Autonomous English Users
at Kyoto University
The interviewees' affiliation information, such as school year, department, and job title, was provided at the time of the interview.
Faculty of Integrated Human Studies (Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies)
Yuuki Kitagawa (Graduate Student) [Transcript]
Faculty of Letters (Graduate School of Letters)
Faculty of Education (Graduate School of Education)
Sachi Ando (Junior Associate Professor) [Transcript]
Faculty of Law (Graduate School of Law)
Please wait for a while.
Faculty of Economics (Graduate School of Economics)
Takafumi Kurosawa (Professor) [Transcript]
Faculty of Science (Graduate School of Science)
Faculty of Medicine (Graduate School of Medicine)
Please wait for a while.
Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences (Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences)
Haruka Furuta (Graduate Student) [Transcript]
Faculty of Engineering (Graduate School of Engineering)
Nao Yoneda (Graduate Student) [Transcript] Miwa Tobita (Graduate Student) [Transcript]
Faculty of Agriculture (Graduate School of Agriculture)
A.K. (Graduate Student) [Transcript]
Ms. Nao Yoneda, Graduate School of Engineering, third year of the doctoral program (Conducted in Japanese on Feb. 15, 2022; About 4,100 words in translation)
Graduate Student (Doctoral Program),
Graduate School of Engineering
“Take advantage of your freedom and take on new challenges.”
The interview in Japanese was conducted via Zoom on Feb. 15, 2022.
The interviewer was Yanase from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
DELE: Ms. Nao Yoneda is a 3rd-year student in the doctoral program at the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering in the Graduate School of Engineering. She recently finished the defense of her doctoral dissertation and is preparing to begin a new career. Thank you very much for taking the time. You have prepared a chronological summary of your English learning and use.
|Time||Event||How I felt|
|The 4th grade in elementary school
(10 years old)
|Started learning English at a private academy; listening to CDs and reading English aloud.||Thought that I had to remember the months names, because it says “January” and “February,” not using numerical notations like “First month” and “Second month” as in Japanese.|
|The 5th grade
(11 years old)
|Participated in an English recitation presentation.||Encountered the slogan, “Don't be afraid of making mistakes. Let's communicate in English.”|
|The 2nd grade in junior high school
(14 years old)
|Experienced a homestay in Australia for about 10 days.||Was instructed to ask again and never to say yes without understanding the message.|
|The 3rd grade
(15 years old)
|First English conversation with a non-native English speaker.||Conversed with a Korean professional performer; realized that English was a common language of the world.|
|The 2nd grade in senior high school
(17 years old)
|A NASA program for about a week.||Visited space-related facilities on the U.S. East Coast, as well as MIT and Harvard University.|
|Participated in an English discussion competition at the invitation of an English teacher.||Gained confidence by winning the final match although the topic, death penalty, was not easy. Realized that my listening skills were inadequate.|
|The 3rd grade
(18 years old)
|University entrance examination.||Struggled with translations from English to Japanese in the Kyoto University examination; did not see much relevance in translation in general.|
|The 1st-3rd grades in the undergraduate program
(19-21 years old)
|Attended English courses, including summer intensive courses.||Attended elective English courses that the Faculty of Engineering offered, although they were not counted as the courses required for graduation.|
|Gained more interest in studying abroad.||Wanted to learn academic subjects in English, rather than learning English itself.|
|Assigned to a laboratory (from the 4th grade in the undergraduate program)|
|The 1st semester in the 4th grade in the undergraduate program
(22 years old)
|Participated in a reading group to read a textbook in English.||Realized the significance of English, picking up technical knowledge in the language.|
|The 2nd semester||Read an academic paper in English for the first time.||Unable to comprehend even the abstract.|
|Made an oral presentation at an international conference in China.||Made a presentation with confidence, thanks to the courses on presentation taken earlier.|
|The 1st year in the master’s program
(23 years old)
|Attended lectures on paper writing and presentation in English.||Attended elective English courses, although they were not necessary for obtaining the master’s degree.|
|Submitted an English paper.||Submitted a paper to the Proceedings for an international conference in Japan; realized the significance of writing.|
|The 2nd year
(24 years old)
|Attended English courses (QUEST) and summer intensive presentation courses at the Graduate School of Engineering.||Took the courses as I began planning to advance to the doctoral program.|
|Made a poster presentation at an international conference in the U.S.||Spoke and interacted with researchers from around the world.|
|Doctoral program: Started collaborative research with Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in the U.S.|
|October in the 1st year of the doctoral program
(25 years old)
|Attended an international conference in the U.S.||Expanded network in English by participating in the Women in Plasma Physics Luncheon and eating out with non-Japanese researchers; conversed about academic and non-academic matters. Talked with an Indian researcher who I met again at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory later; enjoyed conversation for a month on the way to the laboratory and other occasions.|
|January in the 1st year||Stayed at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for a month.||Gained more confidence on staying in an English-speaking research environment by conducting experiments and dealing with everyday issues almost independently.|
|The Corona pandemic|
|The 2nd-3rd year in the doctoral program
(26-27 years old)
|Discussions with co-researchers on Zoom.||Felt an improvement in my speaking abilities, with more opportunities to speak in English.|
|Presentations at domestic and international conferences.||Made presentation materials in English for collaborative research.|
|Wrote a doctoral dissertation in English.||The most extensive English text I ever produced. The linguistic challenge of writing in English was smaller than the academic challenge of writing a dissertation convincingly.|
My mother has given me intellectual guidance since I was a small child.
DELE: You started learning English at a private academy when you were a 4th grader in elementary school. When you first knew the word “January,” you thought you had to remember that word for conversation; you realized a direct translation from the Japanese expression, i.e., the “first month,” may not make sense immediately in English. Did you regard English as a tool for communication from the beginning?
Yoneda: Yes. My mother meant a lot to me in this regard. When I started learning English, I was quite aware that a foreign language is for communicating with people who did not speak Japanese. I thought numerical expressions like the “first month” or “second month” would not be perfect counterparts of “January” and “February.”
DELE: Did your mother use English regularly?
Yoneda: She did not have a job that required English. She did not receive frequent visits from English-speaking friends either. Nevertheless, she enjoyed reading “Harry Potter” in the original for pleasure, for example.
DELE: You experienced a homestay in the 2nd grade of junior high school and enjoyed a conversation in English with a Korean professional musician in the 3rd grade. You participated in a NASA program in the 2nd grade of senior high school. Did you seek these opportunities yourself or did your mother encourage you to participate?
Yoneda: My mother most likely informed me about the homestay in Australia. As for the NASA program, my school invited voluntary participants. The turnout was high, so I was not selected in my first year and had to wait for a second chance in the following year.
DELE: What was it like talking with a professional Korean music performer?
Yoneda: I played a traditional Korean percussion instrument in a club activity. When a group of professional musicians travelled to Japan from Korea for concerts, they held seminars for amateur and professional musicians. Since they gave most of the lessons in Korean, I did not understand what was being said for the most part. However, my instructor happened to be an English speaker. Since I understood English, the two of us could enjoy a small conversation.
I hardly thought I was proficient in English.
DELE: How was your schoolwork?
Yoneda: I just did the assignments as everybody else. I do not think my school had any special lessons.
DELE: You participated in an English discussion contest in senior high school.
Yoneda: I participated in the regional qualifying round in Hyogo Prefecture. Several students, including myself, were encouraged to participate by a new teacher who arrived at my school that year. Four of us gathered, prepared a lot, and joined the event.
DELE: You won the last round.
Yoneda: The final game was a type of memorial match between losing teams. The high schools that had beaten us were regular contenders or teams that had returnees from English-speaking countries. I could not understand their English in entirety. Nor did I know how to defend my argument.
DELE: At that time, you felt your English was not good enough.
Yoneda: That is correct. Maybe I still feel the same way. I do not really recall myself thinking that I was proficient in English. I would always say that I was good at math and science.
I found highly motivated students in the classes that the Faculty of Engineering offered.
DELE: At the university, you took elective English courses, including summer intensive courses. They were not part of the graduation requirements.
Yoneda: I participated in a class (“English for Science and Technology” 科学技術英語演習) in the Faculty of Engineering. The class offered English-speaking opportunities. Unfortunately, my department did not recognize a graduation credit from that course.
However, my department offered another English course, “English for Engineering Science” （物理工学英語）. Out of the 120 students in the department, I was one of about 15 who took part. I assumed I was different from the majority of students at the time.
In the mandatory standard courses for all faculties, students participated out of a sense of obligation. Not all students were eager to practice English. Just like in high school classes, some students were not excited about English conversations among Japanese students; they also thought that they would never use English in real life.
However, in the elective classes that the Faculty of Engineering offered, all students were motivated because they came out of their decisions. I met inspiring people there.
DELE: As an undergraduate student, you wanted to learn something through English, not English for its own sake.
Yoneda: My mother inspired me when she suggested that going abroad could be more than learning a language. I began to feel that I could learn overseas what I could not learn if I stayed in Japan with no particular purpose.
I had a hard time because I did not know English in my specialized field.
DELE: Once assigned to the lab, you realized that reading proficiency was critical.
Yoneda: In retrospect, my challenge was more from my lack of technical vocabulary and background knowledge than English itself. I still remember my surprise at not even understanding the abstract when I read an academic paper for the first time in English.
For example, the word “flux” conventionally means “magnetic flux” in my expertise. I did not know about that and was lost in the many meanings that the dictionary suggested. It took me a few days to conclude that it meant “magnetic flux.”
Another example is “field.” It usually stands for “electric field” in my expertise, but no dictionary contains that particular information. I had some trouble because of the lack of background knowledge.
DELE: Technical knowledge from Japanese textbooks did not help you with conventional English usage.
Yoneda: My knowledge was not sufficient in Japanese in the first place. Besides, the Japanese language does not abbreviate technical terms like the instances I mentioned. Even if I had more Japanese knowledge, I would have had difficulty reading English papers.
Japanese and English are different, each with its own patterns of thinking and feeling.
DELE: Did you have problems with English syntax or the amount of reading assignments?
Yoneda: I became more conscious of grammar as I read more papers out of necessity. In conversation, one does not need perfect grammar. One should focus more on speaking without delays than producing grammatically flawless sentences. I, for one, focused more on fluency than grammatical accuracy when I learned English. Nevertheless, I began to pay attention to modifying relationships and the overall structures of sentences as I read more academic literature.
DELE: You did not like translation questions in the university entrance examination.
Yoneda: I still do not like translation very much. Before I wrote a paper for the first time, my supervisor suggested that I write a Japanese draft; he said he could translate it into English. Yet, I never wanted translations, and nor do I now. A Japanese draft is pointless when only an English text is needed, unless the documents must be bilingual, of course.
DELE: Some humanities researchers first write in Japanese for more accurate thoughts and then translate it into English. However, you feel that the two languages are very different because each has its distinct patterns of thinking and feeling.
Yoneda: That is right. My mother probably influenced me on this, too. I loved “Winnie the Pooh” when I was little. My mother asked me if I wanted to read in English and bought me a copy.
When I was reading, I thought I should just go with the flow instead of looking up word after word in a dictionary. My mother advised me to imagine the meaning when I did not understand a word or two. In reflection, her advice was probably meant to be a general one, applicable to conversation skills.
I valued learning English by ear.
DELE: How old were you when you read “Winnie the Pooh?”
Yoneda: I was probably a 5th grader. The book was a learner’s version with simplified grammar and lexicon for children, not the original edition.
DELE: Did your mother read it aloud to you, looking at the book simultaneously?
Yoneda: No, I enjoyed the book as an extension of my general reading in Japanese. At the time, I was really into the story of “Nanso Satomi Hakkenden,” a classic entertainment novel in Japan. “Winnie the Pooh” was similar to that book. It only happened to be written in English. I simply read one or the other. I do not recall reading “Winnie the Pooh” aloud.
DELE: A 5th grader could read an English book, even if it was a children's book.
Yoneda: The book contained an English CD, and I listened to the audio.
DELE: The relationship between pronunciation and spelling in English is not always straightforward. Did you learn word pronunciations by ear from the CD?
Yoneda: Yes. I continued to learn vocabulary both by the eye and the ear. For weekly vocabulary tests in senior high school, I always listened to the CD of the vocabulary book before sleeping. I heard the sounds of English words, their Japanese translations, and example sentences that contained the English words. I valued the information from my ears very much.
DELE: Many Japanese citizens do not have much experience listening to English, and their pronunciation does not improve readily.
Yoneda: When I started learning English, I probably learned word-sound correspondences by listening to English, while looking at English words; the learning experience was not like learning a written language. I could say I started learning English as a spoken language.
My first conference presentation was in English overseas.
DELE: I would like to return to your undergraduate life. You presented in English at an international conference in China, namely the China-Japan Workshop, when you were in the 4th year of the undergraduate program. Were you not afraid?
Yoneda: Now, I think it is adventurous for an undergraduate student to make her first academic presentation in English abroad. At that time, however, I was a complete beginner. I could take that challenge probably because I did not know what it took to give an effective academic presentation.
DELE: Your presentation was well received.
Yoneda: When I was expecting a flurry of questions during the Q&A session, a Japanese professor raised his hand. He commented that he could see that I had a good understanding of the research issue through my presentation. He also gave me some advice. During the break, he also praised my presentation. It seemed to have left a very positive impression on him.
DELE: You had taken an English presentation lecture before making that presentation. Did the Faculty of Engineering offer the lecture?
My motivation to study English was stronger than the fear of taking more classes than necessary for graduation.
Yoneda: The lecture was “English for Engineering Science” （物理工学英語）. I took it in my 3rd year. I made a presentation every one or two weeks. I learned how to organize a presentation and speak effectively.
DELE: This class was not required for graduation, either. Was it not too much of a challenge to take extra courses?
Yoneda: I do not remember it being demanding. The course emphasized constant weekly learning and had no final examination; it did not affect the test period at the end of the semester.
DELE: Some people say it is far too ambitious to add optional English courses in their timetables. You did not think that way, though.
Yoneda: I did not. I was more motivated to take classes if I had the opportunity to study English, rather than worrying about the difficulties of taking them.
Grammar must be precise in writing.
DELE: In the 1st year of the master’s program, you submitted an English paper and realized the significance of writing.
Yoneda: I may be repeating my earlier point, but I began to pay more attention to grammar. In reading and comprehension, I only vaguely apply my grammatical knowledge to a given text. In writing, however, the application must be precise because I have to construct sentences from my grammatical knowledge. As I began to write, I needed to check if my grammatical knowledge was correct. The difference may be similar to the contrast between how easy you feel when you see someone solve a mathematical problem, and how hard you struggle when you solve a problem by yourself.
DELE: How did you check the correctness of your grammar?
Yoneda: I received a lot of guidance from my professors. Besides, a course on English paper writing (Practical English for Scientists 実践的科学英語演習) in the first semester raised my grammatical awareness. When I was not sure, I would look it up myself. I often used dictionaries on the internet.
DELE: Were the dictionaries bilingual or monolingual?
Yoneda: Many were English-Japanese bilingual dictionaries. However, those did not contain many examples of technical terms. So, when I needed to know about their usage, I read the English version of Wikipedia and looked up the expression.
DELE: Did you have difficulty with the overall flow and argumentation in the paper?
Yoneda: I learned the structure of an academic paper, such as the introduction and methods, in the course for writing that I mentioned earlier. I also learned the use of passive and active voices, and the use of present and past tenses for their specific purposes. I would return to the textbook or resume, and confirm my understanding before using them appropriately. It made a lot of difference that I knew there were principles in usage.
I realized that my English was good enough, if not perfect.
DELE: You attended an international conference in the U.S. in your second year of the master’s program.
Yoneda: Unlike the China-Japan Workshop, where 99% of the participants were Chinese or Japanese, this international conference in the U.S. was very prestigious and attracted participants from the U.S., Europe, India, China, and other Asian countries. I felt that my presentation there was better than the one at the workshop in China, because my knowledge had increased. I realized that my English was good enough, if not perfect.
DELE: In the Corona pandemic, your speaking abilities improved because you had more meetings in English on Zoom than before.
Yoneda: It was not a dramatic overnight improvement that one might experience in his or her high school days. Nevertheless, my fluency improved; words and phrases came out of my mouth more quickly. I no longer needed to consciously think before producing sentences.
I can broaden my repertoire by borrowing my conversation partners’ expressions.
DELE: Has your repertoire of expressions increased?
Yoneda: When I practice speaking alone, I only combine words in familiar patterns. However, if I talk to others, I can learn to use words in a way that I did not know. Conversations teach me to use expressions that I comprehend, yet never use. I have broadened the range of my expressions by picking up new words and phrases from others.
DELE: Your doctoral dissertation is the most voluminous document in English that you have ever produced.
Yoneda: Yes. I wrote it in English from scratch; I never thought of writing a Japanese draft.
In English, one says what they need to say first, and then adds a relative pronoun or participle expression for further explanation.
DELE: You had more difficulty in academic writing than in English writing.
Yoneda: Scientific writing needs clarity and concision. In Japanese, however, the most essential words do not appear at the beginning because modifiers are stated before the main words. When I wrote my BA and master's theses in Japanese, I had to be very careful to state important words, including subjects, as early as possible.
In English, on the other hand, one states the essential information first and then adds explanations with relative pronouns or participle expressions. It was advantageous to use that feature of English when writing my dissertation.
DELE: Many of my students write awkward English sentences that state long and detailed information before presenting critical words. It is probably due to the influence of the Japanese language. Do you not occasionally write such sentences?
Yoneda: Sometimes I do, but I attempt to revise them later. For example, I think about converting the object word into the sentence subject. I often divide one long sentence into two. I try to write concisely for the benefit of the reader.
I learned the general structure of a scientific paper in “Scientific Writing Techniques.”
DELE: Did you find the principle of concise writing yourself?
Yoneda: My supervisor recommended that I read a Japanese long seller『理科系の作文技術』(“Scientific Writing Techniques”) before I started writing my BA thesis. The book taught me features of the Japanese language, and I realized that English was more convenient to state the essential information first. The graduation thesis was my first academic paper, and the book became a helpful guide in academic writing. It taught me the general structure of a scientific paper.
Why not take advantage of your freedom and try different challenges?
DELE: Last question. Your long student life is going to end soon. Would you give some advice to 1st- and 2nd-year undergraduate students?
Yoneda: I started living on my own after graduating from high school. I had more choices in spending my time and money, for example. I became freer in selecting what to study too. It is critical that you make the best use of your freedom and try different challenges at university. Advancing to the doctoral program was one of my challenges because I never thought about it when I was a high school student.
University students have numerous chances for new challenges. English proficiency further increases their opportunities. Going abroad is currently difficult because of the Coronavirus. However, you should take the initiative to seek opportunities.
DELE: Do you have any requests for English language teaching at Kyoto University?
