Is a national lack of English skills Japan’s Berlin Wall?

Critics of English teaching in Japan have put forth many arguments – it’s ineffective, it’s counterproductive, it attracts the wrong crowd, it starts too late, it focuses too much on English at the expense other languages, you name it. But this post from finance blogger Kazuki Fujizawa (likely a pen name) is the first time I have seen someone argue that English education in Japan is being intentionally undermined by the education ministry.

He starts by noting that the recent political developments in Japan (upcoming election) can be kind of hard to understand. This is only natural because as a free society power is not concentrated in one place – it is a complicated interaction of various interests. On the other hand, it is comparatively much easier to understand how dictatorships like North Korea or the former East Germany are governed – North Korea has its massive propaganda machine and terrorizes the population, while East Germany kept its people from escapting to the West by building the Berlin Wall.

With that in mind, he tells the story of what you might call Japan’s Berlin Wall, which I have translated below:

I think the time has come for the education ministry to abolish its policy of undermining Japanese people’s English abilities.

Viewed from the perspective of the rulers, the question of English language education was a sticky problem.

That is because if the people ever became able to speak English fluently, the talented Japanese people and firms might have gone overseas to get away from the world’s highest personal and corporate income tax rates. But to take in Western technology and develop the country, they had no choice but to give the people English language education. The rulers of Japan wanted to keep the people in bondage while simultaneously collecting as much information from abroad as possible.

The Japanese bureaucrats’ answer was to create an English language education system without precedent anywhere else in the world that was perfectly suited to meet these two opposing demands. They made the extremely specialized skill of mechanically replacing English sentences with Japanese the central focus of the compulsory English language curriculum.

Forcing middle schoolers with young minds to repeat these exercises again and again was wildly successful at disabling the people’s English language communication skills. People educated to turn English sentences into Japanese by moving the word order around become completely unable to speak English.

To the rulers, this was a very wonderful thing.

Unable to communicate in English, the Japanese people could thus be prevented from fleeing overseas without resorting to violence.

The amazing part of this English education system is that even though the Japanese people are rendered incapable of communicating in English, they can still understand written English such as English-language scholarly works. This way, the bureaucrats could disable the Japanese people’s English-language communication skills while at the same time giving them access to the vast archives of English-language written materials.

This system was a key component of Japan’s high rate of economic growth following World War II.
Even as English-language information entered Japan from around the world, the Japanese could only read English but not speak it or write it, meaning that there was almost no outflow of information from Japan to the outside world. This one-way flow of information made it possible for post-war Japan to rapidly industrialize.

But as Japan caught up to the advanced Western nations and caught the “developed nation disease,” this policy of disabling people’s English abilities began to crack at the seams.

Without English skills, Japan’s diplomacy is weak.
There is also little transmission of culture to the world.
A whole range of manufacturing products in Japan are incompatible with those sold in global markets due to Japan-specific standards.

Importantly, most Japanese companies can no longer survive in a shrinking Japanese market as the country’s biggest problem is the shrinking and aging population, which is progressing at the fastest rate in the world.

The era when Japan could shut itself off from the world, import information, manufacture products in Japan, and then sell them to the Japanese market has ended. Nowadays, Japanese people and companies must go abroad and sell their own products. That means they must have communication skills in English, the world’s lingua franca.

Looking throughout the world, in small advanced countries where businesses cannot succeed only in their home markets, the people can speak English almost without exception. Middle school students in the Netherlands and Sweden all get nearly perfect marks on the TOEFL test.

In Japan, our own market will shrink more and more, so we must now go abroad to survive.

Don’t you think it is high time for the education ministry to abolish its policy of disabling the Japanese people’s English abilities?

53 thoughts on “Is a national lack of English skills Japan’s Berlin Wall?”

