Chuo Online

  • Top
  • Opinion
  • Research
  • Education
  • People
  • RSS

Top>Opinion>Misconception of Japanese People and Foreign Languages


Ushio Ono

Ushio Ono [profile]

Misconception of Japanese People and Foreign Languages

Ushio Ono
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Modern French Literature

Read in Japanese

There are many Japanese who visit or work overseas. There are also many foreigners who come Japan and live here. In both cases, there is a strong emphasis on the need to learn a foreign language. As simple as it is, the discussion still seems to be based on false assumptions in regard to the link between Japanese people and foreign languages. Let's take a look.

Are Japanese unable to learn foreign languages?

There is a deep-seated myth that Japanese people are not good at learning foreign languages. But is this really true? Taking French as an example, the proportion of Japanese who can speak a certain amount of French and read it with the use of a dictionary is far higher than the proportion of French people who can do likewise in Japanese. The same kind of comparison with the U.S.A. or the U.K. should also show that the English proficiency of Japanese people is much greater than the Japanese proficiency of English speakers.

If we look at this from a different perspective and consider the rate of people fluent in a language other than their native tongue, there is a question mark over Japanese people’s foreign language skills. The examples of the Dutch, Filipinos, and others come to mind. But in many of these cases, the people are required to speak a second language for their country to survive because of their small population or their dependence on overseas work, or because they are former colonial subjects that speak the language of their former colonial masters. It is rather meaningless to compare them with Japan with its large population, most of whom are able to make a living without going overseas.

Do Japanese have less access to foreign languages?

It is sometimes said that one of the difficulties Japanese face in learning a language is the lack of exposure to it. No doubt this used to be true for Japanese students of foreign languages, but the situation has completely changed now. Previously, the majority of Japanese spent their entire lives in their own country, while not so many foreigners visited Japan. But recently, many Japanese, including not particularly high-income earners, go abroad on holiday, and quite a lot of foreigners visit Japan, too. The growth of the media has also made it possible to listen to foreign language broadcasts continuously 24 hours a day, and services such as Skype enable people to hold two-way conversations with those living overseas for no charge and from the comfort of their home. In short, when someone says that they lack the opportunity to access a foreign language these days, they are merely showing themselves to be either lazy or uninterested.

Is it all about oral communication?

The form of English learning at junior high school and high school is currently very different than before, the emphasis having shifted away from grammar and reading and toward familiarization with the language and developing the ability to roughly understand and then respond in English. University entrance exams are also being asked to change accordingly. And while universities still place importance on grammar in second-foreign-language education, we are seeing less and less of the form of learning in which students are suddenly expected to read advanced literature or philosophy books.

Although this appears to be a necessary change, I wonder whether the fact that something significant will be lost and overlooked. It goes without saying that one of the factors behind Japan’s rapid development since the Meiji era has been its extremely efficient consumption of Western culture via translations. Translation requires not only oral communication skills but also the ability to carefully decipher long sentences. If we neglect this, our ability to gather information will gradually get weaker. Continuing to develop just a small number of competent translators means it will be very difficult for others to check the quality of their translations. If the Japanese society does not have enough people who, albeit not professional translators themselves, can assess the quality of translations, Japan as a whole will become less able to obtain information through foreign languages.

Does foreign language mean English?

The equation “foreign language = English” is firmly rooted in the minds of most Japanese. There is no doubt that English is the most important language in the world today, but that does not mean it is the only one we should learn. If the main purpose of learning foreign languages is to use them to gather information, then the more we learn the better. Increasing the number of people who learn different languages, rather than having everyone spending a lot of money and effort to study English, should greatly help to improve the information-gathering capacity of the Japanese as a whole. I should add that improving our information-gathering capacity would also ideally include training a certain number of people to have knowledge of more than one foreign language.

Why do we learn and teach foreign languages?

The perspective most lacking in foreign language teaching and learning in Japan is to query the aims of teaching or studying. I am often asked by learners, “What, and how much, should I do to master a language?” There is no way to answer this without knowing the intention of the learners. If only that were clear, I could answer much more easily. On the other hand, if learners themselves knew their goals, they could probably create a specific program to reach those goals.

The lack of clarity about goals also occurs on a social level. It is as if the Japanese society as a whole largely depends on current trends regarding the questions of how many people there should be speaking what languages and to what extent.

Ushio Ono
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Cybernetics
Professor Ono was born in Miyagi Prefecture in 1955. He graduated in 1979 from the Faculty of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University. He earned his master’s degree in 1982 from the Graduate School of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University, and withdrew from the doctoral program of the same graduate school in 1998 after completing the course requirements. He served as Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Ishinomaki Senshu University, Assistant Professor on the Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Hokkaido University, and Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University before taking up his current position in 1999. His current research topics include literature during the period of the French Revolution, and écriture about oneself. He was the instructor on NHK Radio’s Everyday French [Mainichi Furansugo] in 2009. His publications include ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ Parallel Translation [Taiyaku ‘Aka to Kuro’] (Hakusuisha, 2014) and French Literature You Should Know [Shitte okitai Furansu Bungaku] (Meiji Shoin, 2010). His translations into Japanese include Tzvetan Todorov’s Goya à l'ombre des Lumières (Hosei University Press, 2014) and La littérature en péril (Hosei University Press, 2009).