I was enjoying a fine meal at a vegan café when the conversation between us and the owners turned to English learning. Now, this happens pretty often when you’re an English teacher (or just look like one) as people are reminded by your presence that they nominally took at least 6 years of English at school and have little to show for it. In this case though, the owners of the café were as international a couple as you can have when both members are Japanese, and I didn’t get the sense that they were looking for our help in fueling a navel-gazing session on why Japanese can’t learn English. Still, one half of the couple was in search of learning materials and brought out this book she had bought, wondering what we would think.
She seemed to realize that this wasn’t the best use of her money, and when I expressed surprise at the unusual angle the authors were taking for their already-suspicious volume, she said I could just take it. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting a serious academic work, as it’s rarely a sign of quality when the title of a textbook contains exclamation points and the color scheme would, in the wild, indicate the presence of deadly venom. Still, I was intrigued that a mass market book could so prominently feature the concept of “World Standard English”, as this author (Tadashi Yasuda, CEO of something called “Pan-nations Consulting Group”, and self-described “Leder of communication”) calls the concept better known as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), essentially a set of standards aimed at facilitating English communication between fellow non-native speakers (NNSs).
The style presaged by the cover is continued inside with still-greater intensity.
On one page I counted 18 exclamation points to 5 periods. To be fair, this doesn’t reflect exclamation points at the ends of 18 sentences, as some sentences ended with multiple exclamation points – another bellweather of staid and steady insights to come. The author is also fond of the dots above letters that indicate emphasis in Japanese, at some points using these above every letter in a sentence. The style in general seems to be of a BBS user from an era before emojis barely containing his impatience while explaining a conspiracy theory.
I was wondering how best to organize this review, and after browsing the contents I came to the conclusion that because the book is written for a mass audience and therefore includes reference to a variety of widely-held beliefs and tropes on language and language learning, I would separate my points of criticsm into clichés and non-clichés. This way I can explore the familiar cultural ground on which this book positions itself before seeing what, if anything, is novel about it besides the angle it uses to catch book-buyers’ (and my) attention.
Why am I reviewing this?!
I should also say before launching into more in-depth content that I know nobody in the respectable ELT world is asking for reviews of the types of language learning books that seem to occupy the same social space as gluten-free brownie recipes and chicken soup-based collections of inspirational stories (the publisher seems to specialize in this genre). However, I think it is important for people whose ideas of language learning involve lots of words like “emergent”, “lemma” and “socio-culturally situated” to remember that most language learners know none of those concepts or really anything about SLA and are flying blind when it comes to choosing materials. As such, they are likely to choose books or methods that seem compatible with preconceived or ambient notions of language learning and are purchased for reasons related more to marketing than to rigor or a history of success. For the same reason I devoted a lot of my time in Japan post-MA to studying eikaiwa, the things that most people actually use to study as opposed to what we think they ought to use deserve the attention of researchers as well. To quote myself, if you want to study nutrition you have to know what people are actually eating.
The book includes references to several of Nihonjinron’s (the study of the unique qualities of the Japanese people) mutant children as part of its framing of the problems of Japanese people with English captured in the repeatedly boldfaced and dot-highlighted claim that 今までの学習法は、日本人に合っていなかった ima made no gakushuuhou wa, nihonjin ni atteinakatta “The English learning methods [practiced] till now have not been suited to the Japanese”, found in several places throughout the book, before the author’s method which he claims is based on Indian English teaching but modified by the author for Japanese learners. The assumption that Japanese are all of an internally consistent but globally unique mindset animates several claims justifying the book’s supposedly new approach to English learning.
As refutation for the claim that Japanese people are uniquely linguistically challenged and incapable of learning English in the first place, the book repeats the Nihonjinron myth that Japanese is one of the hardest languages in the world. As far as I know there are no scales of linguistic difficulty that purport to be objective, nor would there be any reason to expect any, but it is true that Japanese places high on estimated numbers of hours to be proficient for English-speaking learners, alongside Mandarin and Arabic. Obviously, if a language were objectively hard for human beings regardless of whether they were born into a society that speaks it, we should expect there to be no native speakers for that language at all.
The book goes on to claim that the languages of Europe resemble each other to the same extent as dialects in Japanese, using the example of “No/Nein/Non” to illustrate that Europeans start learning English from a point already within the distance of a few short jumps. At one point (p. 37) the author even refers to 欧米人 oubeijin “Europeans and Americans” as “natives”, a careless but instructive error. Never mind that dialects exist within European languages as well, the example simply serves to buttress readers’ assumption that Japanese is a unique and uniquely deep language whose speakers therefore need an approach as unique as they are to learn foreign languages. Rather than look to the countries of Europe to see what has worked for them (in addition to some advantages in starting point), the author steers his readers to the familiar notion that only Japanese teachers understand the Japanese mind enough to explain English to other Japanese. The claim that native speakers (NSs) cannot explain English to Japanese learners echoes widespread dichotomized teaching duties of Japanese and NS teachers, in which NS teachers are generally not tasked with explicit teaching, outlined at this eikaiwa website.