  1. I generally don’t believe in conspiracies, and I don’t believe any conspiracy was carried out to stunt the English-speaking abilities of the Japanese. Well, maybe on bad days…
    I’m more inclined to assign the blame to a combination of incompetence on the part of government, and an entrenched pedagogical philosophy in which the teacher “pours” knowledge into students. It’s the rare student that I’ve met here that has any sense of being responsible for his own education. (Before anyone gets offended, I repeat, this has been *my experience* as a teacher in Japan.) The best English-speakers I’ve met became so *in spite* of the education system.

  2. There is also little transmission of culture to the world.

    Anime and bizarre pornography are doing a good job of transmitting themselves to the rest of the world. (Oh, and Haruki Murakami novels too.)

  3. This argument is pretty silly really. But does Japan really have the world’s highest income taxes? I find this doubtful, even if we add in all the other taxes like regional taxes and national insurance that are calcuated based on income.

  4. I don’t put much faith in conspiracy theories either, but this is a fascinating argument that just might be accurate in stating motives and results. Actually, regardless of intent or motive, I think that his description of the result, with Japan able to absorb the world’s information without contributing to it is remarkably correct The whole thing is so crazy it just might be true!

  5. Curzon,
    I agree with you that, whatever the cause, the writer seems accurately to describe the end result!

  6. I think that the Japanese government is incapable of the foresight to arrange for a system that is willfully incompetent. I also think that the vast majority of Japanese people who no interest in fleeing the country and living elsewhere. Most people are pretty happy where they are.

    This argument only works if the underlying assumption, that talented people will flee Japan is they have good English skills, is valid. I see no evidence that it is.

    I think the main problem is the rigidity of thinking and slowness of change. People are placed in positions of power and decision-making without qualifications or education. They are placed there because of cronyism, nepotism, or wealth. The people designing the education system just want to keep their positions and don’t have a clue how to revamp the less efficient elements of the English language teaching portion. There’s also a lot of resistance to change among the teachers who are incompetent and interested in the status quo.

  7. Fascinating hypothesis. Really a continuation of of the late, great Masao Miyamoto’s contention that the Japanese educational system has the effect of intellectually “castrating” Japanese students.

    From the glimpses I get into the “education” process that kids here undergo in order to pass the succession of entrance exams they face, it seems like a combination of memorizing the telephone book and learning strategies to answer questions that seem to be somewhat akin to the “game” questions on the LSAT.

    No wonder they always look so tired, and when you ask them what they’ve been studying, they really can’t tell you.

  8. An identical argument is being made about the elites in French Canada being behind the stunting of English skills in order to create a captive labor market.

    However –
    “I think that the Japanese government is incapable of the foresight to arrange for a system that is willfully incompetent.”

    I agree. This is a historical argument without history. When you actually looke at the evolution of English education ideas and debates from the 1950s, it does not hold water. For starters, the Japanese government wasn’t even issuing passports in large numbers until the 1960s. Suggesting that Japanese bureaucrats who already had a captive labor market were imagining globalization and mobile labor decades before the fact… borders on suggesting that they had magical powers. In giving too much credit to elites, this goes way behind the 9/11 inside job argument. He also seems to be suggesting that Japanese historically had the financial ability to move around. In 1965, the salary for a new university graduate could have been as little as 40,000 a month at a time when the exchange rate was around 350 yen to the dollar. Just getting there would have been impossible as most airfares were in the 1 year of salary range.

    This seems, in the end, to be a rather gripping piece of contemporary criticism packaged in a crazy conspiracy theory – perhaps to give it more oomph.

    “But does Japan really have the world’s highest income taxes?”

    Hell no. People in Japan are NOT paying 55% on salaries over 600man a year like they would be in my hood.

