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Discussion Paper 5 in 2010
First published in ejcjs on 30 September 2010

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The Sociolinguistic Context of English Language Education in Japan and Singapore[1]


Liang Morita

Graduate School of Languages and Cultures
Nagoya University

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Starting from April 2011, fifth- and sixth-graders in Japanese elementary schools are required to take 35 periods of English language study per year. As the kick off date draws nearer, interest in how English is taught in the rest of the world, especially Asia, is growing. Many are keen to compare English education in Japan with that in other countries. This paper questions the wisdom of such comparisons without taking into account the sociolinguistic context by using Singapore as a case in point. Due to differences in attitudes, education, as well as history and the role of English, it is almost impossible to provide a simple answer when asked to compare the English situation in Japan with that of Singapore. This paper examines some of the key differences in the sociolinguistic context of English in the two countries. By showing how deep the differences can run, the author hopes to remind policy makers, educators and parents to proceed with care when attempting to implement curricula, teaching methods etc. from other countries.

Key Words

English education; elementary school English

1. Introduction

In Japan's efforts to remain internationally competitive in its economy, research and education, the need for its people to acquire English abilities has been perceived as more pressing than before. In July 2001, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) put forward a 'Strategic Plan to Cultivate "Japanese with English Abilities"' in its attempts to improve the country's English language teaching practices. In addition to concerns about international competitiveness, the government also hopes to connect Japan to the rest of the world, to be understood, and to enhance its international presence, through the use of English (MEXT 2003). MEXT also proposed a set of goals—to have been achieved by 2008—concerning the English language abilities of all Japanese nationals. Junior high school graduates, for instance, were expected to be able to conduct basic daily communication in English; university graduates to use English at work.

Accordingly, MEXT has announced that English will become a compulsory subject taught formally in elementary schools starting from April 2011. At present, English is taught only informally in elementary schools. Many elementary schools offer English during the Integrated Study Hour in order to expose children to a foreign language and familiarise them with a different culture and way of life. The Integrated Study Hour was established in 1998 for third-graders and above to encourage international understanding, foreign language conversation, and environmental and welfare education. The subjects taught during the hour are outside the formal curriculum and hands-on learning is emphasised. Students typically spend 70 credit hours a year or 2 credit hours a week on Integrated Study (MEXT 1998). In 2000, almost 70 per cent of the nation's public elementary schools taught English in the Integrated Study Hour (Honna and Takeshita 2005: 367). However, with the new policy being introduced from April 2011, all fifth- and sixth-graders will be required to take 35 periods of English a year.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that there has been tremendous interest in Japan in English education elsewhere, especially in Asia. In fact, one concern has been that almost all Asian countries had introduced English as a compulsory subject in elementary schools before 2000 while Japan had not, and in 2003 MEXT set up study groups to examine English language teaching situations in other Asian countries (Honna and Takeshita 2005: 365). Another example of interest in neighbouring countries' English language education programmes is the Japan Association for Asian Englishes' Taiwan study tour in 2004, along with articles in the association's journal, Asian English Studies, repeatedly publishing articles that compare and contrast English education in Japan with that of other countries in Asia. The media has also shown similar interest in such comparisons, such as in the Japan Times series on 'English Classrooms of the World', which includes an issue on Singapore. Although it is true that much can be gained from studying other nations' English teaching experiences and situations, I will argue below that one should proceed with care when making such comparisons.

Foreign nationals in Japan are sometimes asked about English education in their countries or to compare English in their country with that in Japan. In these situations a short answer of perhaps a few sentences is often expected. Many are not aware that it is incredibly difficult to address the English situation in just a few sentences when the sociolinguistic contexts in the two countries can be so different. The English situation in say, Singapore, is very different from that in Japan. Because of past government interest in Singapore and the fact that the author is a Singapore national, the Southeast Asian nation will be used as a case in point in this paper. Kawai Hayao, an advisor to Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo (1998-2000), reportedly regarded Singapore as a model for Japan's English education, during a time when the issue of making English the second official language in Japan was being considered (Otani 2010).