Yoneda: The courses offered by the Faculty of Engineering constitute a well-developed system. Students can find opportunities to learn English when they want to. They can take speaking classes if they decide to. I appreciate that I had opportunities to speak English every year without going abroad.
“Don't be afraid. Communicate.”
DELE: Is there anything else left unsaid?
Yoneda: The phrase I heard in elementary school, “Don't be afraid of making mistakes,” still guides me today. It meant a lot that I learned this message when I was young: keep communicating by saying all the words you know and receiving assistance from the conversation partner.
Even Japanese people make mistakes in Japanese. Do not think too much about speaking beautiful English. Challenge is the key to improvement.
DELE: I agree. “Don't be afraid. Communicate” sounds like a cliché, but it conveys a critical message.
Yoneda: Yes. This phrase inspires me when I am reluctant to take on challenges. I hope it inspires those scared of communication to make the most of what they can, and learn of their great potential.
DELE: Thank you for your wonderful message.
After the Interview
Ms. Yoneda sent me a chart summarizing her English study before the interview. Apparently, she plans ahead, and I imagine she will be an invaluable member of any organization she will belong to in the future. The interview portrayed Ms. Yoneda’s continual challenges vis-a-vis the opportunities that her situation offered. She also took advice from others. Such an attitude led her to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in the U.S. (I greatly regret that I could not afford the time to ask about her experience there). I am convinced that she will further expand her potential and am excited about her future.
English is a communication tool and expands your world in research, business, and personal pursuits. I hope more undergraduate students use English in university life to expand their worlds and broaden their perspectives.
Takafumi Kurosawa, Professor in the Graduate School of Economics. Interview conducted in Japanese on 9/28/2021 (about 3,700 words)
Graduate School of Economics
“Invest in your skills in response to social changes.”
The interview (in Japanese) was conducted via Zoom on September 28, 2021,
by Yanase from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
My work hours are split equally between Japanese and English.
DELE: Professor Takafumi Kurosawa specializes in economic and business history and economic policy theory in the Faculty of Economics and the Graduate School of Economics. He has published numerous books and articles in the English language. In education, he is involved in the Joint Master’s Degree Program between the University of Glasgow, University of Barcelona, and Graduate School of Economics of Kyoto University. How do you use English in your activities?
Kurosawa: My work hours are split equally between Japanese and English. I used to read German literature for my European research and occasionally read French literature. Recently, however, I have not been able to devote much time to that research and have used Japanese and English almost exclusively. In education and management, I assume that it is generally around 50/50. I may have been using more Japanese in administration and English in education.
My research style has significantly changed since 2010. The number of co-authored writing and other projects with overseas researchers has increased. Until a little over ten years ago, European Studies had developed far more in Japan than in other areas, creating a market on its own in the Japanese language.
Around half of my publications were in English in the past ten years or so. One paper I wrote in English led to the editing and publishing of academic works in English. I am one of the editors of a handbook from the Oxford University Press. The handbook involves approximately 60 authors and 35 chapters. Only three or four of the contributors are Japanese, so I only use English for this project.
I have started making five or six overseas business trips a year because they benefit my networking.
DELE: Why did you shift toward English about 10 years ago?
Kurosawa: One of my projects led to invitations to participate in overseas research meetings and publication projects. Up to that point, I had communicated with overseas researchers about individual projects separately. However, that project increased opportunities to attend other overseas conferences and strengthened my relationships. I discovered that the business history conference I was affiliated with had a sister relationship with associations in Europe and the United States.
In many branches of the humanities, the publication market for Japanese researchers is unique and isolated from the rest of the world. Academia is institutionalized differently in different countries and languages. Japanese researchers cannot simply present their research outcomes overseas because of differences in style; nor do they usually find communities of like-minded researchers outside Japan.
However, I noticed that research activities in business history did not face the same problem. I began to present at overseas conferences almost every year because I found research exchanges extremely beneficial and useful for networking. I was also invited to participate in various projects as a result of these exchanges, leading to overseas business trips five or six times per year. This was the reason for the change in my research style.
Up to that point, the researchers I associated with were Europeans, mostly from continental Europe, because much of my research was about histories in the German- and French-speaking spheres. However, since I was liberated from such geographical boundaries about ten years ago, the scope of my research expanded, and English became far more important for me as a research tool.
I began to problematize, relativize, and transcend my previous framework.
DELE: The landscape you saw as a researcher has expanded, has it not?
Kurosawa: Academic fields are institutionalized as a result of various contingencies that limit researchers’ perspectives. My own view was thus restricted, but as I began to visit places where academia was differently institutionalized, I started to problematize, relativize, and transcend my previous framework. I expanded my research interests, no longer limited by the requirements of my academic obligations, trying different approaches beyond the overlapping areas of economic and business history and economic policy.
Researchers listen patiently as long as presentations contain significant messages. They want to gain knowledge and ignore the quality of English.
DELE: Your perspective has become broader, more multifaceted, and more multidimensional. You said you were editing an Oxford handbook and that you associate with many researchers. Do you have a policy or strategy for using English in such situations?
Kurosawa: No, not really. Although I was a little conscious of my English at first, I have become less so as I became more proficient.
Researchers worldwide are influenced by their native languages. In addition, some are more proficient in English than others. Their fluency and accents also differ. However, in the end, researchers are interested in the content. Therefore, as long as the subject matter is intriguing, everyone listens patiently. That said, it is important to spend some time and money each day to continue learning English to express yourself more effectively.
In one’s professional and personal life, it is difficult to commit to something in which one does not have much interest. The commitment will not last.
DELE: By continuous learning, do you mean on-the-job training, whereby you learn while engaging in various activities?
Kurosawa: Yes. It is hard to commit to something in which one does not have much interest, whether that is in one’s professional or personal life. The commitment will not last. If I enjoy my research, I can kill two birds with one stone by translating the research content from Japanese to English. This was more beneficial and less painful than learning English through unexciting topics. Furthermore, the input language has to become the output language in the end. I have advanced this transition daily, gradually increasing the number of my English-speaking friends to more than half of all my friends. Naturally, I am using English more often.
My graduate school is substantially reforming its Master’s curriculum. A new curriculum was introduced on September 15.
DELE: Can you tell us about your educational and administrative activities?
Kurosawa: With regard to education, I have been teaching Japanese classes using English documents since I came here. However, the Faculty of Economics does not have many English-mediated classes.
About 13–14 years ago, I began to provide research guidance for international students in English. I was in my late 30s. All I had to do was teach my favorite academic topics and answer students’ questions. This style is the least demanding for teachers in terms of English proficiency. Even teachers who feel not so confident in English can supervise dissertations at the graduate-student level if the topic is limited to their area of expertise.
However, in 2009, the Graduate School of Economics started a course offering Master’s and doctoral degrees in which English was the sole language of instruction. Instructors had to conduct regular lecture-type classes in English because the course involved Master’s students. I had to talk straight for 90 minutes. In addition, for first- and second-year Master’s students, I had to teach basic knowledge that was not directly related to my specialty. This was quite different from research guidance, which was limited to my expert topics. I felt overburdened at first because these lectures required significant preparation. Nevertheless, it became routine after four or five years.
My research gradually changed, as I mentioned earlier. In addition, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) approved Kyoto University’s application to the “project for globalizing top-ranking universities.” The Master’s program had to be refined further, resulting in a new curriculum that was launched on September 15, 2021. A joint degree arose out of these initiatives. This was how I expanded my time and experience in using English for educational purposes.
Researchers in the humanities should use at least three languages, not just Japanese or English.
DELE: Thank you for your comments. Returning to the research topic, some claim that non-English-speaking researchers should focus on mastering English. What are your thoughts on developing proficiency in foreign languages other than English?
Kurosawa: I guess the situation varies tremendously among the different fields of study. However, humanities researchers should acquire at least a third language in addition to Japanese and English. As the concept of “triangulation” suggests, two objects of comparison offer a three-dimensional perspective of the target of analysis. With one object of comparison, one can only know the distance between the two. It makes a difference to know German, for example, as a third language, although some may argue that it is not an ideal third language because English and German are in the same language group, Germanic. A third language is essential for regional studies.
However, different academic disciplines may encounter distinct situations. Social scientists, whose basis is abstract logic, may find other foreign languages less valuable.
Other researchers for whom non-English literature is indispensable will use whatever means are available to read it, including machine translation. The dominance of English is irrelevant for them.
In education, I am beginning to question how much time students should spend learning foreign languages other than English because machine translation is advancing at almost revolutionary levels. I feel a little embarrassed by this comment because I resisted the dominance of English as a researcher in German- and French-speaking areas.
In addition to studying in university classes, I continued to study English for approximately two hours every day.
DELE: Could you tell us how you studied English and other foreign languages?
Kurosawa: In my teenage years, I studied at a high school in Ibaraki in a laid-back educational environment. The school was not very ambitious about sending students to prestigious universities. I could read and write English to some extent for entrance examinations, but once I went to university, I realized I could not speak it. Nevertheless, it was in the 80s, when Japanese people were becoming increasingly international in their outlook. I longed to visit foreign countries.
I went to China as a backpacker for two months during my first summer vacation, where I communicated by writing Chinese characters. I went to the Middle East for a month during the following spring vacation. I visited Korea and some countries in Southeast Asia in my second summer vacation. In every long vacation, I went abroad with the minimum budget. With the increasing appreciation of the Japanese yen, students who saved some money with part-time jobs could travel to foreign countries where local currencies were weak. This was how I started traveling abroad and realized that English was essential. I was told all kinds of things by all kinds of people. I had a few awkward experiences.
At that time, there was no YouTube or Internet, so I used radio programs to study English for about two hours every day for roughly four years, apart from studying for classes. The radio was the cheapest and most efficient learning resource when the Internet or YouTube was unavailable. After making friends in various places, I increased opportunities to use English casually.
When I went to Europe to collect materials for my studies as a graduate student, I used English frequently. My German did not improve very much. My German was only for reading literature, like my English in high school days, and my conversational skills did not advance very much. It was only when living in Zurich later for a year on sabbatical that I learned German intensively. I learned German conversation anew with a group that included many teenage students. I felt somewhat embarrassed because I was over 30.
DELE: I see. It seems like you learned English and German alongside your life experiences.
Kurosawa: That’s right. I was not very proficient in foreign languages, especially in junior high school. Although I did not have much confidence, I tried my best when I had to communicate. Every challenge boosted my learning skills. This process has continued.
DELE: You acquired English from various real-world experiences. In addition, you trained yourself in English for about two hours every day during college days using radio programs.
Kurosawa: I subscribed to English newsweekly magazines, too.
I still listen to the audio version of The Economist for an hour or two in the morning.
DELE: Those experiences laid the foundation of your competence in English.
Kurosawa: That’s right. Even now, after becoming proficient in English, I continue to listen to the audio version of The Economist for an hour or two in the morning. The quality of the articles is quite high. I learn various perspectives that are crucial for social scientists. I no longer impose self-training, such as “shadowing” [immediate oral reproduction of the sound one hears].
When someone decides that they have to do something, they have to do it every day, or they will never make it. I wish I had more talent, but in the end, no one can improve their skills without effort.
Enjoying articles of interest with ears and eyes
DELE: Do you listen to The Economist on the open podcast program available to the general public?
Kurosawa: I occasionally listen to the podcast. However, the audio version I always listen to is for paid subscribers only. As the media market has shifted to free services with the development of the Internet, there are only a few media outlets on a paid model. The Economist is one such publication, which executives of various organizations around the world subscribe to. The quality of the articles is high. Subscribers can read articles on a smartphone or PC; they can also listen to the audio version of the weekly. I listen to all the content, which is probably eight or ten hours long, while jogging or walking in the morning.
Although I am only a listener these days, I used to both listen to and read the articles. I checked both my vocabulary and expressions, synthesizing the audio input with the visual input. Thus, the articles became effective, or rather, excellent learning materials. Of course, subscribers should enjoy magazines as analytical news resources as well as learning materials. I recommend The Economist to students. However, the vocabulary level may be challenging for undergraduates, so I recommend it for graduate students or for undergraduates who are proficient in English.
Foreign-language acquisition is an investment; the earlier you start, the more returns you obtain, with a compound interest.
DELE: I see. This is the integration of the ear, eye, and mind. Can you provide more advice to undergraduates, especially in their first and second years?
Kurosawa: Foreign-language acquisition is an investment in yourself. Rather than becoming proficient at 30, you should master it as early as possible. The returns will increase with compound interest. The brain of a younger person is generally more flexible. Develop English skills as early as possible and continue in your efforts.
That said, I guess that quite a few Kyoto University students have mixed feelings about their English. It is better to overcome this sense of weakness because it is uncomfortable to be undervalued purely because of your English skills. Simultaneously, the intellectual content you learn will surely expand your horizons.
I also believe that advanced English learners can acquire other languages faster, whether French or German. After all, their language systems are similar.
Artificial Intelligence can replace humans for a significant portion of language use. Nevertheless, it is critical to develop the ability that surpasses AI, such as machine translation. Undergraduate students should start intensive self-training in English skills and continue it.
Seeing the great transition as an opportunity
DELE: Words such as “investment,” “compound interest,” and “efficiency” sound compelling when uttered by a professor of economics. Is there anything else?
Kurosawa: It seems that major changes have occurred over the past few years. Although every era has critics who claim that their time is the turning point in history, structural changes rarely happen over the long run. However, for example, a recent book by Richard Baldwin, a scholar of international economics, employed the term “globotics” to emphasize the two waves of globalization and robotization. In Japan, most students can find a job at the time of graduation, despite their lack of English proficiency. Their lifestyle and employment have been protected by the barrier of the Japanese language. No matter what happens in the rest of the world, Japanese people have been protected in a “Galapagos” environment. Students are convinced they will get a job with a Kyoto University qualification, despite their lack of English skills. They believe that studying in their field of specialization is sufficient. Indeed, they have been right up to now.
However, the situation is changing dramatically. Globalization demands that human resources become mobile. Japanese students are entering into direct competition with human resources from other countries. In addition, a wave of robotization is coming, including machine translation. Until now, only blue-collar workers in manufacturing have faced wage competition from abroad. However, white-collar workers will now also be exposed to wage competition. It is likely that the protected situation of Japanese college graduates will increasingly change.
To collect information quickly, I scan and machine-translate English documents and read them in Japanese.
Kurosawa: This drastic change is simultaneously a threat and an opportunity. With AI translation, Japanese people may be able to use any language, not just English, to enter a world they have not explored. They may import and export beyond linguistic barriers. As opportunities expand in this way, you should regard this change as an opportunity, not a crisis for you, your generation, or society as a whole.
For example, for the past year or two I have been using machine translation. I scan English papers or books and machine-translate them to speed-read them in Japanese. Japanese enables quicker language processing because as an ideographic language, it concisely expresses abstract and analytical concepts. Although I have learned to read English quickly, I can read several to ten times faster in Japanese. Obviously, I read critical documents for my research in the original language carefully. However, for the documents that I need to check, I utilize machine translation because it is overwhelmingly more efficient. The level and volume of input has improved by about ten times.
I have no idea how many researchers have attempted a similar approach, but major changes will not be limited to research. They will influence all areas of society. Students need this perspective and to invest in themselves, including foreign-language learning, because they have several decades of work ahead of them.
DELE: From a historian’s perspective, the present looks like a moment of great historical change. Your proposal is to recognize it as an opportunity. In addition, you scan and machine-translate foreign-language documents for faster processing, increasing the input amount by approximately ten times.
I believe the example of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt also indicates the advantage of using one’s native language. Although she stayed in the U.S. for many decades, she wrote critical manuscripts in German first and then had her secretary translate them into English. One’s native language has its own advantages, although it varies depending on the field of study and the point at which one acquires foreign languages. I also believe that Japanese language users may benefit from utilizing their native language’s unique cognitive schemes when they express themselves in English.
Learning in response to changing circumstances.
Kurosawa: On your last point, I researched the publishing industry, focusing on the number of publications in Japanese from the beginning of the 20th century roughly until the 1980s. This index was not the number of copies sold but the number of published books, counting how many different books were published, like tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. This was an indicator of the intellectual diversity available in Japanese. Japan had a large market, smaller only than English and German. There was considerable foreign research, and Japanese researchers were productive intellectually because they could access significant foreign books through Japanese translations, whether they were originally written in German, French, Russian, or Chinese. This major advantage led to Japan’s economic prosperity. However, Japan’s relative position in the world has declined rapidly over the past 15–20 years.
Japan had the world’s largest number of researchers in my field, European economic history research, until about the 1970s. In other words, more researchers were studying European economic history in Japan than in Europe. However, this is no longer the case. In that sense, the present era marks a major turning point for Japan’s competitiveness and for intellectual diversity in society. I want students to realize that conditions are changing dramatically. However, this may be a task for society as a whole.
DELE: I wish I had another two or three hours, but our time is at an end. I take your general message to be “In the face of the huge challenges young generations face, they should use English, other foreign languages, or AI.” Thank you very much.
Kurosawa: Thank you, too.
After the Interview
Prof. Kurosawa’s suggestions were persuasive, such as “English learning is an investment; think in terms of efficiency and returns” and “Learn in response to changes in society and the times.”
His point that materials in foreign-language learning should have content value is also important. Inspired by this, I resumed my digital subscription to The Economist. It is comfortable to lie on the sofa and read articles on my tablet while listening to the human voiceover.
We should give further consideration to information processing methods using machine translation.
This was an enlightening talk. I would like to thank Prof. Kurosawa again for taking the time out of his extremely busy schedule.
Ms. Haruka Furuta (Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, third year of the doctoral program) (Interview conducted in Japanese on Jan. 7, 2022; about 2,900 words in translation)
Graduate Student (Doctoral Program)
Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences
“Paragraph writing principles are useful in presentations and reading, too.”
The interview (in Japanese) was conducted via Zoom on January 7, 2022,
by Yanase from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
DELE: Haruka Furuta finished the six-year undergraduate program at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and advanced to the four-year doctorate program at the Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences. She is currently in her third year in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology.
The department is currently led by Professor Shuji Kaneko, the organizer of the Life Science Dictionary project. The project was overwhelming for me as a researcher in English education when I found it a long time ago. I began to think that natural scientists might be taking English much more seriously than scholars in humanities. Since then, I keep saying to myself and others that English teachers should learn from scientists.
Therefore, I was personally looking forward to hearing from Ms. Furuta, who works in Dr. Kaneko’s lab.
Furuta: Thank you.
I could cover more research papers in a short time in graduate school.
DELE: How do you use English as a graduate student?
Furuta: I use English mostly to read research papers. I must read in English to keep abreast of the latest research. Also, I communicate in English with an international student in our laboratory when I find it difficult to discuss something in Japanese.
DELE: Do you read much more research now than in your undergraduate days?
Furuta: Yes. With more experience, I learned to read faster. With more information coming in every year, the more I need to read.
