.

  • Thomas Ralph Nissen

    Great article. However, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: university entrance exams. I see this traditional system of evaluation changing, but much too slowly. For me, the final paragraph of the article is the most important.

    • Mark Makino

      Good point, especially since the Ministry of Education has been officially mandating communicative teaching since the 1980s and the stated reason most teachers have for not following the mandate is exactly those exams.

  • Al_Martinez

    While I can’t disagree with the premise that an internationally intelligible English language ability is preferred as a goal, I can’t help but thinking that if this campaign were to gain momentum in Japan, this “goal” would be twisted into a reason to excuse poor English ability.

    Anyway, need drives language acquisition, and most Japanese can get along in their lives without English. If Japan were truly interested in forcing many to learn the language, they would make an independently-administered English competency test required for university graduation–not entrance.

  • Mark Makino

    An important but unfortunately confused article. ELF is not the opposite of EFL. ELF is about appropriate models and goals, not the status of English in the country where it is being taught, which EFL refers to (as compared to ESL). Further, ELF removes the (semi-mythical) native-speaker from its place as the only legitimate goal for language study, and in this the article is correct, but it does not replace it with non-native varieties such as Singlish. ELF rather strikes some features from the list of high-priority goals, such as the third-person “s” and a non-flap “r”, but these are (depending on the author) a list of guidelines rather than a formal system, and certainly not a pre-existing non-native variety. ELF is also not associated with particular styles of teaching, except by coincidence. It is a modern concept, and therefore likely to be known by teachers familiar with communicative language teaching or other modern approaches, but CLT and ELF are completely different issues; teaching methods and learner goals respectively. The article also jumps on the pro-non-NS bandwagon, which is a common knee-jerk reaction when one hears of ELF for the first time. Rather than demeaning NS teachers, we should be demanding qualified teachers of any linguistic background.

  • Tadashi Izumitani

    I’m a graduate student in Japan majoring in English education.
    I agree to the movement of lingua franca. Many people in the world speak difference kinds of English which but can be used for communicating with other people. People should not fear that they can’t speak like native-speakers but focus more on convey and receive messages of one another, especially Japanese people.

    However, as Japanese English teachers, which positions should we take? If we allow students to take position of lingua franca like globish, there is a possibility that they won’t mind what kinds of English they speak like spellings or sounds, isn’t there. Teachers need to set the model, American English or British English. Our identity will be expressed gradually through our understanding of our cultures, I think. And, as this article says, students are provided more opportunities to use English outside Japan. Having such chances, students will think about their identity in the world and that they have to learn language more in order not to pass exams but to communicate.

    • Eija Niskanen

      Don’t you think it is weird that countries, where the English language skills are the highest, are the Scandinavian countries. None of us Scandinavians learned English from native speakers – we all had Swedish or Finnish or Danish teachers to teach English. Japanese seem to have an odd notion that by just having a native English speaker (preferably Caucasian) in the room, the language somehow flies through air to the students.

      • Tadashi Izumitani

        Right. It is meaningless Just to have native speakers as language teachers in the classroom. As you said, non-native speakers are best teachers or advisers for language students. For example, in Japan, Japanese students should learn English from Japanese teachers of English. Japanese English speakers are the model which students want to be, which motivate students to study English more.

      • Gordon Graham

        Japanese teachers who don’t have katakana pronunciation…nothing wrong with an r that sounds like an l or a b that sounds like a v, but the extra vowel sound on every consonant makes it impossible for the Japanese student to understand English spoken by anyone other than a Japanese person who has katakana pronunciation. I’ve been here 27 years. I’m no teacher, but I can tell you, though I’m fluent in Japanese I still can’t understand katakana English…

      • Tadashi Izumitani

        Katakana English…
        This issue is how much katakana English should be accepted. Teachers have a duty to correct students’ pronunciation of English. But, Japanese people sometimes mix their English with their native language, which I think is inevitable for non-native speakers. This situation seems to be confusing for you. I think such a situation is sometimes necessary for language learners. If you feel confused by katakana English, Japanese people will try to choose other words or make what they said in detail, and they will notice they need to brush up on pronunciation, which I think is the real communication with other people in the world.