  9. No, Japan is most definitely not the country with the highest income taxes.
    France is much, much worse, to which you can add 20% VAT…

  10. It is an interesting read. There are a few parts that I agree with; however, as a whole, I do not think it is likely.
    As a historical linguistic, I have another theory.
    In the 7-8th century, Japan actively attempted to learn Chinese. Japan sent envoys to study in China. And for a short while the few skilled enough attempted to write in Chinese. But that trend stopped as soon as it reached the masses. Newly developed was 漢文訓読 which would “turn [Chinese] sentences into Japanese by moving the word order around”. In the end, the result was systematic borrowing of words adapted to Japanese phonology. Nothing wrong with that, and that has always happened with languages all over the world. But, as a means to learn Chinese it did not and still has not worked.
    Fast forward a millennia and a bit and now the same process is repeating again, this time with English. Around the start of the 20th century a number of prominent Japanese studied abroad. For a while a few attempted to write real texts in English. But hardly anymore after it spread to the masses. Just as before, students “turn English sentences into Japanese by moving the word order around”. And yet again thousands and thousands of English terms are being systematically borrowed into Japanese as Japanese, modified for Japanese phonology.
    Perhaps you could call it 和洋折衷, but rather learning a foreign language as a foreign language, Japan constantly attempts to modify and assimilate (linguistic borg?) them. This is why English education in Japan typically fails and will continue to fail.
    “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” (Peter Pan, not Galactica.)

  11. When you say “policy”, that implies it is an official part of there program or philosophy. My question, would they even admit to this “policy”? They may deny that is their intention and they have no such policy.

    So then how can you get the Education Ministry to “abolish their policy” if they don’t even admit they have one?

  12. Been doing a bit of reading on taxes, and it seems that while Japan is not the highest, it is very far from the lowest. The top bracket, kicking in when you make more than 18 million a year (any MF readers in that…?) is 40%, which is fairly high globally, but then just comparing top tax brackets worldwide is a very crude method. Anyway, I’m off to Monaco….

  13. If it is possible to translate English into Japanese by manipulating the word order and then, presumably, translating word for word, is the reverse possible? Or, more generally, is there an effective algorithmic means for translating Japanese to English? If there was, even it it was only 90% accurate, that would simplify things considerably.
    I’ve seen various translation sites on the internet that purported to translate English to Japanese and vice versa but they didn’t seem to work very well.

  14. No mention of other developed Asian countries, like Taiwan and Korea, whose grade school students are at a similarly poor level of English competency?

    Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that the English education system in Japan has profound deficits and inadequacies which put the entire country at a competitive disadvantage, and I wish the Diet would spend less on Kafkaesque highways and more on Kafka’s novels, but I’m pretty sure other perfectly first-world countries have similar issues with English, especially in the East.

  15. “If it is possible to translate English into Japanese”

    Unfortunately – or fortunately, for professional translators – it is not possible. To give a real example: one of my profs once wanted to write a letter to a prof in a European university, in English. He wrote in Japanese, then machine-translated it. To introduce himself, he wrote “hajimemashite” – which was duly translated as “It begins it”. Just as well he asked me if it was acceptable….

  16. The English conspiracy theory is rubbish. First English is not the final answer to success. In the Philippines, they’ve spoken great English for a long time now. Wonderful people but how about that GDP? Second although English is the lingua franca in many sectors, it would be imperialistic and arrogant for me as an American to suggest English is the only language needed. For example, for a Japanese company to effectively do business in China, some key people need Putonghua ability. Great if both sides speak some English to break the superficial ice but to penetrate then survive in a foreign market, why hire anybody except those with local expertise in culture and language? Third, anybody who has mastered a foreign language knows that passively sitting in a classroom results in minimum learning. Becoming fluent is done via self study and motivation. Those who fail to achieve might blame the system.

    Technology has made learning a language easier, cheaper (free), more fun and more accessible than ever. There is no excuse for not achieving except lack of desire – learning resources are now low hanging fruits. Not everybody has the desire and that is their choice.