Brains make an appearance as well, as they often do in essentializing nationalist literature as a way of tying observed cultural differences to supposedly permanent differences in ethnic stock. This book, like former eikaiwa giant NOVA, references the popular claim that Japanese have special brains which demand particular learning methods, just as iPhones demand iOS and not Android software.
The assumption that Japanese need other holders of Japanese brains to explain English to them rests on the further, more strictly pedagogical, assumption that explicit explanation followed by practice is the one route to foreign language mastery. This is known as a skill-based theory of second language acquisition (SLA). The author holds that 聞き流し kikinagashi “passive listening” only works for Europeans whose languages are close enough to English to allow it to lead to language acquisition. That passive listening is widely and successfully practiced in Europe is implied but not stated. In my communications with language teachers in Europe I have never heard it discussed.
The author further assumes that the shape that this explicit instruction must take is grammatical explanation (in the form of tips given by a knowledgeable Japanese instructor) and translation, followed by practice in translating to the point where the speed of translation approximates the speed of natural language use. That is, understanding of English as English (i.e., acquisition) is implied to be impossible. “Translation” is used synonymously with “understanding” in many places in the book, and characters illustrated to be smilingly “understanding” English are depicted as having successfully translated their counterpart’s English in their heads.
The book’s method of translation is claimed to be different from the 直訳 chokuyaku “direct translation” used in public education, although the author’s method is still ultimately one of translation and he still holds direct translation to be synonymous with complete understanding. The difference is simply in that the author proposes 3 sentence patterns as rules of thumb for broad understanding to be practiced as part of building basic, “world standard” English skill. The author’s own explanations of the sentence patterns, however, consist of translations. The author also proposes a 3-step formula for turning Japanese into Japanese-English (日英語) and finally into English, to be practiced 「毎日20分、たった３ヶ月でぐんぐん上達」”20 minutes a day, steady improvement in only 3 months” (pg. 18). His method can be summarized as “fast, rough translation through practice”.
Last, and not directly related to teaching methods but very cliché indeed, the characters drawn throughout the book use the stereotypical comic shorthand where ethnic characteristics are used to illustrate various traits and abilities. Indian characters, ostensibly figures of respect in this book, are drawn with dark skin and turbans (evidently the last update of Indian stereotypes in Japan was during the 8-bit era), and English NSs have pointy noses speak only English or katakana, a kind of eye dialect for unnatural Japanese. The overarching message of the book may be that the era of Anglocentrism is over, but the illustrations and some of the content of the book depict a world in which nationalist caricatures are still the currency of international discourse.
Many of the novel aspects of this book have to do with doing away with the central place of NSs in ELT. In this respect it is good to see this book in wide circulation, although some of the claims the author makes to support the dethroning of the NS are wrong or based on other unsupported assumptions, and what he recommends in place of the NS-centric model of ELT is also problematic.
The raising of India as a model for Japan as a successful NNS country seems new. Of course, it is well-known in Japan that many other NNS countries do better with English than Japan does, but the solution to that conundrum has generally been special pleading (Japan is unique and needs its own methods to succeed ) or doubling down on NS teachers as in the JET Program. The author attributes India’s comparitive success with English not to its unique relationship to the UK as a former colony but to its English teaching methods and the communication strategies of its people, which the author describes as both part of インド式英語学習法 indoshiki eigo gakushuuhou “Indian-style English learning methods”. These are boiled down to three dicta: 1) Don’t worry about pronunciation, 2) Customize your output until it works, and 3) Don’t learn vocabulary you won’t use. This is never cited from anywhere and is more a set of principles than a “learning method” per se, and has little to do with the more specific guidelines the author offers later, but still is notable for who it ostensibly seeks to emulate.
A supporting claim for the effectiveness of this new “Indian” style of language learning, that may count as revolutionary in some circles but is quite normal in others, is that Japanese shouldn’t learn from NSs. This isn’t new as far as the author recommends Japanese teachers, as mentioned above, but the reasons for that recommendation seem novel in public discourse on English in Japan. The author places an emphasis on English is a tool of communication mostly for fellow non-NSs that (he would probably be shocked to hear) is in line with current thinking among trained ELT professionals but sadly unknown among the general public. Many CELTA, Delta, MA and PhD holders would like to see the focus taken off of NS status and placed instead on teaching credentials and experience. The author of this book seems to assume, as is common in Japan, that NS teachers are never qualified in any way besides their NS status.