      • Gordon Graham

        It’s a two way street…Japanese are unable to understand spoken English at a native speaker speed because they’re not used to the cadence of the language. That is, how native speakers tend not to sound the last consonant not only at the end of a word but within a word where the syllable breaks and two consonants are together…Katakana often makes a 3 syllable world a 6 syllable word and as such unintelligible to the listener. The benefit of learning the proper pronunciation at native speaker speed is for listening as much or more than it is for speaking.

      • Mark Makino

        Japanese English teachers, if qualified, are fine, just as NS teachers are. The point is that very few teachers in mandatory education are qualified, and in the absence of experience or training in modern ELT methods Japanese teachers often default to the way they were taught, i.e. translation. The significance of this is that the NS ALT is often the only authority (well, sort of authority) figure who even cares about the communicative content of the language. In an ideal world, NS status would not matter, but in real-world modern Japan it does.

      • Tadashi Izumitani

        Japanese teachers’ teaching skills and English skills are necessary. They need to negotiate with NS ALTs, but in the real situation some leave English lessons to NS ALTs. As you said, NS ALTs are very good at communicative content, teachers should cooperate with them in order to provide students with a better quality of English. For that, teachers need to learn methods and English harder, and governments must provide more services to them.

      • mzeiya88

        Or maybe they should set up English teacher training Colleges. We do have such in my native Kenya, even though they are for all subjects, and not just English.

        We used to sometimes get trainee teachers from these Colleges in our Elementary school. I was taught English in both Elementary, and High school by Kenyan teachers, and turned out fine.

      • Gordon Graham

        Scandinavian languages are a lot closer to English than Asian languages. Also, the emphasis on entrance exams makes it such that Japanese students are required to learn a volume of English that a native speaker requires until at least adulthood and university to acquire…The sheer volume and unnecessary variation in so little time is what prevents acquisition.

      • Hupi

        Precisely! And Gordon, Finnish is nowhere near English in typological terms, and yet its educational system pours out speakers with excellent English skills – without native speakers. There’s more focus on those language skills that help you communicate effectively. Those are also language, but it’s a different notion from an outdated ‘correctness’ view of success.

      • Gordon Graham

        Finnish grammar has the same Subject Verb Object order as English making it a smoother transition in terms of communication. The problem is simply the volume and variation of English taught in Japanese schools.

      • mzeiya88

        I was taught English by Kenyan teachers, who sometimes had various regional accents because of tribes. I speak fluently and pronounce words correctly.
        Some teachers pronounced words correctly, some didn’t but i understand English perfectly.

      • Gordon Graham

        An accent is one thing, an entirely different sounding word another…

    • James

      I’m a graduate with an MA in Applied Linguistics, not sure if that means much but the Lingua Franca Core is the position that should be taken. It is neither American nor British but uses elements of both as well as other equally deserved varieties in the simple aim of producing intelligible and comprehensible English, which really is taking language to its core as its name suggests.

      • Tadashi Izumitani

        I also agree with your idea. but, which position should teachers take is controversial. If teachers don’t set the standard of English, English which students use will become out of control, especially for students in primary and junior high schools.

  • Ginseng1

    Great article. It is a bit too long I think.

    • phu

      Great comment. It is a bit too short I think.

  • Lotta talk here, but I’m not sure how all this can be applied to Japanese speakers. It would be nice to hear more definite steps on how this could be done, because I’m less convinced this is a “curse” and more just a “fear”. When the Japanese stop fearing the inability to reach “perfection” in language, then they will obtain language skills. What we are really dealing with here is a deeply embedded cultural norm.

  • Akira Umeda

    Very impressive article. Author wrote that English must be taught in English. If so, lots of English teachers of Japanese nationality must study much more. The best English teacher will teach English in English. Are there any famous lecturers who teach English in English at cram schools for university entrance examinations? I do not know well about the recent university entrance examinations and cram schools.

  • GBR48

    One problem with language learning is that those who devise and operate schemes of language instruction are typically amongst the relatively small proportion of society with a natural gift for language learning, whilst many of those being instructed, do not have this natural gift. They may have great natural ability with numbers, good people skills or the ability to write computer code, but find learning languages difficult.

    The belief that anyone can attain fluency in a second language by working hard enough, often held by those who find it easy, is simply not true, whilst the Roman alphabet/Kanji divide makes things much harder (both ways). It also becomes much tougher in stages, as you age (which is generally recognised).

