The former President of Microsoft Japan, Makoto Naruke, wrote a best seller entitled “90% of Japanese don’t need to speak English” provocatively asserting that learning English was a waste of time and money, no graduate from an international school has succeeded in business, business English conversation is easy and if you’re an idiot, being able to speak English isn’t going to help.
There’s obvious truth in the last point, and Tejun Shin, formerly of Morgan Stanley, now running his own fund and a microfinance not-for-profit Living in Peace doesn’t deny that 90% of Japanese don’t need English in their jobs, but points out in the Nikkei Online(Japanese) that it’s still a big problem that the 10% of Japanese who do need English for their work are pretty awful at English too.
He demolishes various assumptions made that Japanese have nothing to worry about, showing that even amongst 19 Asian countries Japan comes second from bottom after Cambodia on English ability scores and that amongst 15 OECD countries where English is not the native language, Japan is bottom in English ability. Even something that I often assert, that Japanese are better at reading than speaking or writing English, turns out to be wrong.
He gives a couple of excellent reasons that I had not articulated myself for why poor English ability is an issue for Japanese employees.
Firstly, that it will lead to the Galapagosisation of the mind (Galapagos syndrome is often used to describe products which are developed purely for the Japanese market, so like a Galapagos turtle, cannot survive outside that particular environnment). Without input of “world knowledge” – from the internet or TED talks etc – which is inevitably in English, thoughts become entirely inward looking and idea creation incestuous.
Secondly, for leaders in particular, English ability is a must, not only so that they can form alliances with overseas companies to develop business, but also – and this was the real aha moment for me – so that English speaking talent feels comfortable working for them. This is so true – if you are a high flier, you wouldn’t want to work in a company where you have little chance of getting your views heard by the top executives.
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