A Robert Red-Baer Essay

Published in "The Edogawa Women's Junior College Journal"

March 1995, issue number 10
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Why it isn't, and how it can be

By Robert Red-Baer

Why is it that for the most part the average Japanese who has never left Japan, cannot effectively communicate in English? Whereas, most Japanese who have spent six months or more abroad in an English speaking atmosphere can effectively communicate in English, regardless of their educational background. It is well known that most College educated Japanese have a strong command of the written English language, but a relatively weak command of the spoken language. Although there have been thousands of books and papers written on why this problem exists and possible solutions to it, nothing much has changed the situation from the beginning of modern English education in Japan.

One of the many suggested remedies for this problem is bringing more native English teachers into Japan. As a matter of fact the Ministry of Education is planning to increase the number of foreign (native speaker) English teachers in junior and senior high schools in Japan at least two or threefold in the near future. This should be good in exposing the students to foreigners and make them feel more at ease when the are confronted with a gaijin (foreigner), but I doubt it will have much impact on the students' ability to effectively communicate in English. Even though the number of foreign teachers will increase, the actual teachers of the classes in almost all of the cases will be Japanese. As the program stands now, the foreign teachers only "visit" the classes a specified number of times a month, the number of times depending on the size of the school district and the number of foreign teachers employed.

There is nothing wrong with Japanese teaching English. As a matter of fact, in many cases there are better Japanese teachers of English, than there are native speakers teaching their own language, but unfortunately many of these skilled Japanese teachers of English are restricted as to where they can teach-- especially in the private English conversation school sector. It is commonly known that many of these highly commercial conversation schools employ English conversation teachers more by their looks than their qualifications. Not only will some of these schools choose to employ a totally inexperienced Caucasian over a well qualified and experienced Japanese English conversation teacher, they will choose the inexperienced Caucasian over a much better qualified foreigner who happens to be of Japanese descent. I have personally heard actual accounts of this practice.

One instance was where a Japanese-American acquaintance of mine with a Masters degree in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) and impeccable English pronunciation answered a help wanted ad for a native speaking English teacher in an English language newspaper. After telling the conversation school her excellent qualifications on the phone, she was asked to come in for an interview. The interview was never to happen, for as soon as the secretary saw her Japanese face, she was told the position had already been filled. An obvious lie, being that three Caucasians were sitting in the office waiting for their interview (they had told my acquaintance that they had been waiting to be interviewed for the position). Citing this incident is not to point out discrimination in commercial English conversation schools, but rather to show how the attitude towards the English language is as much, or even more of the reason for the general Japanese inability to effectively communicate in English. The only reason English conversation schools like the above want white faced foreigners to teach English, is because that is what Japanese learners of English expect. Why they expect this is one of the suppositions of this paper.

Now to go back to the Japanese teachers of English in junior and senior high schools. As mentioned above, there are very well qualified Japanese English conversation teachers, but un- fortunately, only a few of them are found in the public secondary educational system. And those who are teaching in the high schools are somewhat restricted by the curriculum they are required to teach. So many educators are saying that the secondary school Japanese English teachers can't teach English conversation because they either cannot or will not speak English in the classroom. How could one expect Japanese students to converse in English, when their own English teachers don't converse in English? And why don't the English teachers speak English, themselves? Is it because their English teachers didn't speak English? And then, why didn't the English teachers' English teachers speak English? What is this problem with spoken English in Japan? In most other countries where English is taught as a second language there is not this aversion to spoken English. In English classes in Brazil, the teacher and the student will both speak English in the classroom without fear or hesitation. However, this English will not be pronounced the way the average American would pronounce it, but it is still English. Take the Philippines where the national language is Tagalog. Most Filipinos can speak English, and Spanish as well. And many of them can speak English before they can write it. There are other countries where English is a second language and where the people can speak it before they write it. It is natural for people to speak a language before writing it. I can't imagine a normal child writing the word "Mama" before saying it. The Japanese language, as with all languages, was of course spoken long before a writing system was created.

