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Japan in context: Language skills

English as a foreign language
I’ve already had a bit of a ‘rant’ about the lack of English amongst Japan’s tourist information staff. 95% of the staff in the 25-30 information offices I have visited, up and down the country, had no foreign language credentials. Don’t you find this strange? I certainly do.
(I add as an addendum here that, apart from 2 or 3 cities, I have not been travelling through tourist hotspots like Tokyo and Osaka, where some of the TI staff will certainly speak English. But I have passed through many large cities and towns).


I have always believed that the UK was probably the world’s worst developed country for foreign language proficiency……but no, Japan (I think) beats us hands down on that score. In the UK there is no policy to teach just one single language. It could be one (or two) of several within the EU. In Japan, however, English is the number one language in the schools’ curricula…..and for obvious reasons. So everyone (and I do mean absolutely everyone) will study English for a minimum of 6 years, and most of those who go on to university, will continue for another 3-4 years.


Thinking back to my own teaching days, I would have been very disappointed if my students didn’t have a reasonable degree of confidence in their communication skills after only 3 years of study, let alone 6, or even 10, years. After 5 years of study, I would have expected my advanced level students to have a mature grasp of the language, and be able to communicate at an adult level. So, what’s the difference?

Quizzing a few people about language learning in Japan, I discovered that their teaching method may be still rooted in the ‘grammar/translation’ style, which we discarded back in the 1970s, and Japanese students seldom move beyond a proficiency in only reading and writing. I know I’m going to be corrected on this by people who know better, but this is the message I have picked up over the last 6 weeks, and it has been confirmed time and time again by different people.


But perhaps there is another powerful, historic, reason why Japan only speaks Japanese, has no foreign satellite TV, no foreign press, sells very little (if any) foreign language literature, even in their big book stores….I suspect it is a kind of genetic inheritance from the 2 centuries of self-imposed isolation in the 17-19th centuries, when Japan literally closed its shores to all foreign visitors…..and those that evaded expulsion from Japan, were arrested and many summarily executed…..including the crucifixion of some Christians.

Like Britain, Japan is an island nation….and you may read that as meaning ‘fortress nation’…built on a long history of self defence, of keeping the barbarians at bay.

The Japan I have personally discovered, however,  has moved on a long way from those days. The people I have encountered have been open, kind, generous to the point of embarrassment…..they are a very gentle, smiling, welcoming people who have made my venture of cycling the length of their country an absolute pleasure. And the many many times they have apologised profusely for their poor command English (and I for my minimal knowledge of Japanese)…..that in itself has enhanced the charm of their character as a nation.
You can’t help but love them……

As I was finishing this post, sitting in Wakkanai airport, waiting for the first of three flights, the three ANA staff, who had showered me with noodle meals and biscuits a few days ago, came up to see me in the departure lounge, bubbling with excitement, carrying what was obviously a bag of gifts. They excitedly waited for me to open the bag, and out came a variety of gifts,


all locally made and handcrafted, including what look like kerchiefs with samurai motif, a fan and chopsticks…..and one of them said “For your wife?”. Along with these was a personally drawn greeting/farewell card, with a map of my route through Japan,


and a personally written message from each of them, along with a photo of themselves which they took out on the concourse just minutes before.
I include this PS with this post because most of our (very imperfect) communication has taken place via Google Translate on an iPad.
This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the real world…..