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January 31, 2011

Critics of English education misguided; English hegemony must be overcome - Kumiko Torikai

Teaching-English-in-Japan-Education-Torikai" In a controversial interview with the Asahi Shinbun, Rikkyo University professor Kumiko Torikai has attacked critics of the current English education system for not understanding it and called for the teaching of "core English" stripped of cultural content.

Torikai criticizes those who bemoan that students aren't taught how to speak English: "The problem today is that conversation skills are being overemphasized. You say students can only read and write but can't converse in English, but that's an old story that is no longer true."

The NHK ""Nyusu de Eikaiwa" (English conversation on current events) presenter also calls for abandoning the teaching of the culture of native speakers of English as part of English lessons and argues that the "hegemony of English" must be overcome. She notes that as the number of non-native speakers of English outnumbers native speakers a "Universal English" should be taught that recognizes this and that the US and UK are no longer the arbiters of the language. "For instance, when you say something to an American and the American tells you, 'We don't say that in the States,' you can respond, 'I'm sure you don't, but we do in Japan.'

Professor Torikai was a member of the special advisory committee to the Ministry of Education on education reform in 2001.

Reported by: Russell Willis

See Also:
Asahi Shinbun interview with Kumiko Torikai (January 2011)
ELTNEWS.com interview with Kumiko Torikai (2001)

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This woman is woefully ignorant. It matters very little whether a butchered English phrase is 'said in Japan' if nobody can understand the person using it. And butchered is surely an accurate description.

Second languages, as they are taught in the Japanese school system, are treated as nothing more than a collection of words and grammatical structures to be memorized. No small wonder that Japanese people find themselves continually misunderstood when traveling or studying abroad.

Isn't it ironic that students of second languages in countries such as China and the Philippines, which supposedly have inferior education systems, are better understood and score consistently higher on the TOEFL. Don't even talk to me about EIKEN or TOEIC, two of the most useless tests ever devised.

Although I agree with the promotion of a 'universal English', Dr Torikai doesn't seem to understand that stripping a language of its roots and refusing a hegemony are two different things. You need to understand a language's roots and cultural variances to understand and make yourself understood with any partner, which is the aim of language studies. When I taught Japanese at a Canadian university, many syntactic explanations required a knowledge of Japanese culture, and the same holds true for English or any language. As for prizing the way English is done in Japan over American or UK English, first English in this country has to become more than a 'one class a day/week' phenomenon and become Japan's true second language in function as well as form (as it is in countries like Sweden) for 'Japanese English' to be viable.

A response to Kumiko Torikai.

