English Learning in Tokyo

By James

Over the past few months I have been residing in Tokyo, where I occasionally disguise myself as a monolingual English speaker to talk to Japanese in English irrespective of their age and gender.

To my astonishment, most of their English proficiency is not as low as foreigners have expected. They do not speak pidgin English, but instead most can say what they mean in simple words and expressions.

But when I ask what motivates them to learn the foreign language, they explain either that they would like to work in foreign companies where English can be more frequently employed, or that they would love to work overseas in the future. In other words, their impetus is more or less pragmatic. Mostly believers of Darwin’s theory “Survival of the Fittest”, people from all walks of life in Tokyo strive to enhance their English conversational skills to ultimately acquire a job with a better prospect and more monetary benefits.

I begin to wonder, however, whether pragmatism is effective in a foreign language acquisition. In my present university, English academic writing courses are compulsory for freshmen after six years of high school English education which has already given them pressure instead of pleasure. Endless exam practices including monotonous translation exercises may have smothered their interests in learning to a near death.

Is it not impossible for one to excel in something that never pleases him? One ought to understand how a language is conceived in Anglophone culture before making a leap of progress in language learning. A non-native speaker may find it easier to improve his American English if he is intrigued by American slangs and culture. Likewise, watching an English play enables one to familiarize himself with British commonly used expressions.

Despite not being educated in Japanese high school, I can see, through skimming English textbooks in Japan, the detrimental hindrance of English articulation using furigana – Japanese alphabets or symbols – to approximate the sound of another language. Repetitive translation practices do not necessarily mean one can be superior in the second language either. It is understandable why translation has been so much stressed in English pedagogy in Japan as, historically speaking, translation had once been apparently the quickest means to comprehending western culture since the Meiji reform after which Japan had thrived to be an advanced nation and could even be comparable to the US, Britain and many other European nations three decades later.

This historical legacy, nevertheless, is time to go as we are now located in the 21st century which demands all sorts of interactions including face-to-face-communication with tourists and travellers whose number is expected to rise further because of the impending 2020 Olympic Games held in Tokyo. Before raising citizens’ overall English proficiency, it would perhaps be better to instil enjoyment of appreciating various aspects of English culture.

[Photo source: http://www.kairyudo.co.jp/contents/10_goods/200515/dat/p86-87.jpg%5D

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Photo: A picture showing how furigana is used to supplement English learning in a textbook called Sunshine English Course targeted for first year junior high school students in Japan.

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