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Japan’s Internationalization and the English Language

SNA (Tokyo) — David Satterwhite explains the successes and failures of Japan’s internationalization, especially its struggles with the English language. A video by Sam King.


David Satterwhite: Internationalization, of course, is a complex concept. By some measures, Japan, I think, has done remarkably well in its internationalization. How adept the people are as a whole in speaking English and using it for international communication—I think Japan comes up short and much shorter than the urban society of Korea and China. If we dissected the teaching of English in Japan over the past half-century, there has been an overwhelming focus on grammatical English, on reading and writing, and on passing or preparing to pass university entrance examinations. The ability to dissect a sentence and know its grammar has been more important than the ability to use that sentence in casual or formal conversation.

There are a couple of cultural issues. The Japanese people tend to hesitate to speak unless they feel that they can do so perfectly. The sense of not wanting to speak unless you get it right means that that level of hesitation or perfectionism of wanting to get it right means that you have a real hesitance—a reticence—to speak. If you’re not speaking and using the language, it’s not going to improve. The Ministry of Education has addressed the issue and is increasingly focused on shifting from this heavy reliance on grammatical and grammatically correct English instruction to conversational English.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of attention on increasing the number of signs. The signage has certainly increased – whether on the trains or on the subway system. There’s still a problem in getting out of the city where the local staff is not as well trained or adapted in speaking English.

There is a lot of emphasis on the Olympics, so there is an effort to hire or bring in many many volunteers who already have a fairly good grasp of English to help with the expected influx of international tourists. In the broader sense of a globalized economy in which jobs are going to be competitive amongst those who have a native language but also are quite conversant in English, Japan has clearly fallen behind. It is very much in the interest of Japan as a society and the economy long-term for the youth, but also for society as a whole, to grasp and utilized English in a more conversant manner. There’s no question about it.

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