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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

April 11, 2011

A response to Kumiko Torikai's Asahi News interview

Kumiko Torikai's interview with the Asahi newspaper
regarding a 'new English education paradigm' has generated a fair bit of discussion. Today, I offer my two cents (Oops! Sorry for the American colloquialism!)...

Points of agreement...

Let's start with those places in which I agree with Prof. Torikai.

First, there is no doubt that native speakers of English, and in particular native speakers from so-called core countries, no longer represent the majority of English speakers. This is well-known by most practitioners in the EFL field. Most teachers, and certainly anybody with a more than passing interest in linguistics, should be well aware of the phenomenon.

Therefore, I also agree that models of English should not revolve solely around American locales in which Hyper-Anglo-Saxonesque Toms and Nancys are ordering hamburgers and going to high school proms. But, having said that, making generic American or British English your target English will never hurt you.

I further agree that this weakens the chauvinistic notion that American or U.K. English somehow represents the standard by which all other Englishes should aspire to (more on that later).

I agree that the English spoken by (many, not all) Filipinos, Kenyans, Singaporeans, Sri Lankans- in fact within any community where English is used as a preferred or default mode of communication- is perfectly legitimate as a variety of English.

I accept that local flavour will colour the local English variety and that this should not be discouraged or regarded as a type of malformed English.

I agree that many Japanese are more likely to encounter non-native English speakers or speakers from non-core English-speaking countries than they are generic Brits or Americans.

I agree that English pronunciation need not conform to Barack Obama or (shudder) Margaret Thatcher's styles in order to be acceptable or understandable. Japanese accented English is fine (and I don't mean katakana-ization). I accept that any locally-accented English is fine. Coming from multicultural Vancouver, it is easy to say this.

I agree that teaching American colloquialisms to students in Japan should be considered a peripheral teaching item at best- and only for students with definite plans to visit or live in the U.S.

I accept that one need not have perfect mastery of English to teach it effectively.

Strange attributions...

But then Professor Torikai's rhetoric starts to drift downhill. She says:
"Should they insist on forcing their own standard on the rest of the world, they would be seen as just a bossy, self-serving minority.... I'm sure they aren't happy about strange English gaining legitimacy..."

Whoa Nellie! I'd like to know where she gets this idea that Americans and Brits are 'forcing their standard on the rest of the world'. Now, I'm quite sure there are knuckle-dragging language purists out there in the Anglophone general populace who think that the Queen's English (whatever that is supposed to mean) represents the only pure standard or that all 'normal folks' should sound like Walter Cronkite. But among language policy makers, linguists, and language teachers (at least pretty much every one that I know) such chauvinistic viewpoints are as dead as Watney's Red Barrell (sorry- British cultural reference!).

And why the blanket statement: "I'm sure they are not pleased about..."? Please, Professor Torikai, don't 'assume' what I or 'we' core-country English speakers are supposed to think. Don't put words in our mouths and then use these alleged beliefs as your straw man. This is a bit like someone saying, "I'm sure the Japanese aren't happy about having foreigners in their neighbourhoods", as if the national consciousness is driving around in a collective black soundtruck.

Is this what we core country English speakers are supposed to think?

Frankly speaking, every gathering of core-country English teachers that I've ever been a part of has expressed a great deal of acceptance and respect towards non-core varieties of English. Why assume that core-English country people must be ethnocentric throwbacks, wringing our hands over the loss of our linguistic dominance? To be honest, I'm tiring of this swinging-at-thin-air salvo tossed out by too many non-core English academics, as if by virtue of being core-country English speakers, we must also be narrow-minded colonialist relics.

Moreover, if the point about the legitimacy of non-core English speakers is to be made, shouldn't it be targeted primarily not at the allegedly intolerant attitudes of native speakers but at those policy makers or managers in Japan (and in some other non-English countries)? I'm talking about those managers and emplyers who wrongly assume that American or British English represents the apex of correctness- and thus might eschew a Nigerian, a Hong Konger or even a Japanese-American as an English teacher job applicant?

Who exactly are Torikai's 'native speakers'???

Actually, Professor Torikai seems to be very confused on the issue of 'native speakers'. For example, she states: "English is no longer the language of Americans and British and other native speakers alone. There are 400 million people whose native tongue is English. But English is also the official language of countries such as India and Singapore...".

Come again? Is she implying that Indian and Singaporean English speakers are not native English speakers? Is she placing such people in the same linguistic category as the non-native speaking Japanese? Surely, Singaporeans and Indians would have something to say about that!

