Autonomous English Users
at Kyoto University
This project of interviewing autonomous English users at Kyoto University gathers the authentic voices of researchers and students who use English daily in various faculties and departments. The project is for students who are interested in raising awareness about learning and using English. It is also for teachers and administrators of English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) who want to deepen their understanding of English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP). The interviews were conducted in Japanese or English. They were translated into the other language by DELE. The interviewees' affiliation information, such as school year, department, and job title, was provided at the time of the interview.
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Faculty of Integrated Human Studies (Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies)
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Dr. Duncan Wilson, Lecturer, Graduate School of Letters (interview conducted in English on March 24, 2023; About 2750 words)
Lecturer in the Department of Psychology,
Graduate School of Letters
My slides are simple, with minimal text and plenty of pictures and videos.
The interview was conducted in English on March 24, 2023.
The interviewer was Yanase from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
DELE: Dr. Wilson, it's a pleasure to meet you. This conversation is a part of our interview series aimed at encouraging Kyoto University students, particularly undergraduates, to use English more and broaden their horizons. Would you kindly provide a brief introduction of yourself?
Wilson: Certainly, my name is Duncan Wilson. I am from the UK and a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology in the Graduate School of Letters. My primary research interests lie in the visual perception and attention of non-human primates, such as great apes and monkeys. I examine and compare visual perception, identifying similarities and differences between primate species. My research endeavours to offer insights into the evolution of human visual perception.
DELE: How long have you been in your current department?
Wilson: I've been in the department for two years.
I teach E2 courses and E3 courses. The former is a content-oriented course where English is used as the language of instruction. The latter aims at developing English proficiency.
DELE: How many subjects do you teach, including E2 courses?
Wilson: I teach "Introduction to Comparative Psychology," and “Introduction to Primate Behaviour and Cognition” E2 courses. I also teach specialised topics to undergraduate psychology students in my department. These topics include animal cognition and welfare, brain and behavioural lateralization in animals (which examines the distinct functions of the left and right hemispheres) and face perception in humans and animals. I teach all my courses in English.
DELE: You also teach E3 courses, which are more language oriented, right?
Wilson: Yes, "Digesting Scientific English" and "Scientific Writing and Presenting in English."
Faces reveal much about how students participate in class.
DELE: Forgive me for asking a peculiar question. As an expert in animal psychology, do you discern anything from your students' facial expressions, body gestures, and vocalisations about their struggles in classes?
Wilson: When students are engaged and comprehend the content being conveyed in English, they typically maintain eye contact with the instructor, keep their head up, and remain attentive. They may also nod frequently and smile in response to a joke. Conversely, when students do not fully understand what is being said, they may frown and appear confused. They may also look down or away to avoid being asked a question by the instructor.
DELE: Do you utilise these behaviours as indicators for class management? Some experienced teachers argue that such indicators are more effective than Likert scale questionnaires administered at the end of the semester. Do you use these features to assess your teaching performance?
Wilson: To be honest, it is rather tricky because students have different personalities. More introverted students may be highly engaged, yet not necessarily exhibit this through body language or eye contact, whereas more outgoing students tend to display greater nonverbal communication or eye contact. So, it really depends on the student’s personality.
DELE: Are there any similar individual differences in non-human primates in terms of expressing their inner feelings?
Wilson: Absolutely. There are numerous individual differences in how monkeys and great apes respond to learning new information or encountering novel objects (typically with fear or excitement) and psychologists discuss these personality traits (conscientiousness, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and neuroticism) in the same way as we do for humans. So, human and non-human primates are very similar in this respect.
Students become relaxed and communicate as they become acquainted with one another.
DELE: Do you have any anecdotes to share about students? For example, do students change their academic performance from the beginning of the semester towards the end?
Wilson: Generally, students are much more confident by the end of the semester, particularly in the English classes I conduct for science communication. Students initially tend to be shy, but as they become acquainted with my teaching style and personality, and as I learn more about each individual, they relax and communicate more with their peers as well.