DELE: Some undergraduates use machine translation for reading research papers in English. Is that the case with you?
Furuta: I do not use machine translation very often. Reading in Japanese through machine translation may sound easy. However, I need to refer to the original English text when the Japanese translation is unclear. I thought to myself that if I have to check the original text often, I might as well read it in English. That is why I hardly use machine translation.
DELE: The department website says that there are not many international students in your laboratory.
Furuta: Currently, we have only one Chinese student. I am in the same research group, so we talk frequently. When the issue is complicated, I switch to English.
DELE: Is English more convenient for specialized research topics even with a student from a Chinese-speaking country?
Furuta: That is correct.
I studied English during my undergraduate years, mostly in classes, the ESS activities, and short-term programs.
DELE: Tell us about how you studied English—in pre-college days, the first three years of the undergraduate program, the latter half of it, and the doctoral program. Can you tell us briefly how you learned, struggled with, and used English?
Furuta: I lived in the U.S. during my first two years of elementary school. The level of English I acquired then was at the Grade 3 or pre-2 of the EIKEN proficiency level. My vocabulary was limited. When I came back to Japan, I attended an English conversation school once a week to maintain and improve my English skills.
In high school, I used to aim for perfect scores on the weekly English vocabulary tests. The pages of my vocabulary book had been turned so frequently that they were stained at the edges.
On entering university, I joined the English Speaking Society (ESS) for medical students and engaged in public speaking activities, in addition to taking the compulsory English classes. I also went to Oxford for one month in my third year under the Kyoto University’s short-term study abroad plan called the “John Mann Program.”
DELE: You acquired listening and pronunciation skills in those two years in the U.S. You have not experienced many difficulties in these areas since then.
Furuta: That is right. I acquired listening and pronunciation skills in the U.S.
DELE: I see. Many students in Japan struggle with these skills. You were advantageous in that regard, yet you studied hard in high school and joined the ESS for medical students. You continued your efforts to learn English in a balanced way.
Furuta: Quite so.
DELE: I was an ESS member myself and know how effective learning English could be with the inspiring people there. Was the “John Mann Program” an academic program?
The academic lectures in the study-abroad program were challenging.
Furuta: The purpose of the “John Mann Program” was English skill development and intercultural experience. The morning sessions were English language classes, and they were like the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) preparation sessions. Participants had to take the IELTS on the last day of the program. In the afternoon, the participants took academic classes of their choice. I chose a class on cosmology out of several options.
DELE: Did you feel that your English language skills were insufficient at that time?
Furuta: I was puzzled by British English at first because I had never been exposed to it. However, the morning English classes were rather easy to listen to, and I gradually got used to them. However, the instructors of the afternoon academic classes spoke fast. I remember having some difficulty. I understood only about 60-70% of the lectures.
DELE: Even with your proficiency, the level of understanding was about 60-70%.
Furuta: Yes, it was. The content was quite challenging, including the theory of relativity.
I had to deal with a large amount of academic English in the lab.
DELE: Then you became a fourth-year student and were assigned to a lab. The department website says that the fourth year is a turning point in students’ lives. What was your experience of learning and using English then?
Furuta: I had been focusing on everyday English until my third year. In the fourth year when I started to specialize in pharmaceutical sciences, I had to deal with a large amount of academic English. The difference between academic English and ordinary English disoriented me at first, but I soon adapted to academic reading.
DELE: I guess your transition to academic English was successful because of your solid foundation in everyday English. The website says that students had to give presentations on designated papers in a seminar. Did you experience any difficulty?
Furuta: Well, I read the paper long before the presentation. The presenter had to summarize the paper. I understood the authors’ points by reading the paper repeatedly. I found it more challenging to produce adequate presentation slides than reading English. Researchers need presentation skills to provide lucid explanations. I still prepare my presentations carefully.
Presentations need to be done carefully, even in Japanese.
DELE: The presentation was in Japanese, right?
Furuta: Basically, all seminars were conducted in Japanese.
DELE: What were the difficulties in giving presentations? Did you learn any tips or principles for giving presentations?
Furuta: Presentation slides must be designed carefully. People's eyes go from left to right and from top to bottom, and that is the principle for placing information. In addition, the speed and pauses in an oral presentation are critical. It is also essential to speak according to the principles of paragraph writing, saying the conclusion first and then adding details later.
DELE: Did you learn these principles on your own, or did the senior members or teachers provide guidance?
Furuta: Senior members would assist fourth-year students for a while. They helped me with slide creation and rehearsals. I also learned on my own by watching other people’s presentations in the weekly seminar.
The paper must be written in academic English, not everyday English.
DELE: What about writing papers in English? The website says that the department recommends that undergraduate students write a paper in English during the fourth to sixth year.
Furuta: I decided to take my time with my research because I had already decided to advance to the doctoral course. So, I have not yet published anything in international journals. However, I wrote my graduation thesis in English in my sixth year in the undergraduate program.
DELE: Some students read research papers but can write only in everyday English. What about you?
Furuta: As you said, I was slightly disoriented initially while writing academic papers. I reviewed the papers I had read to understand more about the appropriate structure and content. I also used to appropriate and modify useful expressions from the papers I had read. That was how I managed to write the thesis.
DELE: Did you write down these expressions in a notebook?
Furuta: I wrote down these expressions in a Word file, mainly in the form of phrases, every time I found them. Whenever I added new expressions, I said to myself, “This is good” or “I can use this.” The expressions were recorded in chronological order.
I learned the principles of paragraph writing thoroughly because of the ESS activities.
DELE: Did you have any difficulty with the overall structure of the paper?
Furuta: I received a lot of guidance on paragraph writing during the public speaking activities we did at the ESS. I learned the principle, “one message in one paragraph,” by heart in my undergraduate days. I had a slight advantage over other people.
DELE: Tell me more about your experience in the ESS. Did you encounter any surprises or difficulties?
Furuta: The first speech I wrote did not follow the form of a paragraph, so it was corrected substantially. When I became a senior member, I had to guide younger members. I struggled with how to help them write better speeches.
DELE: How long did it take to master the paragraph writing style?
Furuta: There were two public speaking contests in a year. My draft for the first contest was corrected in many sections. I revised it during the three-month preparation period. I received far fewer corrections in my draft for the second contest.
DELE: Rewriting a draft several times is a great learning experience.
Furuta: I agree. During the first month, I brainstormed and structured my speech with help from my seniors. I selected topics and thought about how to improve my paragraph sequences. After deciding on the order, I wrote out the sentences. Then, I revised the text repeatedly and rehearsed my presentation for about a week before the contest.
DELE: You guided younger members when you became a senior member. What did you notice or learn while teaching?
Furuta: No one can teach without an exact understanding of the teaching content. I gained a firmer grasp of grammar than when I was writing my speeches. I studied pronunciation and intonation much more; I watched various TED presentations. I also learned how to pause effectively and use phrases impressively. Teaching deepened my understanding.
Paragraph writing principles increase your reading speed.
DELE: Let's go back to your graduate school life. You advanced to the doctoral program after completing the six-year undergraduate program. Did you face any challenges?
Furuta: I did not feel much change because my academic life was rather continuous.
DELE: Do doctoral students interact with undergraduate students?
Furuta: They study in the same laboratory and interact with each other constantly.
DELE: Then, you guide younger members, just like you did in the ESS. What do you notice in the younger members?
Furuta: My juniors would read the entire paper from beginning to end. Academic papers are based on the principles of paragraph writing. I tell them that they can understand the general flow of the paper by reading only the beginning and end of paragraphs.
DELE: Do the young members ask you for writing advice?
Furuta: I recently helped with the graduation theses of sixth-year students. I taught them to divide a paragraph into two when it contained two messages. I also corrected simple grammatical mistakes.
DELE: Do your juniors use AI for translation or proofreading?
Furuta: A majority of them would have written in English on their own, although some may have used machine translation.
No one acquires proficiency in English immediately. Learning is a continuous process.
DELE: The primary audience of this interview is undergraduate students. Give them some advice.
Furuta: No one acquires proficiency in English immediately upon learning it. It is important to continue effort for a while. Use your English classes to practice English. Keep using English after finishing these classes. You can either study for a certification exam or listen to dramas and songs to understand English in use. Sustain your exposure to English in some way.
DELE: You are absolutely right. However, some students do not have sufficient proficiency or the determination to keep using English. They may not know what to do when told to continue. Can you give them further advice? In your case, you had the ESS activities, right?
Furuta: I continued to be a member of the ESS up to my sixth year. However, after I joined my lab, I did not have time to go there and teach. When I was a third-year student, I was one of the most active members of the ESS. I took care of five or six younger students as a sub-leader in the public speaking section. That teaching experience turned out to be helpful later.
I was motivated to work internationally after taking part in the overseas program.
Furuta: One way to keep using English is to apply for study abroad programs. In addition to going to Oxford in my third year, I also participated in a program in Hong Kong in my fifth year. It was a joint program between the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences of Kyoto University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I stayed in Hong Kong for five days to visit local hospitals, pharmacies, and pharmacy schools.
Also, in my first doctoral year, just before the Coronavirus hit the globe, I participated in the Kingfisher Global Leadership Program that the S & R Foundation had sponsored. International experiences motivate learners enormously to learn English.
As part of the Kingfisher Global Leadership Program, I went to the U.S. for two weeks—the first week in Washington D.C. and the second week in San Francisco. I visited some of the world's leading institutions, such as NASA, Google, NIH (the National Institute of Health), and the World Bank. I had discussions with the researchers and staff there. Seeing those people inspired me to work on an international scale. I would like to work internationally if I have the chance.
DELE: How did you hear about these programs?
Furuta: I applied for the Oxford program because one of my ESS seniors had participated in it. The Hong Kong pharmacist program was created when I was a fifth-year student. I learned about it when my professor forwarded an email about the program. Although I was in the middle of my hospital training, I was allowed to participate in the program because it was a short-term stay.
I heard about the Kingfisher Program, probably when I was a second-year student, but I did not have the chance to apply. It was only when I was a first-year doctoral student that I applied and was selected. The program took place in the winter of 2020, just before the COVID-19 situation worsened. The program would have been canceled if it had been scheduled a month later.
DELE: Continuous effort is critical. People you met in the ESS and international programs motivated you to sustain and develop your effort. Stimulation from knowledgeable people is crucial, is it not?
Furuta: It is. They inspired me a lot.
DELE: Thank you very much for this very valuable talk today. I wish you all the best for the future.
After the Interview
Ms. Furuta impressed me with her calm demeanor and gentle smile. I could see that she had pushed the boundaries of her world gradually, without getting overwhelmed by the challenges. She had stayed in the U.S. for two years as an elementary student. However, the foundation of her current success is more from her continuous effort since then. Her positive attitude broadened her horizons. Diligence and eagerness need to be treasured in life.
Ms. Furuta found her study fellows at the ESS for medical students during her undergraduate years. The Division of Extracurricular Education at the International Academic Research and Resource Center (i-ARRC) provides students with the opportunities to meet study partners. The Division of English Language Education (DELE) also provides English learning consultation services to individual students.
In addition, check out Kyoto University’s information on studying abroad. Kyoto University organizes or recommends many exchange partnerships and short-term study abroad programs, as well as scholarship and consultation services. Students can take lectures in English at Kyoto University without going abroad. I hope more students would take the initiative and look for opportunities to make their lives more exciting.
Although my experience is limited, I would be happy if you have learned something from it.
Mr. Yuuki Kitagawa, Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, third year of the doctoral program (Conducted in Japanese on September 16, 2021; about 2,700 words in traslation)
Graduate Student (Doctoral Course)
Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies
"Logical organization is critical in academic papers in English"
The interview was conducted in Japanese on Sep. 16, 2021,
via Zoom by Yanase from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
When you write in English, you must organize your paragraphs quite logically.
DELE: Mr. Kitagawa is in the third year of a doctoral course (Course of Studies on Material Science) at the Department of Interdisciplinary Environment, Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies. He is also a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow (DC1). Thank you very much for your time for this interview.
You have already published several papers as a first author in international journals. You have presented at international conferences multiple times. I would be grateful if you could tell us how you now use English. Publishing papers in English must be competitive. Do you have any tips, policies, or strategies that you have learned in your position?
Kitagawa: The first point is that you must logically organize paragraphs while writing in English. When I wrote a thesis in English prior to my master's degree, it was not well written. I just put the sentences together as they came to me. When I look back at it now, it is incoherent as paragraph writing. Since then, I have paid attention to logical organization when writing English papers.
Organization is significant both within a single paragraph and across multiple paragraphs.
DELE: Your keywords are “paragraphs” and “logical organization”. Could you tell us more about them? Some undergraduate and master’s students may not fully understand what to do when advisors ask them to write logically.
Kitagawa: The essential point I learned was, “One idea in one paragraph.” This is a critical difference between Japanese and English writing. Experts in Japanese may disagree, but writing styles greatly differ between the two languages. In English, there are definite rules for the internal structure of a single paragraph, such as “first state what you want to say in the paragraph, then move on to specific examples, and finally close the paragraph concisely.” In addition, the writer needs to connect the paragraphs adequately.
DELE: What do you keep in mind when you connect paragraphs?
Kitagawa: I do not suddenly change the topic, for example.
I first produce the tables and figures and then conceptualize the story.
DELE: Do you first plot the entire story? Do you decide on the sequence of arguments before writing the paper?
Kitagawa: That's right. For scientific writing, writers often first create tables and figures, establish a storyline, and then start writing. This is also my strategy.
DELE: I hear that inexperienced writers often put tables and figures in the chronological order of the experiments conducted.
Kitagawa: I rarely arrange my tables and figures chronologically. When I obtain a particular result in my research, I conduct another experiment to support that result to logically strengthen my contention. Therefore, the tables and figures in my paper are unlikely to be in chronological order.
Writers do not require too many connective words when they present facts in a logical order.
DELE: Thank you for clarifying the problem with inventing a story. What are the problems specific to the English language, and not writing in general?
Kitagawa: Japanese writers of English often use too many connective words in sentences. They write “however,” “also,” or “before” in quick succession. However, quality papers present facts in a logical order and do not use such words frequently. I try to emulate this writing style.
DELE: This principle overlaps with the logical organization of the written paragraph as previously mentioned.
Kitagawa: That is right. As long as the storyline is clear, readers do not need too many conjunctions to follow the argument. I eliminate redundant expressions in writing.
I check the context before using a sentence I have newly learned.
DELE: What about other English expressions? Do you naturally learn words and phrases by reading numerous papers in English every day?
Kitagawa: Well, my vocabulary is limited. So I try to learn words and phrases while reading articles. I often use such expressions in my own writing later.
DELE: Do you memorize them quickly or take notes?
Kitagawa: I'm not a very diligent note-taker, so I only remember a little. When I want to use an expression that I have learned before, I read the original document again. I quickly verify the context that precedes and follows the expression and gauge whether my usage is relevant or not. Expressions borrowed without contextual understanding are often incomprehensible.
DELE: That is valuable advice: the thoughtless application of an expression to an inappropriate passage may result in a puzzling sentence. Writers must use expressions with an adequate understanding of their original contexts.
I try to accept the other person's opinion once before counterarguing it.
DELE: Now, I want to hear about submissions to international journals. Is it not disheartening when you receive harsh feedback?
Kitagawa: It is. My heart almost breaks. I feel broken, and it is difficult. However, reviewers’ comments are often valuable. They point out essential information lacking in my paper, or previous literature that should have been cited. Therefore, after taking some time to psychologically recover, I read various references again and revise my paper or produce a counterargument.
DELE: Communication between contributors and the editor usually takes place via email. Do you have any advice on this?
Kitagawa: I try to be polite. Being impolite is futile while communicating with people you do not know. I respect the other person's opinion as much as possible and concede it before replying or refuting. I never refute the other person's opinion entirely from the beginning.
The expressions you use for those you do not know in person must be delicate.
DELE: Is there any difference in politeness between Japanese English writing?
Kitagawa: Japanese has distinct honorific expressions, such as “gozaimasu.” I have never learned much about demonstrating politeness in English writing. All I remember is the use of “could you,” which I learned in high school. I sometimes need to think of proper expressions when writing to people I do not know in person, particularly those of a higher status.
DELE: It seems that there are few models for email communication, unlike academic phrases for academic papers.
Kitagawa: That is correct. Japanese writers do not have a model; therefore, it is challenging to know the appropriate English expressions.
I have never outsourced proofreading to a professional.
DELE: Thank you. I want to know more about the English language from the viewpoint of writing papers. Some researchers approach professional proofreaders to revise their drafts written in English and send them to a professional company for refinement. Do you use such services?
Kitagawa: No, I have never outsourced proofreading my English to a professional.
DELE: Do you ask your research colleagues to read your draft before submission?
Kitagawa: Yes, but I only ask my co-authors.
I sometimes write the first draft in Japanese when precise logic is necessary.
DELE: This may be an obvious question, but do you conceive of ideas in English before you begin writing?
Kitagawa: Generally, yes. However, I organize ideas in Japanese for the introduction, abstract, and other parts of a paper that need precise logic before writing in English. I still struggle to think rigorously in English.
DELE: Many people think more accurately in their native language. They prefer using their native language for intellectually challenging tasks.
Kitagawa: That is right. When I need to summarize a vast amount of background knowledge, I condense it once in Japanese for concision. I have had several experiences of producing confusing and lengthy passages when I first began writing in English. I now organize my ideas in Japanese. Nevertheless, I write the Results and Discussion sections in English from the beginning.
DELE: Many researchers claim that the most challenging part of writing a paper is the first segment: the title, abstract, and introduction.
Kitagawa: I agree. Researchers struggle to write these parts concisely and coherently. I am not proficient in such a level of English writing yet. I take a few steps in Japanese first.
DELE: Do you write in English while following an outline in Japanese? Or do you use machine translation?
Kitagawa: I rarely use machine translation. I write in English based on my notes in Japanese. I occasionally realize, as I write in English, that more information is necessary. Similarly, I sometimes notice that some parts sound lengthy when expressed in English. I only use machine translation to translate my English writing into Japanese and check if it makes sense.
I create a manuscript and practice to meet the time limit for conference presentations.
DELE: Thank you. Now please tell us about your conference presentations. What do you care about when you give presentations? Do you experience any difficulties?
Kitagawa: The challenge is to meet the time limit because I'm still not used to speaking English. Presenters cannot exceed the time limit of 15 or 20 minutes. If they talk awkwardly, they will surpass the time limit. Therefore, I draft the presentation and practice it.
DELE: Which problem do you have, the problem of shortening your manuscript or the problem of adjusting your speaking speed?
Kitagawa: I have a manuscript issue because I want to convey a lot of information. I must select content that helps me bind my presentation into one coherent story. However, too many elements are essential for readers, including background knowledge.
“You should speak slower.”
DELE: Do you have any concerns regarding pronunciation? Although non-native users of English do not have to pronounce like native speakers, many struggle with pronunciation.