Despite the fact that both are wealthy nations in Asia, Japan has historically scored very low among Asian nations' mean scores in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score rankings, and especially when compared to countries such as Singapore. In 1998, Japan's score ranked 180th among the 189 countries in the United Nations (Inoguchi 1999: 1, cited in Gottlieb 2005: 32). In the latest test and score data summary for the TOEFL Internet-based and paper-based tests, Singapore has the highest scores in Asia while Japan continues to lag behind (Educational Testing Service 2009: 10,17). Even for those who are cautious about using test scores to compare the standard of English in different countries, it is difficult to ignore the fact that while practically everyone in Singapore speaks English, few in Japan seem to. Yet the differences in the English situation in the two countries go beyond test scores or the number of English speakers.

This paper discusses four contextual differences between Japan and Singapore, namely, the historical background to the use of English in the two countries (section 2), the role of English (section 3), attitudes towards English (section 4) and English education (section 5). English was the language of the government when Singapore was a British colony and has been a vital economic resource while it has never had official status in Japan and Japanese can make a comfortable living for themselves without using English in their daily lives. English is widely used in Singapore but has limited use in Japan. Concerning attitudes, Singaporeans currently embrace English while some Japanese still have doubts. Finally, English education in Japan has been heavily criticised but education in Singapore is comparable to that in other developed nations.

2. Background to the Use of English in Singapore and Japan


1819 tends to be recognised as marking the first significant event in Singapore's modern history, when Sir Stamford Raffles acquired the island as a strategic commercial outpost for the British East India Company (Lim and Foley 2004: 2). Since Singapore was under the control of a British company, English was the language of the company's administration and the settlement's rulers, thus possessing from the outset prestige and a dominant position in Singapore (Shepherd 2005: 73). When Singapore became a British colony, the political administrative system was in English (Rappa and Wee 2006: 87), and English was a minority language, used for official purposes such as in government offices and the law courts and mastered by a small elite (Deterding 2007: 85).

Since independence in 1965, English has been recognised by Singapore's governing and economic elites as a resource to increase the country's rate of economic and social development (Lim and Foley 2004: 2). Since Singapore lacks natural resources such as oil or a sufficiently strong base for agricultural exports, the government has focused on developing its people into a competent workforce attractive to foreign investors (Rappa and Wee 2006: 81). Thus, English has been seen as a vital economic resource, enabling Singapore to find a viable economic role in the modern world in trade and commerce, banking, tourism, education, research, and science and technology. Moreover, English is also seen by many as a neutral language between the various ethnic groups that make up Singapore's multicultural population (the most numerous being the Chinese, Malays and Indians), so it is also sometimes viewed as a cultural unifier. In other words English is a relatively neutral lingua franca allowing for inter-ethnic communication,[2] with no single ethnic group gaining unfair advantages due to holding a dominant linguistic position within the country (Bokhorst-Heng 1998, cited in Deterding 2007: 86).


The first Japanese contact with the English language took place in 1600 when an Englishman, William Adams, was washed up on the shores of Bungo in Kyushu (Ike 1995: 3). However, English in Japan did not start off with the kind of foothold it had in Singapore since Japanese was never challenged by the language of a colonizing power. In fact, Japan closed itself off to the world as a reaction to fears of European colonial ambitions during the late 16th and early 17th centuries for more than 200 years. The trend of learning English started in the early Meiji Period, when the period of isolation came to an end and it became evident that English was needed for contact with the West, particularly the United States and Britain (Gottlieb 2005: 36).

Economic and Social Implications of Using English
To Singaporeans, using English and attracting foreign investors is a matter of economic survival. It is also a cultural glue that helps to hold society together. In Japan, English is necessary if one wants to communicate with the rest of the world but an overwhelming majority of Japanese do well in their jobs and their daily lives without requiring any knowledge or use of English. English language competency is not a prerequisite for finding stable work and decent wages (Seargeant 2009: 121). Gottlieb (2005: 69) pointed out that business organisations such as IBM Japan, Nissan and Marubeni require their employees to know English. In addition, it has also been claimed that almost all major corporations require English competency and employees have to take certification tests in English. Nevertheless, there are some crucial differences between Japan and Singapore concerning English in employment.

