Japan: Mineo Nakajima: Listen up to improve English language study
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Mon Nov 24 17:48:40 UTC 2008
Mineo Nakajima: Listen up to improve English language study
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Japan, South Korea and China are neighbors just two to three hours apart by
plane. People living on the other side of the world often find it hard to
differentiate citizens from the three nations.
Despite such geographical proximity, the languages used by these three
countries are so different it is difficult for people to communicate with
each other unless they are proficient in each language.
On the other hand, English is used around the world, allowing people to
instantly communicate. This applies to countries in East Asia as well as
This is due partly to developments in information technology.
Given this reality, it is indisputable that English has established itself
as a global language. Like gross domestic product and other indexes,
eventually, English-language ability may become one of the yardsticks used
to compare national strength.
Serious discussions and attempts to enhance English-language skills are
advancing not only among East Asian neighbors such as China, Taiwan and
South Korea, but also among non-English speaking countries in Southeast Asia
and other regions.
This summer I was invited to give a keynote address at an international
conference in Bangkok. The theme of the conference was "Language in a Global
Culture: Bridge or Barrier?" A discourse on Japanese and English entitled
"The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English" by novelist Minae
Mizumura, published in the September issue of literary magazine Shincho,
also delved deep into this problem.
Meanwhile, in Japan, there still seems to be controversy over the
introduction of English education in elementary schools.
Some people argue that first consideration should be given to the Japanese
language rather than English, and say if children are taught English, it
could undermine their Japanese language skills. But we must move forward and
depart from the mind-set that teaching English and Japanese is a zero-sum
If we stick to such thinking in this age of globalization, we could cause
Japanese youths to develop a constant inferiority complex toward English.
Although the situation may be somewhat different in Europe, where countries
have much in common in terms of language and culture, recently the European
Union has started advocating "plurilingualism." This concept promotes the
idea that individuals learn other languages in addition to their native
Proponents say learning foreign languages stimulates students and helps them
expand their linguistic spheres, thereby having a positive effect on the
study of their native tongues. It is a linguistic policy aimed at peaceful
coexistence of diverse cultures.
In Japan, too, learning a foreign language as a tool for communication
should be encouraged from an early age as a matter of public concern.
Furthermore, in higher education, I believe plurilingualism is needed as a
means to expand intellectual learning by encouraging students to learn a
second foreign language in addition to English and Japanese.
In Japan, the conventional method of teaching English poses a problem. Even
though Japanese students learn English in school, many of them are unable to
speak the language. Unless this is drastically reformed, the vicious cycle
The government has decided to introduce compulsory English education for
fifth- and sixth-graders in elementary school in the school year starting
At this juncture, the Suzuki method of talent education developed by the
violinist and educator Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998) should be considered as
an approach. Using this method, students are taught music from early
The essence of the educational philosophy is to have children listen to
classical music until they learn the tunes by ear, when their minds are
open. Then they will repeatedly practice what they learned by hearing rather
than reading music.
I believe this method of learning, which does not initially rely on musical
scores, can also be applied to foreign language education.
This will encourage students to first acquire practical communication skills
by hearing, learning and speaking the language, before teaching them grammar
* * *
The author is president of Akita International University and specializes in
international sociology. He was president of Tokyo University of Foreign
Studies before he assumed his present post.(IHT/Asahi: November 24,2008)
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