Kitagawa: No, I have not really felt that way. In fact, I was speaking too fast during rehearsal. My supervisor asked me to speak slowly. He also said that people would understand my Japanese accent.
I could not and did not use English much until my third undergraduate year.
DELE: You are currently active in writing papers and giving oral presentations in English. How did you study or acquire English?
Kitagawa: I 'm a little embarrassed to say this, but I did not study English very much. Until I entered university, I had studied English only at ordinary high school levels. I never attended a cram school specializing in English or studied abroad. Even after enrolling in Kyoto University, I was uninterested in studying abroad. I was not too motivated to study English. I could not and did not use English until my third year at university.
When I entered a laboratory in my fourth year, my opportunities to communicate in English rapidly increased.
Kitagawa: However, the situation immediately changed on entering the laboratory in the month of April in my fourth year. First, I spent approximately two days in the laboratory with an Italian postdoctoral fellow who was about to return. Additionally, an Italian professor had been visiting my laboratory, along with a French doctoral student who stayed with us for around a month in June. I listened to their lectures and presentations and went out to eat with them. Suddenly, I had more opportunities to communicate in English. I realized that I had to do something about not being able to speak in English. I began studying for the TOEIC test. I also talked as much as possible to international visitors. I gradually learned to speak English. I am still a learner.
DELE: I understand your motive for communicating with international visitors. However, I am curious to know why you started studying for the TOEIC test.
Kitagawa: TOEIC was my most visible starting point. I thought I should not study aimlessly. I set a goal of learning English in TOEIC.
DELE: You studied for the Listening and Reading sections of the TOEIC tests. Did you take the TOEIC test?
Kitagawa: Yes, I took one in my fourth year.
DELE: Goal-setting inspired you. You gradually started communicating in English and then entered graduate school. How did you use English in your graduate school?
I wrote an English essay almost every week in my graduate class and received feedback.
Kitagawa: In the first semester of my first year, I took a course that focused on essay writing. I learned to write logically sound sentences and coherently organize paragraphs in English. Subsequently, I gradually accumulated experience in listening and speaking by communicating with European researchers. My laboratory had a strong relationship with them.
DELE: Was the essay writing course offered by the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies?
Kitagawa: Yes. The course was conducted in Japanese, but the instructor asked us to write an essay in English on an A4-sized sheet of paper almost every week. The instructor offered comments, such as, “You should correct this part because it doesn't say what you want to say at the beginning of the paragraph.”
DELE: You had a great class. How many graduate students were there?
Kitagawa: The classes were held twice a week for two semesters, with about 10 students per class, so, a total of about 20 students.
I did not expect to read so many English papers until I became a fourth-year student.
DELE: When did you start reading English papers? I assume students mostly read textbooks and articles in Japanese in their first year.
Kitagawa: I began reading papers in English after I joined the laboratory, that is, in my fourth year. My supervisor handed me English papers and said, “We’re going to work on this theme. Read this, this, and this paper. Suddenly, I had to read many English texts that I did not completely understand.
Then, my supervisor gave me a direction for my research, saying, “This laboratory focuses on this material for this theme. I want you to read relevant articles and advance the research on your own.” I had to explore new research. I used Google Scholar to read everything I could find. That was how I developed the habit of reading papers. There were only English papers on this topic.
DELE: Many scientific researchers have no option but to use the English language. It is not a matter of the “comparative merits of using English.”
Just talk to people in English. If there is no one around you, learn from English videos.
DELE: What advice would you give the current first-year students, sophomores, or juniors about English? The advice can be other than English learning.
Kitagawa: As for English, speak to researchers and international students around you without hesitation. Many junior members in my laboratory do not actively communicate with international students as I used to. International students must feel isolated. There are many topics to talk about with them, not only about research, but also about culture and hobbies. Talk to them more actively in English.
If you do not have anyone to talk to, you may think that there is nothing to be done. However, there is a wide variety of introductory videos on YouTube these days. For example, many English videos explain basic physics and mathematics. You can learn deeply using such videos.
Speaking in English will expand your horizons.
DELE: Some younger students do not talk to international students as you did. How did you change your communication style? Did you change it because you felt the need to use English as a fourth-year student?
Kitagawa: Yes, but I want to say that if you speak in English, an increasing number of exciting opportunities will open up. For example, when I was in the company of an Italian and a Polish, we talked about movies and dramas. Young people from overseas watch many movies and dramas, and these have become common topics of conversation. I have recently begun to watch them too. This is a new hobby for me.
DELE: It's amazing how communication can open up new avenues. You can expand your interests and your world. Thank you very much for your time today.
Kitagawa: Thank you very much, too.
After the Interview
Mr. Kitagawa emphasizes the significance of logical organization in papers and presentations. He checks the context of an original expression before appropriating it in a different passage. He has noticed that quality writing rarely overuses conjunctions. Mr. Kitagawa seems to have a keen sense of language. He modestly said that he did not study English much in the interview. I guess he has probably exercised his observation skills to learn English intensely in practical situations.
Mr. Kitagawa also recommends using YouTube videos to learn basic science and mathematics. Students can also utilize various Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for more advanced learning.
Dr. Kazutoshi MORI, Professor, Graduate School of Science (Conducted on September 14, 2021; Video length: 33 minutes)
Graduate School of Science
“Prestigious academic positions are only available
to those who excel in presentation.”
The interview was conducted in Japanese at Building No. 1 of the Faculty of Science on September 14, 2021,
by Yanase from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
Visit YouTube to see the English subtitles.
They are not available on this DELE site.
Turn on the subtitle switch if they do not show.
This interview video is also published at Kyoto University's OpenCourseWare (OCW).
The following are the main points that were discussed during Professor Mori’s interview. Please appreciate their implications by watching the video.
- I decided to go to the US simply because I wanted to study molecular biology.
- My academic presentation began with writing a precise manuscript for successful communication, and then reviewing it critically.
- A researcher should be recognized by a set of his/her face, name, and research topic.
- I did not read the manuscript aloud at academic conferences. I always sought better delivery. That is probably why I began to be invited as a plenary speaker.
- When I write a paper or give a presentation in English, I don’t translate. I think in English from the beginning.
- People often comment that my papers are easy to read and “get right to the point.” I assume this is because I think in English when I am writing.
- I always think about my take-home message and build the story logically to convey that idea. It does not matter whether the talk is 10- or 30-minutes long.
- I check whether people with no prior knowledge of the subject would understand my message.
- Researchers cannot survive in academia unless other people recognize their excellence.
- Prestigious academic positions are only available to those who excel in presentation.
- The best policy in communication is sincerity.
- I want you to engage in various activities while carefully assessing whether the current track will lead to the goal you desire.
- Graduate students should read many research papers to broaden their horizons.
Ms. Hinako MURAYAMA (Graduate School of Science, third year of the doctoral program) (Interview conducted in Japanese on August 26, 2021; about 4,600 words in translation)
Graduate Student (Doctoral Course)
Graduate School of Science
"Language skills are only one aspect of communication skills."
The interview was conducted in Japanese on August 26, 2021, via Zoom,
by Yanase, from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
In my field, almost no papers are written in Japanese.
DELE: Thank you for your time. Ms. Hinako Murayama is a third-year doctoral student (D3) from the Department of Physics I at the Graduate School of Science. She received the 13th Kyoto University Tachibana Award in March this year. The award honors young female researchers who have achieved outstanding research results at Kyoto University. Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule.
Murayama: It’s okay.
DELE: Here’s my first question. In which situations do you use English now?
Murayama: First, in my field, almost no papers are written in Japanese, so I use English most often when reading papers. Researchers from all countries submit and present their papers in English. Next, I often converse in English with international students in our research group. Our group exchanges emails with collaborators who provide us with samples or support us theoretically. Before the covid-19 pandemic, we held on-site discussions. International conferences were frequently held elsewhere in the world. I travelled to listen to presentations in English. I also gave presentations, took questions, and replied in English. Nowadays, similar events are held online.
DELE: I would like to ask you a bit more about each. You say that reading papers in English is essential because there is almost no literature in Japanese. When did you start reading the literature in English? You are now a D3 student, but did you start when you were in your third year of undergraduate studies or after you started your master’s degree?
Murayama: When I was an undergraduate student, I mostly studied at the textbook level, so I often read books in Japanese. However, in seminar-style classes—not regular lectures—students studied textbooks written in English in the form of reading circles. Since I have joined the laboratory, I must study content that no Japanese textbooks introduce. In particular, I have learned about the most advanced fields, including findings from the last 10 years. These are rarely published in Japanese textbooks.
It was more about the content than the language change.
DELE: Since becoming a fourth-year student, you read almost entirely in English. Did you face any difficulties transitioning from Japanese to English?
Murayama: At first, I didn’t know some of the basic terms in English. However, what mattered was not so much the change in language, but the advanced content.
DELE: The content was more demanding than the language.
Murayama: That’s right.
DELE: Recently, the quality of machine translation has been rapidly improving. Do you use it?
Murayama: There has been a lot of talk about it recently, and I have tried it. I do not use it much when reading because it’s troublesome. However, when I write, grammar checkers, such as Grammarly, are helpful. Many people around me use them.
DELE: Do you write email messages using an English checker? Or do you write reports or papers?
Murayama: I use a Chrome browser plug-in that informs me about issues regarding the verb conjugation, articles, and other aspects of grammar that are easy to miss. It also points out spelling mistakes, and I find it quite useful. I also use it for longer passages, such as those in papers.
DELE: When you write a paper, do you write it in English from the beginning?
Murayama: That’s right. I know the Japanese translations of terms that have been around for a long time. However, I do not know how to express more recent technical terms in Japanese. Therefore, I often have to write them in katakana. I feel that writing them in Japanese may be unnecessary. Conversely, I sometimes translate the English I write into Japanese using DeepL and check whether the English version makes sense.
International students probably don’t understand Japanese presentations at all.
DELE: You use English to communicate with international students. What is the ratio of international students in your group?
Murayama: It varies from year to year, but I’d say it’s about one in five.
DELE: If one among every five students is an international student, is English used as the common language in seminar and academic discussions?
Murayama: When I first joined the group, everyone was supposed to use English in seminars because international students were present. Recently, however, in group seminars and meetings, Japanese students have been speaking in Japanese, while international students have been speaking in English. Of course, one-on-one communication with international students is in English.
DELE: International and Japanese students use different languages for their presentations. Wouldn’t there be fewer questions and answers across languages?
Murayama: That’s right. I think international students probably do not understand a Japanese presentation. Although they may grasp the general points because it is customary in this field to write slides in English, I don’t think that’s a good practice.
It helped me a lot to realize that perfect English is not necessary. Also, language skills are only a part of communication skills.
DELE: Quite a few Japanese people find it challenging to communicate on-site in English. Did you experience any difficulties in this area?
Murayama: I’m not very good at speaking, even in Japanese. My English vocabulary is more limited, and I often don’t know how to express what I mean. Before I joined the research group, I had never studied abroad, and I only had the opportunity to use English when I would occasionally travel abroad or when I would converse on a train with a foreigner asking me about their destination.
However, after I joined the group, I realized that there are many opportunities to use English in this field. I saw other Japanese people using English, and I felt that it was okay to use less-than-perfect English. Since then, speaking in English was no longer a major obstacle. In addition, language skills are only a part of communication skills. Some students in the group get along with international students even if they cannot speak English. Conversely, others with more knowledge of English do not necessarily communicate well. It is essential to understand that the ability to speak English does not always imply the ability to communicate.
DELE: In that case, what are the communication skills apart from language skills? Alternatively, who are the kinds of people that are more successful in communicating in English?
Murayama: It is critical to assess the feelings of others and not hesitate to talk to others. One international student who joined our group was excellent in this sense. Japanese students in our group did not speak English very well, and the international student did not know Japanese at first. Despite the lack of Japanese speaking skills, we felt that the student was very kind because he immediately reached out to people in trouble and cared about others. I think that humanity really shines through in communication in a second language.
My vocabulary is better suited for physics than casual conversation.
DELE: Please tell us about your presentations, question-and-answer sessions, and casual conversations in English at conferences and receptions overseas. How is your English usage? What kind of difficulties have you experienced?
Murayama: Initially, I lacked the skills for explanation and presentation. However, as is the case in any field, there are commonly used phrases. Therefore, once I got used to them, I did not face much difficulty. In the question-and-answer sessions, I used to wonder about what would be asked. However, as I gained more experience in the field, I began to anticipate questions and better understand the technical terms. The difficulty was probably not so much about English, but more about the lack of knowledge in the field.
However, when researchers converse more casually at a party, the conversation can be difficult to comprehend, depending on the topic. For example, if I am talking about my own cat, this is not a problem. However, if I am discussing the welfare or politics of some countries, I feel that my vocabulary is inadequate. It may vary from situation to situation, but I often feel that my vocabulary is better suited for physics in a research group than for casual topics.
DELE: I see. However, the interesting thing about conference parties is that physicists do not always talk about physics.
Murayama: That is true, and it seems especially true for women. We do not talk much about physics.
DELE: In such a situation, for example, when other people suddenly start talking about politics or social systems, how do you respond?
Murayama: To be honest, sometimes it is too difficult for me to follow. However, a conversation often progresses with questions to each other, so I try to prepare answer for some anticipated questions about Japan.
I try to use emphatic intonation in public speaking.
DELE: Did you have any problems with listening?
Murayama: When I was an undergraduate student and did not use English, my listening skills were poor. However, since I started speaking English, I do not find it difficult to listen for some reason. Of course, I often find many words I do not know when listening.
DELE: It makes sense that one’s listening skills would develop once they start speaking in that language. Now, about speaking. No second language user is obliged to pronounce words like a native speaker would, but if your accent is too strong, your message is not conveyed. How was your experience with speaking English?
Murayama: Although my pronunciation is not so much faulty, I have been told by native speakers, especially people in the United States, that my intonation is too weak. In Japanese, we do not use such strong intonation, do we? Those people said that it was hard to understand me if I did not vary my intonation or duration to emphasize points. Usually, I tend to speak somewhat monotonously. However, when I give a presentation to a large audience, I try to use emphatic intonation.
DELE: Intonation depends on the way an individual speaks. You are gentle, calm, and speak well-chosen words plainly and clearly. However, you have to be mindful when giving presentations to a large audience. About what exactly do you have to be mindful?
Murayama: First, I always write a manuscript before a presentation, and I do this for Japanese presentations as well. I often get confused about the position of accents in English words, and therefore, I look up all words of which I am unsure. I also make sure that my speech is not too long. If I talk too much, I cannot make the pronunciation clear, so I try not to talk too fast, especially in English.
DELE: Do you read the manuscript aloud? I mean, do you just read the manuscript aloud without looking at the audience?
Murayama: When I am at an on-site presentation, I try to memorize the manuscript because if I look at the manuscript, I cannot look at the audience, turn to the slides, and point to the PowerPoint slides correctly. I have started using the presenter tool in PowerPoint for online presentations. I give a presentation while looking at the manuscript on the computer screen. I think it is better for the audience, too. Without practice, my speech becomes too redundant, and I mispronounce a lot. I occasionally pause to think about what to say next. Therefore, it is useful to prepare a manuscript and refer to it so that I do not skip points.
I don’t really study English; I use it.
DELE: Thank you. Let us move on to the next question: Can you tell us briefly about how you studied English before you entered university, during your undergraduate years, when doing your master’s, and at MIT? Did you find English easy or difficult?
Murayama: I lived in the United States for a while when I was little. I was probably three or four years old, and I do not remember any of it. When I returned to Japan, I quickly forgot English. In elementary school, my parents sent me to an English conversation school, so I didn’t face much trouble with pronunciation. However, my English proficiency was very low at that time. After entering junior high school, I learned grammar and expanded my vocabulary. I listened to an English learning radio program and increased the amount of English I heard. I listened to a lot of stuff until I entered university. However, as I recall, I practiced English comprehension, but I could not develop my listening skills much just by listening.
After entering university, I lacked opportunities to use English, so I took English classes that focused on output, such as speech and presentation. However, I did not have many opportunities to use English, especially outside class. After I joined the research group, I did not do anything in particular to study English. I mostly read research papers in English and looked up words. These days, I do not receive much information from the Japanese media. For example, I learn about covid-19 and adverse reactions to vaccines from English websites, such as U.S. government websites or academic websites. I do not have a TV at home now, so I usually watch the news on English websites. I often listen to the radio in English just to get a sense of what is going on in the world. I do not really do anything for the sake of studying English. I just use it.
After I started speaking English, I began recognizing weak forms.
DELE: You mentioned earlier that you have been listening to a radio program for English learning, but not necessarily developing your listening skills much in this way. It is hard to improve listening skills only by listening. Please tell us more about this.
Murayama: You cannot speak or write unless you have someone with whom to communicate, right? So, I could not do those things at all. I read and listened to a lot of English. However, earlier, I only guessed the meaning by connecting the words I heard, although I was unable to distinguish all the sounds at that time. I just connected the words that I heard and guessed what they meant.
DELE: In real conversation, the sound of the voice is the sound of the meaning, as it were. The change in sound is the change in meaning. You didn’t feel that way?
Murayama: That’s right. Although I could hear stressed parts, I could not completely pick up the unstressed sounds at the end of words. However, since I started speaking English, I’ve become more aware that I am pronouncing the words properly, even though some sounds are unstressed. This may explain why I can recognize the weak forms now.
At MIT, I was more surprised by the culture and people.
DELE: Next, you said you attended MIT.
Murayama: One year, from the summer before the last to last summer.
DELE: Did you like it there?
Murayama: It was a lot of fun, and it was stimulating because there were topics and experimental methods that our group in Japan did not have. All the people were very kind, so my time there was stress-free. Of course, I was a little perplexed at first to find out that all the information was presented in English, including emails. However, the change in language was not very challenging. The people in the group there were very kind, and safety management was better than that it is in Japanese laboratories. I was more surprised by culture and humanity than by language.
English pronunciation is part of one’s identity.
DELE: Did you feel that the English spoken by young people was slightly different from the English spoken on CNN or ABC, for example? What was the percentage of Americans in your laboratory at MIT?
Murayama: The professor was an American, but there were many Japanese students there. Approximately 30% of the students in the group were American. Almost half the students at MIT were international students. Even before I stayed at MIT, I liked that people spoke English differently every time I attended a research meeting or a similar event. When I was an undergraduate student, I thought that I should aim for native-like English. Now, I think it’s okay to speak English in a Japanese way, as long as I can convey my message.
Murayama: Since I have started to feel that English pronunciation is part of one’s identity, I do not push myself too hard anymore. When you try to sound like native, doesn’t your jaw get tired after a day of trying?
DELE: That’s right (laughs).
Murayama: Moving my jaw hard all day was especially tiring. I gave up, or rather, accepted that I usually speak with a weak Japanese accent (laughs). In the past, I spoke hard and was very tired.