Per capita, Japan has the largest number of English schools operating outside of the formal educational system in the world. There is hardly a train station in Japan that doesn't have an English conversation school in front of it- hardly a bookstore without a major part of it devoted to English studies- hardly a child who isn't taking some sort of English lessons outside of regular school- and there is never a day without some kind of English conversation lessons or topics on the radio or television. The English industry is one of Japan's major industries, grossing billions and billions of yen every year. The competition between English conversation schools is severe, and English is generally promoted by these commercial enterprises as something attractive and elegant to learn, with very little focus on its use for communication. Therefore it is no wonder that many of these schools will take young attractive Caucasian native speakers regardless of their teaching qualifications. And now with the long awaited threat of the declining student population becoming an inescapable reality, some colleges and universities are starting to resort to extra-educational measures in order to attract students. These advertised attractions include all of the classrooms being air-conditioned, billiard rooms and popular TV personalities as instructors, just to mention a few. Being that English is the predominant subject that most Japanese major in, or take classes in, it is natural that many institutions of higher learning are interested and working on improving its attractiveness. Hopefully, they won't follow the recent trend of the commercial English conversation schools of glamorizing it by using young Caucasians in their advertisements and limiting their English (conversation) teachers to the same category. Hopefully, they will emphasize English communication in lieu of the now popular English conversation-- which now brings us to the subject of this paper, "ENGLISH FOR COMMUNICATION: Why it isn't, and how it can be."

Before we can talk about Japanese speaking English, we must look at the Japanese language, and non-native speakers of Japanese, speaking it. I believe that in this way we can see that the problem brought out in the first part of this paper is not due to simple things like a lack of qualified English speaking, English conversation teachers. As you will hopefully see, the reason for the problem goes much deeper than most people think, and the solution cannot be found in mere numbers. I have studied this both in Japan and the United States- this research included interviews with Japanese and Americans that are relevant to the topic of this paper. It is needless to say that naturally a great deal of the material used here has been from my own sixteen years of experience in teaching Japanese people English, and in the learning of the Japanese language myself .

I have talked to other long term foreign residents in Japan about the following and we have much the same feelings and experiences with the Japanese language, but for convenience I will be using myself as the example:

When originally coming to Japan, I had absolutely no knowledge of the Japanese language or what it was about. The first word I learned was ohayou, and that was because it sounded exactly like the American state, Ohio, to me. Now this, "to me" is very important, because even though I couldn't distinguish any difference at all between the pronunciation of the American state, Ohio, and the Japanese word for "good morning," "ohayou," the Japanese definitely could. We will return to this very important point later.

I wasn't here long before I realized that I was going to have to speak Japanese in order to truly communicate with Japanese people. A foreigner in Japan can live a comfortable life without ever having to speak a word of Japanese- and many foreigners do live this life. A popular columnist with the English language newspaper, THE JAPAN TIMES, for more than twenty years, Jean Pearce, admitted to me that she doesn't speak Japanese, Not only has she lived in Japan for close to thirty years (much of the time by herself), she writes a twice weekly column entitled, GETTING THINGS DONE, which is about how to get things done in Japan. Apparently she has English speaking Japanese friends who help her when she needs to communicate in Japanese.

Though there is a problem with Japanese being able to communicate effectively in English--the topic of this paper-- there is almost always some Japanese who will come to the aid of a non-Japanese speaking foreigner who needs some help, and that includes strangers. A few years back I was looking for a building in Tokyo, and on a busy street corner I asked a Japanese lady in Japanese if she knew where the building was. She said she didn't know, and before I knew what was happening, I was surrounded by six Japanese trying to help me-- all speaking to me in ENGLISH.

So even though it is possible to live in Japan without speaking the language, it is very limiting. The non-Japanese speaking foreigner can only communicate with English speakers, limit themselves to a life of gesturing with non-English speakers or always depend on a third party to act as an interpreter. This was the life that I, along with many other foreigners chose not to live.

Now in the English language and most of the languages of Europe, pronunciation is important for communication, but it is not the most important factor for basic communication. Usually if a person can come close to the correct pronunciation it is enough for the meaning to be understood. The English Language, my native tongue, is the chief medium of communication of people in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and numerous other countries. It is also the official language of many nations in the Commonwealth of Nations and is widely understood and used in all of them. It is spoken in more parts of the world than any other language and by more people than any other tongue except Chinese. In all of these countries that use English, even though the pronunciation and intonation may vary greatly, the language is understood between all speakers of the language, no matter what part of the world they are from, including Japan. Every English speaking country, or even different areas of some countries, has its own unique pronunciation and intonation of English.

Naturally, I thought the Japanese language was the same type of language as English when I started to learn it. I therefore (as most foreigners do), started learning the vocabulary without spending any time on, or paying any attention to, the precise pronunciation of the words-- this turned out to be a very big mistake in my study of Japanese. If I had known how important pronunciation of Japanese was, I would have spent the time and effort to practice the correct pronunciation of Japanese words, and would not have the now ingrained, bad pronunciation habits that I do.