    So there are multiple problems. Lowering expectations and running with ELF (or ‘basic communication skills’) would help, but there is a missing piece to the puzzle that really needs to be implemented. Just as dog trainers have to train dog owners as well as their pets, so the Japanese need to advise incoming foreigners on the best way of communicating in Japan, most likely through a hand-out on arriving flights.

    English is quite common as a second language in countries with a Roman alphabet, so many people coming to Japan will either speak English (and be used to visiting countries where English is common as a second language) or will speak English as a second language, and will be used to it being spoken as such in their home country.

    Their own expectations on arrival may need to be reduced, as many of the Japanese citizens they will encounter as tourists, often in fairly low paid jobs in retail, transportation or the emergency services, will not speak English or understand it easily. Japanese people who are fluent in English will often have more highly paid jobs and will be doing them in offices, before commuting home to their families. The majority of Japan’s most fluent English speakers may rarely come into contact with tourists (and this is unlikely to change for some time).

    So, visitors need to make some accommodation and meet the Japanese half way by switching to their own version of ELF.

    Foreign accents and faltering foreign attempts at Japanese phrases often confuse Japanese listeners, as do the complexities of English sentences, and the use of foreign idioms, dialect terms and jargon. This isn’t simply a Japanese issue. It is one thing to learn the Japanese language-it is quite another to encounter rapidly spoken Japanese and signs with designer founts.

    So, remind visitors to Japan to speak clearly, plainly and if sentences aren’t working, to use basic words that may be recognised. That’s to say, use ELF yourselves.

    As for the value of classroom immersion, I remain unconvinced. Many foreigners spend time in Japan and are lucky if they pick up more than a couple of common phrases. Japan has had legions of non-Japanese speaking youngsters inserted into their schools to ‘teach’ English, with a good deal of bemusement on both sides. The idea of teaching English to Japanese people without using any Japanese seems as crazy as attempting to teach them maths or physics in English. You do not learn a language (or anything) purely through osmosis. Hearing it and using it is a vital component of learning it, but linguistic fluency isn’t going to simply rub off on you.

    The notoriously monolingual British had the same problem as the Japanese in earlier centuries, learning Latin as a pan-European language. There was little real agreement on the best way of teaching it, most people hated learning it, many never had a use for it after school and new ways promising to teach it more quickly and more easily were repeatedly published, with little success.

    Languages that use Kana and Kanji are notoriously difficult for those who use languages with the Roman alphabet, and not just people. Google Translate, which is pretty good in most areas, declines dramatically when dealing with Chinese, Japanese or Korean. I haven’t tried NTT Docomo’s Hanashite Hon’yaku yet. If it works well, it may become a transformational technology.

    If Japan had switched to Romaji in the early years of the twentieth century, retaining Kana and Kanji as its own ‘Latin’, albeit one a little easier than classical Chinese with reading marks, the language problem may have considerably reduced by now and Japan would have as many multilingual citizens as France or Germany (with Japanese a popular and relatively easy language for foreigners to learn). But Japan’s language is a part of its culture and the Japanese people have as much right to stick with it as anyone else does with their own language.

    Most educational revolutions are as measured and sensitive as a group of well-armed Islamic extremists. Rather than dumping one policy and replacing it with another, I would urge a more complex package. Start teaching English from the first day at school. For those kids who show real ability, teach them EFL towards fluency. For the rest, run with ELF. In each case you offer education according to ability, maximising your childrens’ future opportunities and bolstering both their confidence and their CVs.

    I like the phrase ‘(semi-mythical) native speaker’ as most people generally speak their own language ‘badly’ (using jargon, grunts, profanity, dialect and the like). This is why written communication is generally easier than linguistic fluency (but harder than basic spoken communication) – it is usually of a higher quality and more formally accurate. Everyone might like to consider improving their own day-to-day use of their own language, and that of their children. It is some time since elocution was a part of the curriculum in many countries. Perhaps we all need a campaign to bring it back.

  • Stacy Paine

    If Japan really wants to learn English they have some tough choices to make. To become truly proficient they will have to start thinking in English. Nobody wants to say it but this is not something that is possible while they continue to think in Japanese.

  • SamB19

    The real problem isn’t even their linguistic skills – when it comes to the Japanese people, it has to do with the culture that suppresses outwardly expression and individualism. Children grow up always being afraid of being different or making mistakes. Even very young children are not care-free, and people learn at very young age to hold back and hesitate. It’s that culture that prevents people from expressing themselves, particularly by trying to speak another language.

