There is a deep-seated myth that Japanese people are not good at learning foreign languages. But is this really true? Taking French as an example, the proportion of Japanese who can speak a certain amount of French and read it with the use of a dictionary is far higher than the proportion of French people who can do likewise in Japanese. The same kind of comparison with the U.S.A. or the U.K. should also show that the English proficiency of Japanese people is much greater than the Japanese proficiency of English speakers.
If we look at this from a different perspective and consider the rate of people fluent in a language other than their native tongue, there is a question mark over Japanese people’s foreign language skills. The examples of the Dutch, Filipinos, and others come to mind. But in many of these cases, the people are required to speak a second language for their country to survive because of their small population or their dependence on overseas work, or because they are former colonial subjects that speak the language of their former colonial masters. It is rather meaningless to compare them with Japan with its large population, most of whom are able to make a living without going overseas.
The form of English learning at junior high school and high school is currently very different than before, the emphasis having shifted away from grammar and reading and toward familiarization with the language and developing the ability to roughly understand and then respond in English. University entrance exams are also being asked to change accordingly. And while universities still place importance on grammar in foreign language education, we are seeing less and less of the form of learning in which students are suddenly expected to read advanced literature or philosophy books.
Although this appears to be a necessary change, I wonder whether the fact that something significant will be lost and overlooked. It goes without saying that one of the factors behind Japan’s rapid development since the Meiji era has been its extremely efficient consumption of Western culture via translations. Translation requires not only oral communication skills but also the ability to carefully decipher long sentences. If we neglect this, our ability to gather information will gradually get weaker. Continuing to develop just a small number of competent translators means it will be very difficult for others to check the quality of their translations. If the Japanese society does not have enough people who, albeit not professional translators themselves, can assess the quality of translations, Japan as a whole will become less able to obtain information through foreign languages.
The perspective most lacking in foreign language teaching and learning in Japan is to query the aims of teaching or studying. I am often asked by learners, “What, and how much, should I do to master a language?” There is no way to answer this without knowing the intention of the learners. If only that were clear, I could answer much more easily. On the other hand, if learners themselves knew their goals, they could probably create a specific program to reach those goals.
The lack of clarity about goals also occurs on a social level. It is as if the Japanese society as a whole largely depends on current trends regarding the questions of how many people there should be speaking what languages and to what extent.