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Interview with Kumiko Torikai - Part 3

Kumiko Torikai, Ph.D. is a professor and founding dean at the Graduate School of Intercultural Communication, at Rikkyo University, in Tokyo and a visiting professor at Kanda University of Foreign Studies. She is a lecturer/supervisor of the NHK multimedia program English through the News. She is a member of the Science Council of Japan, as well as councils and committees in the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Land and Transportation and the Cabinet Office. She is Former President of the Japan Association for Interpreting and Translation Studies and a former president of the Japan Congress/Convention Bureau. 

Professor Torikai took an MA TESOL at Columbia University and completed her doctorate at the University of Southampton in the UK. She has over 20 years of experience as a conference interpreter, TV interviewer, and a language teacher.  Her research interests include social, cultural and communicative aspects of language education, as well as interpreting and translation as intercultural practice. 

Publications include 国際共通語としての英語 - Kokusai Kyōtsūgo toshite no Eigo (English as an International Lingua Franca) published this year by Kodansha; 英語公用語の何が問題か - Eigo Kōyōgo no Nani ga Mondai ka (English as an official language in Japan?); and Voices of the Invisible Presence: Diplomatic Interpreters in Post-World War II Japan (2009, John Benjamins).

Russell Willis spoke with Professor Torikai at Rikkyo University at the end of May 2011.

Here we present the concluding part of the interview.

Part Three: A New Paradigm

“…English should be taught as “English a lingua franca” or an international language, not as English spoken in the United States, because... children would think that as English is such a powerful language, America is powerful and that we’ve got to be like Americans.”
Russell Willis:
So let’s turn to the other issues raised by your Asahi Shinbun interview which have caused a fair bit of controversy...
Kumiko Torikai:
You know, I should have checked the translation of that interview. I mean some of the words that were quoted by Professor Guest in his column were very strong and I was surprised. I didn’t have the time to check and correct the translation which is too bad. I should have.
Russell Willis:
It seemed to me you were saying that we should clearly identify the purpose for which we are studying English. And you advocate a paradigm shift from learning English as the language of American or British native English speakers to learning, what I would describe as an English version of Esperanto. Forget the cultural side of it: we should distill the communicative elements of English from the way that English is spoken around the world, such as in Singapore, but also in various non-native speaking communities of English, and this distillation would be a type of English...
Kumiko Torikai:
It’s still English.
Russell Willis:
You mentioned studies being conducted in Europe that might make this feasible.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes. Like Jennifer Jenkins who teaches at University of Southampton now. She is an expert on phonology. When I read her book several years ago, I was really impressed because what she said was, okay, World Englishes is fine. I mean it was proposed by Braj Kachru who is an applied linguist, who teaches in the United States. I think he’s originally from India. He had this notion of World Englishes which had a great impact on anybody who studies or speaks English, and teaches English.

But the question was, okay, World Englishes is fine but what is going to happen if we do not have any standard? And so, David Crystal came up with this idea of standard spoken English. But, it was still based on the native speaker model. People were not too sure whether – I mean, if you allow all these non-native speaker varieties to happen, which is fine, but it may in the end not serve as a common language. And so, the question was how to be tolerant to different varieties of English and yet keep the core of English, and for English to continue as English. Otherwise, it will not serve as a common tool for global communication.

I thought Jennifer Jenkins had the answer. What she said was, okay, let’s call English a lingua franca. Her rationale is to find the core of English, and that’s the research – I think she still conducts research on finding this core and particularly in relation to pronunciation, the sound. If you allow a certain type of pronunciation, it may not serve as a communication tool. The keyword is ‘intelligibility’; whether people will understand you or not. Even if you speak English in your own way, if people don’t understand you, well, then there’s no purpose in speaking English. So, you’ve got to find some core. I thought this was one idea that can be feasible.

I think Barbara Seidlhofer is one of the people who is working in Vienna on this together with a team of other experts and is collecting this huge corpus of English spoken by non-native speakers of English, and testing whether if you spoke this way, would you be understood and through this trying to find the core.
Russell Willis:
But it sounds like that core would necessarily be an artificial construct.
Kumiko Torikai:
No. For example, what Jennifer Jenkins found out in the course of her study was that ‘th’ sound or ‘r’ and ‘l’, which Japanese are perpetually worried about, is not that important. You can guess the meaning from the context even if you pronounce ‘l’ and ‘r’ all mixed up together, like lice, rice. Nobody thinks that you’re ordering lice when you go into restaurant and say, please, may I have ‘lice.’ Japanese ‘r’ is sort of in between ‘l’ and ‘r’, but it doesn’t really matter because people would understand you.

