Sunday, September 13, 2009

Just another random thought 9/13/09

Today I went for a hike in Kyoto with a group of outdoor/hiking enthuthiasts called the Ramblers. It's a Kansai-based group that organizes monthly hikes and is open to everyone. Today about 50 people showed up, which I'm told is a little smaller than usual. I was struck by the fact that of the Japanese I talked to (there were some foreigners, too), most of them seemed almost fluent or at least at a conversational level of proficiency with English. Random experiences like these make me skeptical whenever I hear someone voice the opinion that Japanese are not good at foreign languages. Based on my personal experiences, I would beg to differ.


  1. I think that they're mainly addressing the overall proficiency relative to the time spent studying in school when compared to other cultures where English is taught as a second language. In particular, if you look at the capability of people in places like Norway (for example), they are quite fluent with far less time spent studying. In fact, they are stunningly fluent relative to Japanese with similar or greater years of study under their belts.

    My experiences generally have revealed that people are pretty poor at English on the whole in Japan, but I think that's because they were taught so poorly in their formative years. Many of them were taught by teachers who simply did not speak well or understand grammar properly and just passed all of their mistakes onto their students. I can't tell you how many people think "ever" and "never" are opposites (e.g., "I have ever been to America" as being the "opposite" of "I have never been to America"). After years of bad English, it's all pretty ingrained. They also learn English for test taking as opposed to English for actually communicating. It's all down the Ministry of Education's rigidity and poor curriculum choices.

    There are certainly people who are good, but you tend to find them in relatively isolated circumstances and they tend to have atypical exposure to foreigners or travel in foreign countries.

  2. Could be, Orchid. I don't have any evidence - I'm just speaking anecdotally. In my college days, however, few of my friends (or even acquiantances, to my knowledge) were fluent in a second language. Perhaps that says more about my friends than society in general. In Japan, though, I've known more than a handful of college students and even a few high schoolers who have been near fluent at English. And as I may have pointed out (perhaps not, though - I forget exactly what I've posted on this blog sometimes), I've met Japanese who are good at English in many different environs. While your point is well taken, I'm going to respectfully disagree with you about Japanese being generally bad at English. There's merit to what you say about time put in as compared to the results, but it's also interesting that no matter where you go, there is usually someone around who understands at least enough English that one can get by communicating even without knowing more than a few words of Japanese.

    I agree with your point that English education isn't what it could/should be, but I think foreign language education in Japan is a step up from what it is in the States, anyway.

  3. It's not a competition between America and Japan. It's a matter of educational investment within a particular country and the subsequent results. American schools typically do not invest a lot of effort into teaching second languages relative to the teaching of English in Asia (and in Japan in particular). Japanese people start studying English at a young age and study nearly every year in their mainstream studies, juku, and conversation schools and the return on that investment is not very good when you look at overall proficiency.

    American schools only offer minimal language study and it isn't mandatory as a part of college entrance exams to be proficient in a language. People also rarely seek out or receive any secondary language tuition. The investment is small and the return is small. American culture doesn't value second language proficiency because English is currently the international language of business. What Americans can or cannot do is not relevant to a discussion of English language proficiency in Japan. The question isn't whether Americans are better at a second language than Japanese, but rather how proficient the Japanese are at English.

    You certainly don't have to believe my opinion on this matter. However, I would encourage you to seek out objective sources (such as the Japanese Ministry of Education's assessment of the effectiveness of their current system - which even they believe is quite poor). I'm sure you will see that they support the idea that the Japanese have poor proficiency (again, on the whole - clearly one can find many anecdotal examples of people with excellent English skill), particularly considering the years they spend studying. There's a reason the English conversation school business is so lucrative in Japan.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Orchid.

    You're right that there is no competition between America and Japan. This was just a random musing I had, and I suppose in my mind the comparison came naturally, as those are the only two places I've lived.

    Sounds like you know a lot about language education! Glad to have your input. =)