INDIRECTLY SPEAKING / Textbooks finally showing more of the world

Mike Guest / Special to The Daily Yomiuri The Language Connection

I’m happy to say that it seems I am no longer an American. Not that I ever actually was. Having been born in Britain, raised in Canada, and living in Japan for the past 20 years, I’ve visited the United States only as a tourist.

But that hasn’t stopped me from fielding questions in Japan such as: “What are universities like in America?” Or, “Do you have this type of food in America?”

Even when people, often educated people, know that I am Canadian, I’ve been told, for example, that some aspect of Japan is “probably quite different from what you experienced in America.” (Note that for such people it’s always “America,” not “the U.S.” or “the States”) Working at a university hospital this is quite a common assumption when the topic of national health care pops up.

To be fair, I’ve been on the receiving end of similar questions and assumptions not only in Japan but in other countries where the United States is identified as, if not standing for the entire notion of “foreign countries,” at least being the apparent home of any Caucasian. But all that is changing.

Children’s English textbooks now include characters from Singapore, the Philippines, India and, on occasion, folks from countries where English is not an official language. No longer does the United States represent the standard or take the arbiter’s role of the English language. More power to those who present English as a language that traverses many countries, races and cultures.

This does not mean I wish to denigrate the United States, which is still a colossal source of enterprise, innovation and creative energy. And let’s face it, with the United States being the big kid on the block, it is an all too common target for criticism or even ridicule.

But the past widespread depiction of the United States as the embodiment of all that is foreign has contributed to some unfortunate worldviews prevalent among Japanese students (as people who come to Japan from countries other than the United States can readily testify). And people of many nationalities are responsible for this.

What I am getting at is the fact that in many ways the U.S. standard is quite distant from any alleged world norm. In other words, it is often the United States–and not Japan as it is often supposed–that represents the outlier, the oddball.

This always hits me full force at election time when U.S. politicians bring their wives and families onto the stage, with the spouses often making fierce rally speeches in support of their husbands. Can we see this in any other country? Not only the cosmetic aspect but the election and political mechanisms in general–how common are these? How about the widespread attitudes toward gun control (or lack thereof)? The political force of evangelical Christians and their beliefs and value systems? The widespread opposition to socialized health plans?

The list goes on and on. The force of the U.S. Constitution, the nation’s legacy based upon the pursuit of individual happiness, its foundation in revolution, its active multiculturalism and consequent racial politics, are in accordance with, for better or worse, very few countries on the planet. Clearly these are far from planetary norms, nor do they represent the apex of social development that other nations aspire to but currently lag behind in. If you travel to non-Western countries, you can see that while the United States is alternately viewed as both alluring and repelling, it is most generally thought of as unusual. Again, the United States is the outlier, not Japan.

But since textbooks and other teaching materials have developed a more global perspective, with U.S. standards and norms no longer dominant, I’ve noticed a welcome shift in student awareness of a world existing on an axis other than a U.S.-Japan (and maybe Chinese or British) one. This is welcome, as it is in accordance with the fact the majority of English speakers in the world are not Americans but in fact learners of English as a second language from myriad countries.

A recent decrease in the number of Japanese students studying in the United States has been said to be indicative of an increasing Japanese insularity among younger people. But as Japanese students increasingly see the world as multipolar my hope is that they shift their study abroad interests to other nations ridding themselves of the immediate association between the United States and “foreign countries.”

I have noted among my own students the gradual realization that the United States is just one country among many. This has precipitated a marked shift in interest, so that it is no longer unusual to find students keener on learning about, and experiencing life in, Indonesia, Thailand, Portugal or Sweden (to name some countries of particular interest mentioned by students recently).

The next step in English materials development that I would like to see is for the characters from various countries to be presented not as caricatures, amalgams of the various national stereotypes, but as personalities–a scenario in which the human, psychological model trumps the cultural representative motif.

And yet we can still get information about the country. For example, Jorge from Brazil can certainly vouch for his country’s passion for soccer but it might be more interesting if he admitted that he himself was not particularly into the sport. Score one for introducing people and not pastiches. Or how about Ibrahim from Canada talking about being a Muslim of Iraqi origin living in Vancouver, and including a sentence about Vancouver not actually being so cold? Not only is this a realistic scenario, it’s a real attention-getter for students.

How about introducing Anil from India who actually lived in Japan for a year when he was younger and knows some Japanese language and a bit about the culture? Engaging non-Japanese people who know a bit about Japan is hardly a far-fetched scenario. Better yet, think of Akari, ethnically Japanese but brought up in Hong Kong.

This is the nature of the modern world. It’s a multipolar world full of complex multifaceted people interfacing, not one where America carries the flag for planet Earth. Let’s get it into our textbooks.

Guest is an associate professor of English at Miyazaki University. He can be reached at

(Nov. 27, 2012)

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