    I believe Japanese English education can improve but its fine as it stands. I think the education ministers should offer a choice in language and get away from the notion that English perfection is all that is needed. That notion was given by occupying American forces. A choice in language learning would foster creativity and stronger desire. Perhaps the majority would chose English but over time we would see more aware and competitive Japanese people who can speak multi languages.

  17. “No mention of other developed Asian countries, like Taiwan and Korea”

    Amen. Funny that Holland is used as an example by the author – major parallels in grammar and vocabulary there. I think that it is also important to do away with comparisons with Hong Kong or India – very good reasons for widespread English use (at least among the educated upper classes).

    One comparison that I would like to see is to, say, French education in the US or the UK. Despite deep connections between French and English, I wouldn’t say that students who go to good schools in those countries turn out as significantly better foreign language speakers than Japanese students or that there is an admirably greater focus on speaking and pratical use than on drilling grammar and vocab for weekly quizzes.

    “Diet would spend less on Kafkaesque highways and more on Kafka’s novels”

    What’s this about German now?

  18. The most pressing problem I’ve observed with English education here is the teaching and use of Katakana. If the ministry simply abolished Katakana as a means of phonetically spelling and pronouncing foreign words I think it would do wonders towards Japanese proficiency in any number of foreign languages including but by no means limited to English.

  19. As you can probably guess, I don’t put much faith in the conspiracy theory side of this essay, but I am not so sure the author believes it either. I think this is his creative way of saying IF someone had planned to sabotage Japanese people’s English skills 50-odd years ago, then they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

    At some point Marxy called Japan’s English education system a system of teaching “a diagnostic code based on the English language.” Which is exactly what the author describes above. And it is true – the focus on translation and memorizing reams of vocabulary terms is counterproductive to communication. And it is also true that this policy is formed in Kasumigaseki and can realistically only be changed from there. But at the same time I don’t think there is a Dr. Claw sitting in a dark chamber in the education ministry laughing at the pitiful Japanese people pissing in the wind as they try and learn English in exactly the wrong way.

    More powerful than any conscious policy is the massive inertia that makes changing course so difficult. It took something like 20 years after the start of the JET program in the late 80s (a milestone for a recognition that communication skills are important) for the government to institute a listening portion to some school entrance exams. Part of this is because the teachers who are appointed for life don’t necessarily want to change the way they do business. Every year new teachers are hired is a wave of people with lifetime appointments most of whom will commit to the status quo for 35 years.

    Whatever the case, what of the author’s argument that whatever purpose the English education system served in the past, it needs to be radically reworked to basically make it easier for Japanese youths to go abroad?

    Basically I dont think there should be a universal requirement for Japanese people to learn so much English. Just let the people who want to do it, do it. It’s just as beneficial for some people to learn Chinese or French or any other language. Giving the students a choice (and the option of very effective immersion-style classrooms) would be the best way. Right now the overwhelming majority of students has the choice of the education ministry standards (which suck) and the super-expensive international schools. Even in subjects other than language I think that within the same school there should be better gifted programs to help lift the skill levels of the most motivated.

    Things in this area are bound to improve as the university system becomes a buyer’s market – schools are right now scrambling to brand themselves as elite institutions with state of the art facilities and tough standards, but the reality is there are too many to support a shrinking student population. More will abandon the entrance exam system in favor of a holistic admissions office approach (though that system isnt without its flaws either). Judging students on the totality of their learning quality will make it easier for them to pursue different interests while they are in high school and reduce the need for endless hours in the juku – at least ideally.

  20. @Orchid

    If you have ever spoken to a Japanese person who has spent any amount of time working outside of Japan in Europe, the U.S., Australia, etc, they are I would say 9 times out of 10 loathe to be back in Japan working. Most that I know do everything in their power to get a permanent position overseas. The working environment in Japan is very poor compared to that of most other developed nations.

  21. I’m reminded of this Japan Times “opinion” article that says the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Education keep increasing the list of required English vocab, etc. just to make it look like they are doing something.

