Honda makes English official

Honda Motor Co. has decided to switch its official corporate language for international communications within the company to English by 2020, the company announced publicly in its annual sustainability report.

The automaker had worked to make English an important part of its operations over the past several years, but its decision to make English the corporate lingua franca recognizes the future of Honda’s operations as more fully international in scope and character. By 2020, senior executives will have to prove their English fluency before taking up their positions, and internal documents that need to be in English will be written that way rather than translated from Japanese.

The new English policy is more than just a practical measure; it is a sensible response to business realities. That comes none too late, since an increasingly large portion of Honda’s global sales are in the largest English-speaking country in the world, the United States. Honda became in 1982 the first Japanese automaker to start manufacturing cars in the U.S. and remains the fifth-largest automaker in America. Though sales are down slightly from their peak of 2007, North America still accounted for 47 percent of Honda’s revenue in fiscal 2013.

Honda clearly wants and needs to establish an international workforce that better matches the reality of the company’s global presence. Last year, Honda hired 4,778 new workers in North America, but only 719 in Japan. Japanese employees account for just 32 percent of Honda’s total global work force of 204,730, and that share has been shrinking. Honda may be a Japanese firm in origin, but it is increasingly international in character.

The move to English follows the lead of Japanese companies such as Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), Rakuten and Bridgestone, which all have English-only policies. But it also follows the lead of other large international companies from other countries. Chinese tech giant Lenovo made English its lingua franca many years ago, and the same goes for Nokia, Audi, Airbus, Aventis, Daimler-Chrysler, Renault and Samsung, among others.

Honda rival Nissan Motor Co. has already taken steps to internationalize, but in different ways. Roughly 40 percent of Nissan’s corporate officers are non-Japanese, in addition to being in a partnership with the French company Renault. At Honda, though, only one of 36 senior executives is non-Japanese, though in North America, 59 percent of senior management at regional offices are hired locally. The company’s character, in short, has changed considerably over the years.

In addition to personnel shifts, the fast pace of global business nowadays no longer allows time for decisions to be discussed in Japanese, translated into English and distributed to non-Japanese employees. Quick decisions, prompt responses and real-time communications are the keys to remaining competitive. All of this, many companies are deciding, is easier when it’s all done in English.

The question remains, though, whether the Japanese education system will adapt to these forces driving business toward greater use of English. Unfortunately, resistance to more thorough English education may come from some teachers, school administrators and education ministry officials who feel it is not their job to train students for future jobs. However, the move toward English as an official language in companies does at least offer an answer to the question many students, parents and teachers still ask: “Why is English important?”

A contingent of the English education system in Japan still focuses on passing college entrance exams, not on acquiring competence in English. Exams should not be ignored, but neither should they drive the curriculum. Universities need to change the English section in their entrance exams to better accommodate the reality of English as a necessary skill in international workplaces. Those changes are under way in many places but are far from complete.

What is lacking in large part is an engaging English environment that develops a positive attitude in students’ early studies toward learning the language. Positive reinforcement — not just passing a university entrance exam — is needed at every level of English study in Japan. Good study habits for learning English need to be encouraged so that young students grasp the idea that they can, and must, keep learning English over a period of years.

Today’s young students can start that process from the beginning of their English study but need to continue it over time. A workforce willing to continue to engage with English is a workforce willing to engage in other challenges with a forward-thinking, flexible attitude. Global business requires not just English skill but an attitude of openness to understanding the world, by interacting with people, practices and ideas from other countries. Learning a second language can help foster such an attitude.

The Japanese education system needs to recognize that companies are increasingly settling on English as their official language. It is not easy to find appropriate ways to develop confidence, positive mindsets and strong study skills in students, but it is one of the challenges of the current English system.

Honda, like the many other firms that have started using the international language of English, are sending a message that they know how to do business outside their own language context and are willing to expand the potential of Japan’s global business environment with new models and fresh thinking. Schools, and those still in doubt, should listen to that message.

  • jcbinok

    Most elementary school students receive one hour of English instruction per week from what I’ve seen (much of that being translated into Japanese for them by “helpful” homeroom teachers). The other 167 hours per week is conducted in Japanese. With a ratio of 167-to-1, is it any wonder English is going nowhere in the school system?
    Here’s an idea: make English an official national language like French is in Canada. All government documents must be written in both English and Japanese. That would get results fast, and help us foreigners out a ton!

    • DrHanibalLecter

      It is very good news indeed, what Honda does. It is left to the corporations to do the obvious, because the politicians in this country are without exception of an incompetence that it is utterly incomprehensible!

      Of course what you suggest would be that correct solution, but I am afraid it will not happen… Too many japanese politicians are well aware that the picture the world has of Japan, has hardly anything to do with the actual existing Japan. And they certainly will not allow anything that endangers the worldwide ignorance of the truth.

      But the progress of digitalised globalisation will force more and more companies like Honda to take that step.

      Not only the “Article 9 and Mr Abe” story shows us that Japan is in no way prepared for the future.
      This country has an enormous overall problem with reality. The inevitably oncoming gap between the few young and myriads of pensioners is the worst of these problems, and NOTHING is done !

      The people of Japan elect one government after the other of the same “quality”. They will have to live with the consequences…

    • zer0_0zor0

      Learn Japanese or go back to where you came from.

