Why Study English.
"Why do we have to study English?" How many freshman university students must ask themselves this question? After studying English for six years in high school, why do they have to continue to study in university? This is not an easy question to answer.
Of course, there are some simple reasons for studying English. For example, English is useful for traveling or for giving directions to foreign tourists. But having an entire generation of young people study English for several years seems a lot of effort just so they can give directions or ask for a coke in a restaurant in Hawaii. A good phrase book will give most people all the English they need for travel or giving directions.
Another reason for studying English is that it might be useful in future employment. Perhaps, but these days, even students who speak English very well have difficulty finding jobs in which they can use their English. Let's face it, most people seldom have a chance to use English at work. Some employers want to hire students with good English ability, and some employees will have chances to work abroad and speak English, and so studying English is not a bad career investment. Nevertheless, it is hardly a reason for making every university student, even those with modest career ambitions, continue to study English in university.
Some people say students should study English because it is an international language. This may be true, but it is less true than it was in the past. The waning of imperialism and changing demographics have seen the percentage of the world speaking English decline from around 9.8% in 1958 to 7.6 percent in 1992. Among the educated elites of the world, however, the power of English endures. When a diplomat from Indonesia negotiates with a bureaucrat from Germany, they are likely to speak English. When a United Nations envoy speaks with an Arab military leader they are likely to speak English. However, Japan's future elite comprise only a small percentage of the university population, and they are concentrated in a few top universities. Why then do all the other students still have to study English, too?
Besides, Japanese has become an important world language, too. Nowadays, Japanese can travel all over the world and find waiters, desk clerks, tour guides and bank tellers who speak Japanese. Throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of students are busy learning Japanese. Some people claim that the best way for Japan to integrate itself with the rest of the world is to pave the way for others to learn Japanese. With the increasing role of Japanese as an international language, do Japanese really need English as a second "international language"? Already lots of Japanese can speak English? In Japan, they may be embarrassed to use English in public, but many "ordinary Japanese" are actually quite good at reading and speaking English. For example, it has been estimated that for every 500 Americans in Japan doing business in Japanese, there are 10,000 Japanese in America doing business in English. Moreover, many students study abroad for a year or more, and when Japanese businessmen are transferred to a post abroad, they often take their families with them, giving their wives and children a chance to improve their English as well. When these people return to Japan, they tend to disguise their language ability, but they nevertheless constitute a vast, "hidden" reserve of English speakers in Japan.
There are reasons why English is a compulsory subject at university that have little to do with the needs of students. One example is simply the conservative nature of universities. In Japan, at least since Heian times, Japanese higher education has been centered on foreign languages. In the Heian academies, the language of instruction was Chinese. Chinese scholars were brought in at great expense, and students studied Chinese classics. Later, in the Tokugawa Period, progressive scholars studied Dutch, thinking it was the language of science and technology in Europe. With the opening of the country in the Meiji Period, scholars began to study German, French, and especially English. The Meiji government recognized the importance of European languages, and turned a Tokugawa bureaucracy responsible for the "translation of barbarian books" into Tokyo Imperial University. For its entire history, the Japanese university has relied on foreign languages to translate foreign learning. For most of the twentieth century, knowledge has been imported to Japan mainly through English.
The economics of the education industry also brings pressure upon students to study English. The teaching of English is a huge industry in Japan. Teachers, jukus, textbook publishers--tens of thousands of people and thousands of companies make money from English education. Millions of yen are invested in advertisements to promote language study. Even travel companies, and foreign schools and communities profit when Japanese study English abroad. It is no exaggeration to say that "education" is one of Japan's biggest and most important industries, and that English-language education is a profitable "product" in that "market."
Are Japanese students simply being deceived and coerced into studying English? Not necessarily so. There are, after all, reasons for studying English in university that have little to do with an individual's or a nation's economic advantage. One reason is that in their six years of high school, students did not really study English--they studied about English. In Japan, high school English is aimed at university entrance exams. Students memorize rules and vocabulary, and translate sentences. Their relationship with the language is almost completely passive and receptive. Most instruction is in Japanese, and students seldom have a chance to use English for real communication. They become immersed in written English, but spoken English remains unfamiliar. They can pass difficult entrance exams, but find it difficult to say even "Good morning" to a foreigner. University English courses should offer students something different. If university English courses give students a chance to discover the pleasure of being able to communicate in a foreign language, students who were turned off by high school English might discover that they like English after all.
Another reason why English is important in Japan is that it is not only an international language, it is also a Japanese language. In Japan, English is no longer a "foreign" language. As a matter of fact, perhaps a quarter of the active vocabulary of modern Japanese is derived from English. Certain professions in Japan rely heavily upon English. For example, in the biomedical sciences the volume of research, reports and articles published in English in Japan is more than the combined amount published in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Moreover, this "English presence in Japan" has little to do with political power and economic advantage. It is part of a world-wide phenomenon.
Even in countries like Sweden and Switzerland that have never been subjugated by English nations, English is studied eagerly, especially by young people. More than one third of Europeans between the ages of 17 and 24 can speak English. Business and political elites have their English, but the young of the world also use English to unite youth culture. There are hundreds of thousands of English speakers living in Japan, and many of them are young. Today in Japan, there is a huge English-speaking community, with English newspapers, movies, schools, television, libraries, internet pages, and places of entertainment. Meanwhile, outside Japan, Japanese artists, cooks, academics, designers, scientists, musicians, religious leaders, and sportsmen live and work using English. Japanese are now moving out into the world and taking part in the international community primarily through the English language. The English language has become part of Japanese culture and identity.
The real purpose of a liberal education is to gain understanding. All understanding is, in a way, self-understanding. If Japanese students are required to study English, the policy can only be justified if the kind of English taught in university is different from the kind of English taught in high schools. It should not be English for tests, but English for life. English studies must help students to increase their understanding of the world, and to broaden their own identities as Japanese who can speak English.
Arthur Allan BAILEY
Professor, College of Business Administration