As part of his denunciation of NS standards he also asserts that 21世紀の英語(世界標準の英語) nijuuisseiki no eigo (sekai hyoujun no eigo) “21st-century English (world standard English)” has nothing at all to do with pronunciation, dealing head-on with well-known insecurities in Japan on that topic. In doing so he assumes that NSs all speak the same way (echoing his ignorance of European language diversity mentioned above) and that the lack of a NS standard means that all pronunciation models are equally valid. There exist provisional sets of guidelines for ELF pronunciation, but the author simply asserts that Japanese pronunciation is good enough for Japanese learners, asserting that context should make clear whether one means, for example, “rice” or “lice”. As part of a point on how English is no longer the language just of England or the US, but world language, this is probably still a positive step, and many language students could use a little advice in not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. However, the author is so dedicated to attacking his strawman of NS-centric ELT that he makes unsupportably broad claims about NS teachers’ preferred methods and recommends simplistic, equally unsupported replacements. That said, if readers of this book come away only with the message that English is not simply a matter of attempting and failing to emulate NSs, but being able to communicate with millions of people for whom English is also a foreign language, that is a positive thing. It is welcome to see someone flying the flag for ELF in public in Japan, even if they do get a little drool on it.
As for vocabulary and grammar, the broad point is that learners should learn to say as much as possible with few words and little grammar, focusing on a few items that people worldwide can be expected to understand instead of a wide swath of items supposedly demanded by NSs. The idea that Japanese don’t need to go far past the language items they learned in junior high school to communicate is not new, although the idea that one should focus on simple language items because only these are in the domain of “world standard English” may be. As we will see, the items the author chooses to focus on are rather random and spring from Japanese rather than any kind of world standards.
Grammar is to be pared down to 3 basic sentence types, coinciding with 第2文型 daiichi bunkei “sentence form 2” (S V C), 第4文型 daiyon bunkei “sentence form 4” (S V O O), and 第5文型 daigo bunkei “sentence form 5” (S V O C) that most high school students learn in their first year. These are demonstrated using the verbs “sound”, “find”, and “give”, the author’s choices for the best verbs to illustrate his point that “verbs determine the structure of a sentence”. The choice of “find” to illustrate S V O C is particularly puzzling, as other usages of “find” are more common, and other verbs (e.g. “consider us friends”) are more canonical and common examples of verbs that take objects and complements. Why the author believes that these 3 sentence forms, found in all high school English textbooks in Japan, would be the first priority for English students is left unsaid aside from references to the author’s “analysis” of Japanese learners’ needs and common mistakes. In fact, the author makes some highly implausible sentences to illustrate just how useful these verbs and the sentence patterns they exemplify are, for instance “I find English the tool of communication” (pg. 12).
The author rightly points out the test scores, including TOEIC, are poor predictors of speaking ability. He attributes this to tests’ overemphasis on ネイティブが使う難しい単語、表現、イディオムなど neitibu ga tsukau muzukashii tango, hyougen, idiomu nado “difficult vocabulary, expressions, idioms etc. which NSs use”, which would surprise many critics of TOEIC from the ELT world in Japan. Emphasizing commonly used words over sheer numbers of words memorized is a tactic with merit. However, what the author chooses to replace these supposedly extraneous language items with is a set of 3 sentence types, one with a particularly strange choice of verb, with no justification in terms of prevalence or productivity. It’s as if the author saw the dizzying array of sugary sodas for sale in modern supermarkets and decided to replace them with only royal jelly, guarana, and merlot. The author’s own example sentences throughout the book also seem to ignore his advice, not sticking at all to the 3 patterns he recommends, for instance “Can you come to the next meeting” (pg. 45), which uses none of the author’s recommended V C, V O O or V O C patterns.
The book seems to favor top-down processing, grasping the basic message as opposed to every detail at first listen. This is a welcome change from the word-for-word analysis found in most commonly used English textbooks in Japan. However, it gives as a method for coming to this ability the same 文のカタチ bun no katachi “sentence structures”, coupled with rules of translation, as people will already have heard in high school – basically, building bottom-up skills to facilitate top-down understanding. As I have already mentioned, the author appears not to believe that untranslated understanding of English as a NNS is even possible. Hence his recommended learning methods, even when the goal is context-sensitive broad understanding, are necessarily focused on formal grammar and translation techniques, a skill-based method like the ones students are already likely to have been exposed to in mandatory education.
In one sense, I can’t recommend this book at all, and in another, I hope every English learner in Japan reads it. The racist-nationalist subtext, pigeonholing of teachers by linguistic background, and haphazard pedagogical recommendations are all strikes against it. In a book that purports to be a guide for learning English, that would seem to be enough. However, books like this aren’t generally treasured tomes revisited time and time again in one’s lifetime – generally, I think learners buy a book like this as a symbolic investment in a version of their ideal selves, glance at it once or twice, and then toss it in the recycling next spring cleaning (or donate it to a curious English teacher visiting their café). If students glean one or two of the big points from the introduction – that learning English is not the same as learning to copy NSs, that many non-European countries have had success in realizing a high standard in English while maintaining their national language(s), or that willingness to communicate is often more important than grammatical correctness, vocabulary size, or native-like pronunciation; then this book will have done some good. I recommend everyone read this book for exactly 10 minutes and then bury it.