So Do You Speak English?

This was a true incident, which happened very, very recently:

At a coffee shop in Tokyo.

Pinay: “I would like a CAFÉ LATTE please.”

Waitress: )($)#$#(*+****%&’’((()”#$ – well, you know how they like saying so many words when they only want to tell you one thing.

Pinay: (feeling lost, couldn’t understand a word the waitress was saying) Uhm, okay, I’ll take a CAPPUCINO then.

Waitress: )($)#$#(*+****%&’’((()”#$))#$)~”#$#%% – now the explanation is even longer!

Pinay: (annoyed now) Ok, fine, I’ll just have BLENDY (instant coffee)!


Does this sound familiar to you? Almost everyone I know has their own versions of feeling lost, misunderstood, and clueless during their first encounters with Japanese who didn’t know how to speak English.

Pick anyone you randomly happen to meet at the station, convenience store, or even school. Then ask them this simple question, “Do you speak English?” Most of the time, their answer would be, “No, sorry.” Sometimes the answer would even be the longer verson, “No, sorry, I don’t speak English.” That is not to say that there are no friendly Japanese out there who would gladly have a friendly chat with English-speaking foreigners. Sometimes we also have to consider that most of them are just naturally shy when it comes to encountering foreigners, so they may also give that kind of response just to avoid further confrontation, err, conversation. But the one question that I cannot help but ask is this: “Must they speak in English?” Shouldn’t we be the ones who should be learning their language because we are in their country? For me, this seems to be the easiest way of adapting – as the old adage goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” It’s better than having to reenact Lost-in-Translation scenes every time, everyday of your life.

While perusing through our mails the other day, I found a flyer inviting kids to an activity, where they can participate in “Eigo-de-asobo” (Having fun in English) Christmas-themed party. It came from a company which provides English classes for small kids with ages ranging from preschool to elementary. As I far as I can remember, a few months ago the same company was also inviting kids to a Halloween party. Different theme, same idea. It’s a bait, of course. English schools, clubs, tutorials, and other similar establishments are booming businesses in Japan. Actually I don’t have any qualms about the Halloween party. But a Christmas party? I really doubt that the organizers have any intentions of actually celebrating this party with any particular references to Christmas. And it does make me wonder – to them, what really is the significance of Christmas? Hmm, but Christmas itself is a topic worthy of another post.

Anyway, from what I heard, Japanese people study English as a subject during junior high and senior high school; other courses in the university also require them to have a mastery of English, as essential to their coursework. Nowadays, it also seems that English is also being taught at the primary level, quite likely due to the strategic plan of the MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). So if the kids in elementary schools are already learning English now, in about 10 or 15 years from now we would probably be able to evaluate if there were any significant improvements in their English-speaking abilities. There is at least one good thing that came out of this policy, though, and that is English job opportunities mushrooming all over Japan. What better way for English-adept Filipinos to land jobs in this country? We’re probably the nearest country where they can recruit teachers. And anything that creates more jobs for Filipinos is always a good thing. Indeed, there seems to be more English teachers now in our community than there are, say, students or long-term residents.

What is a bit puzzling, though, is why despite all these efforts at learning English, Japanese are still not adept at this language? Consider all the money, time and effort they have already invested in learning the language, and yet when prompted to speak English, they are at a loss? In all my years of stay here, I could only point to a handful of individuals who have a good command of English, both written and spoken. Sites like continue to flourish and will never run out of supply of humorous English words and phrases splattered all over Japan – because so few of them make an effort at correcting their English.

I’m sure that there are social and cultural hurdles that must be overcome when learning English – and I’m not a linguist, so I can’t give you the nitty-gritty of that. But based on what I do know, one glaring reason is the lack of practice using English. Simply put, to learn a language, you have to use it. My own daughter, for instance, did not have any problems learning English. She learned fast, and has picked up a considerable amount of phrases in such a very short span of time – at four years of age, she speaks English far better than some of the college grads I encountered in my university. So do the other Pinoy children of expats I know who are living in Japan. So why is it easy for them? Is it because we are better teachers than the ones the Japanese have in school? I think not. I believe the reason is because they can freely practice their English with us at home, anytime, in our day-to-day conversations. If this kind of opportunity to practice their English (with their parents or foreigners) is absent, any kind of strategy or curriculum would not be sufficient. It is simply not enough for parents to just haul their kids to English classes and let them “immerse” for one hour, only to have them revert back to speaking Japanese when they go back to their homes. Every parent must exert a conscious effort to expose his or her child to English on a daily basis, may it be through conversations, television, movies, or the internet. And in fact, there are already so many tools at one’s disposal, without having to pay for them!

Of course, another glaring obstacle to their mastery of the English language is probably this: it simply isn’t on top of their priorities. They achieved the status of being the second largest economy in the world without having to improve their English. Only recently has it become more emphasized because of the march of globalization, where English has become the language of choice.

We Filipinos, on the other hand, learned English starting from preschool, and proficiency in English is mandatory if we ever hope to enter college. We are forced to learn it. And need I forget – we are so in love with everything western, with Hollywood movies probably topping the list! Pinoy kids these days can spew expletives in English like it is their mother tongue. Where else would they learn it from except by watching those Hollywood movies? Ours is also a country where the act of speaking English is itself synonymous to declaring one’s socio-economic status. We have long prided ourselves at being better English speakers than our Asian neighbors. But sadly, ours is also a country where the majority, given the opportunity, would leave the country in a heartbeat and head off to the proverbial land of milk and honey. Our mastery of English has not made us any smarter, only more confident and bolder to head into the unknown because at least we wouldn’t feel as alienated if we didn’t know how to speak the language.

Ok, so maybe we’re better English speakers, writers, orators, and quite recently, bloggers. But in the final analysis, we’re the ones being hired, we’re the ones serving the needs of those who may be hopelessly inept in the language but who have the clear economic advantage. We’re the ones responding to their job vacancy posts and applying for the jobs they offer. Wouldn’t you prefer to be inept in English but could still find a decent job in your own country, than be proficient in English but could never hope to find employment that would sufficiently provide the means to live comfortably by?

As I mentioned earlier, the landscape in Japan may turn out to be quite different in another 10 or 15 years. Don’t judge them too hastily now, they may have the last laugh!

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