OBSTACLES TO COMMUNICATIVE ENGLISH IN JAPAN
AbstractWhen the expression communicative English began to become common about twenty years ago, I was a little confused; if not for communication, what purpose language? I soon realized that the expression referred to the use rather than the abstract study of the language. When English is used to express a thought, orally or in writing, it is communicative; when it is treated as a set of symbols and rules to be studied with little regard to context or utility, it is not communicative.This paper takes a look at some of the factors that inhibit the development of communicative English in Japan.
Key words: English, communicative, obstacles
There has been a significant movement in the past several years to promote communicative English in Japanﾕs educational system. There has been regrettably little evidence, however, of improvement in the ability of Japanese high school students to put what they have studied“into words,” so to speak. There are many reasons for this unfortunate situation.
Spoken English is always good for a laugh.Spoken English continues to serve as a popular source of humorous entertainment in Japanﾕs mass media. In the many years I have lived in Japan, I have seen countless variations of this, particularly on Japanese television.
One of the most commonly employed stunts is that in which a native speaker of English approaches an unsuspecting Japanese citizen and asks a simple question in English. The more embarrassed and tongue-tied the hapless target becomes, the more successful and “entertaining” the stunt. Some variations of this may be shown “live,” but I suspect that most are now taped to ensure that only those with the most entertainment value make it to the television screen.
Whether the targets of these stunts are truly embarrassed or are merely going along with the stunt in fun is not important. The effect is that the viewing audience comes to equate English with laughter and embarrassment at the expense of the embarrassed. I believe that this is one reason for a common reaction when I greet students in English outside of the classroom. If a student is walking alone, he or she will usually respond with no problem. If, however, two or more students are walking together, a simple “good morning” will as often as not produce embarrassed laughter.
Better laughter than tears.Another barrier to communicative English, similar to the above but with not a trace of humor, is related to one of the most widely perceived traits of Japanese society: the pressure to conform, the “hammering down of the nail that protrudes.”
In the traditional Japanese education system, most subjects are taught in the lecture style: the instructor transmits the material, the students passively receive the material. Interaction between instructor and student, particularly at the junior high school and high school levels, is usually limited to group repetition or response. Individual students are seldom called upon to perform (demonstrate what they have learned) in front of other students in the class. Such performances are restricted to written tests, the results of which are usually kept confidential. While a student (nail) may excel (protrude), there is no public display of excellence that might cause him or her to be singled out for special attention (being hammered down). There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that: exceptions.
In the study of communicative English, students are, or should be, called upon to demonstrate their ability to respond to a given situation. Those that excel are clearly evident and open to being “hammered down” by their peers. Superior students may deliberately do poorly to avoid standing out, and extremely sensitive students may even drop out of a class, or school, to avoid being singled out.
There are, of course, teaching techniques to avoid this sort of non-violent ijime (bullying). Some instructors evaluate their students outside of the classroom, one on one, or observe their interaction with other students during pair practice or small-group exercises. No matter how careful, though, it is difficult to recognize and avoid instances of extreme embarrassment (or fear) in practical, communicative activities.
Old habits are hard to break.Some Japanese instructors of English are paying lip service (no pun intended) to the communicative initiative, but are doing so mechanically. There is increased use of tape recorders and computers to give students access to native-speaker pronunciation and usage, but not much spontaneous “live” interaction. No matter how good the software, a tape recorder or computer cannot duplicate the unpredictability of live discourse between humans. Accordingly, students are not adequately prepared for that unpredictability. E.C.ラウファー
Many Japanese instructors, themselves products of the system, are not confident of their ability in communicative English. This would not be an insurmountable problem if such instructors were willing to confront their limitations and join together with their students to find solutions to problems that arise during instruction. However, Japanese traditions of tachiba (position or social status) and kao (honor or prestige) make it difficult for the sensei (teacher) to demonstrate his or her limitations in
front of the students, and situations which may demand such a demonstration are carefully avoided.
Attempting to alleviate these problems, Japanﾕs Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (Monbusho) created the English Fellows Program in 1977 and the British English Teachers Scheme in 1978 to introduce native-speaker instruction in the
education system. Those two programs were merged to form the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program in 1987, and the number of Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) increased steadily in the following years.
The controversial history of the JET Program has been the topic of numerous features and articles in the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching) Journal, JALTﾕs The Language Teacher, other trade journals, and even in Japanﾕs English-language newspapers, so I will not discuss it further here. For those interested, however, I recommend the 1996 article “What do JTEs Really Want” by Wendy F. Schoefield.1)
Japanese communicative style.Another common problem is that many non-Japanese instructors are either unaware of or unable to adapt to cultural differences, particularly as they affect the communicative style of the Japanese.