However, consonants are very important. If you cannot pronounce consonants correctly, chances are that people wouldn’t understand you. This is something we never learned in school in Japan. I mean at least I never was trained in this. Nobody told me that consonants are that important. Particularly English has this habit of having all consonants put together, consonant clusters. This is one of the unique points about English which makes it very difficult for many people who are non-native speakers including Japanese. I mean consonants put together, three, four, five, I mean, it’s a nightmare. But, if you know that this is something that you’ve got to learn, I think you can, and you can teach it in classrooms. That’s what I mean by a lingua franca core.
Russell Willis:
So, the lingua franca core is an existing subset of current English rather than a codification of an artificial construct.
Kumiko Torikai:
Exactly.
Russell Willis:
So, this would be unlike Esperanto, which was an artificial language created to foster international communication or Shaw’s attempts to reform English spelling. Not like that. A core within English as it already exists. I see.
Kumiko Torikai:
Just putting the priority items in the core.
Russell Willis:
Right. So let’s spend time on vocabulary rather than ‘l’ and ‘r’ or something like that.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes.
Russell Willis:
So, would you disagree with the idea that what you’re suggesting is a sort of rough diamond constituting the lingua franca core that can then be polished for socio-cultural reasons depending on the kind of role that you want your English to play in your life. I mean, if you’re going to be a diplomat in London, you may very well want to have the ability to deliver idiomatic English with a perfect sense of ironic timing. But that’s not something that people should worry about when they’re learning the core.
Kumiko Torikai:
Basic things in schools, in junior high and senior high.
Russell Willis:
So, it’s basic in the sense that it’s core, but it’s not basic in the sense that it’s not advanced?
Kumiko Torikai:
Right. That’s why I think it’s a bit different from Globish, for example. I mean Globish is making English very easy. It’s not exactly that. I think I emphasized the point in Asahi Shimbun because the target was Japanese readers. Japanese people who are obsessed with – I mean, Japanese people are perfectionists and I don’t know if you agree with me or not but, I mean, as far as English is concerned, everybody is aspiring to a really high level of, you know, one of these days I might be able to speak like a native speaker. When they say native speaker it’s invariably British or Americans… not Australians, absolutely.
Russell Willis:
Yes. Well, thank god for that. (Laughter).

I think Japanese people who decide to seriously study English, yes, they become perfectionist about it. But I don’t think Japanese people in general are perfectionists about English because you only need to walk outside and look at a few signs to see how badly misused English is everywhere. There is no sense of perfectionism there!
Kumiko Torikai:
Well, I can’t argue with that. (Laughter) I think in my Asahi Shinbun article I wanted to give a little bit of a pep talk, letting people know that they needn’t worry about the small stuff.
Russell Willis:
Right. Don’t let ‘l’ and ‘r’ get in the way of learning English.
Kumiko Torikai:
But that doesn’t mean that when you teach English, you don’t have to teach proper English. When you teach, you’ve got to teach them proper English, standard English. But, when you speak it even if you know what is right and wrong, sometimes you make mistakes and that would really discourage average Japanese learners of English. What I’m saying is that if you keep the basics, the core, even if you make minor mistakes, so what? Use it in your own way.
Russell Willis:
I think that was misunderstood because you said: if an American says “We don’t say that in the States” you can respond, “I’m sure you don’t but we do in Japan.”
Kumiko Torikai:
I think it’s taken out of context. I’m not talking to – in that interview, I’m not talking to language teachers. I’m talking to people in general and pedagogy is totally different. I agree people misunderstood me, and I’ve been getting letters from Japanese people saying thank you so much. You’ve encouraged us so much. Now, we can speak any kind of English or casual English is okay. And I said, no, that’s not it. When you learn English you’ve got to read and write and speak and learn grammar also, and try to understand. But when you actually speak it, it doesn’t work that way, but don’t be discouraged. You can be confident. I mean anybody make mistakes if you’re not a native speaker.

