An ex-diplomat’s three-step English boot camp for university students


Shunji Yanai, former Japanese ambassador to the United States and current judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, offers some radical measures to help university students bring their English communication skills up to speed.

Writing in the July 21 evening edition of the Nikkei Shimbun, he explains that when he first started teaching at a university after retiring as a diplomat, he was asked to help lead extracurricular study sessions for students.

Though his students could read English fairly well, he soon became painfully aware of their poor conversational English. Typically, he blamed Japan’s education system for emphasizing test preparation over actual communication skills.

Out of a concern for their futures as global citizens, Yanai came up with the following crash course to whip the students into shape:

  1. Memorize and recite US presidents’ political speeches: He made all his students memorize a speech word for word and recite it in front of the group. The variety of sentence structures in each speech helped with conversational skills and composition, while speaking at length trained their mouth muscles to speak in English.
  2. Memorize jazz standards and listen and sing along to the songs at live performances: He took some of his students to jazz bars and pays for their drinks… on the condition that they memorize the lyrics ahead of time. Singing along to the songs with some drinks in them, he claims, helped students start speaking more fluently.
  3. Place a digestive pill in your mouth to help learn how to pronounce R’s differently from L’s: Japanese people grow up without using the English L and R sounds in their everyday lives – the sounds in standard Japanese that are written with a letter “R” in English are actually pronounced with a sound that’s somewhere between the L in “la” and the “D” in “dog.” To fix that problem, Yanai had students practice saying R words with a pill of biofermin digestive medicine in their mouths. The weight of the pill kept their tongues from hitting the roofs of their mouths, which would result in a mistaken L sound.

Now, I seriously doubt Yanai ever used these methods on himself. As a former diplomat he has presumably gone through the foreign ministry’s rigorous language training. As far as I can tell from the diplomats I have met over the years, this training is highly effective – every Japanese diplomat I’ve met has spoken very good, fluent English. If this is because of days spent with pills in their mouths, I would be very surprised.

I am far from an expert in English teaching methods, but I can’t help but question this plan’s effectiveness. Can a strict regimen of memorizing speeches and jazz songs, recitation, and jury-rigged palate correction do what commitment, good guidance, and more traditional practice cannot?

20 thoughts on “An ex-diplomat’s three-step English boot camp for university students”

  1. Never underestimate the power of the singalong. I have a very good accent when I speak Japanese, and I owe it all to the fact that my middle school teacher made my class sing something every day.

    I can’t tell from you article whether or not Mr. Shinai’s thinks these unusual methods are effective on their own, but they seem to me like inventive learning aids rather than a class in and of themselves.

  2. I’m pretty sure memorizing political speeches is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. It’s just rote learning – the kids’ll have no idea what they’re reciting, meaning they’ll get very little out of it. The jazz thing I could kind of see as a positive – but not everyone likes jazz. Better to get the students to learn a song they like and then take them all out to Big Echo for a group performance… There was a study done that showed people’s fluency went up when drinking (affective filter goes down i.e. you don’t care about mistakes) but the benefit falls off the more hammered they get.

    The pill thing? That’s pretty old fashioned sounding. Who knows. Could work. Wouldn’t try it myself – it’s better for phonology (as far as I’m concerned) to raise the students’ consciousness with regards to what they’re doing with their tongue and mouth so they can build up the skill themselves.

    Still I’m just an English teacher not a judge, so what do I know?

  3. The first thing I thought when reading the above is “Has the guy released a book/started a lecture tour on said topic?”

    As for singing jazz, Wada Akiko’s been doing it for decades yet she still has Joojaa on ma maand.

  4. Re: memorizing the political speech, I think this could go either way. If the kids simply memorize without comprehending, then I agree with Jackson: it will be just rote learning. But what if they are given an audio recording of the speech and asked to prepare their own transcription as part of the assignment? In this case, I can’t help but think that they would be forced to consider the meaning of the words and the speech as a whole in the process. At any rate, I found the reverse of this method particularly helpful when learning Japanese (although I used NHK documentaries and news programs instead of speeches).

  5. I am especially doubtful of the third method – why a pill? As an old man he must be taking a lot of pills, so maybe one day he had a pile of tablets in his mouth and noticed how heavy they were on his tongue.

    As for the other two, I am sure that taken by themselves they might be effective to help motivated students, and apparently Yanai was a good motivator. But I feel like Yanai is forcing his personal hobbies onto his students – presidential speeches and jazz smack highly of ojisan sensibilities…

    It reminds me of why fad diets work – whether they tell you to eat bananas or drink powdery milkshakes, they work because they instruct you to severely reduce your calorie intake while you’re on the diet. So of course you’re going to lose weight if you eat less. But if you lose interest and go back to your old ways, all the work you put in will be lost.

  6. I think Adamu’s diet analogy has some truth to it. There are really as many ways to learn/teach a language as there are students, but the bottom line is motivation.

  7. I vaguely recall that some historical figure (Winston Churchill?) overcame a childhood speech impediment by filling his mouth with rocks and screaming from the side of a ship, so I see no reason why that couldn’t be extended to horse pills and Japanese phonetics.

    Anyway, the first two methods worked well for me in learning Japanese. I chose law books and pop songs, but the general effect was the same.

  8. “I chose law books and pop songs, but the general effect was the same.”

    I chose Kurosawa, anime, and Mishima. Mixed with a Kyushu dialect. I guess I sound like a parody.

  9. Wikipedia notes that Churchill did have a speech impediment (a lisp, not stuttering as is widely believed) but gives no details about how he got over it:

    According to this site, he was treated by a “Dr. Semen” who insisted that practice saying stuff like “The Spanish ships I cannot see for they are not in sight” would cure him, and he was apparently right.