Consider the following excerpt from a paper by Patricia M. Clancy:
“It has long been recognized that language is an important part of culture, and this is especially true of communicative style. The particular communicative style of a culture arises from shared beliefs about people, what they are like, and how they should relate to one another, and is an important means of perpetuating those beliefs. In Japan, the individual is seen primarily as a member of a social group. Thus arises the need for empathy and conformity, which help to preserve group harmony and group values. The importance of empathy and conformity in Japanese culture gives rise, in turn, to certain characteristics of Japanese communicative style, such as use of indirection both in giving and refusing directives.”2)
Clancyﾕs paper, based on tape-recorded interactions between Japanese mother-child pairs, probes into how the Japanese communicative style is developed and passed on from generation to generation. Although the scope of her research was limited, Clancyﾕs interpretations conform almost entirely to my own observations and experiences in almost forty years in Japan. I was a little disappointed, though, that her transcripts contained few references to fathers, and that she was unable to provide examples of interaction between the children and their fathers.
The lack of references to fathers in the transcripts can be attributed to restraint on the part of the mothers, who knew that they were being observed and recorded. Had Clancy been able to arrange interaction between the children and their fathers, however, it would have added an interesting dimension to her paper. In my experience, the
language of fathers to their children is quite different from, and much more direct than, that of mothers. That difference, at least in part, helps explain a portion of the traditional four most feared things in Japan: jishin (earthquake), kaminari (thunder and lightning), kaji (fire), and oyaji (father). While many will say that fathers are not as feared in today’s society as they once were, their traditional wrath is still invoked by mothers as a threat to unruly children.
In any case, non-Japanese instructors new to Japan should have at least some understanding of the Japanese communicative style and how it can affect their classrooms. Any teaching situation affords moments of satisfaction and moments of frustration, but if the instructor is not prepared to deal with cultural differences, both national and regional, the moments of frustration will likely be far greater than the moments of satisfaction.
Not a few non-Japanese instructors have come to Japan with great expectations, only to give up and seek greener pastures because of bad experiences in the classroom. Many complain of the lack of “internationalization” in Japan, failing to realize that internationalization is a two-way street. Still others come to Japan only to“get their tickets punched,” to get a year or two of teaching experience in Japan that will look good on their curricula vitae, and make no real effort to adapt their teaching techniques to the realities of Japanese society.
The “island mentality.”Another commonly perceived cultural trait of the Japanese that bodes ill for the study of communicative English, or any other foreign language, is the so-called island mentality, or insularity. While that catchall expression covers a broad spectrum of beliefs and behavior supposedly brought about by Japanﾕs centuries of isolation and habits of looking inward, one of its basic components is the inbred belief that things Japanese are unique or naturally superior to things not Japanese. One fairly common example of such beliefs is what I prefer to call the“four-seasons syndrome.”
The four-seasons syndrome crops up every now and then on Japanese television shows on which talento-san (television personalities that often have no perceivable talent beyond a gift of gab) appear as guests and dispense information on just about any topic imaginable (and some unimaginable). If their comments were presented in a way that made it clear to everyone that they were meant to entertain, there would be no problem, but some of their pronouncements are treated as expert testimony for the edification of the viewing audience.
Just a short while prior to this writing, one of those guests waxed poetically about Japanﾕs“unique”four seasons, in effect saying that this trait is unmatched anywhere in the world. While such comments may be nice when intended to express feelings of home, sweet home, they are inappropriate when stated as facts.
My point is that blind belief in the superiority of Japan’s geography, horticulture, weather, etc., extends to language as well. The average Japanese student just does not feel it necessary to attain fluency in any language other than Japanese. The famous “culture shock” that is blamed for any kind of unacceptable behavior on the part of Japanese abroad is, I feel, as often as not attributable to language problems, not cultural problems. Having consistently resisted every attempt to improve their communicative ability in English while in school in Japan, many young people are unprepared to handle the frustration of being unable to communicate well while abroad.
Deteriorating communicative skills in Japan.The final point I wish to address is what seems to be one of the ironies of the so-called information age. There is increasing concern in Japan that young people are becoming less able to communicate effectively, in their own language. This is based less on a lack of Japanese language skill, although that is often mentioned, than on an apparent reluctance to socialize with others.
On reflection, perhaps this phenomenon is not so ironic after all.
Two of the most important tools of the information age are television and the computer. Television has the potential to bring us instantaneous visual coverage of important events in virtually every corner of the earth. Computers, through links such as the Internet, have the potential to put us in two-way communication with people in, again, virtually every corner of the earth. These exciting potentials, however, are seldom realized effectively. Both television and the computer are primarily used as a source of entertainment, and as such have strong narcotic effects that stimulate and distract, but afford few lasting benefits.
What, then, of the educational benefits of television and the computer? Surely young people today are better informed than their parents and grandparents were at similar ages. Well, yes and no. Again, it is a matter of unrealized potential.