  22. Are those air quotes around “opinion” a sign of disapproval? Because I think she basically has the right idea.

  23. I think the World needs an international lingua franca as well.

    I notice that Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves both Mandarin Chinese and Arabic out of the equation.

    Why not decide on a neutral non-national language, taught worldwide, in all nations? I would prefer Esperanto 🙂

    An interesting video can be seen at A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  24. “I would say 9 times out of 10 loathe to be back in Japan working.”

    In my experience (wife, friends, many Japanese that I have taught overseas – a mix of people with advanced degrees and without with rudimentary and advanced language skills) most have been anxious to get back to Japan. Looking at the situation statistically, Japan has a very high number of people going abroad – often on working holidays or extended vacations – but the number of Japanese citizens who stay living abroad is very low compared to neighbors like, say, Korea. One 2007 survey concerning whether people felt “good” to be living in Japan found that 94% did. Similar surveys for the US, Canada, UK typically rated 70-75%. I think that it is safe to assume that working environment is not a major factor behind satisfaction with Japan, but that public safety, a lack of discrimination (if you are Japanese), standards of service that Japanese have come to expect, etc. tip things that way.

    Re: Adamu comment on English and universities – Yeah, some like Hiroshima have dramatically increased English instruction in the last few years so things are starting to move.

    Re: Kasumigaseki – I’m not sure that change is so easy – is there a global standard for effective language pedagogy? If we were to consider the flipside as purely a theoretical case – a project to get everyone in, say, Canada to speak Japanese by 12th grade – would we have any way of going about this without a massive infusion of resources and a complete realignment of educational priorities and teaching employment? I think something like math or geography can be taught in a “mass production” way as the goal is to impart general knowledge that will allow students to specialize later. I’m not sure that you can teach effective foreign language use to “the masses” any more than you could teach everyone to write effective poetry criticism. We all know that you just can’t have effective language teaching with a class of 40. Maybe the Japanese government should just scrap foreign language teaching in schools altogether and provide vouchers for free eikaiwa (or Chinese or whatever) to people that want them. I’m only half joking – it would no doubt produce an elite that speaks English well.

    Come to think of it, I also think that the original article is ignoring three very important things – that Japanese are making important contributions in international publishing in the hard sciences and medicine – all in English. Second, Japan has been smashed in this latest recession by an over reliance on exports to the American market – Japan really needs to be looking toward China, India, and new opportunities elsewhere and while English can open doors in those areas, the native languages are best for building bridges. Third, that there are many, many Indians, Chinese, and others learning Japanese and that Japanese companies are increasingly hiring them for the front office, not just the konbini counter. Bringing these people onto team Japan may pay dividends. When thinking about Japan’s future, robots are a potential bright spot, but we can’t count on a huge spike in domestic consumption – that would go against what I would describe as the “social logic” that Japan has developed since the 80s and the issue of the human race runing up agaist limited resources that will impact our potential to keep growing this way forever- nor will Japan turn manufacturing into 8% growth rates (that only happens when you are piss poor, at war, or both). So Japan needs a combination of modest gains in both of those areas combined with strong multi-nationals that could support R&D and whatnot domestically. The “English power” of those multi-nationals doesn’t need to be trained in Japanese schools. In fact, it might be BETTER if it isn’t as more local hires would no doubt ingratiate people and put a nice local face on Japanese companies. Fujizawa effectively manages to be a bit parochial while making an argument that is normally tied up with internationalization.

  25. Wow Brian, way to take the conversation in a completely irrelevant direction. Why don’t we all just learn Klingon? As any student of Japanese can tell you, if you put enough time into a language at a young age, it simply doesnt matter what language it is.

  26. “an elite that speaks English well”

    Thats pretty much what we have already, and then we have the rest of the population that *wishes* they could speak English but has to settle for a bunch of loan words.