DELE: Are these changes gradual or sudden?
Wilson: I believe the changes are gradual. For instance, during one of my courses, students must deliver a 10-minute presentation on a topic of their interest (akin to a mini-symposium). After making a presentation they begin to engage more with both me and their fellow students in subsequent lectures. However, this observation is primarily from my E3 classes, which are smaller in size compared to E2 classes.
Recently, I have been experimenting with flipped learning classes.
DELE: On average, how many students do you have in an E2 class?
Wilson: In E2 classes, there are about 50 students.
DELE: Tell me about the E2 classes. There must be quite a difference between teaching a class of 50 students and one with 10 or fewer students. How do social relations among students in a large class develop? Some E2 course instructors say that classes often divide into two groups: international students and Japanese students. Are there differences in where students sit in the classroom, for example?
Wilson: International students do tend to sit closer to each other, resulting in a noticeable grouping.
DELE: What is the ratio of Japanese students to international students?
Wilson: I would estimate that around 85 to 90% are Japanese, while 10 to 15% are international students.
Wilson: Recently, I have been experimenting with flipped learning classes*. I provide students with lecture materials, such as videos or articles, to study beforehand. During class, they are divided into mixed groups of Japanese and international students, usually comprising eight students per group. These groups then discuss the material and present their summaries to the class.
*Flipped learning classes: a teaching method in which students learn material independently at home before class. They use class time for interactive activities and teacher-guided problem-solving.
More confident students facilitate discussion.
DELE: What would be typical behaviour for a Japanese student who is not particularly confident in English?
Wilson: They might be quiet. However, if some international students are enthusiastic, they may try to engage the quieter students by asking for their opinions. I believe there is a natural tendency for the more confident students to facilitate discussion with those who are less confident.
DELE: There must be differences among students in terms of social skills. Some are adept at facilitating conversation, while others prefer to be independent. Do you observe these differences?
Wilson: Yes, but it is not limited to Japanese students. Even among international students, some can be quite reserved.
Academic discussion in English can be a novel experience for students who mainly have studied for tests.
DELE: Some people argue that social skills or psychological factors matter more than language proficiency that is reflected in a TOEFL score, for example. Communication is inherently social, whereas most standardised tests assess individual performance. I believe that the skills measurable in standardised tests may be overemphasised.
Wilson: Yes, this is related to the Japanese education system. Until senior high school, there is a significant focus on passing university entrance examinations. Then, students encounter a new environment at Kyoto University with ILAS courses led by international lecturers who encourage more discussion. It can be quite a novel experience for them, even if they have had an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in school. Some students may still be unaccustomed to the discussion-based approach preferred by some E2 lecturers.
DELE: The change is both linguistic and cultural.
Wilson: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, some students may have had English oral communication experience with foreign teachers in their schools before university, but generally, the focus is on passing the entrance exams within the Japanese education system. This could be why they may appear shy or hesitant.
My slides are simple, with minimal text and plenty of pictures and videos.
DELE: Many Japanese students struggle with listening comprehension. Do you find there are students who have difficulty with listening comprehension initially? They might find it challenging to listen to a lecture, even though their reading comprehension skills are quite high.
Wilson: In my lectures I try to keep the materials as straightforward as possible, particularly as these are introductory courses. My slides are simple, with minimal text and plenty of pictures and videos. Using these visual aids, students may find it relatively easy to understand my verbal explanation.
DELE: A multimodal presentation offers many clues, which can enhance listeners' understanding.
Wilson: That's correct. Fortunately, in animal psychology, it is easy to show videos of interesting animal behaviours; from Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments with dogs to chimpanzees hunting colobus monkeys in the wild. I first provide a simple explanation with images, followed by a video that aids comprehension. Generally, students grasp concepts effectively using this method.
It is hard to generalize about different classes.