You will obtain more information in English.
DELE: I like the statement, “pronunciation is part of one’s identity.” Thank you very much. You said earlier that you use English rather than study it. You gather information about the coronavirus vaccine or current world affairs in English.
Murayama: That’s right.
DELE: You can obtain this kind of information in Japanese. Nonetheless, you prefer to use English. Can you tell me why?
Murayama: The amount of information is significantly different. For example, in my field of expertise, I could never conduct research or read papers if I only used Japanese. In addition, when I need information daily, when I need information on programming languages for calculations, for example, I can get the answers in English. This is almost beyond comparison with a search conducted in Japanese. In addition, the Japanese media emphasize ease of understanding too much and appeal too much to emotions. My personal frustration is that I cannot access so much scientific information in Japanese, for example about the covid-19. In contrast, international media and proper academic sites contain scientific information, although they are written in plain language for the public. It is useful to check these sites to obtain information.
For example, consider the recent news about the Taliban. I was in the first grade of elementary school when the Iraq War broke out. I remember watching TV broadcasts at the children’s center. I think the current Afghan affair is as significant as that, but the Japanese media do not cover it much. There are no special TV programs, and news programs barely cover it. In the international press, various explanations are provided, and the information is updated every day. It is interesting to watch this.
The lack of English skills should not be an excuse to hurt people by not communicating with them.
DELE: Going back to your research; were there any other times when you felt that it is advantageous to use English?
Murayama: If I were an international student in Japan, I would feel quite lonely because people around me would not communicate with me. When everyone is speaking Japanese in a laboratory, international students do not understand what is being said. It is a little sad that not all Japanese students actively communicate with international students.
One international student was very distressed. He felt anxious because he was somewhat ignored, and people around him were not communicating so much with him. Initially, he had planned to attend the doctoral program, but he decided not to. I feel responsible when I see people like that. This is not just a matter of proficiency in English; it is about how you should behave in a community. You should use English to avoid having less communication and consequently hurting people. A lack of proficiency should not be an excuse.
DELE: We should not alienate our neighbors or international students by saying that we are not good at English.
Murayama: That’s right. In Japan, “I am not good at English” is accepted as a valid reason for not communicating. However, in U.S. institutions with many international students, if a teacher does not communicate with international students just because of the language barrier, it is harassment. In my case, I took advantage of this. My professors and graduate students were careful to speak in a way that was easy to understand. They repeated points many times and encouraged me to ask them when I did not understand something. The other side of the coin was that my English did not improve much. Nevertheless, I feel that this kind of awareness and morality is uncommon in Japan.
DELE: Suppose a Japanese student thinks that he or she is not good at English, and there is an international student with little knowledge of Japanese. In practice, the only common language is English. If the international student is in trouble, the Japanese students should talk to him or her, even if it is with a mixture of Japanese and English, such as, “Do-shitano? Any problem?”
Murayama: It is fine if everything is in Japanese. One of the students in my group who was quite skilled at that sort of communication. I learned a lot from him. He could not speak English at all, but he actively communicated with international students in Japanese. At that time, I realized that saying “I cannot communicate because I do not speak the language” is not an excuse. I reflected much on this.
Reading fiction and learning about psychiatry can also help with communication.
DELE: Listening to you talk, I believe that you indeed care about the feelings of others. How do you evaluate yourself in this regard?
Murayama: I have always considered myself a noncommunicative person.
DELE: You’re not good at communication?
Murayama: That’s right. However, in the Faculty of Science, I found many people less skilled in communication (laughs). Nevertheless, when I worked part-time, many people were much more talkative, and I was rather quiet. Whenever we wanted to do something together, other people would take the lead, and I would just follow. Even though I was like that, in the research group, I started communicating actively. Before that, I did not care that much about other people, but recently, I have started to feel very responsible toward them.
DELE: I see. In terms of “knowing how other people feel,” do you like reading novels to learn about different people’s emotions or watching dramas to observe multiple relationships?
Murayama: I like it very much. I enjoy reading novels. When I was a child, I did not like communicating with people. I was the type of person who would read books at home. Now, I do not read novels as much as I used to, but I watch dramas because I find them interesting.
DELE: Are they English dramas or Japanese ones?
Murayama: I watch Japanese dramas on the web that were first broadcast on TV.
DELE: Some people dismiss novels and dramas as “not worth a penny.” However, knowing different people’s emotions and understanding that people with different emotions coexist are essential for cultural development. It is also critical for improving communication skills.
Murayama: Novels are written in extreme ways, or rather, personalities are characterized dramatically. Therefore, when I meet someone in real life, I can tentatively categorize their personalities and deal with them better. I think novels help with communication.
DELE: Yes, that’s right.
Murayama: Another thing is that I was reading about mental illness and personality disorders because I wanted to learn more about human behavior. I think that this kind of experience helps me deal with people who are challenging to communicate with calmly.
DELE: I also read many books from the field of psychiatry. Sometimes, you can learn more about communication from this field than you can from books on language teaching. I think that language education should not be reduced to the acquisition of linguistic forms, such as vocabulary and grammar.
If you know what the other person is saying, you can start improving your speaking skills then.
DELE: Now, for the final question. If you were to give any advice to undergraduate students, what would it be?
Murayama: If there is no opportunity to use English now, you should learn English as preparation for the future. When you begin to use English, listening and reading requirements will probably be high because they will come at the level of the English users you deal with, not your level. However, for speaking and other outputs, you can use English at your own level, utilizing the vocabulary and grammar you know. You do not need a high level of speaking ability right from the start. Therefore, you should be prepared with sufficient listening and reading skills to acquire the information that reaches you.
To repeat the point I mentioned earlier, language knowledge comprises only a part of communication skills. Developing nonlinguistic communication skills requires practice and time. Even if you know the language, the conversation may not continue. It is important to have good communication skills.
You might think you do not have to use English in your life. However, who can be sure that you would not have to use it for the rest of your life? Suppose you work for a domestic company. However, out of the blue, you may be transferred to a different department and have to deal with people from overseas. You may not be able to improve your speaking skills right away, but if you know what the other person is saying or writing, you can start improving your output skills then. However, if you lack listening or reading skills, you can do nothing. You need to be prepared for that kind of situation.
In a different community, the role you play in the group’s communication will change.
DELE: You said that language knowledge is only a part of communicative ability and that you cannot learn to respond to nonlinguistic issues quickly. Do you mean that the compassion you mentioned earlier or the breadth and depth of your education is critical, for example?
Murayama: The ability to provide a conversation topic is vital. Silence in conversation can be awkward, both in Japanese and in English. If you cannot talk to people in Japanese, you will probably not communicate well, even if you can speak English. I’m talking about myself.
DELE: No, no, no.
Murayama: However, I do not think you can learn these skills as quickly as you can learn English.
DELE: Various social experiences, including part-time jobs, may be quite helpful in this regard.
Murayama: That’s right. I think it is crucial to meet and converse with a variety of people. Different communities have different types of communication. If you change communities, your role in group communication will change as well. It would not be very helpful to stay only with people who are in the same university. Kyoto offers many opportunities to connect with various people. There are people from other universities, and the gap between working people and university students is small. Undergraduates can have many such opportunities, but once you enter graduate school, you will no longer have that kind of time.
DELE: Is there anything else you would like to add, or do you remember any other episodes?
Murayama: If I could travel back in time to my undergraduate years, I would study my specialty more. For example, when I do not understand something while reading research or discussing it, it is often not a language problem, but a knowledge problem. All I can say now is that I should have studied harder.
DELE: This theme is recurring. If you have the expertise, the language will probably follow.
Murayama: I think that is really true for language skills in research. When researchers communicate with each other, it seems as if they can convey their message by simply using technical terms. However, I think that everyday conversation is entirely different.
DELE: Thank you very much.
Murayama: Thank you, too.
After the interview
Ms. Murayama has a very gentle demeanor, and her thoughtful words were softly spoken. I also felt that using English for research and gathering information daily have become an integral part of her everyday life.
I was also very impressed by her comment that if someone has trouble understanding Japanese, we should just talk to him or her. I learned that for us as human beings, it is essential to pursue higher goals, rather than focusing only on language and thinking whether one is good or bad at it. I would like to thank Ms. Murayama for dedicating her precious time to this interview.
Miwa Tobita (Graduate School of Engineering, second year of the Master’s program) (Interview conducted in Japanese on August 25, 2021; about 3,900 words in translation)
Graduate Student (Master’s Program),
Graduate School of Engineering
“English is a tool, not a goal.”
The interview was conducted in Japanese on August 25, 2021, via Zoom, by Yanase, from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
Since I usually read only in English, writing in Japanese can be more confusing.
DELE: Thank you for this interview. How do you use English every day in the Master’s program of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Graduate School of Engineering?
Tobita: Presently, our laboratory has no international members, so I do not usually speak in English there. However, I write papers and give presentations at conferences in English.
DELE: Do you find it more challenging to write in English than in Japanese? Or is it easier to write in English because all of the literature you read is in English?
Tobita: The latter. I am used to English expressions because I only read English literature. I sometimes wonder about how I should write in Japanese.
English in engineering papers is more straightforward than English in books for general readers.
DELE: When did you decide to change your reading style and start reading in English?
Tobita: Probably when I was in my third or fourth year of undergraduate studies. It was after I started conducting research.
DELE: Did you face any particular difficulties in making that shift, or was it easier for you to understand engineering English than liberal education English because it was more straightforward?
Tobita: As you say, English in engineering papers is more straightforward than in books for general readers. Expressions are somewhat limited in technical documents and are more accessible.
However, my first engagement in research was closer to theoretical science than to engineering. It was an almost completely unfamiliar field for me. Since I read the technical literature in English without reading relevant literature in Japanese, I could not tell whether my failure to understand the content was because of my lack of expertise or my insufficient knowledge of English. I had a lot of trouble during that time.
My awareness and ability for expression developed as I experienced more writing and reading.
DELE: When did your academic writing shift from Japanese to English?
Tobita: The experiment reports I wrote for classes in the first and second years of my undergraduate studies were always in Japanese. I switched to English as the primary language for academic writing when I started my research in the third year.
DELE: Did you find any challenges in the shift?
Tobita: I had a lot of trouble. Initially, I was writing in limited English. However, with more experience in the cycle of reading and writing, I learned to use some expressions that I was unaware of when I was not writing in English. I also looked up typical expressions for writing papers in the Word Phrase Bank. I learned words and phrases as I used them. That is how I learned to write, similar to other researchers.
DELE: Did you learn the format of an academic paper, the general framework of introduction, method, result, and discussion (IMRAD), through various experiences in your undergraduate studies?
Tobita: I think you could say that.
Machine-translated English sounds somewhat like Japanese. I have to rewrite it to make it more authentic.
DELE: Many people use machine translation to read or write English papers. What about you?
Tobita: As a matter of fact, I have used automatic translation. Although, now, I write in English from the start, I used to write in Japanese first. I was not able to construct an argument coherently when I wrote it from scratch in English. Therefore, I translated my Japanese script using Google Translate and edited it. The machine translation English sounded somewhat like Japanese; I had to rewrite it to sound more like authentic English.
DELE: In the beginning, you used machine translation because you were not very adequately able to think in English. However, you now write in English from scratch.
A question that I cannot answer in yes or no is the hardest in a Q&A session.
DELE: Do you face any difficulties when you give presentations and answer questions in English at conferences?
Tobita: The presentation itself is not so challenging if I prepare sufficiently in advance. The most demanding part is the question-and-answer session. This is not easy, even in Japanese. It is far more challenging in English because I need to think and express ideas quickly and spontaneously.
In addition, the questions that cannot be answered in “Yes” or “No” answers are the most challenging. I know that I should state the conclusion first, but occasionally the answer has to be inconclusive, such as “It depends,” or “Partially, yes.” After answering this question, I explore the issue by asking back more detailed questions.
DELE: It is not easy to develop an intelligent conversation.
Tobita: That is right. The same is true in Japanese.
It is undoubtedly better to state your conclusion first in a scientific discussion.
DELE: You said your first response should be “yes” or “no.” However, in Japanese, a long and detailed argument often comes first, and the final answer comes last, such as “So I’d say no.” Have you always been aware that the English and Japanese styles are different, if it is not a matter of which is better?
Tobita: I have never thought that English and Japanese styles are different in the first place. I have often heard that a speaker should first state “yes” or “no,” even in Japanese contexts. As I listened to various talks, I thought it was critical to state the conclusion first. I believe this is the same in Japanese and English. However, in Japanese, I can answer with nuances of various gradations and details at the start of the statement, and not a simple “yes” or “no” answer. I do not have such skills in English to my satisfaction, although I have been trying to acquire various phrases through experience.
DELE: I am 58 years old now, so there may be a generational difference here. My generation may not say “yes” or “no” very clearly at the beginning.
Tobita: Why is that? Is there a merit or advantage in that way?
DELE: People in my generation often say at length, “Well, there’s this thing, and there’s this circumstance, and there’s this background,” and make the listener anticipate that the speaker would probably say “no.” My generation may often not say, “No, I cannot do that because…’ at the beginning of an utterance.
Tobita: This may be true when you have to decline very politely. However, in a scientific discussion, it is undoubtedly better to say the conclusion first. The communication style you mentioned was very Japanese. In Japan, people tend to explain the circumstances first, and then tell the main points at the end. However, the opposite is true in the United States and some European countries.
DELE: Then, when did you start to think that you should initially say “yes” or “no” in Japanese as well? Did you receive instruction during elementary school class meetings or junior high school Japanese classes? Or were you usually told to do so at home?
Tobita: The opportunities to participate in various conferences and research presentations after entering university probably had the most significant influence on me. I assessed speeches, such as “this person’s answer was easy to understand” and “that person’s response was not clear after all.” As I continued, I realized that it was better to state the conclusion first.
DELE: I understand that very well. With respect to business e-mails in Japanese, I first state, “I’m sorry, but I cannot accept this.”
I rarely fail at listening to English in conferences and research discussions.
DELE: Let me proceed to the next topic. Many Japanese people are skilled in reading and writing but feel inadept at pronunciation and listening. How about you?
Tobita: I sometimes struggle with pronunciation. However, I rarely fail at listening to English in conferences or research discussions. It is probably because the speakers are taking care of this. Native English speakers speak carefully, assuming that there may be non-native English speakers in the audience. I believe that this is why I do not face any difficulties.
In contrast, everyday conversation contains some slang; I sometimes do not know the words in the first place. I am also not able to understand when the speech is too fast.
I used to listen to English cassettes and watch videos with my mother.
DELE: How did you learn English from elementary school to university?
Tobita: In junior and senior high schools, I studied English just like everyone else. However, my mother was quite fond of English and foreign cultures. She was very interested in Japanese culture, too. She influenced me very much. My mother was a learner of English, Chinese, Russian, and other languages. I used to listen to English cassette tapes and watch videos with her. That was probably my first experience of learning English.
DELE: How old were you then?
Tobita: Probably from the age of two to six.
DELE: Your ears probably were attuned to English during that time.
Tobita: I think so. Thanks to that, I was familiar with standard pronunciation but not colloquial English. I was not at all used to the pronunciation in movies, dramas, and everyday conversations.
DELE: Did you have any other experiences, such as going to an English conversation school, traveling abroad often, or having English speakers around you?
Tobita: I have traveled abroad a little bit, stayed with a host family for some time, and attended English conversation classes for a little while. My mother also had an English-speaking friend. She came to Japan about once a year, and we talked during those times. However, I was not always in such a situation.
DELE: Compared to your classmates in junior and senior high schools, did you think you had advantages in English?
Tobita: My test scores were not bad. Thanks to my mother, I had a certain level of basic knowledge. However, there were many returnee students around me, and I always thought I could not compete with them.
Although I can speak relatively well, I occasionally cause misunderstandings as a non-native speaker.
DELE: You could not compete with returnees, but now, as a student in the Master’s program, you do not find any particular problem in using English on a daily basis.
Tobita: It is not that I have no problems. Native English speakers convey more subtle nuances and have fewer cases of misunderstanding. Non-native speakers sometimes cause misunderstandings with the slightest points, even if they can speak reasonably well.
DELE: If you have to communicate 10 messages, you can probably convey 9.5. However, you miss the remaining 0.5, causing misunderstandings, such as subtle nuances.
Tobita: I would say it is approximately 8. If I work hard, I can probably get 9.5, but not 10.
After entering graduate school, I switched all my daily reading to English.
DELE: Are you doing something to fill that gap? Or do you think you have to do something? Some engineers say that if their English is good enough, it is good enough. Research is their primary priority. There must be different ways of thinking. For this reason, I interview many people. What is your idea?
Tobita: I have been conducting online English conversations. I also read books daily. I used to read practical books and novels in Japanese, but I switched to English after entering graduate school. I now read almost everything in English, except for Japanese novels. I believe I can now read English books almost as fluently as I read Japanese books.
DELE: That is amazing. I also try to increase my reading and listening experience in English. I listen to audiobooks and read The New York Times in the morning.
Tobita: I read articles in Science, maybe once a week.
DELE: Science offers podcast programs. Do you listen to them?
Tobita: I do not. However, I enjoy TED talks, which is everyone’s favorite. I also like Savvy Psychologist.
I was beginning to feel slightly bored with learning English for its own sake.
DELE: You started those habits upon entering the Master’s program.
Tobita: Yes. I did not practice most of these habits during my undergraduate years. When I started my Master’s program, I began to incorporate podcasts and other things related to English into my life. I switched from Japanese to English in my everyday activities.
DELE: Is this because you thought English was essential in the Master’s program?
Tobita: This is true. However, I was beginning to feel slightly bored with learning English for its own sake. Another factor was that my skills in English developed to a practical level, where I could enjoy various matters in English.
DELE: I like the expression “Learning English for its own sake can be boring.” I understand what you mean very well. Many people feel unexcited about studying English for its own sake. It is more interesting to use English in relation to what is actually happening in the world.
I feel it is critical to use the tool well.
Tobita: You are right. In addition, I wondered if I should mention this earlier. It is about prioritizing research over English in the field of engineering. I often think that this view is correct. English is a tool, not a goal. What is essential is how well you use it. However, simultaneously, it is important to have a balance.
The ideal scenario is that you develop such expertise that everyone is eagerly listening to what you have to say, irrespective of how you put it. Nevertheless, it is crucial to use this tool well. Even a basic grasp of junior high school English grammar produces a big difference in communication. It is better to keep this in mind.
Learning English just for the sake of tests may not be particularly significant for engineering professionals. It is far more essential to collect useful phrases to discuss issues, answer questions, and build mutual trust.
I participated in academic events actively from my genuine interest.
DELE: Exactly. Some English teachers only care about learning in the classroom, but learners use English outside the classroom. In your undergraduate years, did you have many experiences communicating in English with scientists and engineers?