English competence for Japanese companies is often judged simply on whether the employee has a suitable score on the TOEIC, while in Singapore employment interviews are conducted in oral English as a matter of course and employees have to be able to perform their duties using English. There is, thus, a big difference in terms of the seriousness of corporate hiring criteria. Even Japanese employees who have secured their jobs with outstanding TOEIC scores often do not require English at work; Japanese is the language of the workplace and business.

Although many job openings in Japan require knowledge of basic English, one can still make a comfortable living without any English. The same cannot be said of Singapore. It is almost impossible for Singaporeans who want to be able to afford a middle-class lifestyle without being able to speak, read and write English at work. While foreigners seeking employment or business opportunities in Singapore would learn English, those whose destination is Japan would learn Japanese. Japanese is the language of employment and business. Even exchange students at Japanese universities use Japanese to make grassroots connections (Gottlieb 2005: 3). Once Japan had recovered from the war and the years of desolation that followed, the economy began to grow. By the mid-1970s, Japanese was beginning to be regarded as a symbol of economic power (Gottlieb 2005: 51). Despite recent economic setbacks, the language continues to be associated with economic strength.

The relevance of English to elementary school students
Having emphasised earlier the employment and economic advantages that English confers to its users, the point that elementary school students in Japan are unlikely to be motivated by employment and wealth concerns also needs to be stressed. According to a MEXT survey (MEXT 2005), most of the elementary school students who wanted to learn English wanted to use it on overseas trips, for communication with foreigners and for passing entrance examinations. Only a minority (32.1%) wanted to use English in their future jobs. Also, most of the students who have been in English classes in school liked their classes and the majority said they liked English because they could sing an English song and play an English game. Unsurprisingly, given their age, English is not seen as a means to a successful career or wealth by most Japanese elementary students. This is in contrast to the Singaporean situation, in which students are surrounded every day by evidence that competency in English is the means to a successful integration into Singaporean society. Consequently, one needs to be careful when borrowing curricula and teaching methods from other countries. English language pedagogy which works in Singapore may not work in Japan because of these and other contextual differences.

3. The role of English

Virtually everyone in Singapore speaks some English and uses it freely and openly on a daily basis in social and economic interaction. Indeed, about 30 per cent of the population speaks predominantly English at home, with this proportion gradually increasing every year. Ministry of Education figures claim that 50 per cent of school-age children speak English as their main home language (Deterding 2007: 4). English is the first language of a substantial number of Singaporeans (Deterding 2007: 85).

Although there are four official languages in Singapore (English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil), English has been the primary working language since the 1970s. It is used in the government, commerce and business, legislation and the law courts, and science and technology, as well as being the main medium of instruction in schools and tertiary institutions and serving as the lingua franca for international communication and diplomacy (Lim and Foley 2004: 5).

In Japan on the other hand, English is a prestigious minority language, due to its status as a language of international communication and business and the effects of the seven-year Allied Occupation of Japan at the end of World War II. Proficiency in the language is highly esteemed in many sections of society and education (Yamamoto 1995: 66). However, the use of English within Japan is limited in range and depth. There are very few domains or functions in which English has either supplanted Japanese or is used as an alternative. The number and type of users who interact with others in English are small, although there is an increasing number of those in scientific or technical fields who read English for professional purposes and those who use English in business-related correspondence (Yano 2001, cited in Morrow 2004: 90). Despite the strong visual presence (in advertising and popular culture, for example) that English has within Japanese society, the language has no official status, neither do the majority of citizens require any particular fluency in it for their everyday lives (Yano 2008, cited in Seargeant 2009: 3). On the other hand, it is very difficult for English speakers to live in Japan without some competency in Japanese, seeing as it is the language of daily transactions, the workplace, business, education and the government. Despite its role as world lingua franca, it does not take long for one to realise that Japan is not a country in which English plays a meaningful role as a language of international communication (Honna 1995: 57).