  27. I feel (and I wonder if others here feel the same) that given the background that Japanese get in school, that 2-3 years of eikaiwa will give an average person who is serious about learning a level of English that will allow them to do most tourist things without problems, understand the gist of a popcorn movie or the latest Harry Potter, or have a friendly everyday conversation (or touch base with the local labor in a business). I certainly know Japanese without a strong academic background and nothing more than school classes and 2-3 years of eikaiwa that get by in North America without any problems. I don’ think that the average Taro or Aiko wants to be able to translate The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, nor should they.

  28. I’m all for abolishing English altogether from the K-12 curriculum in Japan. Sometimes I think the culprit is the traumatic experience of failure some kids get because of the way English is taught during the first few years of junior high English ed in Japan. Invalidate all the current teaching certificates and start from the fresh bunch. As for me, a native speaker of Japanese, a few years of studying from NHK radio series combined with some hardcore listening to FEN radio was all I needed to fulfill the admission requirement to enter a US university, straight out of a public high school in Kofu, Yamanashi. I spent practically zero yen. 18 years later, here I am, working in a French speaking environment, speaking 4 languages. So, I say, eradicate English from the curriculum.

  29. At the root of all my vitriol against the ESL industry here is that English learning depends more than anything on the motivation of the learner. Putting EVERYONE in eikaiwa would probably have the same rate of success as putting EVERYONE in the middle and high school in front of ALTs…

  30. “Putting EVERYONE in eikaiwa would probably have the same rate of success as putting EVERYONE in the middle and high school in front of ALTs…”

    I think so as well. But wouldn’t that pretty much mean that mass English skill is impossible? That’s the way I’m leaning.

  31. According to a lot of recent research on second/foreign language acquisition one of the most important factors for succesful learning is whether the student is motivated or not. Motivation is here meant in a more hollistic sense than just being motivated to get a good grade; it’s an amalgam of peripheral factors like use for the target language in leisure activities etc. And if I was asked why my Swedish countrymen are so proficient at English from a relatively young age I would answer that this is definitely due to (aside from grammatical parallells etc.) motivation rather than a succesful curriculum.

    A Swedish youth that likes to watch TV will inevitably watch mostly English language programming (subtitled). Same with cinema. Turn to computer games and there is no option but English once you leave the realm of educational games for toddlers. Swedish song writers actually writing in Swedish are a tiny minority etc. etc. To summarize, Swedish popular culture is only partly conducted in Swedish and this fact make Swedish youth very motivated to learn English, which is the other major language at the present time. (and I suspect the same is true of Holland).

    To compare the performance of the average language student in any two countries without taking these kinds factors in to account is just not a serious contribuition to the debate.

    I will however concede that the conspiracy theory is fascinating 🙂

  32. “No mention of other developed Asian countries, like Taiwan and Korea, whose grade school students are at a similarly poor level of English competency?”

    Actually, there is no mention of Taiwan and Korea in another context. Presumably, Korean is fairly easy to learn for many Japanese–my Japanese has helped with the rudimentary Korean that I have studied–and in Taiwan, until recently at least, there were many people that spoke Japanese and Japan is seen in a fairly positive light by many Taiwanese, if not the reelected KMT. So if the argument goes that having languages that are spoken overseas will encourage immigration from Japan, shouldn’t Japanese be flocking to Korea and Taiwan to live? No? Then language can’t be the major factor behind immigration.

  33. I’ve noticed that as well, sometimes it’s as if they don’t want the kids learning how to be creative in a second language. I was wondering, can anyone site a specific example of this dumbing down in action? Thanks in advance

  34. “To summarize, Swedish popular culture is only partly conducted in Swedish and this fact make Swedish youth very motivated to learn English, which is the other major language at the present time. (and I suspect the same is true of Holland).”

    This is definitely true, but you must also admit that the linguistic closeness of English with Swedish or Dutch certainly reduces the amount of effort necessary to learn it. Of course, the Finns are also quite good at English and their language is weirdly unrelated to their neighbors, or to English.