DELE: Nevertheless, one survey reported that approximately 40% of E2 course students found English “very much challenging” or “much challenging,” rather than “somewhat challenging” or “not challenging.” Do you feel the same way?
Wilson: I would say a higher proportion of students in my classes understand the content. It is difficult for me to comment on other instructors, other subjects, and other teaching methods. Some topics are easier to intuitively comprehend, while others (like particle physics!) may be more challenging. It is hard to generalize.
DELE: Do you talk about teaching with other E2 instructors in the same department or across departments?
Wilson: The main instructor I talk with is one of my friends, also a primatologist. We often discuss teaching methods. He has more years of experience at Kyoto University as a teacher.
DELE: How about beyond your personal domain? Do you have any chances to talk with lecturers at the Faculty of Economics, for example?
Wilson: Unfortunately, not currently.
I need to think more about AI use in classrooms.
DELE: Another question. I'm currently using an IC recorder to record our conversation and, concurrently, an iPad with an AI app to transcribe it. Do you allow your students to use such devices to record your lectures? Some instructors may decline the request.
Wilson: To be honest, I haven't noticed. Students may be using them, but I don't know.
DELE: I see. If students raise that question, would you allow them to use devices to record your lecture?
Wilson: What did you say your AI app does?
DELE: It automatically transcribes human voices into text. The conversion is not 100% correct, but quite satisfactory. It records the audio simultaneously, and users can transfer the transcribed text with audio to their computers or virtually anywhere. Would you allow your students to use such an AI app if they ask for permission? This is a hypothetical question.
Wilson: I don't see any immediate issue with it. What are the concerns other instructors have?
DELE: The files are easy to copy. If they fall into the wrong hands, they may appear on the internet without the instructor's consent. On the other hand, such an AI app would be a great advantage for someone who genuinely wants to learn the content with their limited language proficiency.
Wilson: I see! I need to think more about it.
I make myself as approachable as possible.
DELE: Thank you. A different question. How do you generally support students in terms of English? You said that you make simple slides with numerous visuals.
Wilson: My experiments with flipped learning classes taught me that student personality variations matter. Some students still prefer traditional lectures, where they can listen to the instructor, watch videos, and take notes on handouts in class. Probably, a mixture of traditional lectures and flipped learning is useful to accommodate students' different personalities and learning preferences.
Another thing I try to do is make myself as approachable as possible. At the start of my courses, I assure the students that they can ask questions anytime they do not understand something during my lecture. I also encourage them not to be afraid of making mistakes because this is how we learn and grow (including me!). Some students prefer to ask me questions after the class too. They want to ask me a question one-to-one. I also tell students that they can email me anytime after the lecture if they want me to clarify something I said. I try to set up an environment where students feel like they can approach me either during or after class.
However, some students lack confidence in asking questions. They might think, “Maybe I'm asking a stupid question” or “Maybe this question is too easy.” I emphasize to my students that no questions are stupid. I always try to create a positive atmosphere. Of course, some students are always shy. Yet, as the course progresses, I see more students actively participating. This can be due to becoming more familiar with the instructor and their classmates.
More Kyoto University students deserve to enjoy E2 courses.
DELE: Can you give some advice for students who are already taking courses where English is the language of instruction?
Wilson: Don't be intimidated by English. Don't be afraid to ask simple questions because I can almost guarantee that there will be somebody else in the class who has the same question. Most ILAS instructors are friendly and are interested in encouraging you to learn, so don’t be shy. The more you engage in and put effort into the class, the more you get out of it. Enjoy communicating with other students from different nationalities and cultures. This way, you can gain different perspectives from your own. Learning such differences is critical for intellectual growth. You will have opportunities to use English both in Japan and abroad later in your life, so using English opens up lots of different possibilities.
DELE: Kyoto University is offering about 350 E2 courses. At a particular conference, participants from other universities were astonished when they heard that. More Kyoto University students deserve to enjoy these classes.