It is extremely difficult for Westerners raised outside of Japan to hear the minute differences of pronunciation of Japanese words without studying each word separately. Westerners don't have the exactness of the long and short vowel sounds programmed into their heads that the Japanese do. In most Western languages you can stretch or shrink the vowel sounds with no difference in meaning. In English you can take almost any word, pronounce it differently, and still be understood. For a simple example, the word hat; in California it is pronounced, "hat." In Boston it is pronounced something like, "hate" and in London it is pronounced something like, "hot." Now, being that all three different pronunciations of the same word also have different meanings, you would think a Californian would have trouble in Boston or London. Well, he would, if only one single word were spoken. But English, like all languages, is not spoken in words- it is spoken in groups of words. It is the context that is important. If a Londoner orders a cup of tea in California and the waiter asks him, "Hot?" I doubt very much the Londoner would give him his hat. Though there are many Japanese who seem to believe the Londoner would actually part with his hat. As a matter of fact there used to be a popular TV program, that expounded on Japanese mistakes in English pronunciation called, "Kyosen no Tsukainai Eigo," or "Kyosen's (TV host's name) English that can't be Used." This program made fun of Japanese English pronunciation. It would have a scene with something like a Japanese man going into a restaurant and ordering a bowl of lice (of course, wanting rice), and the waiter actually bringing the man a bowl of lice. In reality this would never happen, but this TV show made it seem as though it would-- only reinforcing the Japanese fear of speaking English. It is this attitude that is a major reason for the average Japanese not being able to effectively communicate in English.

One important point I am trying to make is that as a rule, Westerners don't have the sense of the absolutely precise pronunciation subtleties of language that the Japanese do. It wasn't until some years after I started studying Japanese that I realized one of the biggest differences between Japanese and English was the tremendous importance of the pronunciation of Japanese.

Naturally in different parts the English speaking world, there are correct and incorrect pronunciations of the language, and we are taught the correct pronunciations in school. But what is correct English in England and what is correct English in the United States, is different. If you really want to hear the correct pronunciation for the part of the world you are in, a television newscaster's pronunciation of English (or whatever the spoken language is, for that matter) is generally considered the correct pronunciation for the area of the world that you are in. So, we can see that English is a very fluid language open to all kinds of pronunciations and intonations. In English words can be pronounced slightly different and not lose their meaning. Whereas in Japanese, if the word is pronounced differently, even to the slightest degree, it will either change its meaning, or have no meaning-- the latter being most common.

After being in Japan for more than sixteen years, I can now hear the strangeness of foreigners when they speak Japanese. Foreign TV personalities who I once thought were perfect Japanese speakers, now aren't. I can hear the strangeness of my own Japanese when I speak, and this sometimes embarrasses me-- but I must speak to survive. I can now get a feeling of what Japanese feel when they hear foreigners speak their language. Is it possible that Japanese feel they look the same as foreigners speaking Japanese, when speaking English to an American? Is it possible that Japanese feel they will be misunderstood, or even laughed at, if they don't use the correct English pronunciation or intonation with a Londoner? We will look at this in detail in the next section.

Having discussed one of the reasons why non-native speakers of Japanese have difficulty in speaking Japanese, let us see how this relates to the one of the main reasons that Japanese have difficulty in speaking English. It is not that a Japanese adult cannot speak English, because practically any normal Japanese adult who has graduated from high school can-- they just don't.

Just look at the fact that almost any Japanese can speak English in a foreign country when placed in an English speaking environment, because the language is already inside them-- it takes a survival situation to make it come out --- this situation almost never presents itself inside Japan a situation where communication is the number one objective for speaking English. I personally have known junior high school students, who claimed they couldn't speak English, go to the United States for as little six months and come back to Japan and speak to me comfortably in English. It Is not at all uncommon to see a Japanese businessman or company worker who had little or no experience in speaking English on the job suddenly sent to a foreign country for a year or two, and comes back speaking practically fluent English.

Just from the above examples, it seems that what most Japanese need to speak English, is confidence. Why is it that people from other countries where English is taught and used as a second language have no fear of speaking it, and Japanese do? One reason is that in these other countries there is no fear of mispronouncing a word - and that is because most of these speakers' mother tongues are similar to English, where the pronunciation and intonation of words is more flexible and open.