Tobita: I would not say I am very experienced. However, I have observed how other people use English. I have not used it much myself.
DELE: You saw other people using English. Was that your personal effort, or was that what students in your major generally do?
Tobita: I participated in academic events actively out of my own interests.
DELE: Does this mean you have participated in international conferences that are held in Japan? Or did you go abroad?
Tobita: Most conferences were held in Japan. The laboratory, where I studied as an undergraduate student, had many connections with other countries. Many researchers came from abroad to give lectures, presentations, and discussions. I actively joined these events.
Good communicators ask adequate questions. Asking relevant questions is critical.
DELE: You mentioned earlier that many Japanese people struggle with English word order. Japanese word order interferes with their utterances in English. Do you feel the same way? Or did you already get used to thinking in English from your experiences of reading and listening?
Tobita: I still struggle with the order of words when I speak. I tend to think of verbs as the last element in a sentence. I must bring the verb immediately after the subject. However, most importantly, many people have trouble with question forms.
DELE: What do you mean?
Tobita: It is elementary. For example, with a general verb, the question form is “Do you ...” or “Does she ...,” and with a “be”-verb, such as am, are, and is, the form is “Is it ....” In an interrogative, it is “What does it ...” Many Japanese people are confused about the basic word order in speaking. Also, students studying only for tests, such as TOEIC or TOEFL, do not use the question form very often because they rarely ask questions to the examiners in the speaking sections.
DELE: That is right.
Tobita: However, as the saying goes, “Good listeners are good speakers.” Good communicators ask adequate questions in everyday conversations or discussions. It is critical to ask relevant questions. Moreover, it is disturbing if you cannot form questions effortlessly.
I enjoy reading books for practical purposes, such as “Thanks for the Feedback” and “Culture Map.”
DELE: Thank you for your comment. Your story is very informative. Earlier, you said that you changed the reading language from Japanese to English. Do you actively read books?
Tobita: I think I read a lot.
DELE: You now read most books in English, except for novels. What kinds of books do you read in English?
Tobita: Recently, I mostly read practical books. One example is “Thanks for the Feedback”, which describes how researchers should receive feedback. I also enjoyed “The Culture Map.” Most people categorize the world as “the West versus Asia” or “the West, Asia, or the Middle East.” However, there are gradations within Asia, Europe, and the United States. This book analyzes these gradations into seven elements and shows them on a scale. This book probably summarizes people’s multicultural experiences.
DELE: What are the advantages of using English?
Tobita: Japanese translations are available for many well-known Western books. Nevertheless, the apparent benefit of using English is reading books that have not been translated. I recently discovered an intriguing book. That book led to another book by the same author, which was also fascinating. Later, I realized that there was no Japanese translation for this book. Without using English, I would not have reached that book, which made a substantial difference to me. I wonder if there is anything else...
One researcher from the U.S. gave me his contact information, saying, “I like your research. Are you interested in my graduate school?”
DELE: It is impossible to imagine a research life without English at the Graduate School of Engineering. English use is the norm, is it not?
Tobita: This is a critical point. You can ask someone to translate your papers. However, you can communicate your research outcomes more widely if a tool can be used to express your ideas.
One episode came to my mind. I gave a poster presentation at an international conference held in Japan. Many researchers came from overseas and discussed it in English. One researcher from the United States said to me, “I like your research. Are you interested in my graduate school?” and gave me his contact information. At that time, I had already decided to attend my current graduate school. Therefore, I took no particular action. However, this episode probably shows a great advantage in the use of English. It increases the chances of such opportunities.
DELE: I agree. Great opportunities often arise from casual conversation.
A chat in front of a photocopying machine led to a joint research project.
Tobita: Exactly. You could call it “copy machine talk.” Sorry for my digression, but I heard a story about vaccine development for the coronavirus. Someone told me that the original idea for the vaccine dates back many decades. The idea came from a chat between two researchers waiting in front of a copying machine. This conversation led to a joint research project. Casual conversations can lead to collaborative research and innovation.
DELE: I also hear that an ordinary idea in one field can be exciting in a different area and bring about a breakthrough. The benefits of using English do not end with the presentation. A new idea may emerge from interaction after presentation.
Tobita: Exactly. Interactive improvisation may be difficult if you rely on translation.
DELE: My last question. What would you advise undergraduate students?
Tobita: One point I mentioned earlier is asking questions effectively. Students who only studied for tests may not have learned to use questions for better communication. However, these questioning skills are critical. Undergraduate students should learn to ask questions in English. The language can be at the junior high school level.
DELE: Do you mean the questions to develop the flow of conversation, and not just the questions in mechanical drills, such as “Do you like ...” or “Does she like ...”?
Tobita: Yes. However, at the same time, sentence construction skills are crucial to get the message across.
Keep handy phrases in stock.
DELE: What else do you want to say?
Tobita: English learners should have some phrases for trust-building in stock to speak more effectively. As I mentioned earlier, it is not easy to express 100% of your intentions. If you are studying engineering, not English, it is even more difficult. However, ultimately, English is not a goal. It is a tool. It is fine if you stop your efforts to make it 100%, when you are approximately at a 75% level. What remains is how to skillfully fill the remaining 25%.
For example, close attention should be paid to the facial expressions of other people during an academic conversation. A slightly bewildered look on their face indicates that you are not getting through or being misunderstood. You need to act spontaneously. You may say, for example, “Did I say something strange?’ “Does it sound right?” “Does it make sense?”, or “Am I making myself clear?” If you have those phrases in stock, you can correct the misunderstanding immediately, when necessary. These expressions help regain trust.
DELE: Conversation is co-construction and joint construction. Therefore, it is better to learn strategies that collaboratively creates conversations rather than dealing with communication problems alone.
Tobita: That is exactly right.
DELE: Anything else?
Tobita: This may be slightly similar to the second point I mentioned earlier, but speakers with only 75% communicative skills often encounter issues. For example, you may lose track of what you are saying in the middle of your explanation. It is a tricky situation, even in Japanese. You are more likely to get lost in what you are saying in English. It is a good idea to remember some phrases in such a situation.
DELE: Such as, “Where am I?”
Tobita: This is an example. Other examples include “Let me explain again” and “Let me start from the beginning.” You may just say, “In a nutshell.”
In addition, it is crucial not to hesitate to ask the other person to speak a little slower when you cannot hear or understand in a Q&A session. In order to clarify the meaning of the question, you should use phrases, such as “Do you mean ...” to confirm their intention in your own words. You should remember as many such expressions as possible and always be ready to use.
English is a tool, not a goal.
DELE: Some refer to methods such as communication strategies. Knowing such techniques is helpful. Is there anything else that you would like to tell the undergraduates in general? It does not have to be about English.
Tobita: English is not a goal. It is only a tool. Keep a pragmatic stance in using it. That is what I wanted to say the most.
DELE: Great! You have decided on the title for this interview (laughs). It was fascinating to talk to you. It was a learning experience for me. Thank you very much.
Tobita: I am glad to hear that. I had a good time, too.
After the interview
Although I am still a learner, I talked as if I were much more competent. Nevertheless, I hope readers will learn something from my methods and techniques, despite their flaws.
The episode of an American researcher trying to recruit Tobita-san to his graduate school, after her poster presentation reveals, reveals her personality. Thanks to Ms. Tobita’s “good listening skills,” I ended up talking a lot despite my restraint as an interviewer. (I have deleted much of what I had said from the script above.) Her excellent questioning skills may be related to her daily reading habits. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. I wish Ms. Tobita the best for all of her future endeavors.
A. K., Student at Graduate School of Agriculture (Conducted on August 6, 2021. About 3,000 words)
First-year Master’s student,
Graduate School of Agriculture
“Speaking English itself is not so important.
Communicating in English is more important.”
The interview was conducted in English via Zoom on August 6, 2021.
The interviewer was Sara Schipper, a senior lecturer from the International Academic Research and Resource Center (i-ARRC).
“Pomology is an area of agriculture which especially focuses on fruits.”
DELE: I’m Sara Schipper and I’m here with A.K. from the Faculty of Agriculture. First, could you just introduce yourself a little bit?
A.K.: I am A.K. and I am a first-year Master’s degree student. I belong to the Lab of Pomology, so I’m studying fruits.
DELE: Fruits, ok. What’s the name of it, again?
DELE: I’m not so familiar with it. Could you explain a bit more about it? What specifically do you study, and how did you become interested in it?
A.K.: Yeah, I don’t think it’s very usual. Pomology is an area of agriculture which especially focuses on fruits. In my laboratory, some students are working on Japanese apricots and others are studying about blueberries. Specifically, my research is about the persimmon. It is my goal to capture the features of persimmon fruits from different cultivars* based on photographs. I believe this research will help breeding new cultivars by making it easier to evaluate shapes of bred cultivars. To be honest, this theme was given to me by my professors considering the season when I would come back from Australia, so I was not enthusiastic about it. However, I came to be interested in it as I realized that there are so many cultivars and some of them have very characteristic and unique shapes.
*cultivar= cultivated variety (of plant)
“There are a lot of opportunities to speak English at my laboratory.”
DELE: Okay. Well, today we’re mostly focusing on your experiences with English. So, my first question for you is: How do you use English for your studies or for school?
A.K.: So, actually there are lot of opportunities or chances to speak in English at my laboratory because a lot of foreign students are there. They are from China or Taiwan mainly, and I talk with them every day. I mean just conversation. Or I ask them about their experiments. So, there are lot of opportunities to talk with them. And in my laboratory, there is a progress report once every week, on Tuesday. The presenter will give a presentation in English and the professors and students ask questions in English. So, that’s also one of the opportunities to speak in English. And…this is not the current situation, but I am going to use English for double-degree program. Do you know about that?
DELE: I do, yeah, but explain a little bit about your situation.
A.K.: Yeah, so, I am going to study in Taiwan next year, 2022 to 2023, just one year, and I am going to research about tropical fruits there, hopefully, if I can go there.
DELE: Okay, so right, because of the corona virus situation…
A.K.: I may not be able to enter.
DELE: Right. So, that double-degree program means you’ll get a degree from the university there and also be working towards your degree here?
DELE: Could you explain more specifically what you will study in Taiwan? What do you plan to research, and how do you think it will be useful in the future?
A.K.: I am going to work on avocados using a hyperspectral camera*. I would like to investigate the relationship between ripeness of avocados and the wavelength or intensity they give. Though I proposed this to my supervisor in Taiwan, I have not gotten a reply from her, so I am not sure if I can really work on it or not. In the future, that research will help people easily find when the best time is to harvest and eat avocados. I suppose many people have had experiences of eating unripened avocados.
*hyperspectral camera= a camera for detecting the specific color signature of individual objects
DELE: Yes, you’re right! Okay. So, let me go back for a second. So, you said, because there are a lot of international students in the lab, the language that most people, international students, use is English?
DELE: Okay. Do they communicate in Japanese as well?
A.K.: There are five or six Chinese students and just some of them can speak Japanese. Just one or two. So, we usually talk with them in English.
DELE: Okay, and then for the progress report, one student gives a presentation each time in English?
A.K.: Yeah, three students.
DELE: Okay, about their progress in the lab, I guess?
A.K.: Yes, yes. So, what kind of experiment they did or what kind of result they got or like that.
DELE: Okay. Are there any situations outside of the laboratory when you use English?
A.K.: I have one friend from Australia, so I sometimes talk with her through LINE, you know. So, yeah, I think that’s another situation I use English in everyday life.
“I realized I had to give specific answers or give my own opinions.”
DELE: Okay, so what is your background with English study, and how have you studied English up to this point?
A.K.: So, ok. When I was an elementary school student, I went to a kind of English cram school. But it was just – at that time I was not serious about studying English.
DELE: How old were you at that time?
A.K.: Ten? nine? eleven? And after I entered junior high school, I quit and studied English only in classes at the school. And the same for high school. After entering this university, I took ILAS class, which was offered by a foreign teacher. In the class, the teacher told students if we were interested in visiting his lab, then we could visit anytime. And I actually visited him—his laboratory, and I decided to join the laboratory. That was my first opportunity to do something like that. And I belonged to that laboratory until the summer of second grade.
DELE: As an undergraduate student?
A.K.: As an undergraduate, yes.
DELE: What was the lab researching, and what was your role there?
A.K.: It was the MaRCU—Molecular and RNA Cancer Unit. I did some experiments as a lab member, such as incubating cells, extracting proteins and analyzing results. Plus, I also joined a journal club, where all lab members got together and one of them gave a presentation on the journals they had read. In summary, there was not a specific role for me.
DELE: And how about your English study after that?
A.K.: At that time, I decided to study abroad in the summer vacation. So, I went to Montreal, Canada when I was in my second year. That program was actually very short, just for three weeks. And that was the first time for me to go abroad.
DELE: What was the living situation when you went abroad? Did you stay with a homestay family?
A.K.: Yes, I home stayed with a family.
DELE: Okay. So, I suppose you had to use English a lot in the homestay.
A.K.: Yes, that’s true.
DELE: Were there any specific challenges or episodes that you remember?
A.K.: Yes, there were! The most difficult thing was to communicate with my host family. Before going to Canada, I often gave vague answers to Japanese friends, such as “I am okay either way,” or something like that. However, this way of answering questions made my host mother confused, and I realized that I had to give specific answers or give my own opinions. After that, I struggled to [try to] express my thoughts as soon as someone asked me questions.
DELE: Okay. So, did you have some opportunities to keep up your English skills when you came back?
A.K.: Yes. So, actually I had some friends from foreign countries at the laboratory. So, even after I left the laboratory, I had some chances to talk with them. I sometimes hung out with them and went to Osaka or went sightseeing. I think also around that time I asked you to help improve my English skills and help to take TOEFL, when I was a second-year student. I took the TOEFL test in December 2018.
DELE: And if I remember correctly, we practiced writing and speaking mainly.
A.K.: Yes. I wanted to utilize that [high TOEFL] score. So, I applied for an exchange program. There is one at Sydney University. So, I applied to that program at the beginning of my third year, so like April 2019. And actually, I was not sure if I could survive in Sydney almost half a year. I thought that I had to join one more program before that. I mean, I needed more experience in foreign countries. So, I applied to another program, which was a program for studying English in New Zealand.
DELE: Like a short-term program?
A.K.: Short term, yeah, four weeks this time. In September 2019, I left Japan and I stayed in New Zealand for four weeks. After that, in February 2020, I went to Sydney and the program finished in June 2020, and maybe that’s the last program I joined. And in the future, I am going to join the double-degree program as well.
DELE: Right. And you were telling me before that even though the program started in Australia, you were only there for a couple of months before the classes went online?
A.K.: Yes, they just – less than two months, yeah.
DELE: So, then you had online classes for about four months or more?
DELE: How did you find the online classes? Was it more difficult, do you think?
A.K.: Actually, that might have been better for me. If it’s online, they provide recorded videos, recorded classes. So, that is available anytime. So, if I missed something in the classes, I could review and catch up.
DELE: You could watch the same lecture again?
A.K.: Yeah. And I could replay it more slowly or faster. So, that’s very helpful. And due to the different time zones, one of my classes was taken by just a few students. You know, students in America could not take the classes at the same time because it was midnight or something. So, in one of my classes, only the teacher and I and just one or two students were there.
DELE: Wow, that’s a great chance to be able to talk with the teacher.
A.K.: Yeah, it’s a great chance. I could ask them many times, like, oh, I missed that, please say it again or something. They were also nice to me.
“I can discuss the content of the reports with my professors deeply.”
DELE: Okay. Then, let me ask you the next question, which is, in what situations do you strongly realize the benefit of being able to use English or do you feel like, “Wow, it’s good that I can use English in this situation?”
A.K.: I can imagine several situations and one is that, as I told you, we have a progress report meeting on Tuesdays, and I can discuss the content of the reports with my professors deeply. So, that is very helpful, I think. And the next is that I can read papers easily compared with others.
DELE: Papers for research?
A.K.: Papers for research, yeah. So, I can read papers in a short time, so it is not so tough for me to prepare for presentations, seminars, or things like that.
DELE: So, do you also write research papers in English?
A.K.: Not yet.
DELE: Not yet, okay. In the laboratory, do you share work? Like are you reading other students’ research?
A.K.: Not other students’ but research from other countries or other researchers. So, we usually choose one or two papers from journals and share it with other lab members.
“In the past I was afraid of saying that because I thought that that was only my fault.”
DELE: For this next question I am sure you have something to say, but what difficulties or challenges have you faced in acquiring English?
A.K.: Okay. So, if I divide English into four skills, listening and reading were, well, there is some problem with listening, but reading was okay for me.
DELE: It was the easiest for you?
A.K.: Easy? Not easy –
A.K.: Easiest, yes. I was trained to read a lot of passages in high school or junior high school in order to pass the entrance exam of this university. And the listening was also so-so, because the entrance exam of this university also required listening at the center examination. So, I was familiar with listening as well. However, the writing and speaking were unfamiliar to me.
DELE: Okay, so the output was more difficult than the input.
A.K.: Exactly. Especially when I took TOEFL test, I had some difficulties when I expressed my feelings or ideas because the correct or accurate phrases or words didn’t come up. So, there was a lot of silence, and I made a lot of mistakes—grammatical mistakes. In summary, when I tried to express my feelings in words, I faced a lot of difficulties.
DELE: So, how did you overcome those difficulties or how are you still overcoming them? Language learning is always a process, right?
A.K.: Yeah. So, in the conversation, if I cannot understand what others say, I ask them to say that again. Actually, in the past I was afraid of saying that because I thought that that was only my fault. But recently I changed my thinking and now, yeah, I ask them to repeat many times.
DELE: And how do people react when you ask them to repeat?
A.K.: They just say, ‘okay’ or something.
DELE: So, there was no reason to have a fear?
A.K.: No reason.
DELE: Okay. Anything else you do to—what about the writing aspect?
A.K.: Writing? Recently I haven’t done anything for writing, So, I am not sure, but when I took TOEFL exam, I just kept writing some passages every day, like daily. I heard that it’s good to keep a diary in English. So, I tried that. Actually, it improved my vocabulary, and I came to pay attention to grammar. That was, I think, a good exercise.
DELE: Okay, so when you were writing the diary, you said it improved your vocabulary, does that mean you used a dictionary while writing?
A.K.: Yeah, and I Googled. And I also, in order to become familiar with expressing my thoughts, I thought that I had to remember some phrases or sentences because if I remember those sentences, I can use the words in a particular situation, so I watched foreign movies in English or watched TV, I mean TV dramas in English. I also did those kinds of things.
DELE: Okay, to hear, like, conversational expressions?
A.K.: Yes, and to memorize some of them.
DELE: Were there any particular dramas or movies which you found useful?
A.K.: Yes. I like to watch Japanese dramas, not dramas but Japanese animation in English because I know the story, so I can understand the English easily. And there are subtitles also on the screen, so that is very helpful, too.