The E2 course is like studying abroad in Kyoto.
DELE: Could you give some message to those students who have never taken content courses where English is the language of instruction? The survey I mentioned shows that about 30% of Kyoto University students take no E2 course. It also indicates that more than 30% of such students cite English as the primary reason for not participating.
Wilson: My message is quite similar to students who have already decided to take E2 courses. If you have any questions you want to ask, other students will most likely have very similar questions. So don't be afraid to ask. Use the opportunities in the class to engage with other students from different cultures and countries. These opportunities are going to be really helpful for your future. This is a great chance for you to develop those communication skills, which will be useful for your future careers.
DELE: I believe the E2 course system is a golden opportunity for students. It is like studying abroad in Kyoto. Thank you very much for your time. It was a very interesting conversation.
After the Interview
Dr Wilson welcomed me into his office for this interview, although he had just returned from his research trip to India the previous day. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. I regret the transcript above does not include episodes from that trip or his teaching experience in Japan before joining Kyoto University, which he shared before and after the interview recording. I strongly recommend students to take courses where English is used as the language of instruction and communication. They will undoubtedly expand academic and cultural perspectives.
Dr Yoshimi Minamitani, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Letters (interview conducted in Japanese on 8 March 2022: approximately 4,100 words).
Graduate School of Letters
“If You Always Want to Conform to Others, You will Fail to Notice the Voice that Expands your World”
The interview in Japanese was conducted via Zoom on August 3, 2022.
The interviewer was Yanase from the Division of English Language Education (DELE).
DELE: First, can you tell us how you currently use English as a literary scholar?
MINAMITANI: I teach at the Department of English/American Language and Literature at the Graduate School of Letters. My specialisation is the Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941), whose works are widely acknowledged for their intricate complexity and difficulty, and I strive to make his works more accessible through my educational and research activities. One such attempt is “Ulysses in 2022 – a Stephens reading group”, a project to read the challenging novel outside academia. Since 2019, I have been collaborating with fellow researchers to organize this project with the goal of reading the entire novel over this period. Approximately 50 people attend each session, and we just finished the 18th session three days ago. This has been very successful thanks to the cooperation of active participants.
DELE: I was surprised that 50 people gathered for Ulysses.
Approximately 200 people participate in every 22 Ulysses event
Minamitani: I was surprised too by the overwhelming attention that these events have garnered. But one of the reasons can be attributed to the online culture that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. In parallel with that event, I jointly initiated the project “22 Ulysses - An Invitation to James Joyce’s Ulysses”. It began in February this year, the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. Furthermore, the number 22 holds symbolic value in this event as it corresponds with Joyce’s birthday on 2 February and the project offers 22 online courses over a year, in which 22 or more Joyce researchers will elucidate the book’s mystery and provide valuable insights on how to read it. We have covered half of the novel so far, and this project has surprisingly attracted a large audience, with approximately 200 people attending each time.
DELE: That is impressive, is it not?
MINAMITANI: It surprised 13 initiators, including myself. We sensed a strong desire from the participants to read something challenging or to understand literary works with someone else. This is a great source of hope for the humanities. It is crucial to deepen research within academia and simultaneously render that specialist knowledge accessible to the wider public.
The publication of my paper in James Joyce Quarterly inspired my research
Minamitani: Returning to the question of how I use English as a literary researcher, I naturally read and write papers in English. James Joyce Quarterly, one of the most prestigious journals in Joyce studies, published one of my papers. This publication presented a great opportunity for me to advance my research.
It is advantageous to write a paper in English immediately when a CFP (Call for Papers) focuses on your own research interest, as CFPs often cover a wide variety of topics. Although I specialise in Joyce, my broader research framework includes literary representations of animals and pain. When the topic ‘Joyce and animals’ was announced, it was a great opportunity for me to contribute to the field. However, it was challenging research as publications in international peer-reviewed journals typically take several years to complete, and indeed my paper took approximately three years because of the rigorous peer review process.
