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Keeping America out of the Japanese English Classroom

No, this post has nothing to do with the current socio-political situation in the U.S. Yes, it does contain ideas about how to improve your students’ English speaking skills. Read on.


For the Japanese … associations with the English language invariably involve the U.S.”


Having spent most of last year in Thailand (on a research sabbatical), I was impressed with the manner in which Thai people generally thought of English not as ‘the language of Americans’ but rather as a tool for interacting with any foreigner. By virtue of sharing borders with Cambodia, China, Malaysia, and Myanmar, English is the lingua franca when engaging the neighbors. (Yes, Laos is also contiguous, but that language is very closely related to Thai). English is not something that is only used far across the oceans.


However, this is not the case in Japan. For the Japanese, associations with the English language invariably involve the U.S. (followed closely by the U.K.). So much so that I’ve come to shrug my shoulders when Japanese people assume that I’m American (I’m Canadian). This includes questions and comments, often from academics and professionals, regarding the American health, education, and insurance systems — and my experiences therein — even when they are aware of the fact that I am Canadian! (Canadian readers are surely nodding their heads knowingly while reading this).


I’ve lost count of the number of times my medical students have made statements beginning with, ‘In foreign countries…’ but when pressed as to exactly where, the answer is invariably, “In America.” America = the world. Perhaps even more discomforting is the common underlying assumption that I must also hold all the archetypal ‘American values’ as well. America embodies the great foreign ‘other’ in Japan.


“Our students and staff seem far more … comfortable when interacting in English with Asian visitors than those from the U.S.”


Over the past several years however, at least since my arrival in Japan, I have noticed a positive change not only in the varied nationalities of English teachers but also the materials and textbooks, which feature far more Filipinos, Singaporeans, or non-native English speakers and scenarios than the tiresome ‘John Smith/Jane Brown in Seattle’ characters that populated materials in the previous generation. Presenting English as a world language with a scope beyond the US/UK (and the other usual suspects, including Canada) is only common sense — and I applaud this shift in focus.


But the implications for Japanese English fluency are even larger. At my university, we often host teaching faculty, medical professionals, and students from both the U.S. and various connected Asian universities. I cannot imagine how to represent this, or even measure it, statistically but I can assure you that almost all our students, and staff, seem far more relaxed, more linguistically competent, and more comfortable when interacting in English with Asian visitors than those from the U.S. 


“To the average Japanese, Americans (in particular) can seem wholly ‘other'”


I think there’s a good reason for this.


As you know, interpersonal and intercultural competencies are essential skills in engaging those from ‘outside’. However, The U.S. is culturally, psychologically, interpersonally, and socially very far removed from Japanese norms. This is not the case with Asians (at least, East Asians), who often share certain manners and modes of interactions, understanding of acceptable behaviors, and even rhetorical styles. To the average Japanese then, Americans (in particular) can seem wholly ‘other’, and the resultant necessary social and psychological leap can seem profound and daunting. 


Not so for Japanese when interacting with Vietnamese, Cambodians, Thais, or Indonesians. First, there is the shared consciousness of linguistic ‘equality’ — both are using English as a second, learned, language. Thus, the starting line is the same. But also in evidence are the shared underlying ‘rules’ regarding normative interactions and personal communication styles. Yes, they are using English, but now it somehow doesn’t seem so socially or psychologically distant. It is a communicative tool that can be used and shared by people who are not a part of the historical Anglosphere. English need not lock one into very alien modes of communication. From a Japanese perspective, when people who look and behave somewhat like ‘us’ speak in English, it doesn’t seem so distant and foreign.


“This is why Thai people generally seem to be less ‘on edge’ than Japanese when managing English.”


This is why Thai people generally seem to be less ‘on edge’ than Japanese when managing English. They use it to communicate with people who are culturally, socially, and interactively much more like themselves — their neighbours. English therefore seems less psychologically forboding, threatening, less wholly ‘other’.


So, how might this impact the average Japanese English classroom? Here are some ideas:

  1. Use models and samples that involve non-native English speakers and non-Anglosphere settings.
  2. Use textbooks and materials that provide a wider world focus of English.
  3. If your institution has the habit of inviting visitors for any reason, do consider having fellow Asians as classroom guests.
  4. In speaking, focus upon mutual intelligibility as a goal, not accuracy (maybe not even ‘fluency’).
  5. As the non-Japanese population increases in Japan, consider extending activities outside the school and in the local non-native English speaking community.


Regarding the ‘power’ of English among non-native speakers, let me close by relating an anecdote:


I was at a restaurant in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) last winter when a heated argument broke out in English between the Thai manager and a Chinese customer. Once it was resolved, the manager came to my table.

I said, “You seem to have a lot of Chinese customers. Have you considered learning Chinese?”.

“No! No!” He waved the suggestion off immediately. “If I speak Chinese to them, I will lose. If I use Thai, they understand nothing. But If I use English with them, I can win.”


Think about it.


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Mike will be presenting at the Japan Writer’s Conference, Oct. 12th and 13th, at Meiji Gakuen University, Tokyo. There is no attendee fee.  Mike’s presentation is entitled ‘Merging Multiple Identities and the Marginalized Character in Fiction’ and takes place Sunday, the 13th from 10:00 AM.


Mike Guest’s new (and recently revised) novel, The Aggrieved Parties is available here.


For a chapter sample of the novel please read The Font: A Literary Journal for Language Teachers.


Mike’s literary blog, ‘Honeyed Badger Feet’ can be seen here.


Mike Guest

2 Responses to Keeping America out of the Japanese English Classroom

  1. Thank you, I appreciated this.
    As non-Japanese residents of Japan, the “less stress” Japanese conversation partners are similar to what is described here for “less stress” English conversation partners:
    1) Fellow non-Japanese Japanese users 2) Japanese people who are not English teachers 3) Japanese teachers of Japanese, and 4) My former Japanese teachers!

    Another point that came to mind is this, regarding your idea number 4 for how to deal with the situation: 4) In speaking, focus upon mutual intelligibility as a goal, not accuracy (maybe not even ‘fluency’).
    While mutual intelligibility is one important goal, another is to focus on keeping good relationships – not by conforming to “native speaker norms” (wherever that phrase may be meaningful) but by mutual considerateness together with patience and persistence in clarifying meaning. (not my ideas, by the way, but learned from Taguchi and Roever’s ‘Second Language Pragmatics’)

  2. Thanks Jim (sorry for the late reply — I only saw it n my Spam box).

    While many language teachers are aware of the value of non-native English users and usage as models for their students, unfortunately many researchers and ranking professors in Japan still place an unwarranted primacy on having an American (or British) connection to establish legitimacy.

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