DELE: So, you’re listening in English and also reading the English at the same time?
A.K.: Yeah. I just knew the story in Japanese, and I just combine them.
DELE: Right, it’s a good idea.
“Speaking English itself is not so important. Communicating in English is more important.”
DELE: I think you’ve actually already offered a little bit of advice, but do you have any other advice for undergraduate students who are studying English now?
A.K.: So, if I can give advice, maybe I will say speaking English itself is not so important. Communicating in English is more important, I think. I mean, sometimes even if I can’t use proper English, people can understand if they are kind.
DELE: Okay. So, you mean perfectly grammatical English is not so important?
A.K.: Right. Not so important. I don’t think it’s [even] possible. I think it’s impossible.
DELE: That’s actually a good point to make. You need a realistic goal, right?
A.K.: Yeah, exactly. I can explain many times until someone understands, and they can also ask questions. And I use gestures. I think those factors helped me communicate in English. So, just speaking perfectly is not the best way, I think. DELE: So, in other words, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
DELE: Okay. I think this is mainly about speaking and listening, so what about reading and writing?
A.K.: Reading? I think many Japanese students are familiar with reading.
DELE: How about the writing? Maybe you recommended keeping a diary before?
A.K.: Diary, yeah, and plus, I think, it might be better to ask someone to check the writing. In my case, I asked you and other foreign students to check it, and they improved my essays so much. And in doing so I could find mistakes I didn’t notice. So, yeah, I think asking others to check the writing is also good. Of course, studying by themselves is also important, but…
DELE: Yeah, obviously the diary is self-practice. But writing an essay or TOEFL writing sample and getting someone else’s advice is a very good idea, too. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
A.K.: No, I have nothing to add. DELE: All right, then. Thank you so much for joining me today and communicating your responses very nicely in English!
A.K.: Thank you!
Sachi ANDO, Junior Associate Professor at Graduate School of Education. (Conducted on July 16, 2021. About 8,600 words)
Dr. Sachi Ando
Junior Associate Professor,
Graduate School of Education
“English is a tool. Use it first.”
The interview was conducted in Japanese via Zoom on July 16, 2021.
The interviewer was Yanase, the Chief of the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
I support the internationalization of graduate students’ research and educational activities.
DELE: Hello. Thank you for your time.
Ando: Thank you, too. I was looking forward to this interview.
DELE: First, I would like to ask you about your current work, and then about your relationship with English so far. Next, I’ll ask you a general question about the use of English in today’s society. I also want to hear your opinion about learning English. Finally, I would like to ask you to give some advice to the students at Kyoto University. So, could you first give us a brief description of your current work, especially in relation to English?
Ando: Yes. I am currently working as Junior Associate Professor in the Global Education Office at the Graduate School of Education. The Global Education Office was newly established within the Graduate School of Education in 2018. It is positioned as an interdisciplinary education and research center of the Graduate School.
There are two main sections within the Global Education Office, one of which is the Creative Research and Development Branch. The other is the International Education Branch, to which I belong.
Here, we mainly support the internationalization of graduate students’ research and educational activities. Among the various initiatives are, for example, internships abroad. The internship here is a little different from a corporate internship. For example, students visit professors in the areas of their research and have opportunities to discuss their research with the professors and the lab members. We also coordinate with the person in charge of accepting graduate students who wish to do fieldwork. We also support graduate students in presenting their research at international conferences and in writing papers in English. In addition, the Graduate School of Education has several academic exchange partner universities, and we provide support for joint workshops, seminars, and classes with the corresponding professors, in which our graduate students are given opportunities to participate.
DELE: So, you are working as a coordinator in the process of promoting internationalization in various ways.
Ando: That’s right. There are also an assistant professor and a professor, but we all work together to create the program. Since all three of us have different specialties, we support the students from various aspects.
DELE: You use English on a daily basis, negotiating via e-mail or Zoom. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I guess you often traveled overseas.
Ando: Yes, I used to travel overseas a lot. Nowadays, it is not possible for students to go abroad, either, because of the pandemic, but in the past, student exchange was thriving. Now, we have discussions with professors from our academic exchange partner universities via Zoom about how to conduct future student exchanges, how to write applications together so that we can continue such exchanges, and what topics we can collaborate on together.
Rather than studying English, I’ve been in an environment where I can’t study or work without it.
DELE: What kind of education did you have before you started your current position? What kind of work did you do, and how did you learn English?
Ando: I participated in an exchange program from a Japanese university to an American university. Later, I joined a double degree program and completed my undergraduate studies in Japan and the United States. I then went on to graduate school in the U.S., where I earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in the field of social work. Then, I started my academic career as an assistant professor in a small private university in Pennsylvania. So, I was in the U.S. for about 16 years in total, and it has been almost five years since I returned to Japan.
Before coming to Kyoto University, I was involved in the internationalization of graduate education in science and technology at a national university. I was engaged in attracting excellent international students, particularly from Asian countries, and creating collaborative centers to promote the research of science and technology professors. Since I was involved in the establishment of bases in Indonesia and Thailand, I visited and stayed in those countries quite frequently. Through this process, rather than studying English, I lived in an environment where I could not study or work without English. So even now, I rarely think about learning English but rather have the mindset of using English to do my work.
The homestay in my second year of junior high school made me think that English is fun.
DELE: You joined an undergraduate program in an American university as an exchange student. In general, this must be quite challenging because students have to study a wide range of subjects in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Some say that joining a doctoral degree abroad could be easier because the student has special knowledge to compensate for their English. How was your case?
Ando: Allow me to digress a bit. My first trip to the United States was during my summer vacation in eighth grade. It was my first experience going abroad, and I did a homestay in San Antonio, Texas for a month. I fell in love with English and since then have always wanted to live in the U.S. someday. This homestay was the beginning of my realization that I really enjoyed English. I was not interested in the various J-Pop and celebrities that were popular at that time. I only listened to The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Carpenters.
Also, by coincidence, there was a professional interpreter near my house, and she taught me English from junior high school until I entered university. There, of course, I had English learning goals, such as getting to Level 1 of the EIKEN [a well-known English test in Japan] by the time I graduated from high school or getting a certain score on TOEIC. Of course, I studied English for school before the mid-term and final exams, and the teacher also taught me how to study English for university entrance exams. However, what really impressed me was that the teacher also made it fun to use English. She always told me that in order to speak English correctly and to hear English accurately, I need to increase my vocabulary and study grammar well. Therefore, she also taught me vocabulary, idioms, and grammar.
I often listened to English songs and tried my best to fill in the blanks the teacher made in the lyrics. I also listened to a song and sang along while wondering about the choice of words. I watched English drama shows and tried to understand them. I did “shadowing” [repeating English immediately after hearing it] and through following these activities the teacher encouraged me to do, one day, I realized that I loved English.
In addition, I had always wanted to go to the U.S. and study there, so I didn’t have much resistance to the idea of joining an American university. Rather, I started my life in the U.S., feeling that I could finally come back to the U.S. and study what I wanted. I’m sorry if this is getting a little off topic.
I enjoyed understanding the lyrics of English music and watching dramas to understand their cultural background.
DELE: No, no, no. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. How did you maintain your enjoyment of English? Of course, there are people who find English to be fun, but for others English can be a pain because they can’t speak or listen even if they try. How did you find it enjoyable?
Ando: At that time, even though I was actually studying one-on-one with my English teacher, there were no English-speaking people nearby, so I didn’t experience English exposure in my daily life. I don’t think that I actually used that English in real life. However, it was fun to understand the lyrics when I listened to music or the cultural background of a drama when I watched it. Also, at that time, there were Beatles movies being broadcast on WOWOW, and I watched those as well. I remember that it was just fun to understand authentic English that was being spoken by real people, not dubbed. It was thanks to my teacher that I passed the EIKEN Level 1 written test (but not the interview test) by the time I graduated from high school.
DELE: It feels good to understand the meaning of live English, doesn’t it? So, in your case, rather than studying English you were more interested in the content expressed in English, such as in songs or dramas.
Ando: I thought they were very interesting.
DELE: How did that personal learning contrast with your English studies at school?
Ando: I actually really enjoyed my schoolwork. For example, I didn’t understand much about arithmetic and mathematics. I really didn’t know what was going on in chemistry classes, but my English score was unbeatable. I was confident that I was always the best in the class, and of course I understood my teacher’s English. I didn’t have such confidence in chemistry or other subjects. In English, I maintained my confidence, and I enjoyed it very much. Studying English was fun, even studying English for exams.
I couldn’t understand the English in the lecture, so I recorded it and transcribed it word-by-word.
DELE: I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed learning English. When you started to study at an American university, how was it? Was everything OK?
Ando: Far from that (laughs).
DELE: I guessed so (laughs).
Ando: It was a lot of fun, and I was very happy to be there, but of course the English being spoken was not the same as textbook English. It included idioms, nuances, and all that. It was really hard to understand. That’s why I called my mother in Japan through a collect call every day. I complained, “I don’t understand lectures. I’m all alone in classes.” For a month or two, my mother quietly listened to my complaints every night. But one day, she said, “Come home. That’s enough.” After that, I stopped calling her (laughs).
What I did since then was to ask the teacher’s permission to tape each class. In those days, people used cassette tapes. I sat in the front seat and taped the teacher’s voice for all the classes. The classes in the U.S. usually lasted an hour and a half or three hours, but I recorded all classes and then went to the library to transcribe it word-by-word. I did this for about a year in every class.
DELE: About a year. Didn’t that take tremendous effort?
Ando: All the transcription notes must still be in my parents’ house. I continued transcription for about a year for all the classes. Generally, college students in the U.S. had to take at least four classes a semester, so it was quite an effort to record and write down all the classes.
DELE: That’s amazing. Transcribing usually takes three or five times as long as listening, right?
Ando: I had to listen again and again. I also compared my transcription to the reading material given that week. From the material, I often figured out words that they were speaking. However, I felt a little sad in the library when I understood the joke in the class for which I was not able to laugh with other students. After about a year, I was able to understand lectures, so I started to take notes without word-by-word transcription. But it took me a long time and effort to get there. At that time, I was an international student, and English was my second language, so I had a different starting point than native-English speaking students. I told myself that I would never be able to match them with the same amount of study, so I would have to work two times, five times, or ten times harder.
I was a perfectionist, but I’ve learned to let go sometimes.
DELE: You used a training method called “dictation.” The interpreters I know say that if they want to improve their listening skills sufficiently, they need to do dictation even though it is hard. However, on the other hand, students who do dictation feel hopeless when they can’t exactly identify a part of the spoken English; they are fixated on small points too much. The reason they can’t transcribe is probably that the speaker misspoke. I guess you found some parts untranscribable.
Ando: Yes, I did.
DELE: In dictation, students should try to write down the text as much as they can, but it’s almost impossible to understand every part. Even if they try to guess from the content, it’s not always easy. How did you find the balance to keep dictating?
Ando: By giving up, I guess (laughs). When I was in Japan, I was a perfectionist and very nervous, but I think I have learned to let go sometimes. If you really don’t understand something, you can go and ask the teacher, and they will tell you. However, if you go and ask them everything, they will not welcome you. But if you go to the teacher and say, “I’ve done all this, but I just don’t understand this part,” no teachers will be displeased. I know there are students who have been studying for exams, and some of them are aiming for perfection to get 100 points. But I think there are also those who have been studying with the mindset that it’s okay to lose a point or two.
DELE: It’s giving up after you’ve done your best. It’s like, “I’ve made it this far, now let’s ask someone else.”
Americans treat people who have put in a lot of effort with respect.
Ando: That’s right. It means that it’s okay to ask.
Americans refer to people who have worked hard to achieve their goals as “self-made people.” I realized that they treat people who have made a lot of effort with respect. Of course, it is one thing to be recognized by your grades, but there are people who see that you are working hard, and they will give you a generous round of applause.
Once my grades started to improve, I began receiving various awards and invitations to join honor societies. I received invitations to join honor societies, and each of these things helped to boost my confidence. The U.S. is such a country.
In the U.S., every university has an academic excellence week around April, and awards are given to students who have worked hard during the year. I have received some kind of awards every year from college to graduate school. I am grateful for that.
In the U.S., teachers motivate their students by praising them and praising them a lot. They are very good at motivating people with praise.
When I was an undergraduate student, my life revolved around the triangle of the library, the classroom, and my dorm room.
DELE: That’s how you were able to improve your English over the course of a year. How did your interpersonal relationships in the U.S. change during and after that year?
Ando: It was quite difficult.
DELE: It was not easy at first to understand what teachers were saying, but it was also difficult to understand s by friends around you.
Ando: First, I didn’t understand them at all. I occasionally took casual talk seriously. For example, when a classmate said, “What’s up?” or “How are you?” I used to say something like, “I’m fine now, but yesterday....” However, those people would just pass by.
Ando: I sometimes tried to answer each question seriously, even though people were not expecting any further conversation beyond “Good,” “Hi,” or “Thank you.”
DELE: When did you start making more friends with various Americans or other international students besides just listening to lectures at school?
Ando: The first time I went on an exchange program, it was an exchange program paid for by the university. I was told to come back if I didn’t get good grades, so I really had to study hard. My life revolved around the triangle of the library, the classroom, and my dorm room. I didn’t have many friends, so it took me a while to actually get to know local people. I think my friendships became richer after I entered graduate school. When I was an undergraduate student, I felt that interpersonal relationships were quite difficult due to the language barrier.
In graduate school, I studied only specialized subjects, which made English easier for me.
DELE: That’s how you finished your undergraduate degree. Then you went straight into the master’s program.
Ando: That’s right. It was a different university’s graduate program, though.
DELE: Was the situation different in a graduate school at a different university?
Ando: My undergraduate double degree university was located in New York. The city was a very cold place, reaching minus 20 degrees in the winter. It was also right after 9/11. Therefore, the society itself was kind of closed or aggressive. Not only me, but I think all the international students were living in a very unwelcoming environment. There were some students from Pakistan who were attacked. President Bush’s comments about North Korea being an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq made me feel uncomfortable because I felt that Asians were being treated harshly.
I was also sometimes the target of discrimination. I had apples and eggs thrown at me with a yell, “Go back to your country!” Some yelled at me, “Hey, China doll!” making their eyes look narrow with their fingers. When I came back to my class from the bathroom, my bag was put away in the corner of the classroom. As my English improved, I began to hear and understand discriminatory remarks made to me...it was hard. However, when I moved to Texas for graduate school, the atmosphere was completely different from New York. It could have been only superficial, but it was welcoming and comfortable.
DELE: New York right after 9/11 and Texas in the south were very different. The content of the study must have also been a little different between undergraduate and graduate school.
Ando: Very different. You mentioned earlier that it was not easy to study a variety of subjects in an undergraduate program. Students have to take a variety of courses. I was no exception and had to take general education classes and courses other than my specialty. However, my specialty at the graduate school was social work, which was a professional subject. In Japan, it’s called a professional graduate school. I entered the social work program for my master’s degree, so when it came to English, most of the words I used were related to social work. So I didn’t think English was difficult at all.
Mathematics was my weakest subject in Japan, and I was very worried because I had to take statistics as a required subject when I majored in psychology at an American university. However, I understood it very well when teachers carefully explained it to me using a textbook as thick as a telephone book. I realized that the reason I couldn’t do math in Japan was simply that I couldn’t understand the concepts and vocabulary of math in Japanese. In English, the words and explanations related to mathematics were very simple. So, math became my strongest subject. I always got more than a perfect score of 100 on the tests in my statistics class. This is because other students’ scores were so low that the teacher had trouble grading them and used a curve [a frequency distribution chart based on grade ratios]. This statistical skill was useful in graduate school when I had to do more advanced statistics in graduate school. I was quiet in theoretical or ideological class discussions, but in statistics class, I came alive. And my American classmates were constantly coming to me with questions about statistics. The attitude of the people around me, “If you don’t understand something in statistics, ask Sachi,” gave me confidence.
DELE: Very interesting. After all, it is important to understand the content, isn’t it? Going back to the difference in English between graduate school and undergraduate school, it was more difficult for you in undergraduate school, wasn’t it?
Ando: I had to study subjects I didn’t like, and English was definitely more difficult in undergraduate school. Therefore, it was relatively easier after I entered graduate school. I also think it was because I was able to listen to what people said. In addition, since my undergraduate school was a large university, there were many multiple-choice exams. I couldn’t make any mistakes. If I couldn’t answer one question, I couldn’t get a good score. However, in graduate school, there were more essay-type assignments. Of course, that was a lot of work, but I felt that if I wrote properly, people would understand me.
Even native English speakers are not necessarily good at writing.
DELE: Did you still have any difficulty in writing? English writing in high school in Japan is almost transcribing spoken English. However, academic writing is very different.
Ando: It is very different. Writing is still difficult, and even now, I’m not that good at it. But I don’t think it’s because I’m a foreigner; I think that not all Americans are good at writing either.
DELE: That’s right.
Ando: Academic writing follows a certain writing style. For example, you have to state your opinion, find a paper to back it up and support it effectively, and then state your conclusion. However, once you have mastered that pattern, I think it is rather easy to write.
DELE: That’s right. A long time ago, a professor of economics at the University of London named Michio Morishima said, “I read and write academic papers in English, but when I want to write something different from economics, I often ask my English secretary to help me.” It’s not easy to write well in any field, is it?
Many native speakers of English have difficulty with public speaking.
Ando: Not very easy. Also, this may be off the track again, but when I was in the U.S., I joined a gathering called “Toastmasters” to improve my public speaking skills. There, I heard that quite a lot of Americans, 70-80% of them, are afraid of public speaking. In fact, if you do a search for articles, you will find many articles on “fear of public speaking.” I thought it was very interesting to see that even native English speakers have a great fear of public speaking and that it takes practice to become a good speaker. It was a little comforting to know that I was not good at public speaking because it required training in the first place, not because English was my second language.
Academic writing is a completely different skill from writing for everyday life, and it requires training.
Ando: Also, in American universities, students study English Composition from the beginning of their undergraduate studies as part of their general education. There is also a writing center in each university, where graduate students specializing in linguistics and literature act as tutors to check the writing of undergraduate and graduate students when they submit reports. Professors also instruct students to go to the writing center to have their papers reviewed before they submit them. It made me feel easy to know that even American students cannot write well without training.
Also, when I later became a teacher in the U.S., I felt that international students were more careful in writing English. American students are native English speakers, so without even checking they write “people” as “ppl.” When I saw that, I realized that writing academic documents is a completely different skill that requires a lot of training. This is also true when we usually write something in Japanese. Even at my age, I still encounter words in my daily life that I don’t know, so I have to study every day. I believe that language learning is something that continues throughout life.
