An interesting article on English education in Japan over at The Diplomat. Referring to the Japanese government’s making English classes compulsory in 5th and 6th grade (that’s the last two years of primary school for you non-U.S. readers) onwards, law-school graduate Hiroki Ogawa writes,

The reality is that raw English ability alone is unlikely to produce any significant change, even assuming that Japanese students go on to have basic conversational skills in English which is often not the case anyway. The problem for many Japanese doesnt necessarily stem from the English lessons themselves, nor the lack of opportunities to use English in Japan though this does exacerbate the situation. The big problem is often the significant cultural barriers.

I’m going to comment on a few points of this article, as it’s well worth reading and makes an important point, but needs amplifying. Ogawa’s point is that Japanese don’t learn to discuss or argue in English class, and that this severely cramps their English communicative ability, and that (inevitably these days) the government should do something about it!

I think he’s right. Partly. But the situation is more difficult than he implies, and I don’t think the solutioncan be implemented by governmental regulation or initiatives.

OK with you so far: the big problem is cultural barriers rather than English classes themselves (there are plenty of them, both in school and in zillions of private language schools) or even in the lack of opportunity to use English,  although I’d add that the “lack of opportunities to use English in Japan” comes close to meaning “no need!” If there aren’t many opportunities to use English here, then what’s the point in learning it? Surely a lot of Japanese high-schoolers and university students ask themselves this question (though they’re mostly too polite to ask it aloud, to their teachers). They “know” it’s important (because they’ve been told so and because an increasing number of company’s are setting English-requirement entrance conditions or promotion conditions) … but they don’t “feel” it.

Setting that aside, so, what cultural barriers are we talking about here?

Japan’s collectivist ideals necessarily arose to allow the nation’s large population to live comfortably together in a comparatively small archipelago. This has given rise to some commendable traits, such as an appearance of agreeableness among Japanese. But it has also led the Japanese to eschew disagreement and argumentation, even though these can be extremely beneficial forms of social interaction. Simply put, Japanese culture and etiquette doesn’t groom people to become confident communicators in English.

OK: collectivist ideals – check. Large population: check. Small archipelago: check. Japanese “eschew” disagreement and argumentation: check. [That word “eschew” gives me the willies: why does the writer have to show off his erudition? What kind of writer eschews the simpler word “avoid” and pick the rarer and more pompous “eschew”? But I digress.] They avoid it like the plague. But the writer’s cultural bias is showing. He assumes that  being good at “disagreement and argumentation” makes people “confident communicators”.  Japanese would probably disagree. After all, if indeed “an appearance of agreeableness among Japanese” is important for living “comfortably together in a comparitively small archipelago” (i.e. cheek by jowl with your neighbours) – something I don’t dispute – then that would make “agreeableness” or its appearance, a key communicative ability, rather than argumentativeness.  Which is exactly what we find. A retired company executive once told me companies in Japan like to hire graduates who played sport in college. Why? Because they’ve learned to work hard and do as they’re told. (The Japanese don’t “play” sport in college: it’s a very serious business, more like becoming a monk – practice every day for several hours, and that includes vacations of course.)

Another problem: if the Japanese “eschew disagreement and argumentation” (they are, after all, famous for not being able to say “no”), then how can they eschew that eschewing, so to speak,  just in English classes? Can they be argumentative in English class but not elsewhere? Perhaps. If they’re brought up bilingually or biculturally, like that lady with the American father and Japanese mother I wrote about a while back.

And another thing. Let’s agree for the moment that being good at arguing helps make you a better communicator (although as I said, the Japanese tend to value diplomacy and tact far higher than argumentativeness). If that’s true, then being poor at arguing will leave you worse off as a communicator, period. It doesn’t matter in what language. And in fact, this is a common complaint of Japanese company HR managers: that young people hoping to enter the workforce are poor communicators, generally speaking. Hiring employers are looking for people with strong communication skills. They have difficulty finding them. That may be true in any country, I don’t know, but it certainly seems true in Japan.

In my “problem” class this year, I have one student who is particularly argumentative. In fact there are several who are in that class, but he’s the best (or the worst, whichever way you want to look at it). At first, I was irritated. I actually had to speak sternly to him (privately), something I rarely have had to do in Japanese colleges. But then I recalled an article about the relation between argumentativeness and communication – written by an American, of course!  In What We Can Learn from Chinese Mothers… and what They Should Learn from Us (But Won’t) (members only), Gary North wrote,

The [Chinese] mothers expect their children to get straight-A’s in everything except gym and drama.

The kids learn to work hard. I’m for that. They learn mastery. I’m for that, too. But there is a flaw in the training. The child is not encouraged to discover what he is really good at and spend extra time on that. He is also taught to shut up. Not good.

North compares this with a typical Jewish upbringing. Jewish parents also expect high standards and hard work from their children (read The Promise for a particularly astonishing, and probably astonishingly common, example) :

Jews are another highly educated minority group. They also excel academically. But Jewish kids talk back . . . early. They argue

Chinese culture produces engineers. But where are the Chinese lawyers? …. If I knew nothing of two lawyers, and my life was on the line, I would hire Schwartz rather than Wong. Call me prejudiced, but I cannot imagine Wong leaping to his feet: “Objection!” Where are Chinese politicians?