4. Attitudes towards English

As mentioned earlier, Singaporeans were urged to speak English for the sake of economic survival in the early days after independence. The official promotion of English in Singapore initially met some resistance, especially from the Chinese community, who felt that English was an alien language. They also felt that the promotion of English undermined a long tradition of excellence in teaching Chinese in Chinese schools and the Chinese university (Deterding 2007: 85-86). Singapore has since come a long way in its acceptance of English. In addition to public domains, Singaporeans today use English even in the more private domains of family and friendship (Platt and Weber 1980, cited in Lim and Foley 2004: 6). For many young people, English is the only language in which they feel comfortable and confident. Furthermore, English is a language for the expression of Singapore's national identity (Tay 1978, cited in Low and Brown 2005: 42-43).

In Japan, the learning of foreign languages, predominantly English, has been a major thrust of the government's push for greater internationalisation of Japanese society since the 1980s. Policy documents and discussion papers have focused on the need for the Japanese to learn to speak English better and more widely (Gottlieb 2005: 36). Why is it, then, that English is still not widely used?

Unlike in Singapore, where an overwhelming majority embraces English, there are conflicting attitudes towards English in Japan (Kubota 1998, cited in Morrow 2004: 94). On the one hand, there is a trend towards internationalisation in government and business, which stresses learning English as a means of making Japan more international. On the other hand, nihonjinron or theories of being Japanese, an ideology which 'attempts to define a distinct Japanese cultural and linguistic identity vis-à-vis the Western culture and language: particularly English' (Kubota 1998: 299, cited in Morrow 2004: 94). This view, which emphasises the cultural uniqueness of Japan and linguistic uniqueness of Japanese, does not encourage the teaching and use of English, and some even see it as a form of colonisation. They fear that the spread and use of a foreign language could diminish the role of the national language and threaten Japan's distinctive culture. Although some researchers believe that the nihonjinron movement of the 1970s is dated and has little impact anymore, and its supporters are no longer taken very seriously in academic circles, it seems that there are still some who subscribe to the idea.

In addition to supporters of nihonjinron, some Japanese are sceptical about English for other reasons such as linguistic sovereignty and equality. Suzuki Takao, a professor emeritus of linguistics, strongly believes that Japan should defend its linguistic sovereignty (Suzuki 1999). He argues that when high-level Japanese politicians converse with their international counterparts in English instead of in Japanese through interpreters, they cede power to the English camp rather than defend the linguistic equality of the Japanese. He takes a firm stance in favour of retaining a clearly separate linguistic identity rather than follow the trend to use English in the international community. Another scholar, Inoguchi Takashi, although disagreeing with Suzuki on linguistic sovereignty, feels it would be a much better strategy to limit English education to those planning to become high-ranking officials in the civil service instead of teaching English to all students. He believes that all Japan needs is a core of really fluent English speakers for external interactions (Gottlieb 2005: 68-69). International communication specialist Tsuda Yukio (1990,1996; cited in Horibe 2000: 332), saw the dominance of English as something to be resisted. He emphasised the principle of equality in communication and proposed the establishment of international communication treaties to guarantee the use of one's mother tongue at international conferences.

In addition to conflicting ideology and critics, two other attitudes serve as obstacles to English. One of them is the old Japanese belief that Japanese people cannot learn other languages. The origins of this belief, according to Miller (1982: 222-253, cited in Gottlieb 2005: 37), lie in a belief in the extraordinary uniqueness of the Japanese language, convincing Japanese that for them languages are particularly difficult to learn. Miller pointed out that the difficulties Japanese have in learning other languages may rather be due to inexperience with sounds and complex syllable structures. The Japanese language has a relatively small number of sounds and relatively simple fixed consonant-vowel structures. Other factors contributing to their difficulties include the marked preference for hiring only Japanese nationals in permanent positions in Japanese schools and universities to teach foreign languages and the skewing of language teaching towards answering written examination questions. Many Japanese also believe that English is the property of the USA and Britain, and feel ashamed if they do not speak English the way native speakers do. They cannot accept their more limited proficiency as natural and inevitable (Honna 1995: 57-58). Many Japanese learners of English do not want to speak English unless their English is perfect, which is of course an attitude that hinders progress in their communicative skills.