DELE: That’s right. Foreign language learners think English is difficult because it is a foreign language, but in fact, in order to communicate clearly, it is important to speak and write according to a certain pattern. It is difficult for even native speakers to do so without much training. Therefore, if foreign language learners master these skills and have knowledge of their own specialty, they will be able to use English to a certain extent. Of course, it is not easy to be as good as an educated native speaker of English. However, at the same time, foreign language learners may notice that some native speakers can only use English in an inefficient manner.
In the doctoral course, for the first time, I read and studied so much that I felt as if I had coughed up blood (laughs).
DELE: Next, how did you feel when you entered the Ph. D. program? Were the master’s program and the doctoral program continuous? Or was the Ph. D. program different?
Ando: It was totally different. In the case of social welfare, in the U.S., a master’s degree is the final degree for practicing, and most people start practicing with a master’s degree. However, going for a Ph.D. means entering a new stage, which is not continuous. I wanted to be a researcher, not a practitioner. Since a master’s degree is a kind of training for practitioners, a master’s thesis is not required. I didn’t do much writing other than the assignments in class. So, when I entered the research field for the first time, I probably read and studied more than I did when I first came to America. I felt as if I had coughed up blood (laughs).
DELE: I understand.
Ando: I think I studied much more than I did as an undergraduate. Of course, that should be the case.
DELE: At that time, did you feel English was a tool for research activities, not a subject of study?
Ando: Yes. And in the doctoral course, the unity of the people around me was very strong. When I entered the program, there were 20 students, but after a month, two of them were gone, and by the end of the first semester, five students left. At the end of the first year, there was a comprehensive exam, and only ten sat it. Eventually, only five completed the program and received Ph.D. When I think about it, even though I was the only foreigner, everyone was very nice to me, and we had a sense of solidarity of working together. It wasn’t because I was a foreigner, but because we were all working together toward a goal. By this time, I still remember the professors saying, “You are already my colleagues, not students any longer.” I feel that I was united with my classmates as well as with my professors.
I thought how lucky I was to devote myself to studies without worrying about anything.
DELE: Sorry for my banal question, but why could you stay to the end like that?
Ando: I think it was because I had no choice but to work hard (laughs). Otherwise, I would have had to go back to Japan, but I wanted to live in the U.S. One thing I was blessed with was that many of my classmates were older than me, and I had a lot to learn from their life experiences. There were only a few people of my age who graduated from the university and came straight to graduate school. There was only one other graduate student who was the same age as me, and most others were a decade or two older than me, with families and various other circumstances. I thought how lucky I was to devote myself to study without worrying about anything else. Besides, I had scholarships. I wondered if it was okay for me to be so inexperienced compared to my classmates who had various social responsibilities, but I felt grateful that I was to be able to study.
When I managed a tough negotiation in English, I thought that I had grown up a little.
DELE: If I may ask, were there times when you felt depressed or had a hard time?
Ando: Of course, on many occasions.
DELE: Was there ever a point where it peaked, and you just couldn’t go on?
Ando: It happened all the time (laughs). For example, there were times when I didn’t get along with my advisor or other teachers very well. But in most cases, it was not because I was a bad student. Teachers are human beings, so they have their own circumstances. When they didn’t show up for meetings with me, it was sometimes because they were just too forgetful. So, I avoided thinking that the teacher didn’t come because they didn’t like me or didn’t want to give me proper guidance, and instead thought that they had their own reasons. But sometimes, I would say, “Professor, please listen to me seriously. I am paying my own tuition. I’m here to learn from you, so please teach me,” I thought I needed to have the courage to say that.
DELE: You realized that it was not good to close yourself up in your own world and feel everything was your fault. You began to negotiate with others after considering that they may have their particular circumstances. Were you able to negotiate before, say when you were in high school?
Ando: I don’t think so. It is often said that Japanese people tend to say only “yes” or are not very articulate. I think I was a typical Japanese in the beginning. Even so, there were teachers that I could consult with. When I went to one of them, they said, “Education is your opportunity, and you are here because you want to do this. You have to be assertive.”
DELE: Out of necessity and with that kind of advice, you become more assertive, right?
Ando: Yes. So, I thought I had grown up a little when I managed a tough negotiation with others instead of just accepting everything said or done to me.
DELE: That’s a very important point, isn’t it? Of course, it’s no good to get into a physical fight or bang on the desk, but it’s critical to be able to negotiate the hard way if it’s necessary.
After six months of sending documents, I rejected an unfair medical bill.
Ando: I think this is really true. If you only accept everything, you will lose benefits and cannot live with it. One example I can give you is that I experienced a car accident in the U.S. I was driving on a highway to an internship about an hour away when I hit one of the blocks in the median strip at about 80 mph (130 km/h). One side of the car became a wreck. Although I had no visible external injuries, I had a compression fracture in one of my vertebrae, and I couldn’t move. I knew that if I got into an ambulance, I would be charged thousands of dollars. So, I negotiated with people around me, saying, “My friend will take me home, so I won’t get into the ambulance.” Eventually, I went to see various doctors, and I started receiving many bills.
At the time, I was being examined by a chiropractor. In the U.S., chiropractors have the same level of national certification as medical doctors. Therefore, I went to see that chiropractor, who took X-rays and diagnosed that I had no external injuries but had a fracture. I went to the ER (Emergency Room) with that diagnosis.
The ER doctor didn’t do anything but gave me a second opinion on that X-ray imaging. However, the ER was connected to a medical hospital, and there was a process where a resident doctor looked at the images, and then a staff doctor (the doctor supervising the resident doctor) came there to make a third decision. They didn’t actually do anything. They didn’t touch me. They only looked at the X-rays I brought, and they didn’t prescribe anything. In fact, they were looking at the X-rays front to back, backward! Even as a layman, I could tell that it was the other side.
But then the bill came, and it was a bill for the staff doctor and all the medical expenses for the doctor and the residents who were there. There were no details, no explanation of specific costs, just a bill that said $2,000. For the ER doctor who saw me first, I received a separate bill for $650 in addition to the $2,000 mentioned above. I asked the ER doctor what the reason was and received an explanation. I thought I had to pay for this, so I paid the $650. However, there was no explanation at all about the resident and staff doctors. I could not understand the $2,000 charge for them. The series of exchanges continued.
For half a year, I kept writing documents and claimed, “I gave the doctors my x-rays. I don’t know what this $2,000 is for. I want all the details of what it cost.” But they just kept sending me invoices for $2,000 (laughs). I was very persistent and kept saying, “I received this letter from you again on this date, but I don’t understand why I should be charged this much. I need an explanation.” Finally, after well over half a year, they sent me a reply, “We apologize for the mistake. There is no need for you to pay.” They couldn’t justify the charge. At that time, I felt a sense of accomplishment (laughs).
DELE: I can see how you felt.
Ando: I suspect many people might pay it, saying, “I’ve been to the hospital, and it’s $2,000. I’ve heard that American hospitals are expensive.”
For the first two or three years after I came back to Japan, I wanted to go back to the U.S.
DELE: After having developed quite a variety of cultural negotiation skills, you started working in the U.S. How was it when you changed your status from a student to a professional? Did you experience any changes there?
Ando: I did. It was an interesting experience. I didn’t consider many things to be a hardship, so in some respects, I did them because I thought they were fun. However, I also felt that I had finally found a proper job and had become a member of society. My university was located in the suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and practically, there were only white and black students. Most of the teachers were American. It was a small university, and out of the 200 or so faculty members, one other teacher and I were the only Asians. It was an interesting environment. I remember being told, “Asians are almost always seen as young, so you have to be strong so that the American students won’t make fun of you.
DELE: You enjoyed your work in America and then came back to Japan. Then, people around you didn’t speak English. The environment had changed. How did you feel then?
Ando: I went to the U.S. when I was a university student, and I lived in the U.S. all through my twenties and thirties. I never had the experience of living in Japan as a working adult. So, when I came back to Japan from the U.S., I started living as an adult for the first time. I had to open a bank account, make a personal seal, sign a cell phone contract, and sign a house contract, all for the first time. I was amazed at how complicated everything was.
At the same time, I thought how easy it was to use English. In Japanese, there are various kinds of hiragana, katakana, kanji, alphanumeric characters, and Chinese numerals. It was very painful to be forced to read sentences that contain a mixture of these. I felt how easy English was.
DELE: English has only 26 letters, basically.
Ando: That’s right. That’s why Japanese is so difficult. Moreover, when I came back to Japan for the first time as a member of society, I had to use honorific expressions and produce bureaucratic documents, which were deliberately complex and ambiguous. In the national university I worked for, my boss used to call such documents “Kasumigaseki literature,” after the name of the town of bureaucrats. I struggled a lot because I could not understand the unique style of document writing.
Also, I came back to Japan just when the MEXT’s Top Global University project started. I was shocked to find that I was counted as a foreigner. There was an index that said if a person had been abroad for more than a few years, they should be counted as a foreigner. It seemed I was counted as a foreign faculty member. I was a foreigner, a woman, and a Ph. D holder in a foreign land. Those traits put me within an extraordinary framework. And yet, I was expected to behave in the same way as a Japanese person. In the U.S., I was a foreigner and treated as such. That was all right. However, in Japan, I was expected to be a perfect Japanese person, although I did not have sufficient cultural experiences. It was very tough. For the first two or three years, I cried almost everyday and really wanted to go back to the U.S.
DELE: That’s interesting. Bilingual and bicultural persons are required to meet all linguistic and cultural expectations in the two spheres. I guess that was hard.
Ando: That’s right.
DELE: On the one hand, you were told, “Professor Ando, you spent 16 years in the U.S., so please negotiate in English,” On the other hand, you were angrily told, “What do you mean you don’t understand Kasumigaseki literature?” (laughs)
Ando: I was told, “What? Don’t you understand that? (laughs)
As I talked with Asian people, I realized that English is just a tool.
DELE: In your work, you began to use English again, this time in negotiations with people in Thailand and Indonesia. English is not the mother tongue of the people you are negotiating with, right?
Ando: That’s right.
DELE: Were there any gaps in that regard?
Ando: Actually, I remember feeling rather comfortable. When I was in the U.S., I was not very good at English and could not speak like a native speaker. I was always a foreigner. I couldn’t speak well because of my accent, and sometimes I couldn’t express myself sufficiently. I always had a complex feeling as a foreigner speaking in English. In my previous job at the university, I interacted with people from Europe, too. However, after interacting with people in non-English speaking countries, I realized that English does not have to be oriented to the U.S. There are many different kinds of English.
When people who speak English as a second language communicate with each other, they are not very good at it. However, they speak confidently, even if their English is strange or consists only of a series of simple words. It was really interesting to me because I could feel that they just wanted to communicate and listen to me as best as they could. This experience made me realize that English is just a tool. Of course, I am not saying that you don’t need to learn English or that you don’t need to speak accurately. However, I felt that it is also critical to communicate and get to know the other person first.
DELE: In the midst of all this, did you come up with a new sense of identity? Or did nothing like that emerge?
Ando: My identity has always been that I am Japanese (laughs). It may sound strange to say that I am Japanese, but ever since I was in the U.S., I actually thought that I could only be Japanese. I thought I was Japanese, not even Asian, so when I thought about it, I guess I felt more Japanese.
DELE: But right after you came back to Japan, it was a little difficult for you because you didn’t understand much about Japan even though you were born in Japan.
Ando: That’s right.
Your relationship with English is something you decide for yourself.
DELE: Now for the next question. Nowadays, English is used a lot in many parts of the world, and you mentioned that you think English is just a tool for you. I would like to ask you if you have any opinions about the use of English in modern society.
Ando: Of course, there are more and more opportunities to learn and work in English. Especially if you are studying science and technology and are planning to specialize in it, you will inevitably have to use it because, in many places, scientific research is being conducted based on English standards.
On the other hand, it is possible to live in Japan without using English. If you like that, that’s great.
However, you can also put yourself in an environment where you use English if you choose. There are many international students and professors with foreign roots at Kyoto University, so you can interact with them and take classes with them.
If there is an opportunity, start with it.
DELE: Now for the last question. Do you have any advice for undergraduate and graduate students at Kyoto University regarding learning and using English or student life itself?
Ando: There are a few things. I’m not an English teacher, so I can’t lecture on what English learning should be like. However, if you think you need to learn English, or if you want to, then you should start no matter what your motivation is. For example, if you think you need to learn English to present a paper at an international conference, or if your academic advisor suggests so, then you should study to acquire know-how with the goal of presenting your paper in English.
The culture of academic presentations in the U.S. is very different from that in Japan.
Ando: I have given various presentations at conferences in the U.S., and I was very surprised when I attended my first conference in Japan. What surprised me was that at Japanese conferences, the presenter prepares a resume, hands it out to everyone, and reads it aloud from top to bottom. I was really surprised by that. Then, of course, there was a question-and-answer period, but the moderator, not the audience, asked questions. There was not even eye contact with the audience. “What is this?”, I thought.
American conferences are much more dynamic. To put it bluntly, it’s like saying, “If you’re just going to read out loud, I’ll read the paper, so don’t spend that time with me.” Therefore, eye contact with the audience is essential, and in the middle of the presentation, the presenter does a lot of things to communicate, such as inviting questions, moving around, and using body language. Therefore, PowerPoint and handouts only serve to support the presentation, quite different from the resumes that are handed out in Japan.
So, if you go to an English presentation without that kind of know-how, you will probably be surprised (laughs). If you need to learn English or are thinking you should, I suggest that you start learning English through things such as natural presentation skills.
Specialization is supported by a broad base and a wide range of versatility.
DELE: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Ando: The other thing I was thinking about was this. As I mentioned earlier, my specialty is social work, which is a unique professional field. As a profession, we have pride. We say, “We are different from psychologists,” or “We are different from counselors,” or “We are different from nurses.” We say, “Our ethics are like this,” or “Our code of conduct is like this,” and this forms our identities.
What I thought at the time was that mastering an academic discipline might be a little like brainwashing. There is a strong aspect of indoctrinating people with ideas, ethics, and behavior. Occasionally, I felt a little scared because I thought that was what it meant to be trained as a professional. Of course, it is very important to protect our profession, but I felt that we were living in a very narrow world.
Social work is concerned with people’s minds, society, and social problems. It is not only made up of what social work professionals do. It requires cooperation with various specialists. However, if we become too specialized, we may not get involved with people in other fields.
Students who are currently doing research in graduate school are becoming more and more focused on their own specialty. It’s great that they are getting sharper and digging deeper. That’s what it means to be an expert in something. However, I feel that the narrower your focus gets, the more you become separated from other specialties, even in related fields.
Dr. Kayo Matsushita of Kyoto University’s Center for the Promotion of Excellence in Higher Education emphasizes versatility based on expertise. What underpins expertise is versatility with a broad base and a wide range. I think she is saying that we should develop versatility to connect with people in other fields, other areas, or at least neighboring areas.
Sometimes I think it is better for Kyoto University students to try to study something a little different, or if they are afraid of that, to read various books and meet people from a slightly different field. I think it is very important to stay connected to different worlds.
Cultivate the depth and breadth of education that allows you to connect with a variety of people during college and graduate school.
Ando: Can I make one more related point?
DELE: Of course.
Ando: A professor at Kyoto University who was at Oxford University once told me something very interesting. There are high table dinners as you’d see in movies like Harry Potter. Professors wear formal gowns and have dinner together. In Oxford, graduate students and others are invited to this event. A famous professor may come and sit beside a graduate student. My colleague said that it is very important to be able to talk about social issues and intelligent topics in that situation.
At such times, when you meet people who are not in your field of expertise or people with no knowledge of your expertise, I wonder if people who can only talk about their specialized field are attractive. After all, if you are only doing one type of research, you can only talk about that. I think it is critical to cultivate a depth and breadth of education that allows you to connect with a variety of people while you are in university or graduate school.
Fake it until you make it!
Ando: Can I add one more thing?
DELE: Yes, please.
Ando: I was not a graduate student who was able to write papers fluently, so there were times when I was very worried about things like “I can’t write” or “I should quit.” It was more about organizing my ideas rather than my problems in English. Anyway, my supervisor said, “Fake it until you make it.”
DELE: “Fake it until you make it.”
Ando: She told me, “Just pretend you can do something until you can do it.” At first, I didn’t understand what she meant, but she told me to write something first, for example. “Today, I’m going to write down just an idea, and then I’m going to make bullet points.” “Today, I’m going to write one paragraph.” It is critical to keep writing, even if it does not make a good paragraph.
I think it’s the same with learning English. No one can speak, write, read, or listen well from the start. So, if you have to do something or want to try something, just start it and keep going.
DELE: “Fake it until you make it” is an interesting expression that has a hint of irony and rhymes well. Of course, it is necessary to have a sincere and honest reflection on your shortcomings occasionally. Otherwise, you may become a complete fake.
Ando: That’s no good, is it?
Make it a habit to get information in English on a daily basis.
DELE: Is there anything else you wanted to say?
Ando: I thought that the best way to practice English, or what I have been doing since I was in school, is not to translate every single word. If I’m listening to something in English, I use my “English brain circuit.” When I went to the U.S., I initially looked up words one by one, wondering what the meaning of each word was. However, I didn’t memorize them one by one. I tried to understand them by nuance and context.
These days in Japan, I don’t have many opportunities to listen to programs in English, but I have cable TV that plays NHK World and NHK documentaries. I listen to programs on those channels all the time. I also use Facebook to get information from English news media such as CNN, BBC, and whatever else I can find. I subscribe to the newsletters of professional organizations related to social work on Facebook, and when an interesting article comes up, I quickly read it. So, I can learn about things like, “This is how they express things nowadays.” It may not be necessary for me to seriously read the articles that I encounter every day, but I do pay attention to what is happening in the world through relaxed reading.
DELE: Thank you very much. It was very interesting.
Ando: Thank you very much.
After the Interview
I appreciate this opportunity. As I read the transcript, I wonder if my old experiences will ever be useful to today’s students. Some may think that the world is advancing rapidly, and there are more convenient ways to do things without much effort. Nevertheless, I would be honored if there is something that resonates with the students.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable interview. I would like to thank Dr. Ando again for taking time out of her busy schedule.
For those interested in trying it as a tool of language-learning, below is some additional information about dictation.
Dictation is a practice to learn English by writing down all the English you hear. You have to listen to the English over and over again to transcribe as much as possible. However, as Ando-sensei says, if you go in with a perfectionist attitude, you will fail. Even carefully vocalized English is hard to dictate completely. It is practically impossible to dictate improvised live English perfectly. Therefore, it is more productive to set a predetermined number of times you replay it or to set a time limit. If you exceed the predetermined limit, you should give up and refer to the textbook or answers.
If you are using a Chrome browser on your computer, there is now a live caption function that automatically recognizes the English being played and displays subtitles. These subtitles will appear a little later than the English sound, so you can check your listening ability again and again. Checking listening comprehension with such subtitles is much easier than dictation and can be quite effective (there is a special section on learning listening on another page of this website [Coming Soon]).