Ideally, if you find a core, a lingua franca core, you can sort of minimize the things that elements that you have to teach and you have to learn. I mean grammar, there’s so much stuff that you have to learn and that is why it gets boring, it’s too complicated, and people don’t learn it. But, if you focus on the key elements and give them priority...
Russell Willis:
So, in a sense, this is syllabus sequencing, isn’t it? I mean this is an issue of how you sequence the syllabus and you’re disagreeing fairly fundamentally with the way that the syllabuses are traditionally presented perhaps. You’re saying that people are being required to learn stuff that is irrelevant for 95% of their needs.
Kumiko Torikai:
They may not be irrelevant. I mean they may need them when they are really using English at an advanced level but, I mean, I was specifically talking about high school and the beginning 3 years of university. It’s different when they major in English. I mean that’s totally different. You’ve got to be experts. If you want to become language teachers, English language teachers, if you want to become interpreters in English, translators in English, you’ve got to have deep knowledge. But, I’m talking about people in general particularly in junior high and senior high when students can only learn English for 4 hours a week. I mean there’s a certain amount that you have to sacrifice and so prioritize what has to be taught.
Russell Willis:
In the real world, the thing that people would see that would be different – if the paradigm shifted towards what you’re describing – would be that the syllabus of the textbooks that people were using in primary and high schools would change fairly radically.
Kumiko Torikai:
Probably, and more importantly, the idea is different. I mean if you read the course of study supplied by the Ministry of Education, although they say everybody in Japan has to speak English in this global age, if you look at the syllabus it says that they should learn it to understand American culture, which is fine but I think you’ve got to make a distinction now.

We are at a stage where you really have to – because the status of English has become so – how should I explain it – strong, and it has such a great impact on people’s lives, I think you have to be very careful in dealing with English and teaching of English. It’s certainly different from teaching French or Russian or Chinese. It’s a global language and everybody feels that you’ve got to learn it. But, if you start teaching English in the existing way, you’ve got to teach them American culture, the American way of living. But English is not spoken just by Americans.

So, this is really difficult, but my claim – and this is – actually, I got this from the discussion which was carried out by the Science Council of Japan. We came to the conclusion that at high school at the beginning 2 years of university education, English should be taught as “English a lingua franca” or an international language, not as English spoken in the United States, because children would think that as English is such a powerful language, America is powerful and that we’ve got to be like Americans. I mean the effect is so strong that I wanted to make it a little neutral.
Russell Willis:
So you mean to disassociate English, the language, from the hegemony of the commercial and cultural interests of the United States and the English-speaking…
Kumiko Torikai:
But you know this is quite touchy and tricky. Can you disassociate culture from language? Obviously, you can’t. I mean culture and language are intertwined and you cannot really disassociate cultural elements from language per se. But, what I’m saying is that maybe if teachers have something like this in mind and learners have something of this kind in mind that they would be more careful.
Russell Willis:
It’s been a while since I looked at a high school textbook, but when I last looked, I didn’t see much that was overt. I didn’t see Thomas Jefferson walking down the street or Ronald Reagan discussing his tax cuts. I didn’t feel that – even as a British person. The only thing that I felt was that the English was wrong. It wasn’t British English. (Laughter). But, I didn’t get the sense that it was being taught as the language of the world’s only super power. I just felt that it was being taught using American English.