5. English education in Japan and Singapore


English was introduced in Japanese junior high schools as an elective in 1947. Foreign language education (English for the majority of students) became a required subject at junior high and high schools in 2002, although prior to this date nearly all Japanese students studied English throughout their time in junior high school and then into the early years of high school, and university among those who continued into tertiary education. A student who has completed the nine years of compulsory education today would have studied English for three years; those who have completed a further three years (more than 90 per cent of students) would have studied it for six years. According to Honna (1995: 57) there are far more Japanese who have had six years of English at school than those who have not. Many university degrees have a foreign language requirement and consequently English is emphasised in high schools and university entrance examinations. The central university entrance examination system also tests foreign language knowledge among students applying to the former national universities (English in most cases) (Gottlieb 2005: 31). There is no doubt about the academic importance of English.

However, despite the long years of English study for many Japanese, many blame their poor oral proficiency on the fact that most class time is spent on preparing for paper-based entrance examinations. The majority of classes emphasise reading comprehension and adopt the grammar translation approach. In fact, Nishino (2008: 30, citing Gorsuch 1998 and Suzuki 1999) claims that English education in Japan has been dominated by the grammar translation method. The main classroom activity in this method is a systematic word-by-word translation of a written English text to be rendered into Japanese. The teacher gives grammatical explanations in Japanese and English is hardly used. The grammar translation approach is said to have harmful effects on language learning, since the learning of authentic language is of less value than the memorisation of language rules (O'Donnell 2003: 34). This has been a favoured teaching method used to help students pass university entrance examinations (Nishino 2008: 30). The need for a more communicative-based approach has been a constant refrain over the last three decades (Seargeant 2009: 46).

In a country where one's career prospects depend to a large degree on which university one attended, university entrance examinations are regarded as one of the most important events in life. These highly competitive examinations have had a strong influence in shaping secondary English education (including course planning, teaching resources and teaching methods) (Amano 1990, Collins 1989, Lee 1991, Mochizuki 1992, Rohlen and LeTendre 1996; cited in O'Donnell 2003: 32). It seems a pity that to most students the value of English is perhaps only understood as a means to gaining admittance to the best university possible (O'Donnell 2003: 33). With a high mark being perhaps their sole purpose, students spend an enormous amount of time and energy preparing in the prescribed manner for their English examinations (Honna 1995: 57).

To be fair, one must not ignore the improvements. Reforms to Japanese education in the mid-1980s have included adopting the communicative approach through the launch of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme in 1987. The programme invites native speakers of English to Japan to improve international understanding and to work as assistant English teachers in schools. English conversation was introduced in Japanese elementary schools as an elective in 1997, and in 2002 was taken up by approximately half of public elementary schools in the country (MEXT 2003, cited in Gottlieb 2005: 37). From 2006, the central university entrance examination included a listening component. Meanwhile, the belief in the ability of the Japanese to learn other languages is growing, due to changes in teaching methodology, young people's experiences of studying abroad or meeting foreign students in Japan, and Internet-related activities that require English (Gottlieb 2005: 37-38).


English education in Singapore could not be more different. Since 1987, the primary medium of instruction of all education has been English. The quality of education is generally comparable to that in other developed countries. Educated Singapore nationals who further their studies in universities in English-speaking countries have no difficulty keeping up with their peers. It has been said of Singaporeans and their standard of English that 'many compare well with the best in Britain or America' (Deterding 2007: 85).

