Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Foreign Languages in Japan

Two things apparently in contradiction caught my attention since I arrived in Japan. First, Japanese people intensively want to learn English. Second, Japanese people don’t really speak English. An easy example is shown on the Kansai Gaidai campus. How often do Japanese people ask to foreigners to practice with them their English speaking? Taking into account that most of them are learning English as their major in KGU, it is very surprising to notice that some of them are indeed really good at it, but for many others it seems difficult. Indeed, many Japanese people told me that in general, people in Japan are really poor at speaking English even though they can read and write it. Perhaps related with the educational system in Japan or other cultural aspects, for sure English is a big issue in Japan.
As you all have probably noticed, English is everywhere in Japan. We can see a lot of adds for English lessons, English teaching, English tests (TOEFL, TOEIC), English conversation workshop, etc.  And of course, we can see an important English presence in the Japanese vocabulary. But, despite a growing bilingualism in English, for the most part Japan remains a monolingual nation.
Apart from English, the Italian and French languages and cultures seem to have a significant influence on Japanese culture. Although I presume they are much less important than English, they are still present – most of the time with mistakes in the writing! - in many restaurants, boutiques, shops, on cosmetic products, foods and in the language, translated into the Katakana writing. This can lead to the following question: Does the use of foreign languages, as English, French or Italian, imply an interest for Japanese people of being involved with something fashionable, new or prestigious? The use of these foreign languages in media, magazines, music, advertisements, etc. may be seen as a way to create an image appealing and valuable for Japanese people. Some of them even say that their language lacks of something that English or other languages can fill. It would be interesting to know how Japanese people perceive their language in relation to foreign languages.

Italian Caffè

Italian restaurant


French Boutique with mistakes on the sign

French Boutique


  1. More research would have benefited this post as English education is very important, controversial and timely. I actually think there is too much English here and wonder why it is needed so much. I would question Japan as monolingual as well. Consider all of the dialects as well as Korean, Okinawan, Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese Sign Language.

  2. I question too this need for English. This is in part why I wanted to talk about other foreign languages such as Italian and French (considering the fact that french is my mother tongue). When I used the term "monolingual" I didn't want to imply that there was just one language in Japan, but rather that there is one main/national language compared to other countries. And this is something I consider as being great since in other societies, native languages get to be lost and dominated by foreign languages.

    Thanks for the comments.