However, I suppose by consciously defining it differently and teaching it differently then you are making a statement. You’re saying that you’re learning English as the lingua franca rather than English to read the New Yorker or USA Today.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes. This is a fine line here you see. For example, I think in my recent book I gave a couple of examples such as – have you ever been to a speech contest, English speech contest?
Russell Willis:
Only university debates, not speech contests.
Kumiko Torikai:
You see in most speech contests, they use gestures and they try to act as if they are native speakers of English. What I mean is that if you speak it as an international language, you don’t have to imitate the gestures, or nonverbal gestures of Americans. You can be Japanese and still speak English. That’s one reason. That’s one example.
Russell Willis:
Many people would say that body language is intrinsically associated to the language. If I speak Japanese with the exaggerated body language of an American, it comes across very oddly. And so, if I am speaking in Japanese and want to communicate effectively in Japanese then I should speak in a less exaggerated bodily style.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes, but body language is very difficult to learn. The gestures are very difficult to learn. I’ve seen many cases where students look so artificial its almost pathetic. That’s something that can be avoided. That’s what I mean by English being an international language. I mean there are a lot of people who speak English and chances are that we would be speaking to not just native speakers of English but non-native speakers, people from Asia, for example. We really don’t have to sort of master body language in order to speak English as an international language.
Russell Willis:
I’d like to focus on the language itself and the idea of the “core” language that Jennifer Jenkins is doing research on at Southampton. Let me make sure I can understand this: would it be correct to say that if there were two textbooks being issued, and they were both at the same level, the syllabus of the lingua franca core textbook would be significantly different in the areas of grammar, in the areas of vocabulary, in the areas of phonology from the standard textbook.
Kumiko Torikai:
I should think so, yes. Yes.
Russell Willis:
Are you writing such a textbook?
Kumiko Torikai:
Not yet. The research is still going on. Also, one important thing that the University of Vienna is carrying out some more research creating this corpus and their model is non-native speakers. I think to answer Professor Guest’s question, what I have in mind is the concentric circle of Braj Kachru. He created this concentric circle model where he put native speakers of English at the core: the British, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians. In the outer circle he put Indians, people from Singapore, former colonies who speak English as their second language or a common language as in India. And then, the expanding circle is where Japan comes in along with China and Korea where English is spoken as a foreign language. The numbers in the outer circle and the expanding circle far exceeds the number of native speakers in the core. That’s why Japanese people are more likely to speak with non-native speakers people from Asia, from Middle East, from Europe.
Russell Willis:
But there’s still a standard. The reason that you are able to be understood is because everyone’s oriented towards the same standard.
Kumiko Torikai:
And what kind of standards should be supplied is a big question. Vienna is saying it’s not native speakers. What they’re trying to do is let one person listen to somebody else’s speech and see if this person understands the speech spoken in English, but this person doesn’t have to be a native speaker. That’s the difference.
Russell Willis:
So, in a sense, you are trying to find the lowest common denominator of understanding between non-native speaking parties.
Kumiko Torikai:
Not necessarily lowest, but common.

This approach is different from that of David Crystal, for example. His is completely native speaker model. He says there has to be a standard of spoken English. New Englishes is fine. You can speak English in any way you like but when you speak English in official places, public places, you’ve got to have this standard of spoken English, which is the native speaker model and this is something which Jennifer Jenkins is very much against.
Russell Willis:
I remember in your interview from 10 years ago when you were asked what you’d do about the English language you said, well, I’d like to get rid of articles. But would your core English get rid of articles, do you think?
Kumiko Torikai:
No. When you teach you have to teach articles, definite-indefinite articles, because there’s a difference and the meaning would be different. But, what I said was that when you speak it, don’t worry about it. Don’t get miserable after you said ‘Nobel Prize’ and then you said, I should have said ‘The Nobel Prize.’ You don’t have to be distressed because people will understand you. Sometimes the ‘the’ is important, sometimes ‘a’ is important, but if you get stuck with that, you’ll never be able to speak it.

Learning about articles is different from having to speak it. I mean even if you know and you studied, and you know the importance of articles, it’s not like everybody can utilize them. Particularly, I’m worried about people’s reactions, especially students, I mean, they get discouraged so easily and they lose confidence and then they shut up. They will never speak. And so, what I’m saying when I said pep talk is when I said, okay, you make a mistake, fine. Of course, you make mistakes because it’s not your mother tongue. Of course, you’re learning a very difficult foreign language. Be courageous and speak it. Unless you speak it, nobody would understand you. Even if you say, give me pencil that’s better than being quiet and just be silent.
Russell Willis:
Is creating a new English as a lingua franca core something that’s only required for Japanese people or do you think that everyone would benefit?
Kumiko Torikai:
Everybody. But particularly Japanese who are too reflective and who lose confidence so easily. I mean do you ever come up with college students who’d say, oh, I wish I were a native speaker. I wouldn’t have to struggle this much. When I heard that, I really felt that – I mean this is not the right attitude.

