English students of Japan, unite! You have nothing to lose but your (conversation school) chains!

Over the past 38 years in Japan, I have heard many explanations for the oft-cited low level of English-language competence here, including the ridiculous (“Japanese people just have no talent for languages”) and the utterly preposterous (“Japanese brains are wired differently from those of other nationalities”).

Whatever your take on language acquisition might be, the practical problem facing teachers of foreign languages anywhere is student motivation.

The motivations for learning foreign languages in Japan have varied with the era since the country opened fully to the outside world following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and set about understanding and assimilating the fruits of Western civilization and technology as rapidly as possible. The empires of Europe had created unheard-of wealth and power based on slavery and imperialism; and if Japan was to join their club, the Japanese believed they would have to learn their ways.

As a result, the brightest sons of Japan were sent to Europe and the United States to absorb Western learning, and the great works of Western literature were translated into Japanese. The Japanese knew full well that you could not emulate a political culture without mastering the codes of its aesthetics.

In that era, language learning was by no means limited to English. The physician, soldier and novelist Ogai Mori was sent to Germany; Kafu Nagai, aesthete and sensualist author, went to France (and the U.S.); while the novelist and scholar Soseki Natsume went to London. But the motivation for these men was not personal gratification, though in Nagai’s case the natural urge somewhat swamped serious intention. These men were pressed to return home in order to help their country take its “rightful place” shoulder-to-shoulder with the great empires of Europe.

Whatever ulterior motives

The result was the study of German, French, English and Russian via the cultures of the countries where those languages were spoken. Whatever their ulterior motive, the people of the Meiji Era that continued until 1912 understood well that words in themselves have no meaning apart from their cultural, social and religious context.

When an American or European said “God,” “freedom,” “beauty” or “love,” the emotional context of history and tradition was what gave those words their meaning. Just being able to say the right words in a foreign language does not make a person fluent. Cultural fluency is a necessary precondition for linguistic fluency.

The motivation for studying foreign languages and cultures was strong in the Meiji Era, and this had an enormous effect on Japanese life and times. Only the impact of Chinese in ancient Japan can be compared to it.

However, the motivation to acquire English narrowed in the 1930s and ’40s, with the imperial cause becoming dominant in Japan. English, in particular, was necessary for the subjugation of people in much of Asia.

Many years ago, I saw a fascinating documentary film of Japan’s allies meeting in Tokyo in 1943. The Japanese conveners and the delegates from Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia, among other countries, gave speeches about the greatness of Japan’s imperial mission and the certainty of Japan’s noble victory.

The amazing thing was, though, that most of the speeches were in English, the language of the enemy.

Can you imagine a meeting of the “coalition of the willing” held in Washington (I won’t list the countries, because the list might be shorter by the time you read this), with prime ministers Blair, Koizumi and Howard praising America’s fight for “freedom” in Arabic?

Just past noon on Aug. 15, 1945, the day of Japan’s World War II surrender, the motivation for learning English changed yet again. If Japan were to rebuild its industrial base without the military component — and as a democratic state — what better model, it seemed, than that of the U.S.?

The immediate motivation for learning English may then have been the need to accommodate the conqueror, and to get along with him so as to eventually manipulate him into favoring your interests. But there was more to it as the years progressed. How did a nation like America get so strong? What kind of culture underpins a successful democracy? The Japanese had to find answers to these questions. The Japanese proverb nagai mono ni wa makarero seemed to be the appropriate rubric. It has a number of equivalents in English, but perhaps the closest in this case is “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Engine of reconstruction

If it became necessary to read Hemingway and fete Bob Hope in Japan, if it seemed advisable to memorize the lyrics of “You are my Sunshine” and wax lyrical over the gooey morals of “Father Knows Best,” then, by gum, all Japanese would do just that. Whatever it took to get inside the American psyche, just grin and do it.

The result was a generation of Japanese students, scholars and professions who, I believe, genuinely understood the cultural underpinnings of the American-English language. This, along with a stunning work ethic, drove the engine of reconstruction in postwar Japan.

Now to the present. We seem to have entered an era of ultra-pragmatism in foreign-language learning. That is why the study of many languages other than English is being phased down or dropped in Japanese universities. “The whole world speaks English,” goes this misguided notion, “so why learn any other language?”

It is as if communicating the most superficial trappings of immediate gain were the only acceptable motivation for learning a foreign language.

How can Japanese people explain anything meaningful about their nation in a foreign language without a thorough grounding in the culture and history of the people who speak that language? Can anyone genuinely communicate with people from other countries on the basis of pat phrases learned at a conversation school?

It is time to motivate language students of all ages by stimulating their imagination, by teaching them that words have histories without which their meanings will forever remain a mystery. Meiji Era Japanese, despite their nefarious imperial goals, demonstrated that Japanese people can become culturally bilingual.

When I was teaching Russian years ago, one talented student spent her undergraduate life memorizing Russian words. When she graduated, she came into my office and said, “I now speak fluent Russian. The trouble is, I have nothing to say.”

The motivation for Japanese students of English, or any other language today, should be a burning desire to have something to say and express it, to implicitly understand the people they are talking with, and to value and preserve the finest elements of life in the cultures of both languages.

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