I would like first say that this professor is off-base and knows nothing about her own country's need for English. Japan just posted a figure that says only 20 percent of Oroal Communication teachers even teach solely in English. When they do, most kids only learn how to copy. Writing is controlled by the Japanese teacher. Reading is controlled by the Japanese teacher. Oh and communication is also controlled by the Japanese teacher for the most part unless you are solo teaching. Now the real reason why I took offense to this post is the simple fact that 99 percent of Japanese students can not communicate in English. 75 percent of giving and receiving information is accomplished through oral communication. Most Japanse teachers are too reserved to even give oral communication enough time to grow into something natural, fluent, and or precise. For 4 years now, I have heard "This is Japan", but I can assure you that if you ask a doctor how embarrassed he was when he had to give a speech in English to a group of English speaking doctors in California because he was taught that "This is Japan" his whole life and all of the doctors started up private conversations, then you will never make such statements or have such views. I have never heard a Chinese man tell me that this is China. I have never heard a person from India or even the Philippines. I have never heard these things until I actually entered a classroom and heard elementary school students barking this phrase. In the end, it is the professors like you that influence Japanese teachers of English to promote this kind of rhetoric that is so far from the norm that one day Japan will be overlooked for more international countries that can support the business man. This is about the Raketen's, Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, UNIQLO, and other companies changing with the times. I read an article that stated that Japan was behind most companies with IT. So they had to import thousands from India to overhaul it. Professors like this say that English has a hedgemony, but that is just not true because English is just another language used in business. It is not the everyday language of most locals. Yes, it is true that over 100 countries use English without any problem, but how many times have you entered a country to find that English is not spoken by the locals and thus you have to speak your secondary language with might just be Spanish, Chinese, German, French... Where would you have been without being bilingual. ALTs are teaching bilingualism. JTEs are teaching bilingualism. What about what Obuchi said about other languages? Japan needs a variety of languages, not just English. Are you going to say that to a French teacher, a Spanish teacher, a German teacher, or even a Chinese teacher? The "This is a Japan" statement is also old and if you said that to any Japanese person that was fluent in English not just with the ability to utter unrecognizable sounds, but nice natural English, they would challenge you. I would think that if you debated this with a "returning student", you would lose the argument. Should I argue that a "returning student" should say" I am British and I do not say my Japanese that way even tho he or she is as Japanese as anyone eles? That student is the talk of the teachers because he or she speaks fluent English and they too wish that they had such abilities. The "returning stduent" is thinking the same thing about his or her Japanese abilities. To say the things that you are saying is at best thinking in the 1970s and 1980s, at worst it is the neo-age of Western bashing by a group of profressors around the world that are badly informed about the need for languages by countries like Japan and the US to do business inside and outside of their country. Professors should be required to back up their points rather than just blurt out such statements. I have read books by other nationalities on the subject and I find that the reasons are all the same and all weak in nature and never do they get businessmen to comment and back up their stories. Inevitably, this is about rapid change in the way business is done, not social interaction. 1 out of about 15 employees at my favorite restaurant can speak English and that is because she lived overseas. At another chain, two can speak English because they love English. One has never even been outside of Japan and speaks fluently, perfectly. The other one lived in California. The notion that a person from the US or England cares about how a person talks outside of the classroom where you are charged to teach natural expressions, precise word choice, and other skills, is absurd. You could not be friends with people if you were a grammar nazi. In the classroom there is supposed to be a bar or some standard for a student to achieve. Why else would Japan spend 45 billion a year on English. There may even be a higher budget than that, but why else would they have textooks that promoted using the most natual, up-to-date English available? I beg to differ with Professor Kumiko Torikai and God help us all if she is one of the professors influencing new teachers or even current teachers of English.

Professor Kumiko Torikai is the one who is misguided. I work for a Board Of Education, teaching English. Besides myself, there is no other teacher who can speak English. No one is qualified to teach English either. So by this standard set by the BOE, I should be able to get a job teaching Japanese to elementary school kids in Japan. My Japanese is better than my colleague's English.

I am sorry that the Professor feels that it is alright to speak poor English or strange English because "it is done that way in Japan". The purpose of language study is learning skills for communication. If so, you need to learn how to communicate with others as they do; not as you please.

It's true! But, where ae we going with this? Toward a model for a non-culturally based International English, or toward a model for Japanese English.

An Englishman in England can say to an American: This is my language community, not yours. And, of course an American in America can say the same to an Englishman.

I'm interested to learn how we can strip the language of its cultural content and build a truly 'International English'. Until then every English teacher will take their own cultural identity into the classroom - whether they're a native speaker or Japanese.

If we are going toward a model of 'Japanese English', we will need a map. In that case, the Japanese speaker of English could say to the native speaker: 'This is my language community, not yours, and we have our own rules'.

International teleconferences could pose a problem, though.

I wonder if it would be okay to simplify Japanese. Or one could just say, "We don't use that kind of Japanese in America." Would that be okay I wonder.

When I read this article I could empathise with views expressed in comments above.. But when I read the Asahi Shinbun and ELTNEWS interviews, I felt much more comfortable with this person's views.
I think this article has been unfair to Kumiko Torikai...the headline "English Hegemony must be overcome" - really sets her up unfairly. In my view this headline is inflamatory and doesn't reflect what she's really on about. But then that wouldn't be interesting really would it!?
My advice - read her interviews and don't base your viewpoint on this.

Isn't the headline just quoting what she said, in context? If what she said is inflammatory then you can hardly blame the headline for quoting her.

In the interview she recognized the nature of her remarks when she said:

"If English is to be taught as a tool of communication, then the teacher should at least make a conscious effort not to teach American or British culture without some really good reason. I know I'm going to come under a lot of fire for saying so. But mine is the only way to overcome the "hegemony of the English language."

"English Hegemony must be overcome" reads like a nationalist slogan. The headline links "misguided criticisim of English education" to a quest to overcome "hegemony of English (language)"
This is not what she was talking about in my opinion.

Did any of you actually read the interview, with the exception of the last two posters, it seems you are putting her to the stake for the headline and the brief blurb here.

"Q: Personally, whose side are you on--the people who stress communication skills or those who stress grammar and comprehension?

