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Learning English in Japan: the crux of perfection

thomas

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14 Mar 2002
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Laura Kriska writes that Japan's obsession and frustration with (perfect) English regularly results in missed opportunities:


Having collaborated with numerous Japanese professionals across global corporations for over three decades, our observer has noticed a recurring phenomenon. Despite years of language study, many Japanese individuals experience intense discomfort when conversing in English, regardless of their proficiency level. This discomfort often stems from an internal belief that they should only speak up if their English is flawless, leading them to shy away from simple greetings and casual exchanges. Consequently, both domestically and internationally, these professionals frequently opt to converse in Japanese during business interactions that could be enriched by including English speakers. They avoid participating in English conversations and prefer dining exclusively with fellow Japanese speakers.

Regrettably, this behaviour can result in missed opportunities for these professionals to deepen their understanding of global markets. They inadvertently limit their exposure to diverse perspectives and valuable insights by hesitating to engage in English dialogue. Encouraging more inclusive language practices could significantly enhance their professional growth and cross-cultural understanding.

At one Japanese company in New York, the general manager was known for primarily speaking his own language in the office. His English-speaking subordinate felt so unwelcome that she did not find an opportunity to relay employee concerns to him until two colleagues suddenly quit, creating a manpower issue that cost thousands of dollars and several months to fix. At another U.S. East Coast office, the president of a Japanese group's North American subsidiary skulked around avoiding local staff, mainly meeting with other Japanese speakers. English-speaking staff were left without a clear understanding of the unit's strategic direction. Rather than focusing their time and effort on promoting his goals, they wasted energy guessing what he might need or want, throwing darts at a board they could not see.


Rather than capitalizing on the English skills that most Japanese professionals have painstakingly acquired over the years, many find themselves immobilized by shame or burdened by an irrational pursuit of perfection. While younger professionals may exhibit less reluctance to use English, they still struggle to engage frequently enough to create a significant impact. In some instances, confident junior staff members are dissuaded from regular English usage due to longstanding norms subtly enforced by cautious senior colleagues. The consequence? Avoidable costs amounting to millions of dollars. Japan's commitment to perfection has propelled it to excel in producing a wide range of goods, from automobiles to animated movies. However, this same pursuit of perfection in pronunciation has led Japan to rank 87th out of 111 non-English speaking countries in English proficiency, as assessed by Swiss company EF Education First—placing it between Malawi and Afghanistan.


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I can relate to this. Although since I often bridge the gap between the Japanese speakers and English speakers I could be made redundant if the JP staff were fully bilingual. 😄
 
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