English is critical when communicating abroad, although proficiency in a few other languages is desirable. Last June, I attended a weeklong international symposium in Dublin to celebrate the centenary of Ulysses. English is essential when Joyce’s researchers and devoted readers from all over the world gather and interact. I exchanged contact addresses with some, and I still communicate with them. During Q&A sessions at conference presentations, I asked several questions and was glad to receive positive feedback from other attendees.
I gain knowledge of collocation and logical construction from prior studies
DELE: I guess that a paper in James Joyce Quarterly, one of the summits of Joyce scholarship, must also excel in style. Have you acquired a sense of style through your extensive reading and writing experience?
MINAMITANI: Thank you for your comment. It is crucial for us to not only construct sound logical arguments but also use appropriate collocations and phrases when writing academic papers in English. Japanese researchers who write English papers tend to build logic in a Japanese manner. Reading a considerable amount of previous research in English is essential to learn the style and logic required to write lucid papers.
DELE: You make your original academic contributions while respecting the wording, ideas, and logical construction within the community of English-speaking researchers.
Minamitani: I make a conscious effort to avoid directly translating expressions and constructions that are formulated in Japanese into English. International journal editors request revisions to papers that have passed the peer review process. The requests I received included the use of more authentic collocations and clarification of the sections that I believed made sense. I also learned that one or more words could replace redundant expressions. From this experience, I began to take notes on critical set phrases, collocations, and argument construction while reading previous studies. I aimed to apply these in my doctoral dissertation.
Incorporating an element of humour in research presentations or not
DELE: You conduct your research, read and write papers, and communicate at conferences, all in English. Do you write your papers in Japanese, too?
DELE: Do you feel that there is a gap between English and Japanese research activities? Do these two languages make differences?
Minamitani: Writing can be different even on the same subject. However, these days, I often write Japanese in a style that is readily translatable into English. I also employ the English logical construction that I mentioned earlier. Therefore, I no longer feel a huge gap when writing academic papers.
On the other hand, preparing a manuscript for an oral presentation in English is an altogether different experience. Recently, I delivered an oral presentation in Japan, then went to Dublin to attend presentations at the international symposium. It came as no surprise that many English-language presentations began with humour, with presenters continuing to entertain the audience throughout their talks, but what was notable at the symposium was that the spirit of humour continued throughout the presentations, and presenters entertained the audience at various points. I would not regard humour as essential in Japanese presentations, as far as I can see from Joyce’s research in Japan. Nevertheless, Japanese researchers must maintain the audience’s attention rather than reading out the manuscript monotonously.
Japanese students often acknowledge a counterargument before developing their position
DELE: I often feel that the logical construction of my first-year students’ English essays is distinct, although the students and researchers are obviously different. English paragraph writing typically begins with a topic sentence that informs the author’s claim, followed by a sentence that supports this point. However, many students mix it with the Japanese argumentation style, although I teach this English construction in class. Their first sentence introduces their claim, and yet the second sentence often begins with “It is true / Of course / Certainly”, that introduces a counterargument, not a supporting sentence. They first assert their position, then acknowledge a counterargument, and reassert theirs after saying “However”. Do you find such differences in argumentation?
MINAMITANI: Through my experience reviewing English passages written by my students, I have observed that they tend to overuse the conjunctions ‘though’ and ‘although’. This may be due to the fact that they are translating the Japanese conjunction “ga” into a contradictory conjunction in English. Additionally, the logic employed by Japanese students often involves beginning with a concession or alternative perspective before presenting their own position. Such “meandering” construction can be confusing for English-speaking readers attempting to understand the core of the argument. Quite simply, Japanese students are inexperienced in writing English papers. Instructors must teach students what should follow a topic sentence and present various samples.
DELE: Apparently, your papers establish your position first, not adopting the Japanese rhetorical pattern that can be paraphrased as “Well, well, well. Let’s not be uncompromising”.