    As far as Taiwan and Korea go- I think I can safely say that Japanese is by far the most popular elective foreign language in both countries. English is of course studied the most, but it is at least effectively mandatory, much like in Japan (if not more-so).

    There is also one big difference in terms of English learning between Japan and Taiwan/Korea, which is that both Taiwan and Korea have both large emigrant populations in English speaking countries, and a very large bi-national elite class, which tends to shuttle back and forth between the home country and an English speaking country for education and work. So, even if the actual level of English teaching in the country itself is no better than Japan, I suspect that the elite class in both Korea and Taiwan has a far level higher of English ability simply because so many of them have been educated in an English speaking country such as the US, Canada or Australia.

  35. ”the Finns are also quite good at English and their language is weirdly unrelated to their neighbors, or to English”

    Finnish English is amazing. However, we don’t need to go to cultural motives to explain that – we can look at simple survival. The Finnish economy was tied up very closely with the Soviet and when that empire fell, the Finnish national unemployment rate went north of TWENTY percent. Reorientation toward Europe and America wasn’t just about TV shows, it was about national survival. Finns picked up on English like Japanese picked up on “Income Doubling” in the 1960s.

  36. I doubt the government was purposefully undermining English education. My vote is for the trifecta–the popularity of grammar translation in the post-war era, an admissions system built on rote memorization, and powerful bureaucratic inertia.

  37. “Reorientation toward Europe and America wasn’t just about TV shows, it was about national survival.”

    True for adults, but if we want to know why a certain set of middle schoolers are more proficient than another, I think TV shows are where it’s at.

  38. I’m going to disagree with the comment that English language skills haven’t helped the Philippines GDP. Without the excellent English language skills that educated Philipinos usually have – they wouldn’t be in demand for a number of businesses such as call centers and out-sourcing of various things ranging from software to businesses’ back office work. Also as well known – workers from the Philippines can be found all over the globe – where their language skills definitely helped with them being able to get the job.

    I have a number of Philipino colleagues working on projects all over the world. By default – in my business (which is technical) – English is the language of communication. There is no way that we can possibly get the number of people with the correct skills and experience for each and every country we work in that is fluent in all the languages that are used. It’s normal for us to work collaboratively across multiple countries and time zones. English is our default language of communication – though in most cases it’s their second or third language. My colleagues’ good English language skills make them very valuable as analysts and architects. For high level work in technical fields – English is invaluable if you need to keep up to date or work internationally.

  39. Re: English and the Philippines. The economy of the Philippines is generally kind of weird, having been a pretty dismal failure in terms of any highly profitable manufacturing industry, but doing extremely well in terms of services. Their education system has been conducted primarily in English since the US colonized them in the early 20th century, but I see no real evidence that it was a huge help until the 1970s. In the immediate postwar period, the Philippines actually had one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and there were even some people who expected it to do better than Japan long-term, but growth plummeted and the economy generally turned to shit after Marcos got reelected and declared himself dictator.

    It was during the Marcos dictatorship that the government first began a program to promote Filipinos to go work overseas, partly because they were in desperate need of foreign currency, and partly as a release valve for the highly educated (and English speaking) middle class that Marcos was scared would form the nucleus of an urban popular movement against him (as opposed to the ongoing communist insurgency, which he used as a boogeyman to legitimize his dictatorship). Since then, the importance of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) to the economy as a whole has only grown, but the export of so many of the country’s best educated people has very likely been detrimental to the development of any actual domestic industry, even as the OFW lifestyle is simultaneously often the best option to provide a good life for a given individual’s family.

    Starting in the late 80s, after the promulgation of a new constitution following the fall of the Marcos regime, English education began to be de-emphasized, and by around 2000 there was actually a significant drop in the English skills of younger graduates. This was also the same period when outsourcing/call center work was exploding, and the attractive economics of such industries led the government to completely reverse their language education policy, and starting in 2003 there has been an almost total return to the English-centric policies of earlier decades (although I believe there is still more of an appreciation for the local vernacular education than there was previously).

