Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Looking forward, not back: a visionary choice?

Learner autonomy for plurilingual Japan
Naoko Aoki, Osaka University

In making a call for a plurilingual Japan, Naoko Aoki explained that she would be looking at some of the problems that linguistic minorities in Japan have to contend with, as well as exploring how learner autonomy might help make her vision become reality. She would not, however, be taking a historical perspective on the post-(Second World) war development of Japanese as a second language education, and autonomy’s place in it. Naoko did not feel she could be an impartial observer of this. Instead, she would focus on the future in sharing her visionary understanding of a plurilingual Japan.

Naoko began by highlighting how the ‘non-Japanese’ population of Japan has more than doubled in the last 20 years to just over two million, or 1.63% of the total. In many ways, she claimed, Japan is already a multilingual society, if we take ethnic media in urban areas and different multilingual services offered by local governments. Yet, although the Japanese government has initiated the targeted immigration of workers with particular sets of skills (for example, nurse and care workers from the Philippines for the aging population, and IT engineers from India), it is still difficult to get an accurate sense of the overall figures for “foreign” linguistic minorities within Japan.

Adult and younger JSL learners from these linguistic minorities face many problems. JSL teachers are often volunteers who may not be properly qualified (and may be employed on a part-time basis). Children from immigrant families and communities may have limited access to, and successful experience of, the Japanese education system, but not just because of language. The children from different linguistic minorities do not automatically have the right to upper secondary and higher education, so their formal education may be effectively terminated on finishing junior high school. Educational discrimination, in other words, leads to social and economic exclusion, and, despite different communities being marginalized, it is rare for this to be publicly acknowledged in Japanese society.

Rather than look in greater detail at the socio-economic context of linguistic minority groups in Japan (such as Brazilian Japanese, for example), Naoko moved next to articulating her vision of a plurilingual Japan. By plurilingualism, she meant an individual’s “competence in more than one language.” The concept is closely associated with the Council of Europe’s efforts to protect and promote human rights, democratic citizenship and linguistic diversity in Europe (Beacco and Byram 2003); a central premise of plurilingualism is one of partial competence in several languages rather than complete native-like mastery in one or two. [The Common European Framework of Reference descriptors (Basic, Independent, Proficient) indicate how the varying proficiency of plurilinguals can be described across particular skills for the different languages they know.] Naoko argued that plurilinguals can freely choose from a “repertoire of communicative resources” according to their communicative needs and own freely made decisions.

Such individuals could in turn be seen as highly flexible and adaptable citizens for a better Japanese society in the future. In this ideal view, each person would speak more than one language; they would further recognize all the different languages and cultures within Japanese society, identify with where they live and grow up, and have enhanced opportunities for social mobility. And learner autonomy could help this all come true, Naoko continued. Here, she drew out a number of connections between appropriate education for plurilingualism and learner autonomy: the development of democratic citizenship, connections to lifelong learning, the capacity to make decisions, the creation of different identities…and so on. Naoko finished by appealing for “ALL language teachers” to believe in the plurilingual ideal and to contribute to helping it being realized.

Several questions followed from the audience, with the speaker concluding that we need to be optimistic, otherwise things won’t change. We can all make small changes, no matter how minor they are.

Beacco, J-C & Byram, M. (2003). Guide for the Development of Language Education Policies in Europe. From Linguistic Diversity to Plurilingual Education, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Source/FullGuide_EN.pdf (Last accessed October 8 2007)

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