Welcome to the March/April edition of TLT Interviews. For this issue, we bring you an interview with Tomoko Yashima, who is a Professor of Applied Linguistics and Intercultural Communication at Kansai University. Her main research interests comprise three broad areas: 1) communication behaviors, 2) second language use in intercultural contact situations, and 3) motivation and affect in second language learning. She has published extensively on the topics of willingness to communicate (WTC) and international posture (IP), and her IP scale has become the standard used in IP-related research by scholars across the globe. Currently, she is exploring qualitative research methods in order to conduct humanistic empirical research that leads to an understanding of people embedded in their living contexts. She was interviewed by Ian Willey, who is an associate professor of English at Kagawa University. He is currently heading a MEXT-funded research project to explore ways to increase university students’ IP. His research interests include second language writing, English for Specific Purposes, and classroom medium of instruction. Now, without further ado, to the interview!
Using psychometric scales to assess individual differences in language learning has been common since the end of the twentieth century. One of the best-known scales is the willingness to communicate (WTC) scale, developed in the field of first-language communication and later extended to second language (L2) learning in the works of MacIntyre and Doucette (2010). WTC is determined by one’s perceived communicative competence in an L2 as well as L2 communication anxiety. Raising learners’ WTC is now considered integral to learning an L2. Related to WTC is the construct of international posture (IP), developed by Tomoko Yashima about twenty years ago.
Dr. Yashima, a pioneer in WTC research, has previously spoken about IP in the pages of The Language Teacher (Ryan, 2015), but now may be a good time to revisit this concept. Life is returning to normal as the pandemic settles: borders are opening and people are moving about once again. Japanese students may start thinking about studying abroad, or at least that is what university administrators and those in the Japanese government are hoping for. The number of Japanese students studying abroad has been declining for decades, and it is unclear what effect the pandemic has had on students’ interest in studying abroad—or, for that matter, their IP. Has it decreased? If so, what can English instructors do to spark a renewed interest in international issues and studying abroad? There is no better person to ask these questions than Tomoko Yashima. IP plays a large role in my research as well, and recently I had the good fortune to be able to ask her several questions about IP both for my benefit and for that of TLT readers.
Ian Willey: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. I’d like to begin with a discussion of what international posture means, as some readers may be unfamiliar with this concept. Could you please describe how you developed the international posture scale?
Tomoko Yashima: I have been working in two somewhat separate research areas—L2 learning affect and motivation on one hand and intercultural communication on the other. My interest concerned both and it made perfect sense to me. But they were separate academic fields, in terms of conferences to attend, journals to read, etc. The idea of international posture, or IP, was born out of the intersection of the two fields and my attempt to integrate the two.
Before the year 2000, language learning motivation research was dominated by the Canadian schools with researchers including Gardner and MacIntyre (1991). Gardner’s studies are well known for two contrasting motivational orientations, what he termed “integrativeness”, or a tendency to approach and make friends with a specific L2 group or even identify with the group, and instrumental motives to study an L2 to get credits, a job, etc. His studies showed that integrativeness was a stronger and perhaps preferable motivator of L2 learning than instrumentality. I liked the idea of integrativeness but I felt, with English in Japan, we do not have a specific target group we identify with for studying English. For learners in Japan, English is like a window open to the world outside Japan, and a means to relate to people we cannot communicate with in Japanese. At the same time, we have utilitarian English learning goals: for example, getting a good job, attaining certain TOEIC scores, etcetera. Friendship and utilitarian orientations coexist in many learners, and they both affect motivation. IP addresses both of these orientations. With IP, I wanted to focus on motivation to learn an L2 (English in many cases) as a lingua franca, so these two aspects are included. I was also interested in studies on intercultural competency (e.g., research by Gudykunst and Kim, 1984)—many ideas, including a tendency to approach or avoid foreigners (dissimilar others) and ethnocentrism, originate in their studies. I constructed an IP scale with items drawing on Gardner and MacIntyre’s (1991) as well as Gudykunst and Kim’s (1984) scales. It comprises different subsections representing different aspects of IP—intercultural approach/avoidance tendency, interest in international vocations and activities, interest in international news—and later I added having things to communicate with the world. They can be used separately or to assess IP as a whole.
