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Daily English in the lab

2016.01.12




Shota Kuwahara
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Physical Chemistry and Materials Science

Yes or No?

I watched a television program once where they were asking foreigners whether they could speak Japanese. How do you think they responded? Most of them said they could—but when it came to actual conversation, most of what they could come up with was arigato gozaimasu and konnichiwa. I remember being shocked that they had the self-confidence to stand there and say they could speak Japanese. Can you imagine what would happen if you asked Japanese people the same question? Throw out a “Can you speak English?” and I’m fairly certain that most people would simply respond “No.”

Globalization in the Photoscience and Spectroscopy Lab

The demand for globalization is nothing new, and the movement has reached universities as well. Chuo University has been participating in actively seeking to cultivate global human resources (http://global.chuo-u.ac.jp/english/aboutus/global/). Even at the academic conferences where we present our research findings, we’re getting to the point where we’re required to give presentations in English. Globalization is not synonymous with the English language, but unfortunately, if we want a shared communication tool that allows us to interact with people from other countries, it’s English and not Japanese that will get us there. If we want to communicate our thoughts to another person, we have to be able to look them in the eye and speak with our own words. Simply reading a prepared English document aloud will cause people to tune out completely, and nothing will get across (we see this all the time watching parliamentary statements, for example). The ability to reach into our own minds and choose the right English words is becoming inescapable.

At the Photoscience and Spectroscopy Lab where I work, we take English very seriously as an essential skill for making our mark on the world. This is because we live in an era where companies and professionals have become increasingly globalized, giving us plenty of opportunities to interact with people from overseas and putting us in more situations where English is necessary. For this reason, we take thirty minutes during the day to host an “English café” in the Photoscience and Spectroscopy Lab. I’d like to start off by telling you a little bit more about this activity.

Activity #1: The English café

We have been holding three English café sessions a week since the beginning of the current school year. They are set up so that we start by watching a science-related video clip and then consider questions that have been prepared in advance. We usually have the master’s level students select a video about five minutes long, introduce the English terminology required to understand it, and then prepare and present the questions. Most of the videos we use are taken from the TED-Ednew window website, and these often include easy-to-follow animation sequences as well. (If you get a chance, I suggest you take a look at TED-Ed. It is the educational version of the TED Talks that NHK runs as its Super Presentation series, but I think they tend to be more approachable than the regular TED Talks. They also feature video clips that are entertaining to watch even if you cannot fully catch the English.) The English café sessions can be hard on the students who have to prepare them, but they are informative and fun for the participants, who seem to be actively engaged.

Activity #2: Research reports in English

Another activity we do at the lab is present research reports in English during our seminar classes. The presentations are every other week, and starting in the second semester we have had everyone—including the undergraduates—report their research in English. The discussion portion is done in English as well. You may be concerned that this would cause the discussion to remain shallow and lead to a shaky understanding of the content. In fact, that is exactly what happens, and there are frequently situations where the details of the discussion are miscommunicated. Nor are students able to get across what they want to say or effectively communicate about the topics they want to discuss, and I imagine this makes for a very frustrating experience. Moving forward with the research requires that we follow up in Japanese, and we sometimes continue our English discussions in Japanese later on. The process can be time-consuming and inefficient, but the reality is that unless we force the students into it, they will never use English while they are still in Japan. For science students, discussions about research are a chance to really put ourselves on the line, since they create a situation where we are left to our own devices in piecing together English sentences, keeping the conversation going, and coming up with responses to what we are asked. My hope is that as students continue to have these experiences, they will lose their resistance to using English.

Science students in particular are frequently convinced that they are bad at English and other subjects classified as liberal arts. This makes them tense when they first start using the language, and many of them are averse to it. But even the ones who agonize over not being able to say what they want to say in English end up developing to the point where they are able to clearly understand one another in English by the time they graduate a year later (three years later for master’s students).

A carefree approach to speaking English

Japanese people tend to think that English conversation requires that they catch a hundred percent of what is said and speak fluently with perfect pronunciation and proper grammar. But do we really listen to every single word when we communicate in Japanese? Surely we listen to a certain extent, infer the rest, and form an idea in our mind about the overall gist of the conversation. We frequently ask for clarification on what was said, and misunderstandings sometimes crop up in the middle of a discussion. So there’s no reason we shouldn’t approach English conversation with the same lighthearted attitude. If someone asks whether you can speak English, it’s perfectly fine to just say yes. Think about it—you’ve already understood the English question. And since you’ve already memorized so many English vocabulary words, you’ve already laid the foundation for a conversation. Speaking English starts as soon as you find the courage to step out of your resistance.

Genuine interaction starts when you actually look a person in the eye, speak with your own words, and start enjoying the conversation for its own sake. That’s what it means to take a step towards globalization. In the Photoscience and Spectroscopy Lab, we’re going to keep doing everything we can to ensure that our students can hold their heads high and announce, “I can speak English!”

Shota Kuwahara
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Physical Chemistry and Materials Science
Professor Kuwahara was born in Tokushima Prefecture 1981 and graduated from the Department of Chemistry, School of Science, Nagoya University. He completed his master’s program at the Graduate School of Science, Nagoya University in 2006, going on to finish the doctoral program at the same school in 2009. Kuwahara finished his post-doctorate work as a research fellow for the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, going on to work as a project researcher for the Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University before taking up his current position as an assistant professor in the Applied Chemistry Department, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University. His current areas of study include dye-sensitized solar cells that utilize time-resolved spectral diffraction measurements and evaluating the quality of photocatalyst materials.
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