Many of my students won't answer a question in English, even if they know the answer, probably because they are afraid of being misunderstood by the person asking the question or being laughed at by other students if they can't answer with correct English. A simple example of this phenomenon is when I visited a children's English conversation class a few years back. I was asking the first grade students some simple questions in English and I went to one boy who had just started English lessons a couple of weeks earlier. I asked him, "What is your name?" He just stared blankly at me. I asked him and again and he just gave me a blank look. Later I found out that the boy knew exactly what I asked, being that the teacher later told me had practiced the question and answer with him, and of course, the boy knew his own name. The problem was he couldn't remember the first part of the answer that his teacher had taught him a week before-- the "My name is " ... part of the question. This is a simple, but good example of Japanese teachers teaching correct English and not English communication. If I had asked the same question to a child in almost any other country, the child would not have thought how he should have answered the question but would have simply answered with his name-- the answer to the question.

In order for the average Japanese person to speak English, the emphasis on teaching must change from English Conversation to English Communication. One problem with this though, is the cultural side of the two languages. Amazingly, there seems to be no realization within most Japanese educators or the Ministry of Education that the way native English speakers hear Japanese speak English, and the way native Japanese speakers hear foreigners speak English, is completely different. If only (Japanese) people could realize this, they could speak English and be able to communicate with foreigners in Japan with comfort and confidence.

One of the things that really surprises native speakers when they first start teaching English in Japan, is the students constantly asking the correct pronunciation of words that they are having no trouble in pronouncing at least to the native English speaker's ears. Barring a few exceptions such as words like the verb record and the noun record, knowing where the stress comes or doesn't come in words has very little to do with verbal communication in English. And even with the word record being misused, there should still be no major communication problem. Though the trend seems to be slightly changing, almost all English tests in Japan devote about a third of the test space to section(s) on the Intonation and stress of syllables in words. There are many words in these sections that even native speakers have trouble in choosing the correct point of stress. Because the Japanese language is so strict on its sounds. Japanese people can hear differences in English pronunciation that native speakers themselves can't even hear. Students have actually been seen to laugh at their fellow students very slightly different pronunciation of an English word. Native English speaking teachers have often been questioned by Japanese on their English pronunciation of the simple word, "the." You can believe this always surprises me when I am told that in certain situations, "the" is pronounced "thee," and in other situations it is pronounced "thuh." Though strict discipline is necessary (and natural for native Japanese speakers) for speaking Japanese, it Is a hindrance in speaking English. The Japanese discipline in speaking English Is much too strong. It is so strong, that it keeps people from speaking the very language that they are learning.

Every teacher of English conversation I have ever spoken to talks about Japanese students not speaking out of fear of making a mistake -- of using English in the wrong way. But this way of thinking must change to where learners of English realize, that when it comes to communication in English, even though there may be better ways, there is no wrong way.

Spanish speakers of English, French speakers of English, Italian speakers of English, and just about all speakers of English from different parts of the world have stress points in the same words in different places. Now, why can't the Japanese do this? Why must the Japanese work so hard at not speaking English with a Japanese accent? Every other English speaker in world has an accent. There are Chinese accents, German accents, Polish accents, Dutch accents, etc. To the Americans, people from England have a British accent; and to the English, people from America have an American accent.

The great amount of time and effort the Japanese spend on pronunciation and intonation is completely out of proportion to its worth in learning English as a language to communicate with. But it is not just a matter of cutting down on the time now placed on pronunciation and into- nation, it is a matter of changing the attitude of Japanese looking at English from a Japanese language point of view (and vice versa, but that doesn't concern us here).

I and other long term native speaking English teachers have learned a lot of the Japanese language, and a lot about the Japanese language from the mistakes Japanese make in speaking English. For example one common mistake is a sentence like, "Who is your like actress?" This sentence shows us learners of Japanese the Japanese sentence structure. Another thing is the Japanese overuse of, "I think..." as in, "I think I want to go to Hawaii next year " In most cases like this we wouldn't use I think in English. But the Japanese overuse of this shows us learners of Japanese the importance of the use of "to omou (1 think)" in speaking Japanese and also that the Japanese meaning of "to omou" goes farther than the English meaning of "I think " especially  in formal speech.

