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Why 'survival English' in Japan simply isn't working

Posting in Technology

The ridiculous stereotype that the Japanese are 'inept' at learning English needs to be quashed - and quickly.

Across the world, many people are clamouring to learn English -- understanding that it can help job prospects to be bilingual. However, a number of misapprehensions surround learning a language, which hopefully I'll clear up a little here.

When I read an article published by the Washington Post, titled "A survival skill in shrinking Japan: Learn English", in certain points I nodded silently in agreement; other parts, I met with chagrin or plain annoyance.

Firstly, a little background information to set the scene. I taught English as a second language (TEFL) for years -- and saw a fair amount on my travels. What happens when you pair Albanians and the Greek together? How about the embarrassment of dealing with a class of Italians who find your (unsecured) Facebook page, and how do you shake off feelings of affront when treated differently to male colleagues in the Middle East?

From Europe to Asia, certain stereotypes about learning English ring true. The Italians and Spanish love to talk (to the point of testing your sanity), Germans expect to learn by rote, the French lose control when invited to play games in English, and you'd have more luck turning iron into gold than eliciting an opinion from the Chinese.

But what about the Japanese?

The Washington Post writes that the owner of e-commerce company Rakuten Inc., Hiroshi Mikitani, made the decision to force all his employees to work in English exclusively. In order to try and combat the shrinking space that Japan holds in the global economy, breaking the restraints of language and culture were something the billionaire deemed necessary.

The ageing Japanese population is faced with a number of issues -- how to interact successfully in the global marketplace, and how far they should accommodate the West in business transactions. Writing that the country has "both a dread of English and an understandable attachment to its own ornate business customs," it can be difficult for such a culture, steeped in tradition, to attain the correct models to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

So, what did Mikitani do?

Announcing the language transition in 2010, only 10 percent of the 6,000-strong work force could work effectively in English. At Rakuten, workers had a deadline to reach a certain standard, scrambling and panicking all the way, before all business memos and communications were restricted to English.

No guidance was given, and the requirement of self-study without pay enforced. Eventually, management realize this wasn't working, as test scores were not as high as they wanted.

Classes were then offered, but it wasn't enough for every member of staff -- some of whom would forgo lunch to continue their studies.

A two-year transition later, and the scheme is considered a "success", but not without consequence.
Some workers quit in disgust. Others considered it an "exercise in perpetual humiliation" or as a "layoff tool." The incentive to learn English, which originally meant studying in their own time, was being demoted if they didn't pass a test.

This is where things get interesting. We have a fascination for test scores and percentages, but any TEFL teacher worth their salt could tell you that fluency and the ability to communicate is more important than perfect grammar -- and individually testing this is the true way to mark a student's progress.

Combine this with a culture that learns English by rote and exacts standards placed on numbers, and you have a problem.

This was the flaw that meant the company's transition to English was more turbulent than it could have been. Learning a language has to be a naturally progression, buoyed not only by repetition, but practice in conversation.

Learn a little, go back over a point, learn a little more. Subconsciously, connections are made, and you can build on basic knowledge -- this is the key to fluency. When you force someone into a panic with a demotion-axe looming over their head, it will never be effective.

Rote learning, high expectations and 'cram schools' are rife in Japan. Reaching a standard based on points and scores within language learning only goes so far. Instead of asking whether the student has mastered the Present Perfect tense, you should be asking if they can communicate effectively through an email.

In the article, the author mentions a meeting where Mikitani introduced foreign managers to his staff. Barking "Stand up, wave," to the group, they obeyed his order.

I couldn't help but smirk at this, as the singular encounter encapsulates everything I've learnt personally from teaching Japanese students.

A fair analogy is this -- I asked a Japanese teenager once what their favourite animal was. They replied 'cat'. I then asked why. At this point in the conversation, they froze up, looked confused and fell to pieces. They had been taught the correct answer, but not how to think in the language itself.

The basic, rote learning that many employ only goes so far -- they could pass a test and get the answer right, but could not participate in a fluid conversation.

However, it is not only teaching styles which can cause these kinds of issues -- it is also how necessary learning the language is deemed to be. The staff at the company had to learn it or face potential demotion, certainly, but it was not a skill to be learnt for individual gain. It was the stick rather than the carrot, and no support was offered by the company for the workers to attain the standards expected of them.

No wonder some members of staff decided to take their leave. Learning to speak in another language is one of the most daunting and potentially embarrassing experiences you can have -- and without a dedicated network of support, it's rarely going to go well.

When I believed I was going to spend a year in South Korea, my Korean language learning rocketed, and I used online communities to practice my horrendous pronunciation over Skype. Now, I can greet people, but that's all. I was near fluent in Spanish when I lived in Madrid, and now, I'd probably stutter and blush just asking for directions. The necessity of use has gone, and life has taken over.

So, let us compare necessity in the world of language learning. When I taught in Slovenia (where is this, you wonder?), learning another language was a core requirement if you wanted to work outside of the county. As such, Slovenian standards of learning English is very high -- and schools offer the kind of support and experiences students need to retain the language.

When I first arrived, I and my colleague had a building completely to ourselves. I hung around the side surveying the behemoth -- more suitable for hundreds rather than a handful of children, sneakily enjoying a cigarette to calm the usual first-meeting-the-class jitters.

An American man came up to me, and we had a casual conversation over why I was in the country. Once he'd left, smoke extinguished, I went inside.

I fully expected a class of "low Intermediates", which in teacher-speak, is the kind of student who can order a drink at Starbucks with some pointing and a copious amount of blushing and 'uuuhm-ing'. Instead, I met a teenage group who were near fluent -- the "American" among them.

The standard was so high, that apart from only being able to host political debates with them all week and teach them slang, they truly thought their level was poor.

Let's contrast these to my experience of the Japanese.

Japanese students, in seven years, remained the politest and most respectful I've ever come across. However, the cultural differences were extreme -- Asian students learn by rote, and when you thrust them into a classroom of raucous Spaniards and Italians, expecting them to talk for an hour, mental barriers are often thrown up against you.

Learning any language is difficult as an adult -- and it's not just about talent or ability. For Slovenians, it is engrained into them that if you want work outside the country, you have to be bilingual. For the Japanese, it is not currently of such paramount importance.

It certainly may become so if Japan is going to keep a strong position in the global economy, but the best way to do this is not to force employees to learn in order to keep their jobs, but to provide the right support, resources, and expect a natural progression rather than a B to A-grade in a specific timeframe.

Words such as "ineptitude" and "stereotype" crop up in the article, but this isn't the core reason why the employees struggled. It is a cultural reliance on numbers, standards and percentages -- expectations of staff without thinking through and providing a support network to undertake the task of learning a new language.

Businesses, take heed.

Image credit: Aka Hige

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure