As I was eating my lunch this afternoon, I decided to watch a bit of the launch event for the NHK x TED collaboration “Super Presentation x TED” which was being broadcast via UStream. Of what I did see, it seemed a lot of time was being spent talking about Japanese people’s speaking ability, presentation ability, etc. – in other words, there was a fair bit of navel gazing about the process of speaking at TED. It was odd in the sense that TED seems to be about sharing ideas across borders (you know, the whole “ideas worth spreading” concept). I was struck by how much time was being spent (wasted?) on that old bugaboo: English. And, in Japan, any talk of “English” is almost always followed by something along the lines of “we are not good at English”. Live here long enough and you begin to realize that there is definitely something systemic and ingrained about the whole thing.
There are various reasons that may or may not be the cause of this glaring ineptitude with a language that every single person under the age of, let’s say, 50 has studied for a minimum of eight years in school. The reasons cited include things like: teachers at the elementary, junior high school, and high school levels are often unable to speak the subject they teach; lack of motivation or economic necessity (until the Japanese “bubble economy” burst in 1991, there was little need to pay attention to what was going on beyond these shores); Japanese people are just “bad” at English, etc.
I suppose, over the years, I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve heard all kinds of speculation about why the kid who sells t-shirts on the beach in Thailand, and whose family emigrated from Bangladesh to Phuket to escape the crushing poverty of Bangladesh, can speak better English than your average Japanese high school student who has had access to years of language education, text books, computers, etc.; however, one thing I have never heard anyone talk about is the actual origin of English language learning in Japan. This is not to say that nobody talks about it, but, rather, until today, I had never heard anyone talk about it.
So, there I was, eating some granola when Ken Mogi started talking about the English language education system in Japan. On one hand, I felt a bit irritated in the here-we-go-again sense; but, it was actually quite refreshing listening to him talk. If you’re not familiar with Ken Mogi, all I will say is that he’s brilliant and he is the absolute antithesis of any Japanese scientific expert you have ever seen on TV or giving a speech in person. He’s full of energy, he speaks very rapidly, he’s excited about the topics he’s speaking about and he conveys passion about a subject.
What caught my attention was his statement that the origin of English language learning in Japan began as a kind of translation initiative. In other words, during the Meiji period, academics were expected to translate and convey ideas from all over the world, ideas that were flooding in with the new openness of the Meiji era. In a nutshell, as Ken Mogi says, they were “importers of culture”. Because of this, the raison d’être of any English language learning was to translate from the outside to the inside. By extension, what this implies is that there was zero interest in any outgoing communication beyond servicing the primary need: to import and understand and incorporate.
He goes on to talk about how this need to translate has shaped the whole English education system here – he talks about the kinds of questions students prepare for on university entrance exams which require test-takers to translate, as he calls them, “nonsense sentences”. The translation of endless nonsense sentences, and doing it well, is what passes for success in the system here.
At this point, I decided to grab my iPhone and record some of his talk. You can see his obvious energy and enthusiasm in this excerpt and, what stands out most to me in this bit, his statement that the whole system is designed to “contain us, to enclose us, to prevent us from going out and being exposed to the wider world”. He flubs a bit on the word “conspiracy” – I don’t think it is what he intends to say and he is not, as he says, a “nut”. His main argument is that Japanese people are too domestic, too inward-looking, too contained by choice, and that, until they can get out in the world and spread their ideas in the lingua franca (an expression he seems to relish), they will be limited in what they can achieve.
Before I leave you with the video, I will say that it’s good to bear in mind that the students he is talking about at Tokyo University are the students of his time. I know from personal experience that there are significant numbers of young people here who have interests beyond the shores of Japan, who study and learn other languages (not just English), and who can communicate quite easily in English. These students are no doubt the exception rather than the rule, but the system is changing and their numbers are increasing. This does not in any way diminish what Ken Mogi is saying – I think he has a very valid point but I also know that there are many who no longer want to be contained.
(I know the video quality is not great: iPhone pointed at laptop with cereal spoon in the other hand!)