Furthermore, is she confusing the term 'native English speaker' with core country English speakers only? This infelicity is underscored moments later when she adds, "The age is long over when native speakers of English alone determine what is acceptable and what isn't.... I regret to say this to Americans and British, but English has ceased to be their private property." The conflation of 'native speakers' (widely defined as growing up with and continually using English of some sort within a community) with Brits and Americans would seem to imply that Prof. Torikai does not see Singaporean, Indian et al English speakers as native speakers (which certainly pulls the carpet of political correctness from under her own feet) - but in fact treats their English as if it were on par with non-native speakers, such as the Japanese. Hmmm.

Is there really a 'Japanese English'?

Ok, but what about the legitimacy of this non-native speaker English? This is where Torikai goes way off board. I'll say it straight- non-native English is invariably malformed English. Now read that closely. I did not say malformed British or American English but malformed also by the standards of Singaporean, Filipino, Pakistani, Jamaican, Samoan and Trinidadian varieties. If one is not a native speaker of any language, the language skill is likely (and this will differ according to individuals, not ethnic groups or nations) to be imperfect by any standard- by any community using English as a default means of communication, whether core English-speaking country or not. And whether you've worked hard to learn it or not makes no difference! Claiming legitimacy for your non-native idiosyncrasy simply because you haven't mastered a difficult discrete point of a second language is a cop-out by any standard, in any language.

Anyway, Japanese English is simply not a legitimate English variety! Why? There is no community of Japanese people (in Japan) where English is used as a default mode of communication. Of course, the way in which Japanese speakers render English as a second language will reflect their mother tongue and culture, but this is merely interlanguage, a stage of development, a matter of partial competency, not an indigenous or organic outgrowth from the populace. Likewise, when native English speakers speak Japanese it will reflect the norms of English (or another first language)- but this is a product of incompetence. I can't imagine anyone arguing that Gaijin-poi Nihongo should be seen as a legitimate variety of Japanese!

"This is how we say it in Japan!". Come again?

Thus, the scenario Torikai brings up in which an American speaker of English says, "We don't say that in America" to which the Japanese is invited to respond with, "But we do in Japan", is a false dilemma. If this hypothetical American responds to a piece of highly local English in, say, Pakistan, in the same way the Pakistani would be well within his or her rights to say "But we do here in Pakistan" because people there (not all, mind you) do use English as a normative means of communication.

But Japanese people don't speak English to each other in Japan- they speak... and hold on to your seats for a shock here... JAPANESE! With only very very rare exceptions, Japanese people in Japan use English to one another only when in EFL classrooms- which is of course an artificial, learning and development setting. When Japanese people use English in Japan they will inevitably be communicating with non-Japanese, and therefore importing bits of Japanese in English will have little or no communicative value.

Is teaching 'interlanguage' OK? Should we be teaching instrumental English?

Professor Torikai's argument also deals with the question as to how much English should be taught for communicative purposes versus the more academic, detailed approach. I find her response to this issue problematic too- as Torikai seems to argue in favour of teaching interlanguage, any amount sufficient to communicate. Now, please note that this is clearly no longer an issue of language variety legitimacy or any similar geopolitical issue but is rather a matter of teaching methodology. Nonetheless, Torikai seems to think that compulsory language learning in Japan should be basically instrumental. Should it?

Now, if you are a tourist or are using a language only for immediate, disposable, limited-expiry-date (read: instrumental) purposes, the answer to this question might well be 'yes.' But any integrated English course with a holistic focus, with any presumption about the intrinsic teaching of English, should not teach approximate English. (*Note that this is a very different pedagogical point from high-handedly demanding perfection in English minutiae as a grading standard on tests or in role-plays- where proximity should be rewarded).

'Approximate English' ok for evaluation; doubtful as curriculum

Now, it is true that even if articles (to use Torikai's example) are omitted or misplaced, we can sometimes still make ourselves understood in English. But it is also true that misplacing or omitting articles can change the intended meaning considerably.

Let's look at a parallel example from Japanese again: The particles 'wa' and 'ga' can be troublesome for non-Japanese native speakers, right? And, yes, sometimes even if you mangle or omit them, the meaning can be clear to any Japanese person. Would Torikai then say that English speaker's misusage of Japanese particles constitutes a legitimate local variety? And would non-Japanese speakers really feel happy about learning Japanese in which the importance in difference or usage is not taught. Would you be happy with 'approximate' Japanese being used as a model when you are hoping to master the language (and not just ordering takoyaki during a stopover at Kansai Airport)?

And of course none of this even begins to address the issue of written English, particularly of professional documents and other formalized modes of communication.

