English Speakers are from Mars

December 6, 2006   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — Despite some predictions that Chinese will become the next worldwide lingua franca, the acceptance of English as the global language, spurred by the spread of the Internet, is here to stay. Fluent English is increasingly expected, rather than respected, in the business community.

Considering Japan’s economic prowess, and how many Japanese travel and work overseas, the country has a surprisingly low level of fluency in English. So rare is fluency here that my father was nicknamed “the alien” for speaking English and being Westernized. And this was in the 1990s, when he was the president of a major Japanese trading company where most of his business was conducted in English.

A growing divide between English speakers and non-English speakers doesn’t bode well for a big economic power like Japan. Yet a government committee’s proposal to introduce English into the elementary school curriculum has met surprising protest.

“Teaching English may be necessary in the global community, but as a Japanese, one must first be able to speak proper Japanese,” declared Bunmei Ibuki, the education minister, upon his appointment in September.

Ibuki’s remarks reflect a stubborn insular mentality still prevalent among Japan’s elite. After all, Japan managed to become one of the world’s largest economies without its people mastering much English. Foreign-language study doesn’t need to be a high priority for children, they say.

The influential author and mathematician Masahiko Fujiwara even says that Japanese should be proud that their scores on the Toefl, the test that assesses English proficiency of non-native speakers, rank among the lowest in Asia. That is the result of the country never having been colonized nor forced to speak another language, Fujiwara writes in his best-selling book, “Kokka no Hinkaku” or dignity of a nation.

While Japan slowly debates the issue, its neighbors and rivals in Asia have taken the practical road and acquiesced to the English-speaking trend.

Like Japan, none of them have historical or cultural ties to the English language. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have all incorporated English into their elementary school curriculums.

Poor English skills didn’t matter much for Japanese in the 70s and 80s when global customers clamored to do business with any Japanese company, says John Shook, an auto consultant based in Michigan. “The competition now faced by Japanese company A is not another Japanese company, but Chinese or Korean or American. The embarrassingly low level of English spoken by Japanese managers, while a mere embarrassment before, is now a major business liability,” he says.

Opponents of introducing English into Japan’s curriculum argue that children should spend those precious hours studying their own complex tongue: a difficult language with layers of honorifics and thousands of written characters that linguists lament young people are increasingly unable to master. But the government proposal only calls for one hour of English per week in the 5th and 6th grades, hardly enough time to confuse children linguistically or do damage to their Japanese. And that hour could go far in impressing upon children that there is a world beyond their borders accessible by language.

To be sure there are major hurdles to implementing English classes in schools here. Only about 4 percent of elementary school teachers are currently certified to teach English. And few can pronounce the language like a native speaker. But until training is complete, schools could use audio visual materials. Better to get an early start.

To forge ahead, Japanese students will also have to overcome their shyness in trying out new words.

In this extremely conformist society, even children are reluctant to stand out by speaking better or worse than their peers, so few students are eager to speak up in class. It doesn’t help that English instruction in schools never encouraged speaking.

But any language student knows that on the road to fluency, it’s no shame, no gain.

I take advantage of this cultural aversion to shame sometimes by speaking English to my son in public when he misbehaves, increasing my volume until he gets into line. It usually works.

My son doesn’t want to stand out like an alien, after all. I myself would be happy to have him be from outer space in Japan, as long as he could communicate with the rest of the world.