  • Christopher Mapes

    Let me agree and disagree, then follow up with what I believe to be the single biggest obstacle for Japanese being understood when speaking English, apart from the misguided emphasis on passing entrance exams.

    I agree it is more important to learn how to effectively communicate in a language rather than focus on perfection. This is a significant step in the right direction. Most native speakers of any language (English included) do not speak it perfectly anyway. Have you noticed when listening to non-natives speak how peculiar it sounds when they use “book-learned” English?

    However, there is one very important area in which the learning-from-your-peers approach fails. What do you get when you only learn from and speak to your fellow countrymen in another language? You get whatever that language is spoken in your native accent. If you try to speak to someone outside of your county with that same accent, you’re not likely to be understood. Isn’t that a bit short-sighted if the objective of the program is to address the growing trend of globalization?

    And that issue in particular affects the Japanese. Many would be well understood when speaking English save one critical flaw: They speak English with a *perfect* Japanese accent (so-called “katakana-English”).

    I had an opportunity to visit a Japanese high school in Sendai the early 2000’s and I was shocked to find that while each English class had at least one native English speaker, the actual pronunciation and speaking lessons were being led by a Japanese teacher. This would have been perfectly fine if that teacher had a passable English accent, but that was certainly not the case.

    Imagine the scene: The teacher would say something in English (with a perfect Japanese accent), then the kids would repeat… with that exact same accent. Hearing this was like listening to that kid in Spanish class who wasn’t even trying: “hole-ah me lame-o es chris”. As a native English speaker, if I hadn’t learned the Japanese language and accent myself, I doubt I’d be able to understand most of it.

    The native English speaker in that class was part of the JET program, which is likely an artifact of the “enormous private investment.” Clearly the money was and is being spent, but perhaps the focus is misplaced. What good does it do to have that native English speaker right there in the classroom and not speaking with the kids? It seems to me that the students would benefit more by having the native English speaker take more of a primary role whenever speaking and listening is in play, and have the teacher lead the curriculum. This should go a long way to helping the Japanese speak English with a more native accent, and help them to be understood more clearly around the world when speaking English.

    Back to the original topic: The proposal sounds great, but if your objective is to be understood by as many people as possible, you need to learn the accent from a native speaker of one of the mainstream forms, or at least someone who has learned a near-native accent.

  • K T

    Impossible in Japan. The Japanese mindset is not suited to any goal short of “perfection” in Japan. Allow me to elaborate.

    Japanese peer pressure is constant.

    The Japanese education system stresses written skills over oral skills.

    The Japanese education system focuses on wrote learning, not communication. I.e. students don’t ask questions.

    Therefore, a Japanese student (in Japan) will be confined both by the education system that is wholly inadequate to learning a living language, and by the weight of Japanese society, which does not encourage oral language achievement.

    I have found that Japanese students outside of Japan, away from peer pressure, away from the simpai/kohai relationships (away from other Japanese people), and away from the dysfunctional Japanese education system, do fine. They have the intelligence.

    To make this work in Japan, you will have to:

    -encourage discussion in the classroom (no easy task).

    -replace Japanese teachers or retrain them to a new style of teaching.

    -change the education system.

    Like I said – impossible in Japan.

    The best investment a Japanese parent can make is to send their child on a study abroad program in high school.

    • Gordon Graham

      “rote” learning

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Ah the endless JT English language teaching in Japan debate. There has been some good copy sold on that over the years. The problem can be solved overnight. Simply tell students that unless they have a ToEFL score over 800 they cannot get into University. Suddenly you will find everyone wants and needs to speak English.

  • Gordon Graham

    First they have to unlearn a huge vocabulary that’s already been burned into their brains…

  • Richard B. James

    The issue here is simple and straight forward. One needs to look at the ENTIRE country of Japan and it’s most prevalent issues. One of which is the fact that it’s population is declining rapidly. It’s declining because people are not having babies and not having sex…if people are not expressing themselves on the most basic of levels sexually then they can’t express themselves linguistically. EVERYONE knows the best way to learn a language is to have a relationship with a person of that language…and have sex with them. But Japanese people are not even having sex with each other. Furthermore foreigners in Japan are often seen as frightening…legally they are harassed and shunned, etc…So, if Japan wants to learn English they should stop being afraid of the people they wish to learn from and start having sex with them! Contact me and I’ll be happy to volunteer to get anyone started with “lessons.”