(So that brilliant female lawyer in Red Corner was fiction? Damn!)

Mastery of textbooks — high school skills — is a skill that ceases to be relevant at about age 20: upper division in college. Then the student had better be able to think on his own for himself. He had better be able to defend himself verbally. “I’m right. I’ll show you why.”

Why is this important? It’s important for sales, for marketing, for advertising, for success in business, particularly for entrepreneurs, perhaps less so for corporate drones. Dr. North refers to an essay by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning (1947!)  in which she makes a case for bringing back the three pillars of education in the Middle Ages: grammar, logic and rhetoric. The trivium. They are taught in that order, for a reason. Each nurtures skills necessary for the next level. Dr. North says the Chinese never get to the 3rd stage:

Chinese education focures on grammar and logic. It discourages rhetoric. This is a major failure. The first two are necessary skills. But around age 13 or 14, you had better move into the rhetoric stage. This skill takes years to develop. Asian kids do not get this training early enough. ..

What he says about Chinese education is also true to a large extent about Japanese education. Japanese teachers do not encourage questions or a questioning attitude. (I recently attended a presentation in English by an Englishman to a largely Japanese audience. The presenter, as is fairly common among English presenters, said there would be time for Q&A at the end, but please feel free to ask questions at any time. I did. Frequently. Afterwards, I was told that one Japanese gentleman present had been irritated by my many questions: “He shouldn’t have asked so many questions, he should have waited till the end. My students do the same thing. I hate it!”)

Is that attitude likely to encourage enquiring minds?

The Diplomat article and Gary North’s article have caused me to reconsider my “problem” students who argue. If they’re right, then young Japanese need to learn to argue effectively. That doesn’t mean just talking back, but that can be the start. That’s a bud that might, with care, bloom later.

Finally, what does Mr. Ogawa in The Diplomat article suggest as solutions? More government initiative.

For one, the Ministry could address the appalling lack of English discussion in classes in Japan—from elementary to high school, there exists a rigidly structured course that leaves few opportunities for students to apply the English they’ve learned in a practical way.

Could the Minsitry address this? How? Last year, with an advanced class, I tried some simple debates. About half the class were Japanese students, and the other half Chinese. Most of the Chinese students had had some experience of debates back in China. None of the Japanese had. The first step should be discussions and debates in Japanese, not in English.

[T]he English curriculum largely consists of teaching to tests, which is why you’ll see word count guidelines such as ‘1,000 words to be learned during junior high school.’

This is an old chestnut, although it still has a grain of truth, particularly in high schools, and it mostly applies to Japanese teachers of English, there is now a large number of non-Japanese teachers (or assistants) of English in many schools and universities around the country. Some, perhaps many, are not teaching to tests or insisting on vocabulary memorization. Some are teaching discussion and debate.

Modern English, at least in professional settings, is frequently employed in a direct, straightforward manner. This isn’t done to trigger confrontation, but simply out of a desire for efficiency. English isn’t as encumbered with many of the genteel honorifics of Japanese, nor does it rely so heavily on implication.

True, but you can’t separate the language from the speakers! The Japanese speakers live in a hierarchical world. They must constantly be aware of the social levels of themselves and the people they are talking with. As Mike Rogers wrote recently  in Modern Marketing Japan,

Sumimasen and a sincere attitude and bowing of ones head shows that you know your place in society and that you respect people.

This is not a “know your place” meaning be a good little Egyptian, but rather be aware of your relationship with the people you are talking to. Japanese use different language to talk to different people depending on whether those people are their superiors or their inferiors. (There are almost no equals in Japan.)

 English-speakers do, too, of course, but they are largely unaware of it and are often surprised when it is pointed out. For the Japanese, this is deliberate and conscious; it is a survival skill. Such a hierarchical society does not lend itself easily to the kind of straightforward and efficient communication style that Mr. Ogawa describes. Yes, English is unencumbered by the large number of honorifics that Japanese must know and use, but that doesn’t mean that Japanese can abandon their sensibilities at the drop of a hat, just because they’re in English class.

At the end of a recent 2-day communications workshop that I attended with an American and several Japanese colleagues, during which we did little other than sit and talk and play games like the “NASA Moon Survival” game, all my Japanese colleagues were completely exhausted, whereas my American colleague and I were both fresh as daisies. The reason? The  Japanese must constantly remember who they’re talking to, what is the pecking order in the group, when should they speak and who they should let speak first, plus of course the possible repercussions of whatever they say on their future relations with their colleagues. They must be constantly on their guard, careful of what they say, and watching their colleagues faces and body language for clues as to how they are thinking. Displeasure will rarely be expressed verbally.

To sum up, Mr. Ogawa is right to point to cultural barriers or differences as being major hindrances to Japanese people developing good communication skills. But his solution is not going anywhere: how can Japanese learn to discuss and debate in a forthright and direct manner in English class when they can’t do it in Japanese? They can’t be expected to set aside their Japanese persona just in English class.

via Why English Is Tough in Japan | A New Japan.