Why a legitimate English variety doesn't imply a 'World English'

Finally, something to think about when discussing varieties of English and applicability...

Most of you are probably familiar with Singlish- Singaporean English. Influenced by the local culture and non-English languages, Singlish is common parlance--- in Singapore. Yes, it is a fully legitimate member of the family of World Englishes. But it cannot and does not represent a legitimate World English (singular)! Why? Because, as any Singaporean will tell you, it has no currency outside that island. And this is why any Singaporean using English outside that country will switch to a more neutral form (and, no, not an explicitly British or American variety) in order to be understood.

Let me spell that out again for emphasis: being one of the world's English varieties does not mean that it is acceptable as, nor should it be conflated with, a 'World English'. Neither, for that matter, would be local varieties found in the U.S. or Britain. In other words, the notion of a viable World English is not connected to recognizing the legitimacy of one's own, or showing respect for another's, linguistic community, but is a matter of a language having communicative viability outside of one's immediate community.

If you feel that I have misrepresented Prof. Torikai's position in some way, please feel free to tell me so. And your own opinion too!

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Hi Mike. Excellent critique! One cause of Torikai's frustration may be the recently instituted National High School Speech Contest which is the first truly national contest in Japan. This contest, sponsored by the national federation of English teachers, has preliminary rounds in all prefectures, then regionals and winds up with an eventual national final in Tokyo and has been running for 4 years now. Torikai is one of the judges and commentators at this contest and I've heard her express frustration that the winners always sound like native Brits or Americans. She has repeatedly stated that Japanese inflected English is fine, and yet never do students with inflected English win the contest. She's right in feeling this frustration. That said, she seems to be really confused about the native vs. non-native thing and you've expressed it well.

Great piece Mike. Very well deconstructed...

I find it somewhat worrying tho' that someone who is so intrinsically involved in deciding education policy is so clearly off point as to the realities of the language...

As to Mark's point on inflection, I agree that it'd be great if a more neutral-toned speaker won the competition, but I don't think it's fair to those contestants to be frustrated with them merely because they don't have said neutral tone.

Hey Mike:

Just a quick line to let you know that I enjoyed your post and thought you made some good points. Like Mark who posted before me, I'm not too sure about the source of Torikai's sense of frustration, but I think you hit nerve. Good. However, I don't know how much honesty Japanese academics can handle - they sure have a hard time getting along with their neighbors in the Pacific.

I also thought you did a nice job quoting Torikai's words that described English speakers as a "bossy or a self-serving minority." I thought this was very telling, as her words smack of a deep-seated arrogance combined with an inferiority complex. Maybe she should tell that to the rescue teams and international workers who arrived on the scene in Japan before the JMSDF and the Japanese government was able to do anything that mattered.

After all, isn't always easier to blame the outside world instead of looking within?

Nice post,


Thank you for your comments, and I certainly agree. Although, as you did, I found a number of Professor Torikai's points quite reasonable, she presented them as being uniquely hers and in contrast to what is apparently contended by "native speakers." However I found her more legitimate points to be perspectives that are commonly shared by at least 90% of the native English university teachers I know in Japan. (I've been here 20 years.) The implicit tone that "I'm the Prime Knower about these issues" results in credibility questions about her analysis. If she has credibility failure in her analysis of her base contentions, that invites a discrediting of her other potentially valuable points. On the other hand, maybe she has very limited exposure to a cross-section of average, so-called native-speaking teachers in her circle of acquaintances and they really do say such ridiculous things as she contends. If so, then she would be advised to broaden her exposure and to avoid crassly generalizing.

Thanks for the positive comments all.

If I have a chance to participate in ELTNews' interview with Prof. Torikai I'll try to bring up some of the issues I raised here. Since we agree on some points I can use these as a bridge before raising some of the thornier issues.

Hi Don, I'm not sure that Torikai's view is unfair to the students with 'pure' (my quotes)British or U.S. English. She may just feel frustrated that a traditional British or U.S. accent (I'm sure you know what I mean) is given more credence than a Japanese inflected accent, even though the latter students may have better content and delivery. I also wonder, and it's pure speculation on my part, if Torikai is frustrated with the never-ending pursuit of a ridiculously high level of perfection that seems to exist in Japan, and that this pursuit influences Japanese and foreign judges alike when it comes time to award prizes. Just wondering.

Mike D, couldn't agree more. Lashing out, as she appears to have done in the interview, comes from somewhere. Maybe Torikai needs to clarify in much greater detail exactly what she meant. Mike Guest, is there a way to reasonably easily request Torikai-san to clarify her remarks? Just writing to her care of the uni probably wouldn't yield anything.