For every educational documentary and informative news program on television, there are dozens of mind-numbing and supremely forgettable dramas, situation comedies, quiz programs, and so forth that entertain but make few, if any, intellectual demands. Viewers, even if subconsciously, soon come to equate television fare with other forms of mindless distraction. As a consequence, televised events of real significance come to be viewed with the eyes only, and seldom make the intellectual impression they should.
The case with computers is similar. Because so much of the information available on, for example, the Internet is intended for“quick-fix” distraction, the truly educational material is either overlooked or unrecognized. Let's hope that the Internet is able to achieve a large part of its promise, and is not submerged in commercialism as television has been.
An editorial in The Daily Yomiuri, an English-language newspaper in Japan, listed several interesting possible causes for the apparent lack of communication skills of todayﾕs Japanese children.
1) The impersonality of supermarkets. In times past, it was necessary to communicate with people in small markets and candy stores. In supermarkets, not a word need be said in making purchases.
2) In homes, family members do not exchange greetings as often as they used to, and they infrequently get together for a meal.
3) Because children do not read many books, they are losing chances to play in a world of imagination or to communicate with authors. Television is one-way, and pagers and personal computers do not necessarily provide direct communication between people.
4) Because of the trend for families to have fewer children and the growing number of nuclear families, children have a smaller number of siblings and cousins than in the past.
5) From infancy, children are forced to commute to cram schools or take some other lessons. Instead of playing outdoors in groups, many children play indoors with “things.”3)
The editorial went on to express the hope that “communication between flesh-and-blood human beings“ can be expanded even as we make the most of the development of new media.
A real fear is that the lack of communication skills will bring about a generation of distant and self-centered individuals that are insensitive to the needs and feelings of others. This is already evidenced by the apparent increase of bullying in schools, the cold-blooded activities of the Aum Supreme Truth religious cult, and other instances of behavior that appear to lack what are still generally accepted as normal human feelings.
It seems significant that this article began with reference to the promotion of communicative skills in the English language, and ended with reference to a feared deterioration of communicative skills in the Japanese language. Is progress in the former really possible in the face of the latter? Both problems seem to be rooted in what is seen as changes for the worse in Japanese culture, especially among the young.
Over the past few decades, Japan’s schools have turned steadily away from the liberal arts, emphasizing technology and science instead. While the importance of developing and maintaining a firm base in technological and scientific research and development cannot be denied, it is equally important that our young be taught to be more conscious of human concerns. Surely this is what then Education Minister Takashi Kosugi had in mind when he first used the expression ‘kokoro no kyoiku’ in an address to the House of Representatives Education Committee on July 10, 1997.
A comprehensive discussion of‘kokoro no kyoiku’ is beyond the scope of this paper, however I would like to note that the Education Ministry has been taking steps to promote communicative English in recent curriculum changes. For example, among the most recent reports is that the Ministry has decided to increase the number of native speakers of English working as ALTs4), and plans to open English classes on Saturdays and Sundays starting in fiscal 2000 to give primary school children a greater opportunity to learn English.5)
Emphasis on communicative English, while ostensibly to assist in promoting internationalization, can also encourage the development of empathy among students, and empathy is something that seems to be lacking in today’s young. I would like to close with a quote from an article emphasizing the importance of empathy in English instruction by Ms. Mariko Okuzaki of Hakodate National College of Technology:
“Last year, tragedies involving junior high school students shook Japan. As a result, the Minister of Education proclaimed the need for kokoro no kyoiku (Humane Education, my translation) as a state of emergency in education.
Society demands that every teacher of every subject provide a more humanistic approach in everyday teaching. I would like to make English teaching play its role in helping students better their social interactions. English can teach students something beyond grammar.”6)
References1) Scholefield, Wendy F.: What do JTEs Really Want?, JALT Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1, (pp.)7~24, 1996.
2) Clancy, Patricia M.: The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese. In B. Schieffelin & E. Ochs, eds., Language Socialization Across Cultures, (p.)245, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
3) Editorial, The Daily Yomiuri, (p.) 6 (A), May 6, 1996.
4) Article, The Daily Yomiuri, (p.) 2 (A), August 10, 1999.
5) Article, The Daily Yomiuri, (p.) 3 (A), August 27, 1999.
6) Okuzaki, Mariko: Empathy and English Teaching, The Language Teacher, Vol. 23, No. 7, (p.) 13, 1999.
和文要旨Communicative English （意思疎通の英語、通じる英語）という表現が、20年ほど前から一般に使われ始めた頃、多少戸惑いを覚えていた。意思の疎通ができなければ何のための言葉なのか。それが、言語を抽象的に学習するのではなく、言葉としての実用性を重視するという意味であると納得した。人が思いを、英語で話したり、書いて表現すれば、その意味を伝達しているのである。前後の文脈も有用性もなく、ただシンボルやルールとして学習するのであれば、人の意思を伝えるものではあり得ない。この研究報告では、日本において Communicative Englishの進展を妨げている要因について考察する。r