      • jcbinok

        I likely will go back to where I came from one day. That has nothing to do with whether the Japanese want to get really serious about speaking English, which is what the article was about.

        Sore ni, boku no Nihongo ga amari warukunai yo.

      • zer0_0zor0

        OK, but the point I was making is that Japanese elementary school kids generally don’t yet ‘know’ whether they want to get serious about “speaking English”.

      • jcbinok

        Fair enough. Here’s one thing I’ll bet we can agree on: the sooner people begin using a language in real life situations, the more likely it will take hold.
        Also, at the risk of sounding like a jerk, since when do kids get to choose what they “want” to study in elementary school? If it were up to most kids, the schedule would look something like this: P.E., P.E., P.E., P.E., lunch, music, art, go home at 2:30pm.

    • Nili Okay

      Official national language… are you serious?
      I mean increasing those English lessons and introducing kids to it early is all good, but English as an official second language? based on what?
      Canada has a
      bilingual system ’cause traditionally there are descendants of French
      and English settlers living there, you know….
      Introducing a second official national language,

      without a demographic reason is a grave intrusion into cultural individuality my friend,

      I wouldn’t like it if they introduced it where I live honestly and I think a
      country like the U.S has far more demographic reasons to make Spanish
      official for example.
      Dealing with it through education is the only way to go in my opinion. Bilingual education for certain subjects would be my suggestion, worked for me.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Global business requires not just English skill but an attitude of openness to understanding the world, by interacting with people, practices and ideas from other countries. Learning a second language can help foster such an attitude.

    While that is true, there are a number of specific points not addressed in the generalizations.

    First, Honda’s market is in English speaking countries, primarily the USA, but for most other Japanese companies their largest market is still China, despite the problems caused by the right-wingers like Abe. China is going to become more important for Japanese companies with time, and that is why many Japanese are studying Chinese.

    Secondly, students need to understand their own society before they “understand” the world. Furthermore, not all Japanese students are going to grow up and work in a globalized company.

    The proposed TPP threatens to wreak havoc in terms of dismantling the traditional repository of cultural heritage, the nation state, but globalization is not a one-way street or ruled by any single country or language group.

    A lingua Franca is one thing, cultural hegemony is another, and mandating English language education before high school beyond a certain, introductory level is not at all warranted in Japan. Kids need the basics, such as pronunciation skills and sentence structure to enable them to cultivate their proficiency later.

    Japanese that want to excel in English have to do that the same way that students in the USA that want to excel in a second language do, which is by studying it in high school and college, basically.

    • draconar

      The Scandinavians certainly agree with you.

  • Paul Martin

    Of course. English is the most important language in the World and is mostly the English speaking World that keeps Japna’s economy afloat !

  • Steve Jackman

    This is another dumb idea from corporate Japan, even though, it may be well intentioned. I’ve been at companies in Japan with such a rule, which just results in foreign workers being excluded from even more meetings by their Japanese colleagues. It is a guaranteed way to ensure that non-Japanese employees are not invited to meetings, unless their presence is absolutely necessary.

  • ron

    Interesting, in none of the UniQlo stores I’ve been to in Japan has english been spoken to me…

    • Foreigner Friendly

      Uniqlo made English their operating language in the head office not in the stores.
      That said, I’ve had a different experience to you. When I spoke to the staff in the stores in Japanese, they answered in Japanese. When I spoke to them in English, they answered in English.

  • draconar

    I’m asking it here with open heart: Why does other rich countries like those in Scandinavia and northern Europe manage to have a fairly decent number of English (and other languages) speakers while some fall flat? Cultural differences?

    • zer0_0zor0

      Linguistic affinity; they are basically members of the same language group of English, so it is easier to learn English.

      It is very easy for Japanese people to learn to speak Korean, for example, though that is practically the only other language with which Japanese shares such a degree of affinity. Meanwhile, they have been trying to kill off the use of Chinese characters in Korea, which is cultural suicide paralleling the widespread adoption of Evangelical Christianity.

      • Foreigner Friendly

        English is in the same, very-extended, Proto-Indo-European language family as the European languages but that isn’t the main reason Europeans speak more English.

        Our closest “relatives” of Dutch and German are effectively only third cousins. Some of the others like French and Italian are fourth cousins three times removed. The biggest differences in speaking abilities lie in the fact that their English classes start earlier than Japan’s and they’re taught to communicate in English, not just recite. The students are required to ask and answer questions, make true statements about their lives and play games, all in English. While Japanese kids can point at pictures and say nouns and verbs, they’re not taught to put them into sentences for years.

        Another important factor in European’s superior use of English is our sharing alphabets. That gives Europeans a big advantage in reading and writing English compared to Japanese people. Also, when Japanese children do eventually start to learn the English alphabet, they’re encouraged to keep using katakana. The katakana equivalent of each word is usually right underneath the English one so the students never really have to read it. Europeans are taught the phonics rules for English so that they can read aloud what they can see written, while only some lucky Japanese kids in a few schools have been given the same help.

  • Paul Martin

    Not because they like us better, they know which language side their bread is buttered !

  • bossarjay

    Hopefully, they are serious this time. It’s been years since they have the same goal before but never materialized.Honda has no other options since their big market is outside Japan.They have to speak their customers language.Maybe one the reasons why they have quality problems lately?