Mount Fuji

English-language deficit handicaps Japan 


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of Feb. 4th, 2002, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In 1984 I was invited to give a public lecture at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. I began by apologizing for the fact that I would not be able to deliver my lecture in Dutch. I went on to remark that had I been alive at the time of Erasmus, I would have given my lecture in Latin. Many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was still the lingua franca (common language) of the intellectual elite across Europe.

I proceeded to give my lecture in English, indicating what a great thing it was that, some 450 years after the death of Erasmus, one should be seeing once again the emergence of a lingua franca. In fact, the contemporary lingua franca was significantly better than Latin, because whereas the latter was limited to Europe, English was rapidly becoming the global common language.

In 1984 these were unconventional words for a Frenchman. In France there was still considerable atavistic linguistic chauvinism and rear-guard battles were being fought to oppose English and impose French. For example, in that same year, the French government had seized a $5 million consignment of umbrellas shipped from Singapore on the grounds that the name of the material shown on the label was in English and not in French (the difference was an "e" at the end!).

I happened to be in Singapore when this happened and suggested to my Singaporean friends that Singapore should retaliate by insisting that all French imports should be labeled in Singapore's four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. My friends replied that, alas, this was impossible: The main French import item was cognac and preventing its import might cause a revolution.

Well, a lot of water has flowed under the French-language bridge since then. Most French professionals under 55 engaged in international activities, whether in government, business, the media, academe, liberal professions or NGOs, speak reasonably fluent English. A symbolic sign of the changing times was the appearance a few years ago of President Jacques Chirac speaking in English on the U.S. talk show Larry King Live. There are still a few linguistic Neanderthals left, but for the most part the French establishment has accepted that while they speak French to each other, they generally have to speak English to others. Most French firms abroad (e.g. Renault in Japan) have adopted English as their official language.

The globalization of English is a remarkable development at many levels, and one that will continue at an intensified pace thanks to the Internet. What I find extraordinary, for example, is the speed and fluency with which the young and the middle-aged in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have taken to English. The remarkable proficiency of many young Chinese is something I commented on in an earlier article. It is by now universal wisdom that basic literacy in the global age consists of being able to use a computer and speak English.

Universal wisdom, that is, with the exception of Japan. The young may be marginally better than their elders, but only to a relatively limited extent. In my first article in this series, I pointed out how difficult — indeed absurdly so in the early 21st century — it is for my institute to find Japanese MBA candidates in their early 30s whose standard of English is fluent by international standards.

I mention "international standards" because I occasionally interview Japanese candidates in Japan and determine their English is good enough, only afterward realizing that I was judging them by Japanese standards and that once they get into a classroom with some 35 nationalities exchanging views in rapid-fire English, they are quickly lost.

One recent summer, the London correspondent of one of Japan's major dailies came to interview me in my rural residence in the west of France. He was in his mid-30s. Over lunch my wife suggested to him that it must have been very difficult securing such a plush job as London correspondent of his newspaper as there must have been a lot of competition within the firm. Not at all, he replied; because of the need to speak English, there was very little competition!

The great difficulty the Japanese experience in speaking the language of globalization fluently is a major indictment of Japan in the global age. There is nothing genetic about it. When Japanese set about learning the language properly and spend time in English-language environments — as is the case with a growing number of young women — their English is very good. The quite pervasive linguistic handicap that exists is in part a reflection of the archaic nature of the education system. Many Japanese English language teachers do not speak English! Teenagers cram intensely to remember how to answer questions in exams — such as what is the difference between mutual and reciprocal — but are unable to order a cup of coffee.

The gakureki shakai (school-record society) is also responsible in the sense that typically Japanese males sweat and sweat through the various levels of primary and secondary education to prepare for entry into universities, the selection of which will determine their lifetime careers, marriage prospects, circle of friends and social prestige. Socrates said that a pupil should be a candle one lights, not a jug one fills. That concept is conspicuous by its absence in Japanese pedagogy. Education in Japan consists of thoughtlessly imbibing as much information as possible in order to regurgitate it at exam time.

The English-language problem is also a reflection of the introverted and exclusive nature of Japanese society. Taking a year off prior to university, knap-sacking around the globe and mingling with other nationalities is not part of the scene. Even a high school year spent on an exchange program in some foreign school is limited almost exclusively to women. As Japanese firms and most institutions hire very few — if any — foreigners, there is very little need to speak anything else than Japanese.

Even Japanese abroad are notorious for transposing themselves into closed communities. Walk into any Japanese firm in Europe and you will see clusters of Japanese managers huddling together. Japanese are notoriously poor in mixing with foreign company. The English language barrier is clearly a major cause, indeed one that reinforces the problem.

The fact that Japan, in spite of being the world's second largest economy, should play so small a global role is caused by many forces that I am exploring in this series. The English-language deficit, however, is a major culprit and indeed at the root of many other causes. I shall frequently return to this theme.

Editor's note: Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1945-2017) was professor of international political economy at the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) and a founding director of the Evian Group, Lausanne, Switzerland. He authored and co-authored several books on Japan.