Make English a true multicultural language

September 16, 2010 by admin
Filed under: general 

On Aug. 15, 1808, the HMS Phaeton entered Japan’s southwestern territory without permission and unconditionally demanded food, fuel and water. The British warship was allowed to stay for three days before leaving Nagasaki, mainly due to the Japanese official translators only knowing the Dutch language. After this event, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an order, on Dec. 12, 1808, stating that professional translators should learn English as well, ushering in English-language study to Japan.

From the Meiji Restoration up until quite recently, English gained in popularity. Students were expected to learn British English or American English because the United Kingdom and the United States were associated with such modern values as democracy, advanced knowledge and industries, and other sophisticated forms of culture and civilization. Learning English as such played an important role in Japan’s modernization. In view of its present-day spread, however, it is obvious that Japanese people will need it as a language for international communication.

The current aim of Japan’s English language teaching (ELT) in public education is to develop a working command of English as an international language and nurture international (and/or intercultural) awareness on the part of our students. That is why ELT is definitively considered as part of a larger educational endeavor in Japan of understanding the world. In implementing this national framework, there are two key challenging issues.

The first issue concerns the global spread of English as a multinational and multicultural language. In Japan’s ELT, it is important that we fully recognize and address various ramifications stemming from the internationalization of the English language. The second issue is about English as a self-expressive language for international purposes. Japanese people generally see international understanding as learning about other cultures. Thus, awareness training in explaining Japanese ways of life explicitly is frequently ignored. For example, children are often instructed to send Christmas cards to friends overseas, but are rarely told to write Japanese New Year’s cards or summer greeting cards in English. To have a clear picture of these issues, it is important to understand that English is a unique language in two ways.

Contemporary English has two major characteristics that no other language has ever developed in the history of linguistic evolution. One is its global spread and the other is the development of its regional and local varieties. They are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other.

The global spread of English is seen everywhere in the world. In addition to several countries where English is a native tongue of many of their citizens, there are dozens of countries and regions where English functions as a second or an official language. To this, add more than a hundred countries where English is taught, learned and used as an international language! Under these circumstances, it is important to note that nonnative speakers outnumber native speakers when it comes to English.

At the same time, the spread of English does not ensure the transplantation of American English or British English throughout the world. This reality is clearly witnessed in Asia, for example. Actually, English is here to stay as an Asian language. Remarkably, in Asia and everywhere in the world, nonnative speakers of English use the adopted language more frequently with other nonnative speakers than with native speakers. The interaction between native speakers and nonnative speakers is not as frequent as imagined. We have to think about this in ELT.

Importantly, Asian speakers are taking advantage of this additional language and are exploring new dimensions of English use: phonetically, lexically, syntactically, semantically and of course pragmatically. Furthermore, they are using English in Asian cultural contexts. So when Japanese speak English with Koreans, there is no room for American or British culture. What happens in this situation is that Japanese behave like Japanese and speak English in Japanese ways, and so do Koreans, Chinese, Singaporeans, Filipinos, Thais, Indians and many others. This is the basis of English becoming a multicultural language in Asia and around the world.

These trends are conspicuous in countries where English is one of their national languages, like India, Malaysia, Singapore or the Philippines. But similar trends are also observed in countries like China, South Korea and Japan, where English is recognized as an international language. The localization of English can become more prominent if we encourage our students to speak it, as we must for various good reasons. Japanese cannot speak English without Japanese features, or without the basis of Japanese language and culture. I think this tendency is true in many other countries.

The present-day diffusion and diversification of English is often conceptualized as world “Englishes.” Perhaps, it is the first case of a language being represented in a plural form in the history of linguistic dynamism. The idea suggests that all varieties of English developed or being developed in various parts of the world are equally valid and viable in linguistic and cultural terms.

