Najma Janjua’s March 31 Community page letter, “Look overseas to address Japan’s lag in English ability,” raises important concerns and offers useful suggestions. However, I believe high levels of English-language proficiency in any country spring from a broader range of factors.
It is easy to attribute a low level of English competency to one “cause” — the Japanese education system — but this is a simplistic scapegoat approach and fails to consider wider social variables. The fact that Japan continues to produce people with little actual ability in English is not just the fault of the education system; it is compounded by the lack of real opportunities for Japanese to practice English in their communities and by introspective social attitudes.
When visiting Cambodia, clearly a developing country, one may be surprised to find that the average tuk-tuk driver, or even market-stall holder, knows more English than many well-educated, middle-class Japanese. How so? One obvious reason is that English is commonly used in everyday contexts outside the school system. In more populated areas, the country is moving steadily toward functional bilingualism.
Cambodia, unlike Japan, is full of English-speaking visitors. More foreigners are visible on the streets, relative to the local population, than can be seen in similar-size communities in Japan. Cambodians, especially in “urban” areas, have no choice but to use English. There are so many foreigners, with so much money to spend, that it would be economic suicide not to. Cambodians know and accept this as a reality.
As long as Japanese lawmakers continue to implement xenophobic policies, the poor English ratings will continue, since such legislation reinforces the message that Japan is better off being self-contained. In my opinion it’s a clear case of protectionism versus prosperity.
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