Your own research, especially Yashima and Zenuk-Nishide (2008), and that of some other scholars (e.g., Jiang, 2013) suggests that traditional English teaching methods fail to develop international posture in students and may even hinder the development of English proficiency. What do you perceive as ideal English teaching methods in Japan?
I showed in that paper that students exposed to content-based teaching using global studies content for longer hours grew in international posture and willingness to communicate more than those exposed to traditional grammar-oriented classes. In terms of proficiency, both groups did equally well. I’m a proponent of CLIL/content-based teaching where students learn to read about international issues, form attitudes, and communicate their thoughts while learning English. Nishi High School, where the 2008 study was conducted, had a wonderful CLIL program of global studies offering content-integrated skill-based classes and handmade textbooks. But it was not possible without the devoted teachers and their passion.
Is it possible to put in place a system of English education at the secondary level that develops international posture without radically changing the entrance examination system?
I believe it does not just concern English teaching, but concerns how other subjects, such as Social Science, are taught. English tests used in entrance exams have been much improved over the years. Learners need to read well and fairly fast to gain high scores. Some History tests I saw, on the other hand, simply asked how much information written in the text students could produce.
I believe the acquisition of basic English skills is necessary in secondary-level education. The question is, what are the skills for? If students don’t have any opportunities to use them, it is like learning a rule book, playing catch or swinging a bat without ever playing a baseball game. They need real games to exhibit their skills, to be engaged, and truly enjoy the sport. In the same way, we need to create some realistic opportunities for learners. Ideally, we should create some intercultural communication opportunities (for example, discussion on global issues) online or face-to-face, where students can meet with diverse partners and apply the skills they acquired in English classes.
Let’s shift to the university context. What would an international posture-building curriculum at the university level look like?
You cannot play a good game with limited skills, but you can enjoy games if you have a reasonable level of competency. I have an impression that many college students have a reasonable level of English knowledge but there are limited contexts for them to use it. As applied linguists, we know that we learn a language by using it. We need to have students use the language 100 times more than we do now. Although IP concerns many different subjects that students learn at university, the IP that we can foster in the English curriculum is linked to communication. When learners have the context and partners to communicate in English, they learn to use English, starting from simple things. Gradually, they realize that they need to have contents to communicate. (This I believe relates to your research!) From my experience, students usually enjoy getting to know each other or what others think through communicating in English. When they have things to communicate that require a bit of preparation or research, usually that makes them want to communicate it to someone. So again, CLIL would be good. Students understand that they need to brush up on their skills if they want to make their voices clearer. The idea is that language, content, and desire to communicate develop together, not separately.
The range of partners one can communicate with will expand beyond borders if he/she learns to communicate in English. Communicating with non-Japanese speaking partners will be a novel experience for many students and teach them many things they did not otherwise notice. If they enjoy the experience, they might want to try again and for that they need to have things to communicate. If they feel they want to contribute more, that motivates them to learn vocabulary, grammar, or content, etc.
I feel that students in Japan are bombarded with the message, in education and society, that Japan is a unique, safe, and wonderful place. Is it possible to develop international posture in learners when “Domestic Posture” is so prominent?
