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Freeing Japanese from English trauma

Are English lessons at an early age and/or auto-translation the solution?

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Recently, I have seen two trends going on regarding English communication skills in Japan. One is the heightened interest in developing English skills among young children. The other is the high expectation for auto-translation, particularly for English-Japanese.

Both reflect the decadelong but renewed interest for English communication capability in Japan. They also reflect the recognition that we have tried and failed to develop English communication capability among Japanese in general.

Many Japanese have become aware how other Asian countries have surpassed Japan in developing English capability. South Korea and China, which used to have similar problems about poor English capability, have made significant progress, as their youths have had better scores on TOEFL tests than those of Japanese. Differences between these countries and Japan are identified as to when they start learning English and the hours spent learning the language. Thus, the initiative to start early and focus on young children has been proposed in Japan, as indicated by the education ministry’s recent guidelines and policy to include English in the formal curriculum for fifth- and sixth-grade students starting in 2020.

English has been a required subject starting with the seventh grade and many Japanese spend some 10 years taking English classes. In addition to learning in school, many young business people invest considerable time and money to develop English communication skills by taking English conversation classes. Some try online courses where you can speak with natives, such as RareJob. Despite the considerable investment, however, many Japanese still have difficulty communicating in English.

There even remains a notion that a lack of English ability is a big hurdle for the Japanese to engage with the international community, now that English is the de facto global standard. I am often surprised that a lack of communication capability in English is raised as one of the reasons why young people stay away from overseas study, travel and collaboration beyond borders. Recently I approached the principal of an innovative high school in Tokyo about the possibility of joining an international program headquartered in Washington. To my surprise, I received the response that English ability may be a big obstacle to recruiting applicants.

I also find that English is picked as not only the “reason” for not engaging with the international community, but also as an “excuse” for difficulties faced in certain activities or for an inability to solve problems. Feedback from participants in workshop series I run for global talent indicates that English is the major reason for a project’s slow progress, when in fact a willingness to explore external data sources and conduct field work, which take time and effort, is lacking, rather than use or nonuse of English.

Auto-translation software has, meanwhile, made significant progress due to big data and deep learning. Many applications, including those by Google and Microsoft, have become available and progress continues. Some even say that we need not learn another language as we can rely on smartphones with an auto-translation app.

By starting early with children and/or having auto-translation available and accessible, many seem to hope that we can finally become free from the trauma about English and eliminate, even partially, our headache over English communication.

I have concerns with each of these two developments. Teaching English from an early age is fine as English is a “tool” of communication. Without encouraging them to think about what to say, in addition to how to say it, however, we may end up producing many who are fluent in English but have nothing of substance to communicate. We need to make sure they have something of value to say. We need to develop children’s ability to think from different perspectives and explore solutions. As the Japanese are good at “How to’s” and tend to shift focus from why we do certain things to how we do it and “measurable how’s,” we should emphasize that language is a tool and means of communicating something. I hope that by taking English classes early on, young children learn how to think and develop their own conclusions, not just how to express them.

As for auto-translation, my concern is that it may make learning new languages less significant and that people may become reluctant to do so.

One of the benefits of knowing/using more than one language is the exposure to diversity. Knowing more than one language exposes us to different ways of thinking and doing things. It enables us to realize there are other value systems with which people of different cultures and languages live by. It gives us the opportunity to review our own value systems and revisit our own culture and ways of thinking. In the recent trend toward nationalism and emphasis on national sovereignty over global collaboration, I am convinced that the knowledge and awareness of different value systems and culture, for which language plays a significant role, is needed now more than ever.

Whether we like it or not, technology has and will continue to connect the world. To make sure that we reap the benefits of interconnectedness, while avoiding issues such as extremism and inequality, we need to have the means and tools to share our thinking and voices.

We have some research which shows that learning another language sharpens cognitive skills such as attention, decision-making, creativity, problem-solving and so on.

The ability to read/listen to news articles in other languages makes you aware of the subjective nature of reporting — what they report, and what they do not report, as well as how they report. For example, I read/listen to news podcasts from U.S. and European media, as well as Japanese. I am often surprised that some news related to Japan is reported by overseas news media, but not by Japanese media.

Auto-translation can probably help us to go partially on this road toward diverse sources of information, but being able to read/listen to the original reporting still has value. Knowing more than one language also helps check the logic of your writing when you translate your writing in your mother tongue into a foreign language. Some researchers do this to check their logic.

My recommendation, in the face of these factors, is that we remind ourselves of the original objective of language in today’s interconnected world.

When we realize that we have something to say, we need the means to express it. Language is a great tool for self-expression, as writing down our ideas clarifies our thoughts. In addition, the objective of language is to share our thoughts with others so that we can identify differences and similarities, and to collaborate based on the shared understanding.

Developing communication capability in English is to build a bridge among us. It is not simply speaking fluently. It is not simply expressing our views using strong words out loud, without listening to others. It is to understand the different way of thinking, values and background of each one of us, and go beyond the differences to create a better world.

It is time for us to remember why language exists.

Yoko Ishikura, a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University, serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.