A: Both. They are both right. The problem today is that kids are doing poorly in both areas. It's about time language experts in both camps stopped quibbling and put their heads together to work out an effective English education system that best matches the needs of Japanese students and will help them do better in both areas. Once the kids have learned the basics, I believe the schools will have fully accomplished their mission. Beyond that, it's up to each individual to further brush up his or her English as he or she wishes."

Whoa! Something that some of us have been saying for years and have been saying about Eigo Noto for a while now. The overemphasis on one without regard for the others are causing issues with all.

"The problem today is that conversation skills are being overemphasized. You say students can only read and write but can't converse in English, but that's an old story that is no longer true."

Okay, this is not my experience and not the experience with many of my peers. It seems that she has failed in this regard but her message that all skills should be taught is a correct one.

As far as I am concerned she is almost bang on about pronunciation. It isn't a matter of non-native speakers speaking English with the "correct" pronunciation, it is speaking it clearly enough to be understood. The reality is that a vast majority of EFL leaners will never speak English without an accent or without making "l" and "r" sound the same.

The issue with "the" is an interesting one and crops up in the various non-native uses of English. It is hard for those of us who speak it natively to circumvent our natural reaction to people dropping it but when it is done I don't believe it hinders communication to any great degree. It is unusual, yes, but not the biggest problem.

Where she fails is her final statement, "I'm sure you don't, but we do in Japan." This is far too open a statement, it needs to be carefully put into context which either she did not do so well or the writer of the article didn't.

If she is saying this to point out that Japanese speakers of English speak English with a Japanese pronunciation, or without using articles, plurals, etc then she has a point. However, if she is saying this as an excuse for anything then there is a major problem with effective communication.

There has to be some caution here and an awareness that some Japanese-English words do not make effective communication at the current time. Awareness also works on both sides of the communication!

Professor Toriaki has certainly succeeded in provoking debate!
Unfortunately her best points seemed to have been missed and her weakest arguments thrust into the spotlight.Some comments

1. The hegemony of English - If Professor Toriaki is arguing that the model of English as spoken by American or British nationals should be less 'revered' as the only standard it is difficult to make a case against her. Varieties of English are stigmatised as 'non-standard'based on the variety that holds most power. in the internet age could Microsoft English be the ultimate hegemonic force? (I know I'm sick of my computer 'correcting' my English).

2. It's counter productive to claim that 99% of Japanese people cannot communicate in English when:
a) the figure has no statistical founding, and
b) this doesn't relate to what the professor was saying.

3. Professor Toriaki seems off point with the riposte of "we say this in Japan" IF by this she means that locally produced forms of English by a single L2 community should be accepted or encouraged. Local dialects in L1 produce a variety of "non-standard" forms that are used and understood within that community. The Japanese L2 English speaking community would be unlikely to produce such forms for English communication between Japanese speakers.

4. Professor Toriaki makes some excellent points

a) there is a need for balance in language learning between Grammar, Comprehension and Communicative skills ..... anyone actually disagree?

b) the curriculum for English HAS changed to make it more communicative. I have read the Monkasho curriculum, but I don't agree that textbooks reflect a change in approach. The textbooks seem to attempt the exact sort of cultural bias that the professor objects to at the expense of teaching the core components of the language.

c) a core of language skills can be taught without the need to study British or American culture - indeed, which would you study to understand English? British, American, Australian, Canadian, Kiwi???
Students with an interests in a particular culture could then further their core studies by looking at the cultural nuances of a particular strain of English.

English as Esperanto? Isn't it generally more motivating (and therefore effective) to learn English in some kind of cultural context?

Martin,

I think that is what she is suggesting. When you read the article the "cultural context" she is suggesting is Japanese culture not British, American, Australian, or Canadian.

Eigo Noto tries to do this by using the Asian style of introducing oneself with family name first as opposed to the Western style. This is a small part of what I believe she is pointing out. Make the cultural context Japanese.

I read the interview and I do not think what Dr. Torikai said was so extreme. Most non-native speakers of English have an accent, be they Chinese, French or Thai. Also, most non-native speakers do tend to use some grammar differently from what you would hear native speakers use. Nevertheless, they are perfectly understandable. She discusses the definite article the vs. no article as one example. I study Japanese very hard but do not speak or write it perfectly. I realize that I never will, even though I try my best. I would not demand any thing more from my learners.

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