Cheers all.

Enjoyed reading your post as always! There's one point, though, which I question. You say:

"Japanese English is simply not a legitimate English variety! Why? There is no community of Japanese people (in Japan) where English is used as a default mode of communication."

In your view, what constitutes a "legitimate" English variety? Do all the speakers have to share the same nationality, or ethnicity, or live in the same place? The discourse community for "Japanese English" is made up of foreign residents of Japan and English-speaking Japanese people (resident in Japan or abroad). Consider this conversation:

"Hey, do you want to drive to an onsen this Golden Week?"

"Sounds great! But I'm a paper driver, so how about we shink instead, and grab a bento to eat on the way?"

"OK. Just e-mail my keitai and tell me what time to meet you. Should we invite your sempai Hiroshi too?"

"No, he's going to be at a manga and anime convention all week."

"With this beautiful weather? Mottainai!"

"I know. He's such an otaku!"

Any English speaker in Japan has had conversations like this one, and it would at least be understandable to a great many in Honolulu or San Francisco. In fact, it would probably sound quite stilted and unnatural to us if we replaced all the Japanese terms with "standard English" approximations. To a person without some knowledge of Japan, of course, it would be unintelligible, but I would see no reason to discourage students from talking this way among themselves, or with long-term residents of Japan who are English speakers. The key is to be conscious of which discourse community you're aiming to converse with, and adjust your language accordingly - just the way, say, a Malay Singaporean might speak Malay with other Malays, "Singlish" with a Singaporean of Chinese (or perhaps even British) descent, and a more "neutral" variety of English when traveling abroad.

Hi Charles. Thanks for writing.Your sample conversation no doubt resembles typical J expat talk.

I can think of three responses to your argument/suggestion.

The first is that this is very different from what Peof. Torikai is suggesting-- which is that Japanese native-speakers create and define the norms.

Which raises my second point-- that, generally speaking, a 'legitimate variety' is considered to be an organic development used by locals whereas your example is really more one of decoration of English with the local language used by expats.

Which connects to my third argument-- a variety would usually show influence of an L1 or local language at a more structural or fundamental level-- how the rhetoric is structured, how the discourse is managed, leading to changes in English syntactical-grammatical structure, whereas your example of Japanese-influenced English is limited basically to concrete nouns.

Thanks for providing a sensible and much needed response to Torikai's article.

If you have a chance, please have a read of this, and feel free to contribute any ideas you might have.

First of all the tone of Professor Torikai's opinions is familiar to me and rings of a general frustration about the importance that English plays in East Asian countries, which is understandable, but also implies that the U.S. is imposing its culture on the Japanese to an extent that is no longer bearable. That, I find absurd. As far as I can see, it's Asians who have chosen English as a default tongue. When Korean business people, for example, do business with the Japanese or Chinese, they commonly use English. This, is not the result of an American agenda to force its language on a part of the world so far away from the U.S. it might as well as be somewhere in outer space -- and everything to do with Asians lacking an ability to find commonality across the borders of their separate countries, so instead reaching across to the West.

What I find obnoxious about the universal English argument is its disregard for 'English' as anything but raw material. There's something insulting about it. I see no defense for learning a new English with so much resentment towards it native speakers -- and my definition of native speakers is far less elastic than those of others on this board --I wouldn't learn Japanese or German or any language so blindly. What's next Torikai, a burqa?

Dear Professor Guest,

I really loved your response to Dr. Torikai as your counter arguments, in my opinion, were spot on for the most part. My focus here is not on what you did you right, but rather what I thought to be strangely absent in both yours and Dr Torikai's arguments. That is, I would love to hear more about what you think regarding the images of the NS teacher in Japan, and particularly how these images may influence Japanese people's attitudes towards foreigners - some may even say create a sense of "otherization" (in light of your articles involving culturism issues, I am sure your views would help shed light on the part of this issue that I think warrants discussion. Is this topic the "Elephant" in the room? Or do language practitioners in Japan really believe topics such as (1) images of foreigners and (2) the NS model in Japan to be mutually exclusive?)