MINAMITANI: To ensure clarity in academic writing, it is crucial to follow the principle of paragraph writing. I strive to limit each paragraph to one topic, thereby preventing my argument from digressing or becoming overly complex. In order to maintain my position, I often highlight the significance and originality of my argument by comparing it with prior studies. Additionally, I avoid using pronouns at the beginning of a paragraph, as this can create ambiguity and make it more difficult for the reader to understand the argument.
The ‘noise’ that does not make authentic Japanese is precious in translation
DELE: A different subject. One stereotype of Japanese scholars of English literature is that they constantly translate English into Japanese and strive to make the translation as authentic as possible. How do you approach translation?
Minamitani: No translation can completely reproduce the original language in terms of its unique narration, usage, collocation, pronunciation, rhythm, and historical connotation. Some unorthodox Japanese features may remain in the translation as a result, serving as a reminder to readers that they are reading a translated work, and I see those as a necessary element of the Japanese language. It is this peculiar translation-specific style that can expand our understanding of the language.
Limiting oneself to stereotypical Japanese language can prevent us from encountering the unfamiliar, the noisy, and the mysterious, closing the door to different linguistic, grammatical, and sound systems present in other languages. In this sense, it is acceptable to leave unnatural or untranslatable parts in translations, as these can raise critical questions and introduce new perspectives to readers. Of course, fluent Japanese translation is not a problem if it is attainable.
DELE: I see. It is valuable to note that translations contain expressions that extend conventional Japanese. The Japanese language expanded its range of expression in the Nara and Heian periods with Chinese and since the Meiji period with English and other European languages. Your research activities involve such translations.
Knowledge of the grammar and sound systems of other languages advances our understanding of English
DELE: I hear you use German for academic purposes.
Minamitani: This is part of my general educational background. I studied German as a second foreign language during my undergraduate years. During my master’s program, I researched the topic of ‘Joyce and his unfinished works’. Around that time, I attended with permission a German class dealing with Kafka, and I found it increasingly intriguing. This led me to establish a study group with German literature students where we read Kafka’s works together. I was so absorbed in Kafka’s work that I probably spent more time in the German Literature Department than in my major, the English Literature Department.
Eventually, I collaborated with Professor Ikuo Seo, a scholar of contemporary poetry and German literature, and another German literature researcher to translate Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou) into Japanese. We named our work a ‘three-dimensional translation’ because the three of us translated the same part and juxtaposed the three translations side by side.
I later came to realize the usefulness of the concept of the “three-dimensional translation” as well as the ability to understand three languages. Recently, a German researcher with whom I translated Buber brought his partner to Japan, and we conversed in a bar in Kyoto using Japanese, English, and German, with translations in between. It was like a ‘three-dimensional translation’. I often hear that second foreign language courses are being removed from the compulsory list and are becoming free electives in college general education curricula. Not learning a second foreign language is very risky in terms of language learning. Knowledge of the grammatical and sound systems of other languages advances our understanding of English. I strongly encourage students to learn a second foreign language, even at a superficial level or with the aid of a dictionary, as it can greatly enhance their understanding of English.
One of the obstacles to teaching English in Japan is the shyness of students
DELE: As such a literary scholar, what are your views on contemporary English language teaching?
Minamitani: As a former English language teacher, I have observed that one of the obstacles to teaching English in Japan is related to the shyness and reservedness of students. In comparison to students from other countries, Japanese students are often hesitant to express their views in public. Few students respond to the instructor’s invitations, such as ‘Does anyone have an opinion?’ and ‘How would you express this sentence in English?’ This can be challenging for teachers who want to encourage active participation in the classroom. While the pedagogical trend of Active Learning was encouraged in the 2010s, I did not want to force students to participate if they were genuinely unfit for such activities.
