Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the government’s proposal to boost English language proficiency, mainly through utilization of TOEFL. Near the end of the column I mention the “parochial” nature of Japan’s world view, a stereotype I normally try to avoid. Japan is no more insular than any other country, but what I hope would be more widely discussed is how language learning or at least exposure to it affects this general outlook. I don’t want to give the impression that a more universal attitude automatically accompanies acquisition of a second language, or that non-acquisition indicates small-mindedness. But I do think the more you know about anything in the world the more likely you are to understand why people do the things they do. What was apparent from Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose’s faux pas regarding the city’s Olympic bid is that his understanding of Islam and international relations in general isn’t fully formed. How much of that misunderstanding could have been cleared up by a greater command of English is impossible to know, but in this particular circumstance in his own mind he was partially shielded by his use of Japanese, since afterwards he used the tired defense that he had been misunderstood by his interlocutors. That doesn’t wash any more, and had he been more conversant in English he might have been more circumspect with his language, which, in turn, would have made him question his logic. In next week’s column, which will be about Inose, I want to talk about the way people in the public eye tend to get a pass from the media with regard to these kinds of verbal screwups simply because reporters don’t challenge them at the time they’re made. Inose made intemperate remarks to the New York Times because he is used to saying whatever he likes. People who speak a second language are always cognizant that they could be making mistakes. That may sound like a small technicality when it comes to developing a global outlook, but it’s also a part of the process that can’t be discounted.
Another aspect of English language learning that needs to be addressed is motivation. The Gendai article I reference makes the case that some people who strive to become fluent in English take on elitist, even superior airs, and while I think this says more about Gendai’s insecurity than anything else, there is something to be said for it. Many Japanese people I know have told me they learned English just to be different from everyone else, and it wasn’t until they started using the language on a daily, utilitarian basis that they overcame this “complex,” as my partner calls it. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, “pride” has many manifestations, and it may not be a good reason to learn a language since there will always be a competitive component to one’s usage. In one of the articles I read a Japanese scholar commented that the most sobering realization he had about English language acquisition was when he went abroad and talked to students “from developing countries” whose English was perfect even though English wasn’t a required language in their native lands. He understood then that nobody really cared that his own English ability had been acquired through long hours of hard work and study; but instead of feeling humbled, he felt liberated. Knowing English doesn’t automatically make you a better person, but it gives you one more tool to become one.