While I tend to agree with your views for the most part, I also think a very strong case could be made for moving away from the NS model in Japan because of the somewhat superficial views it creates of English as it is used outside Japan. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here by stating that non-native speakers (even those who are proficient in English) are generally considered inferior in Japan (look through the classified section of any newspaper in Japan, and you'll surely see job postings - i.e, those designed for non-Japanese teachers - specifically ask for NSs of English). In fact, the Eikaiwa industry has long been a billion dollar a year industry exploiting this superficial view of English. What makes this worse is often these types of NS teachers are ill-trained in language pedagogy and basically it is their "freshness" and "nativeness" that makes them sellable in the Japanese marketplace. In my early days of teaching Eikaiwa, I remember the training manual stressing that we should use group work to increase STT (student talking time) and decrease TTT (teacher talking time). In practice however, it became blatantly clear that many Japanese students in my classes had no interest in communicating with each other to practice their English. Many of them seemed to take on the attitude that they were paying money to communicate with a NS and felt communicating with their Japanese peers to be a waste of their time (this attitude is starkly different from the one I experienced in learning French in a monolingual English environment in Canada).This type of stereotyping in Japan is not limited to private language schools, as there is a wealth of literature documenting how NSs in the JET program and even in tertiary institutions (well-educated or not) have been grouped into a single category in Japan, whose main attributes are "native intuition" and "the ability to model pronunciation". Most educators outside of Japan are shocked to hear that the role of NSs in some institutions has been that of a (using Tajino's term) 'human tape recorder'. Hopefully, this is changing, but, as we all know, Japan is not known for being a frontrunner to change (Didn't they only begin to adopt communicative language teaching practices 30 years after the rest of the world?) Ultimately, in the worst case scenario, NSs with PhDs in education and/or linguistics are, at times, essentially reduced to having the same skills as my 23 year-old nephew (a high school educated NS who grew up in Los Angeles). And, while not everyone in Japan will be comfortable enough to admit it, there is a strong possibility that my 23 year-old nephew (provided he could get the right visa) would be more attractive to prospective language schools than a proficient non-native speaker of English who is university educated and has experience teaching (Have I opened up Pandora's box yet?).

While I stop short of calling it discrimination (as a linguist named Kubota did in a series of articles she wrote), I do see that there is a bias in Japan towards the speech of NSs that has nothing to do with linguistics and a common core. Rather, due to Japan's history of isolation (perhaps this is an excuse which is too often used and, with the right will, should have been overcome by now), the identity of English has come to be associated with Westernization (not globalization), and, according to Kubota, even promotes nationalistic values (i.e., those that learn English are becoming Westernized and achieve a higher status in Japan). In other words, it may be difficult for Japanese to see the value of English as a communication tool globally when many seem to be so infatuated with NSs' speech (and what that has come to symbolize for them). Though I am not necessarily sold on the ELF model that Jenkins and Seidlhofer are promoting (it seems like a long way off before the world comes to such an agreement anyways - and, as mentioned above, it is sure to be a long and arduous process as Japan has been known for being slow to adopt new approaches), it makes great sense to move away from the NES model in Japan and all the negative ideologies that may be associated with it. The first step I think is to reach some sort of consensus that a problem exists, and only then can we do something about fixing it. I would love to hear what others think.



Interesting comments GM.

Neither Prof. Torikai nor I have discussed the role of the NS teacher in Japan yet because we have been focusing (at last in the current discussion) about the model language as opposed to who is teaching it, although yes, there s a connection.

I am familiar with both Kubota (who I communicated with several times in the past) and Jenkins. Kubota more or less argues that Japanese educators have tacitly accepted the power relations that underly the 'Orientalist' Anglo script. Torikai seems to be focusing more upon how NSs allegedly feel about 'correct English' than how her Japanese peers have absorbed or accepted that paradigm.

Regardless, I will write more on Prof. Torikai soon on this blog as she recently did an interview with the Daily Yomiuri that was, in my opinion, much mmore palatable than the one she gave with the Asahi.

Dear Mike,

Thank you very much for very informative and insightful post.
It made a lot of sense to me and I really enjoyed it.

I happened to visit this site just now for the first time and know nothing about the background of this community.

Being Japanese and having spent past 15 years in Asia (outside of Japan), I completely agree with your points on perfectly legitimate non-native English part.

Not many Japanese are aware, there are so many Asians speaking English a lot more fluently than most of Japanese teachers of English.

(And of course those Asians don't consider themselves as native English speakers)

Japanese in general must know there are difference between Native English and Fluent English and obviously we should target Fluent English.

However in order to do so, we must learn from Native English speaker (not necessarily Americans or British) in the current environment.

Welcome aboard, Asian Expat.

I would say that the primary concern should be to learn from good teachers- whether their English be perfect or not, native speakers or not. A good Japanese English teacher with a few flaws in their English will help students more than a native speaker with little or no teaching skill.

As for actual language models (on paper-- materials for example), I believe a native speaker model is best. So, it seems, does Prof. Torikai.

Really enjoyed this deconstruction.

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