To some extent Japanese look at foreigners speaking Japanese and get some idea of how English is spoken. We see Japanese comedians doing this all the time with their over-exaggerated imitations of foreigners speaking Japanese or English. These exaggerations are funny to Japanese, and fun for them to watch. And though seemingly harmless, I believe these actions serve to heighten the Japanese fear of speaking incorrect English. I believe that subconsciously most Japanese feel that when they speak this supposedly incorrect English, they are seen in the same light as the foreigners being parodied by Japanese comedian's. As I said, I feel this is a subconscious feeling, but a natural feeling.

Americans are always coming into Japan thinking that except for language and culture being different, that the Japanese basically think like them. Of course this is not true and unfortunately many American businessmen with this attitude fail miserably in Japan. And it also goes the other way around with some Japanese companies doing business in the United States. But in general it is much easier for Japanese to do business in America, than it is the opposite, just as it is much easier for a Japanese to speak English, than for an American to speak Japanese. And as I have been saying, this is not just a matter of the Japanese and English languages having different kinds of words, sentence structures and things of that nature. This is due to very distinct cultural differences that are reflected in the languages.

What can we do to alleviate this problem? In the short term, English teachers as individuals, should try to have their students understand that English is not a language that is as dependent on the minutely subtle pronunciation of words that the Japanese language is. Have them understand that there is nothing wrong or strange about them speaking English with a Japanese accent or what they might call, "Japanese-English." As mentioned earlier, everybody who speaks English in one part of the world is said to have an accent by English speakers in another part of the world. But above all, it is most important for the students to grasp the concept that they do not sound like a gaijin sounds when the gaijin is speaking Japanese.

But before the students can be taught to see English from the point of view of a native English speaker, their teachers have to be able to understand the concept themselves, and that is the most difficult part. If the teacher is able to spend one or two years abroad immersed in an English environment, the ability to see and feel English with the eyes and heart of a Westerner would probably come naturally. But unfortunately this is not practical solution, at least as far as most Japanese teachers go. Possibly going to international conventions or places where people from different English speaking and non-English speaking countries gather might be of help in finding this feeling of seeing the English language through the eyes of a native English speaker. If the teacher can manage to realize this concept of the English language, than the emphasis, or rather the overemphasis on pronunciation will naturally disappear and true communicative English will be taught.

Also in the short term, for college level teachers of English, especially English conversation, I would suggest that aside from occasionally teaching the basic pronunciation of difficult words when it seems appropriate, the teaching of pronunciation should all but be abandoned. In place of this, teaching materials that make use of the students' already acquired knowledge of English should be sought for and used. By the time the students reach college, they have already learned the structure of English and have built up quite a large English vocabulary. Since most students have just learned English up to the college level and not actually used it-- I believe college is the time for them to start using English in the way it is supposed to be used. This is exactly what I have been trying to do with my Junior College students. And I have gone as far to write a book for the express purpose of getting the students to use the English they already know in order to communicate. Of course, new vocabulary appears in the lessons, however the basic English is what they have already learned. In short, I do not teach them English, I teach them to communicate in English through using experiences they are likely to come across in an English speaking environment in Japan or abroad. For interested readers the textbook is entitled, MIDORI'S ADVENTURES IN ENGLISH COMMUNICATION (click on the title to go to it and one other textbook).

In the long run the attitude of the general Japanese populace towards the English language has to somehow be changed from merely learning English, to learning English for communication. This might start with teaching elementary school children that Hello is a word used to greet people who don't speak Japanese, and that is why they are learning that word. They should be taught that they are not learning the word Hello to shout at any foreign looking person they see, which is sadly the case right now. It also might be interesting for elementary schools to invite to their classes children who come from countries where English is spoken as a second language. Children should learn, right from the start that pronunciation of English does not equal com- munication in English. They should be able to feel that with English, they can communicate with people from all over the world. No child should ever feel he or she should be silent for fear of making a pronunciation or grammatical mistake. They should be taught that when trying to communicate in English there are no mistakes, just some communication problems-- and they are learning standard English in order to eliminate these problems. It is like when you have a bad connection on the telephone. You can understand what is being said, but it is difficult. Fix the connection little by little, and little by little you can understand more of what is being said-- until it is perfectly clear.

Humans innately strive for communication with others. Whether it be parents, friends, teachers, or the entire world, we are always looking for communication. English should be treated as a tool for communication, not as a compulsory school subject that must be perfectly learned. If the cultural differences can be dropped, and the attitude toward the English language changed, then English will truly become the second language of Japan.

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