    The funny thing about the Philippines is that they have an educational system of a quality befitting a country with a significantly more developed economy, but have had so many institutional problems that they never quite figured out how to parlay that advantage into the rapid development that always seemed to be around the corner.

  40. Sorry, forgot to explain a key point in my above post. The Philippines has a quality education system the produces far too many skilled workers for the domestic labor market to absorb, which continues to contribute to massive emigration (former colonial master USA is still the destination of choice, due to combination of cultural influence and cycle of pre-existing immigrant population) and the aforementioned OFW program. Plenty of people there bemoan the loss of many of the country’s most talented and highly educated people, but at the same time admit the necessity of making that choice.

    One interesting thing is that while in some countries, like parts of Europe, HK, Japan, Taiwan, the image of a worker from the Philippines is that of a fairly menial job such as a domestic helper, factory worker, personal care-taker for elderly, or even prostitute, but in the US the predominant image is that of a skilled worker, engineer, teacher, but particularly medical workers-most often nurses but often doctors as well.

  41. Egads! I’ve just realized that my capsule summary of the economic effects of English language proficiency on the Philippines almost sounds like justification of the original conspiracy theory!

  42. Adamu said: “If you put enough time into a language at a young age, it simply doesnt matter what language it is.”

    I took German in school from kindergarten through sixth grade. I learned a lot and could have a decent conversation in the language. I then forgot all of it by the end of eighth grade, simply because I wasn’t taking it any more and had no need to ever use it. So to say it doesn’t matter is missing an important point: the language has to actually be useful to the student, or else the language skill will naturally atrophy.

    (Odd historical footnote: I had the option to take Japanese in kindergarten, as we had a Japanese exchange teacher in our school, but my parents pushed for German because the only non-native English speaker in our family was my Austrian uncle.)

  43. As English creeps into the far corners of the globe, what happens to the other languages (and thus cultures)? When a country becomes like Holland or Philippines, is there a viable future for those country’s languages or do they fall into the “dying language” category? Perhaps its this concern that occasionally fosters a passive resistence to this Latin of our time.

  44. I don’t think that the major languages in Holland or the Philippines are in any danger of dying out, as the vast majority of oral communication in both countries is still in native languages. However, the minor languages and local dialects are seriously endangered.

  45. The Dutch education system teaches 6 years of English and most become near native speakers in that time. The joke is, the Dutch speak English better than the English. And they rarely meet English people or travel to England either. I’ve often said Japan should just import the English syllabus system from The Netherlands and junk their own. In all other fields of endevour this is what they do but uniquely NOT with their English training.

  46. I’m a bit surprised that no one recognised it was Demosthenes as the one who was supposed to have improved his speech by practicing with a mouth of pebbles.

    With regards to English becoming a dominant language in another country – Indonesia is beginning to have that problem. It’s popular for the upper and middle class to send their children to schools where they are taught in English. So in a way it’s become a class issue as well where the English language skills demonstrate which class someone is from. There’s also the issue that many Indonesians can’t write standard Bahasa Indonesia. (Like many countries there are multiple dialects – and standard is not necessarily the most common). In fact Miss Indonesia barely speaks Indonesian

  47. It’s pretty pathetic when Miss Indonesia can’t speak Indonesia. Shouldn’t that be a baseline requirement?

    “I’ve often said Japan should just import the English syllabus system from The Netherlands and junk their own.”
    That would be an excellent idea. Japan used to be the best country in the world at that sort of adaptation, so it’s still a mystery to me why they haven’t learned anything about mass-scale language education.

  48. I cant help to compare with Hong Kong where the government very obviously have been undermining the English teaching after the hand over. Of course there are more dissimilarities than similarities in this case.

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