Another challenge in conducting classes is the prevalence of smartphones among students, which can often distract their attention. My solution was a collaboration with a system engineer to create an app that attracts their attentive interest and lowers the threshold for communication in class.
The app is an anonymous chat board called OUTIS, designed to capture students’ attention and encourage communication in class. Students can access the board by loading its URL with a QR code and obtaining a password, ensuring that only students in that classroom can join the chat board. Once on the board, users can anonymously type messages using their smartphones, and many of these messages appear on the board without identifying the writers. The board is projected onto a large screen in the classroom, turning students’ attention from their smartphones. This app attempts to create a sense of a learning community in the classroom.
Minamitani: Before using the app, I was not entirely satisfied with my writing classes. When I asked students to write English sentences on the blackboard, only a few students would volunteer. However, the application ensures simultaneous writing by approximately 40 students, and I can also provide immediate feedback. Students are less likely to feel embarrassed about their mistakes and can observe other students’ typical grammatical errors. The app provides students with more opportunities for trial and error, increasing the amount of output in the end. The success of this application in teaching English led to an invitation to present at a symposium at my former university.
DELE: You developed and used the application to alleviate students’ unwillingness to express themselves and fear of making mistakes, which are negative features of English learning in Japan.
Minamitani: Most Japanese students lack the opportunity to use English in their daily lives, which can make them feel nervous and self-conscious when speaking or writing in the language. Providing a space where they can write and communicate in English without the fear of making mistakes can help them feel more comfortable and confident in their language abilities.
Too much conformism excludes the voices of others who may expand one’s world
DELE: What advice would you provide first- and second-year students at Kyoto University?
Minaminatni: As a literary scholar, I am interested in discussing the general use of language, particularly in contemporary Japanese society. In recent years, there has been a trend towards homogenization and a reduced vocabulary, as well as a cultural shift towards prioritizing brevity. This has led to the development of new forms of communication, including the creation of jargon and other instant sharing of ideas within a community. Young people, in particular, have adapted to the communication styles, and tend to believe that carefully crafted passages take too much time for the reader and writer.
Social Networking Services developed the culture of transforming a user into an icon or content that attracts followers. They often force users to always appear as the ‘typical me,’ the character that the followers want to see. Some users may wish to act in this manner, but such type of language that develops in such an SNS culture tends to be closed and limited in its scope.
I am not entirely against all these tendencies as it can be enjoyable to communicate with peers using popular phrases on TV or social networking sites, or characterise oneself in a certain way. However, I want students to be conscious of the fact that such language creates an isolated universe. If they only use the language of the isolated universe, they habitually see the world through stereotypes. Furthermore, they will only receive what they expect from the people around them, which blocks the voices of others who may expand their world. They may make themselves exclusive before they know it.
We live in an age in which we are connected through social networks, but individuals should also have a sense of self that is not instantly connected to the community. In a sense, each person should have a his/her own world within themselves that might make themselves solitary, establishing a unique sensibility and language that may not be understood by others.
Language emerges from noise and misunderstanding in an attempt to communicate when a person does not comprehend another person without much shared context. It is more gratifying to feel connected in the midst of uncertainty than in a constant state of mutual understanding. While the state of being ‘connected’ is valuable, I want people to go outside their comfort zone to experience the language of a different universe.
In this respect, literature has the potency to make our language solitary from conventional communities. Literary language is often an enigmatic, complex entity containing particles of past and present history and culture. Studying such a language can significantly change our language and sensibilities and provide an opportunity to move away from the community in which we are locked. This isolation is a learning process to connect with strangers again. This process of isolation should happen numerously.
Read the book and experience the real world at the same time
DELE: Isolated language use is not limited to young people. Middle-aged and older people speak a closed language.
Minamitani: Yes, that is right.
DELE: The English expression, ‘filter bubble’, represents a situation where other voices are not heard in a small, isolated space. However, it is critical to listen to others’ voices and make efforts to connect with them.