I’m beginning to think that maybe there’s something deeper when it comes to Japanese people not being able to speak English fluently. I mean they have the knowledge. A lot of times they have the knowledge and the desire to speak, but they are too shy to speak up. And once they think they have made a mistake, they really feel bad and they get embarrassed. I think it goes back – you know, I did a program on NHK in February and for that we did some research and I went to different places and interviewed a lot of people. It was a sort of history of English language learning in Japan. We’ve been doing the same thing for more than 200 years. I think the core of the problem is twofold. One, the Japanese way of communication is different from the English way of communication. The gap is so big that without realizing it we have to jump quite a bit in order to be able to express ourselves. In the first place, we don’t express ourselves. I mean it’s considered to be good not to be expressive. It’s okay not to speak up whereas it’s not okay in English.

In Japan it’s definitely, “silence is golden”. That’s one thing. The second thing is I mean, historically, I think Japanese people had always have this thing about people who speak English ever since Perry came or maybe even before that. It shocked Japanese people and ever since then, I think, Japanese people tend to be intimidated and lose self-confidence. It’s sort of an automatic response and I want to get rid of that. Unless we overcome this fear.
Russell Willis:
So, you are saying that if students view English as a country’s language they tend to approach it, pyschologically, in a way that isn’t conducive to learning, whereas, if it’s defined in the mind simply as the international lingua franca, then the feeling is – “I can mess around with this!”. People don’t have to worry about it so much.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes. Relax.
Russell Willis:
I see. President Obama is not going to come and tell me off if I get it wrong. It’s an interesting perspective. So, you think this re-casting of English as a lingua franca will have the real world effect that course books will be different but also have a psychological effect because people will view it differently and more helpfully.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yeah. That’s precisely the purpose of my proposing to make it different.
Russell Willis:
So, you’re not proposing to rid articles of the English language. They’ll still be there.
Kumiko Torikai:
No.
Russell Willis:
So, we’ll still be able to use articles and idioms...?
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes.
Russell Willis:
So, it would be some kind of grand compromise though on what would constitute this “English as a lingua franca” core?
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes. Compromise is good word. I mean World Englishes is – it’ll be chaotic. World Englishes as a philosophy is great but the ultimate outcome would be disastrous. I mean English would not be able to exist and we’ve got to keep English as a standardized language, otherwise, it cannot serve as a tool for communication.
Russell Willis:
Professor Torikai, thank you very much for your time.
Kumiko Torikai:
Thank you.


Back to Parts 1 and 2



« Interview with Kumiko Torikai - Parts 1-2 | Main | Interview with Chuck Sandy »

Comments

A few months ago I was doing a listening exercise with some of my students. We listened to a story about the volcano erupting in Kyushu. On the same day I happened to read an interview with Ms. Torikai, and read about her rice vs lice example etc. Anyway, during the lesson 3 out of 4 students were confused when they heard the word lava, they all thought they heard rubber. The problem was, because they were so confused and pre-occupied about why rubber was coming out of the volcano they lost the plot of the whole story. Anyway, at the end of the lesson my students decided that it is very important to learn how to distinguish between sounds such as l and v and also how to pronounce them correctly. Just one example out of hundreds I could give. Some of Ms Torikai's other points are quite interesting, I just don't agree that pronunciation is "not that important" as I think poor pronunciation leads to many problems for a learner.

How interesting this interview with Ms. Torikai turns out to be! But as an insider in Japanese education, having taught from elementary to high school level, there are some issues to hammer on here:

(i) All elements of Ms. Torikai's new paradigm, though interesting,have no relevance to the Japanese teachers of English at schools. Despite their many years of training, some of them still prefer the old way of teaching English (because easy changes are almost impossible in Japanese systems).

(ii) Ms. Torikai was talking from theoretical point of view; even some school administrators will reject her proposals or reformative ideas.

(iii) There is still no viable mechanism for breaking the lukewarm attitude to English in Japanese schools. I think the best thing to do is to hire foreign instructors that will handle English lessons by themselves at the public schools. The idea of ALT (assisting JTEs) is wasteful and ineffective.

Thank you for this in-depth interview Russell and Professor Torikai.

This interview allowed Prof. Torikai to extend her thoughts which, unfortunately, the original Asahi article didn't do. I don't know if the Asahi article was a result of questionable editing, bad translation, leading questions, or just Prof. Torikai having a bad day but it didn't come off well. The ELTnews interview does.

I too am very interested in the VOICE project and was using it for my current research, and also in preparing my next Yomiuri article, when you ran this interview. Very timely and thought-provoking stuff.


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