Simultaneously, there have occurred some new types of problems. One of them concerns mutual communicability among speakers of many Englishes. This is an actual and immediate as well as a potential concern. Cases of zero-communication or miscommunication are abundant among speakers of different varieties of English in the fields of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, meaning and pragmatics/sociolinguistics. To improve this situation, it is important that we address diversity management in our ELT programs.

I have been interested in intercultural literacy as a pedagogical response to the demands of diversity management of English across cultures. At the same time, I place teaching awareness of language as a fundamental component in intercultural literacy. Teaching awareness of language has apparently been successfully practiced in Britain and other parts of Europe. It is a heuristic process of understanding how language is designed and how people use language. One of the main objectives of language awareness education has been to improve sensitivity to, and tolerance of, linguistic diversity. I think this awareness can contribute to overcoming inconveniences of incommunicability of English across cultures.

In order to develop a language awareness program for ELT, I think we need information from cognitive linguistics and sociolinguistics. One cognitive linguistic contribution that I would like to see included is the study of metaphors. If students of English have a better understanding of what metaphors do, they will find it easier to comprehend that the sentences below all enjoy equal correctness and legitimate status and interpret them in the same vein, although (2) and (3) may sound strange to some speakers.

(1) Mayumi is sharp.

(2) The Arab street is angry, but the street is honest and sincere and we should listen to it.

(3) That restaurant is delicious. (Japanese English?)

To make sure that this approach to English as a multicultural language for international communication really works in the real world, we need to be trained in metaphoric awareness in ELT so that we can be “sensitive” to, and “tolerant” of different metaphoric expressions originating from other cultures. This principle should be applied to nonnative and native speakers alike if English is to be used as an international language across cultures.

With this much said, it should be emphasized that Japanese people stand in dire need of English as an additional language for wider communication. To foster this linguistic and cultural proficiency, we need to provide our students with more opportunities to read, write, talk and hear about Japan in English. We have to encourage them to talk about themselves every time they learn new words, phrases and constructions. Of course, comparative culture is an efficient way of doing this. Stories about different lives abroad can be used to stimulate their eagerness to talk about their families, friends and communities. If I could have my own way, I would argue for more Asian-ization in the cultural content of ELT materials in Japan. For example, Japanese students should be better informed of some important aspects of English communication styles of other Asian nationals. This idea is based on the fact that Japanese use English most frequently with other Asian nationals.

Furthermore, given an opportunity, Japanese students and citizens can often display a remarkable command of English. This tendency has been demonstrated by participants in a series of Extremely Short Story Competitions (ESSC) conducted in Japan by The Japanese Association for Asian Englishes. The events have shown how important it is to organize opportunities to use English in Japan’s ELT environment.

For example, many sightseeing spots provide international tourists with information tape-recorded in English. Most narrators are American- or British-born speakers. This state should be changed and can be changed as soon as we consider English as a Japanese language for international communication. Local governments and organizations in charge of their tourism promotion projects can sponsor competitions for high school and college students to encourage them to play the role of narrator for their communities. These events will encourage English language teaching and learning because English will be seen as a community language for international purposes. Competitions can be held in each school and college for writing scripts, too.

Local autonomies need English writers of their websites as well. Students of English, including local citizens, can contribute substantially in this regard. Teachers can be encouraged to inform town officials of what their students can do for international publicity. Officials may express concern that students’ English may not be good enough for the high-demanding work. To alleviate this anxiety, it is desirable that teachers offer to help and support their students. By doing so, Japan’s ELT can find a new purpose: Japan’s “internal” internationalization.

Japan’s ELT is definitely called upon to explore effective pedagogy for self-expressive and output-oriented activities. Recent studies show that one-minute speaking practices (answering several questions) increase students’ sentences produced per minute. And with this increase, sentential coherence improves and syntactic errors decrease. Schools, companies and municipalities should cooperate to spread “ripples of hope” in Japan’s ELT. And these practices are presumed to help stimulate development of Japanese patterns of English. In Japan’s ELT it is imperative that Japanese students be assured that they can speak English and sound Japanese.




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