A few decades ago, many students shared a culture of seeking different voices and reading as much as possible from the prestigious Iwanami Library series, although there was an element of intellectual vanity. They valued struggling with cryptic translations for understanding. This culture seems to have disappeared recently.
MINAMITANI: Students can be arrogant to imagine that they alone are reading something worthy. Such intellectual vanity can serve a purpose when students seek to break free from their habitual patterns of language use, which tend to align with those of their peers. Students may justify themselves in whatever way they like, but they should seek a place where they can experience exposure to different languages and sensibilities to forge them anew each time.
DELE: You said that reading the language of literature, which is different from everyday language, may make readers solitary. However, I was a solitary boy from the beginning, so I experienced joy upon discovering a literary figure who understood me. Literature saved me from loneliness (laughs).
MINAMITANI: Literature also contains that dynamic. Literature produces isolation and reconciliation incessantly.
DELE: To put it very simply, read as many books as possible.
MINAMITANI: I strongly encourage students to broaden their horizons by reading a variety of literature and engaging with unfamiliar languages. Equally important, however, I advocate for them to engage with the real world that is connected to the language in these books. For instance, upon encountering the word ‘bonfire’, it is good for students to have the actual experience of building one; when they read the word ‘waves’, they should visit the seaside and dip their hands in the waves. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has deprived young people of these opportunities. Nonetheless, I urge them to experience reality as much as possible.
University students should know the variety of knowledge and be exposed to unfamiliar fields
DELE: I wish we had another two hours for this interview; unfortunately, the time is limited. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
MINAMITANI: Concerning education in general, it is possible that certain students who have been educated almost exclusively online during the Corona pandemic may harbour discontentment or resentment toward what they deem to be inadequate education, and such negative perceptions may be directed toward university institutions, individual teachers, the Ministry of Education, and the government. I am concerned that these students might carry these sentiments into their future professional and personal lives. Given the limited education they received, it is not surprising that they would say something like, “University is not much. They do not teach you anything interesting”.
I want young people to enter the university environment and discover the excitement of exposure to diverse resources, knowledge, and different ways of thinking from individuals coming from different backgrounds. While it is true that online learning poses challenges to intellectual engagement, I am committed to establishing an online educational platform where the joy of learning can be fully experienced and appreciated.
This concept brings us back to the first point, which concerns sharing expertise and learning beyond the confines of the university rather than solely within it.
This may be a simple statement, but I would like to say that learning is thrilling
DELE: I read two related articles in The New York Times this morning ("Elite Universities Are Out of Touch: Blame the Campus." "Why Is America Fractured? Blame College, a New Book Argues"). These articles criticised American universities for becoming too distant from the rest of the population geographically, socially, and culturally. You are opening up more knowledge produced by the university through the study groups that you mentioned at the beginning of the interview. Your message, in short, is “Learning is exhilarating”.
Minamitani: Yes, that is correct.
DELE: I presume that you are also attempting to convey that learning a foreign language is a tremendous joy that cannot be replaced by anything else, although it is undeniably hard work.
MINAMITANI: Though a simple statement, I would like to say that learning is a thrilling experience to broaden our perspectives and enhances our understanding of the unknown world around us. I wish for my students to experience the joy of attending university.
DELE: Thank you very much.
After the interview
What ran through Dr Minamitani’s talk was that one should not close off one’s own language and that learning is exhilarating. The former is a belief he gained from his research on Joyce and other works of English literature, whereas the latter seems to have emerged naturally from his research engagement. I also concur with Dr Minamitani when he highlights the danger of contemporary individuals confining themselves to a limited language universe. While human interactions are increasing globally, exclusive attitudes are expanding in many places. Students should not restrict themselves to the Japanese way of feeling or thinking. They should acquire different perceptions and cognitions of English and other foreign languages. I believe that this learning will be an essential aspect of education for living in peace in the future. I thank Dr Minamitani for taking time out of his exceedingly tight schedule and providing valuable suggestions.