Finding His Voice Abroad

United States San Jose Destination 03

As a new student at Keio University in Japan, Genki Tamura felt confident that he could strike up a conversation in English with any one of his classmates, “When I was in high school, I was very good at English. Actually, I was second to none.” he said.

Then reality hit. On campus, students who had returned from living and studying abroad discussed movies, news and social activities with a command of English that caught him by surprise: “So many returnees were talking in English with each other, and I couldn't break into their conversations, which mortified me very much.”

An economics major with dreams of becoming a global business leader, Tamura realized then that he needed to become more proficient in English, not just to engage friends in casual conversation but to convince future international business partners of his worth: “It is clear that English skills are essential in the recent globalization of business,” he writes in an email, “but the business affair is so complex that I think a mere basic command of the language is not enough.”

So, last spring, he began studying at San Jose State University, where he immersed himself in American culture and language. In the beginning though, he struggled to speak up, especially in group assignments: “The group project was one of the hardest parts of my studies at SJSU. At first, I couldn't express my own ideas in the discussions. However, remaining silent during the discussion was considered to be indifference by the local students.”

In this way, Tamura faced the same challenge as many international students who study in a second language or struggle to adapt to a new culture, and he exemplified an ongoing debate about English education in Japan.

From the Ministry of Education to the boardrooms of SoftBank, Rakuten and Bridgestone, a cross-section of Japan’s leaders are encouraging the country’s current and future workforce to master English in order for the country to remain competitive in the global economy. Critics argue that Japan’s traditional methods of language instruction, which adequately teach basic written and spoken English, fall short of helping the language learners master fluency.

Helping to change that, some of the country’s English conversation schools and clubs are getting creative. One school connects students with families at military bases so they can chat about current events and food as if they were in America. Meanwhile, the British Council has organized a 'Downton Abbey' night in a Tokyo pub, where attendees watch the famous British drama followed by British English lessons.

For Tamura, though, it was the demanding group project at San Jose State University that helped him find his voice: “Although these sorts of projects are tough, through the group project I made friends, and I was able to give my opinions in the debates ... This was one of the happiest moments ever.”

Having been inspired to keep improving his language skills, Tamura returns to Japan this winter with a renewed sense of self-confidence and purpose: “As for my future plans, I would like to make the best use of my English skills and my specialty in order to contribute to the Japanese economy. Now I am interested in joining a consulting firm, where I would use English to be involved in business related to cross-border matters and solve management problems that global companies have.”