Japan needs something more than English (Day 26)

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama states as follows in an interview for The Japan Times:

“In order to contribute to the world, Japanese must learn English. The reality is that the universal language is English. Due to the language problem, Japanese people can’t contribute enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect English! My English is broken but I can still communicate!”

I do agree that Japanese must learn English and be able to communicate with the world. I believe there’s more than the English language that Japanese people must learn, though. What they really need is to realize that there’s no divide between Japanese people and non-Japanese people: we’re all human beings after all. It seems to me that many Japanese people have been studying English without even realizing this simple fact. Languages are for communication, but generally speaking, many Japanese people seem to study English as though English is a ticket to a better position at work rather than a communication tool. What a boring goal. Seriously.

My impression is that the majority of Japanese people have no idea what non-Japanese people are like or that they have wrong ideas about them. I bet that most of the people who read my blog are expats in Japan and I’m sure you know much more about all these things than I do.

I imagine the following situations. One in which many Japanese people can speak English fairly well but they still don’t have the sense of international community. And the other in which many Japanese people still suck at English, but they’re more open to non-Japanese visitors and residents. Now of course it’s better if they could speak English and were open to non-Japanese people, let’s cross this option out for the sake of simplicity. And let’s have the same deal with the situation where Japanese people can’t speak English and they aren’t open to non-Japanese people… well, this one sounds a lot like the current situation. In any case, with those two situations, I would choose the latter. The reason behind this choice is simple. If there’s no intention to communicate with others, then being able to speak English … or any other language doesn’t mean anything. But, if you’re keen on communicating with others, then what language you speak doesn’t matter much. Body language and what not could fill in the gap.

Now, the question is: what can we do about it to make Japanese people more open towards the world outside of Japan? What can I do about it?

How I learnt English (Day 22)

This post might be useful if you’re learning a foreign language. I’ll write about how I learnt English.

The way I learnt English is simple. After I decided to go to university in Australia, I started studying English with enthusiasm. To be able to study philosophy in English, one must get really good at English. That was the case for me and served as a big motivator. It helps to be clear about how much (at least for now) you want to master the language you’re studying. You may not want to read philosophy books in Japanese and just want to be able to have a decent conversation without the help of a dictionary; that’s totally fine as long as you’re aware of that. Also, it helps if you have a meaningful motivation for learning that language. What makes it ‘meaningful’ is totally up to you, but if you feel you’re obliged to study the language because you need it to pass a school exam and you don’t like it at all, you’ll probably have a hard time in learning it.

There are two things that built the foundation for me in learning English.

Here’s the first one. I focused on getting my English pronunciations right as much as possible. I didn’t aim for 100%, because you don’t need to get everything right from the beginning. If you can pronounce the vowels and consonants in English, then you’re more likely to understand what’s being said, at least to understand the phonetics of what’s being said if not the meaning. It helps to know what’s phonetically important in the language you want to learn as well. Tone, pitch, intonation, stress. I think it’s fairly safe to imitate what you hear, though.

The second one is this. I read aloud English texts. Since almost every English learning book comes with a CD or two these days, I could read the texts aloud to the recording of those texts. That was pretty neat. In addition to reading aloud, I did this exercise recommended by a prominent Japanese interpreter—reading aloud and writing down texts at the same time. Choose a page long text and do it for 3 pages per day. And do it for 3 months every day. Once you’ve done that, your linguistic intuition for that language will be sharper.

You’ll probably have to study more if you want to master the language you’re studying, but these approaches will get you a good foundation in going further.