  10. Hmmm, I guess at first I was mostly reading manga and history books for children that have furigana on every word. Then easy adult prose like Murakami Haruki short stories. Almost all of the anime I’ve watched was in high school and early college, before I started learning Japanese so I don’t think it’s had much impact on my language acquisition. The hour or two per day of Japanese TV on the international cable channel back home was helpful though. During the year I was studying at home before I came to Japan I would watch the crappy TV shows that have the highest subtitle ratio to try and improve my listening. It didn’t get me very far, but probably had a minor impact. Never been much into the J-pop though, and I’ve never practiced memorization or recitation of anything in my entire life, except for a handful of poetry memorizations required by lit classes over the years.

    I’m still not sure what kind of material would be ideal for Chinese study. Oddly, I find it easier to read academic type Chinese, due to the huge overlap in vocab with academic Japanese, than I do literary style, even in childrens literature. I did read some Chinese editions of manga while I was studying in Taiwan, but since it’s all translated from Japanese I had a nagging sensation I’d be better off reading something originally written in Chinese… Incidentally, the Taiwanese tradition (I think also practiced in China?) of subtitling EVERY program, regardless of the voice language track, is VERY helpful. You can turn on the TV there and watch almost any Mandarin program (except for some live stuff) with accurate transcription running across the bottom, and you can also see how the translate the dialogue from English or other foreign language shows (little to no dubbing, except kids stuff).

  11. I’ve since realized what is probably the very best thing for studying Japanese up to advanced intermediate – the sign language news on NHK education: subtitles with furigana, super clear enunciation, everything.

  12. To this day I love the Weekly Kids News on NHK Education. It’s got all those benefits for JSL students, PLUS it’s the clearest and sometimes most honest news cast out there. When they strip away all the jargon from local tax incentive programs and pension scandals it makes so much more sense.

  13. >>I vaguely recall that some historical figure (Winston Churchill?) overcame a childhood speech impediment by filling his mouth with rocks and screaming from the side of a ship, so I see no reason why that couldn’t be extended to horse pills and Japanese phonetics.

    Wasn’t it Cicero who practised with a stone in his mouth?

  14. I had a tutor a few years back that had me read aloud entire chapters of a book of my choosing (Isaka Kotaro’s “Coin Locker”) to help with speech. He told me how to pronounce the words I didn’t know, and I had to make a list of all words I didn’t know the meaning of to look up and/or ask him about. All in all I don’t know how much it helped speech, but it certainly helped my reading fluency and comprehension. I also memorized a few songs to add to my karaoke repertoire.

    I agree with whoever it was that said the speech memorizing/recital would only be good if they knew what it was saying, but I wouldn’t call it the absolute worst idea I’ve ever heard. Totally agree that there has to be a better method than pills in the mouth.

  15. All of this talk of memorization and recitation (as in reading aloud) reminds me that the system of literacy education used in Japan prior to the institution of modern schools. In Terakoya (寺子屋), students basically started out learning to read by being made to read the same passages out loud over and over, with the teacher or an older student first teaching them the reading of each new word as they came along, and then correcting every mistake, until the student could go through the whole text without errors. Then they would move on to the next one.

    This is actually an example of the entire system of Japanese traditional education, still used in traditional arts and crafts, or martial arts, in which the above teaching method is used, and students progress according to their own pace and not according to timetables or schedules.

  16. Rapid learners have figured out a knack of some sort, but I do not believe that all adults have the ability to get the knack of language. My reason for this is just that separate from our desires to acquire foreign language, abilities to perceive and compute language differ from person to person, and much of that difference may be apparent even as babies.

    I did find it interesting that Yanai recommends learning jazz standards (I assume because the lyrics make sense, a qualification equally given to most Billy Joel/Carpenters/Carol King as well) but also listening or singing along at *live performances.*

    Why is this interesting? According to a recent article I read, experiments with infants show that the computations involved in language learning are “gated” by social processes.

    What that means is that in these foreign-language learning experiments, some sort of social interaction strongly influences infants’ “statistical learning”. (This term in essence refers to a child’s ability to synthesize language from the distribution of the syllables and phrases it hears in his/her environment.) Now its often written that infants have lots of plasticity in their abilities to pick up languages. In the experiments I’m referring to (done at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, UWashington) infants exposed to a foreign language at 9 months learned rapidly, but only when experiencing the new language during social interchanges with other humans.

    “American infants exposed in the laboratory to Mandarin Chinese rapidly learned phonemes and words from the foreign language, but only if exposed to the new language by a live human being during naturalistic play. Infants exposed to the same auditory input at the same age and for the same duration via television or audiotape showed no learning. Why infants learned better from people and what components of social interactivity support language learning are currently
    being investigated.”

    Those of you, even as adults, who chose some sort of immersion with human beings to learn your Japanese may have had an edge even over the most prodigious manga/TV learners.

    As the father of an 8 month old infant, I will admit that I am putting on less CDs of piano music, and just sitting down at the keys myself. The evidence is piling up that the little can tell very well whether its live or Memorex…

  17. I read the same article, and it’s pretty fascinating.

    There was also a TED lecture published fairly recently where a neurologist was sharing some research findings on various lab animals, which would become particularly attuned to whatever patterns of sound were present around them during their early brain development phase, even if those sounds were totally random or inorganic in nature. It helps explain how dogs and horses can be taught to understand human language, often to a bewildering extent.

    On another related note: When I was in middle school, our neighbors had two small dogs and a duck. The duck was acquired as a duckling for their grandchildren at Easter one year, but they kept the duckling around and it grew into a big white Aflac duck. Because it had grown up around little dogs (and far away from other ducks), it acted like a little dog, jumping up and down and quacking whenever someone walked close to the backyard. I think that was my first up-close-and-personal experience with bizarro neural programming.

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