There are individual differences in the tendency you described, and in a way, the IP scale was developed to capture the difference. IP is designed to assess the degree to which a person is open to the world outside the small Japanese community around him or her, and the degree he/she is ready to use English to meet with people, explore possibilities of working overseas, etc. What you call domestic posture is a tendency among those with a low level of IP. Another word used to express a similar tendency is uchimuki or looking inward-ness. Other researchers call the tendency non-risk-taking; these people prefer to be on the safe side of many things. It has much to do with Japanese cultural tendencies: running the risk of being a bit stereotypical, as is often pointed out by culture researchers, the tendency to conform to norms, hating to be different, or avoiding being called KY (where you can’t “read the room”). Instead, sensitivity to others and doing things together, or minna de, is valued. This is deeply rooted in our culture, and there is nothing wrong with it, if we don’t mind having Japanese youth not so dynamic, not super-creative, satisfied with the status quo, but quiet, polite, and kind. That’s fine if we can continue to live in a secure, harmonious community—in other words, if we can continue to maintain this domestic posture. But can we? The world has always required us to adapt to unpredictable new situations. If we want to make people ready for new challenges or change young people’s attributes to be somewhat more outward-looking, change-oriented, and welcoming of diversity, fostering IP together with a willingness to communicate might be helpful.
You have made several adjustments to the international posture scale over the years, and there has been some criticism of some parts of this scale. For instance, Mystkowska-Wiertelak and Pietrzykowska (2011) point out that the category “having things to communicate with the world” does not take into account the many new ways people can communicate over the Internet. Do you think any changes to the IP scale are in order? If so, how would you change it now?
I don’t quite understand the criticism. You need things to communicate even when you are communicating online, or when speaking or writing, don’t you? If you are interested in World Cup soccer, you can participate in an online community of soccer fans. I have a student who is interested in fashion and participates regularly in an online community where French fashion is discussed.
Regarding changes, I dropped a subsection of the IP scale, “intercultural friendship orientation for English learning,” at an early stage because I thought there was a conceptual overlap between this and L2 motivation that is often correlated with IP in research–correlations are natural if there is conceptual overlap. I also changed wordings: I changed too specific wordings in some items (e.g., referring to north-south issues) to those that sound somewhat broader. We used these items in our research, though the items may not have been published.
You’ve mentioned to me that you are working on a shortened version of the international posture scale. Could you tell us a bit about this?
Yes, we are working on reducing the current 20-item survey to a shorter version, restoring the same core principles—addressing the motivation to learn English or an L2 as a lingua franca without a clear target population to identify with and addressing both integrative and instrumental aspects of learning an L2. We are getting good results and hopefully will get it ready to use soon.
Recently, many textbooks, at both the secondary and tertiary level, take up global issues. Would you say these are effective in developing learners’ international posture?
I believe it is a good trend. No language learning materials are content-free unless you teach only a vocabulary list. From the perspective of IP, exposure to global information including climate, war and peace, health and disease, and much more, is precious. Some of my students did not know anything about the abortion debate in the US, girls’ education in Afghanistan, or Bollywood before they read about them in English classes. Personally, I like materials that are easy to form opinions on or have students engaged emotionally.
What effect do you think the pandemic has had on international posture among learners in Japan and in general?
It is a shame that many schools and organizations had to have study abroad programs on hold during the pandemic. At my university, many students attended study abroad programs on Zoom. But in many of these students, I feel energy has accumulated, and it might burst when things become normal. Around me, I see many students who really wish to travel abroad and see the world firsthand. The MEXT program Tobitate, which provides scholarships for study abroad, has been very popular and competitive. It shows finance is one thing that deters young people from studying abroad, as joining study abroad programs can be very expensive. On the other hand, the pandemic gave us opportunities to explore online teaching/learning and intercultural communication experiences. There are a lot of possibilities to create intercultural contact and use English online. I sincerely hope we create many more contexts for intercultural communication experiences, face-to-face or online, to create diverse communities of practice Japanese students can participate in.
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.
As Professor Yashima notes, the world has greatly changed since the pandemic, and students are now able to experience intercultural communication online—a trend that is likely to continue with the growing popularity of online games and the coming metaverse. international posture is thus as important to studying or working abroad as it is for young people to enjoy meaningful intercultural experiences without ever leaving Japan. Kensaku Yoshida (2022) has observed that the New Course of Study for secondary education put forward by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) acknowledges, at long last, the way people need to use English outside of the classroom and focuses on developing practical skills to satisfy these needs. One can only hope that this will work and that similar approaches will trickle their way into tertiary English education.
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