By Asuka Ayabe
On a Friday evening, in a quiet residential area of Kochi, one club is about to be held at a typical modern Japanese house. “Come in!” one Japanese woman said with a smile. Through a corridor to a living room, some people are talking in English. One young man, who looks a university student and are laughing cheerfully, one African man talking with others with interest and four Japanese women…their age, race, and gender are different, but they are really enjoying their conversation, and it never stops.
“Today, I made “Soumen” for all of you, so hope you would enjoy the dinner.” said Kayoko Kawaguchi, a key person of this group, “Happy Time.”
Happy Time is an English conversation group organized last year by Kayoko and one Kochi University student, Hiroki Nakanishi.
“We met at a lecture called “innovator lecture” in Shimanto town with each other last year,” Kayoko said. “In the lecture, I had an opportunity to state my aim of the year, and I thought I wanted to improve my English. After that, I met Hiroki, and he said he could introduce his foreign friends to me. Then, I came up with meeting them at my house regularly.”
After their meeting, she searched for more members who were interested in English, and now, Happy Time gained its members to 10.
As globalization proceeds, the needs of English increased and is becoming one of the significant issues in Japan. According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, more and more people are doing cross-border activities because of globalization. This makes the global relationship of interdependence deepen, and the global economic competitiveness gets intense at the same time.
Also, the ministry says we are needed to gather the wisdom of humankind to solve global issues like the environmental problem that we are facing now. It means people have to corporate with each other and have international understanding. From these reasons, the Japanese government is trying to raise global leaders and encouraging Japanese people to learn English and be fluent in the language.
However, there are a lot of issues to accelerate improvement in the English situation surrounding Japanese people, primarily English communication ability. According to TOFEL iBT scores in 2017, the section scores by Japanese candidates has shown a surprising fact: the reading, listening writing scores were 18%, and the speaking score was 17%. This was not only the lowest number of all sections but also the lowest score of all Asian countries. On the other hand, in the Republic of Korea, the reading score was 22%, the listening and writing scores were 21%, and the speaking score was 20%. In Sweden, the reading score was 21%, the listening score was 24%, the writing score was 22%, and the speaking score was 25%. From this, we can see Japanese people have a big problem in their speaking abilities of English. Also, according to other research, around 70 percent of adults answered they did not have opportunities to speak English in their life. Also, major and minor explained the English ability the society needs from them was “Speaking.”
“I wanted a place to speak English.” Ikuko Kurokawa, one of the members of this group said. “Even though I have studied English at another English school for 5 years, I could not speak English. What I needed was speaking English with foreigners, and this English group provides us with the opportunity.” Also, she added, “This English group is different from other English conversation schools. We do not learn speaking English with class style because we just need to have daily conversations in English and enjoy them. Also, I am enjoying the atmosphere of this group. I can see my friends here and talk to them. I can also learn about different cultures from foreign members. I really enjoy coming here, and this English group gives my life more energy.”
As the needs of studying English increases, English industry has become a big business in Japan, especially, English conversation school. It is said the number of English conversation schools is over 9,000 in 2015. Also, this number will increase more because the Ministry of Education has announced English education will start from elementary school in 2020. Currently, it begins in junior high school. Tokyo Olympic in 2020 is also one of the reasons people began recognizing the need and importance of English. However, even in such a situation, Happy Time does not request payment, while many people currently buy opportunities to speak English in Japan.
Happy Time provides Japanese members with a place to speak English, but it is also a special place for foreign members.
“I get to learn a lot from the members.” Mawuko Gabriel Ahiable, who is from Ghana and one of the foreign members said. “Essentially, Japanese culture and value systems, interpersonal relationships, company, and motivation to never stop learning. The members are almost all retirees and yet are passionate about learning English. It amazes me.”
In Happy Time, people do some activities like a presentation of their dreams and aims for the future and cooking foods with foreign members. However, these activities are not the priority thing of this group. What they really want is exposing themselves to real daily English conversations and interacting with people through the Time in the group. They speak in all English, and their conversations seem never to stop. All members are very positive to talk even if grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation were not correct.
“Language is a “heart.” Kazuko Yamamoto, a member of the group, said. “Japanese people tend to desire to be perfect at English, but it is wrong. Even if the grammar was not correct, we could communicate with each other only by putting words. Language is a heart, so I am sure people can understand if you try hard to tell, and those experiences make you be able to speak English.”
Now, Happy Time has 10 Japanese members and 3 foreign members. However, most of the international members are exchange students, and they have to go back to their countries when the time comes.
“We want more foreign people to know this group’s existence and join us,” Ikuko said about the future plan. “If we can have new foreign friends, we can find new cultures by talking with them. Different countries’ people have different cultures. Even if it is a small discovery, learning a new thing is very interesting and exciting. I hope I can talk about such a thing with people from various countries.”