One sometimes hears complaints about Singapore English being difficult to understand. It is probably useful at this point to elaborate on the different varieties of English spoken in Singapore. Most literature distinguishes between Singapore Standard English (SSE) and Singapore Colloquial English (SCE). SSE is similar to Standard English used elsewhere except it is spoken with a Singaporean accent; and is used by educated Singaporeans for formal purposes such as in education and business. SCE, or Singlish, on the other hand, is informal and has significant differences from Standard English in its pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Although most English-speaking foreigners struggle with SCE, they typically have no difficulty understanding SSE.
While many Singaporeans take pride in their own brand of English, the government has had concerns about the international intelligibility of SCE. Since the economy relies heavily on foreign investment and many investors are attracted by the English-speaking workforce, the development of a variety of English which is unintelligible to the rest of the world would take away the competitive edge Singapore has been enjoying. Consequently, the prime minister launched the 'Speak Good English Movement' in 2000 which, on its official website is described as 'a nationwide movement to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood'. The movement provides programmes, activities and online resources on Standard English. The official website also claims that the movement 'has succeeded in raising awareness among Singaporeans that speaking good English matters in their work and personal lives'.[3]

Below I will draw together and discuss the points presented so far on the history of English in the two countries, the need for English language skills in the respective countries and how they contribute towards the success of English education.

Discussion and Conclusions

Educational success, history and needs

English education in Singapore has its roots in the days when Singapore was under British control. English was the language of the administration and the British needed to train the local people in English so that they can take up junior positions such as clerks in the administration. Later when Singapore became independent, English became a vital resource for economic survival. From the beginning, therefore, there has always been a clear reason why students had to learn English: it was the language of the administration and students needed it for their future success.

On the other hand, in Japan the trend of learning English started in the early Meiji Period and the principal reason was for elites to use it as a medium of communication with the West. Another important purpose was for scholars to decipher texts written in English from the West in order to be informed of scientific and technological advancements in the outside world. English was necessary; but for different reasons compared to Singapore. It was necessary for communication with the rest of the world and to be informed of developments, and was not a necessary attribute for personal success in society.

Generally, education is successful when it meets the perceived needs of society. For Singaporean students, they have no doubt that English is necessary for whatever employment they may choose to take up in future. However, for Japanese students, many are aware that not everyone needs or wants to communicate beyond the borders of Japan. Likewise, not everyone has to be able to translate English texts. There is always an abundance of translated texts in the Japanese market, including the Harry Potter books and President Obama's Inauguration speech. English in Singapore is seen as an absolute necessity but not in Japan.

English curricula to some extent must and do reflect students' real needs for English. The Singaporean English curriculum has to prepare students to be internationally intelligible and to have functional clarity; and has been successful. On the other hand in Japan, the grammar-translation method still practised today originated from the period when it was vital to decipher English texts to find out what is happening in the rest of the world. Most Japanese students are competent in grammar-translation, mostly because grammar-translation is tested in entrance examinations. The success of communicative approaches introduced recently is harder to evaluate. There does not appear to be any distinct improvements in Japanese students' communicative skills.


It is understandable that Japanese government advisors might wish to emulate Singapore in its English education (Otani 2010). After all, practically all Singaporeans speak English well and they have the best TOEFL scores in Asia. I have argued in this paper through discussions on history, the role of English, attitudes and education that Singaporeans' current abilities in English is a product of its unique history and circumstances, both of which are very different from Japan's. There is certainly a lot to learn from the Singaporean experience but one has to bear in mind the contextual differences.

English pedagogy in Japan needs to be carefully thought out because, unlike in Singapore, it is not an absolute economic, social and political necessity. In addition, Singaporean elementary school students live in an environment where English is used daily in most aspects of their lives. Some Japanese students may be interested in making overseas trips or talking to foreigners in future, but they nevertheless live in an environment which in a practical sense uses Japanese only. The Singaporean context and Japanese context are therefore very different. It is not my intention here to discourage comparisons with other countries or to learn from their experiences or situations. There is certainly much to be gained from such study. However, one must bear in mind the contextual differences and proceed with care.

In closing, I would like to emphasise that it may seem a good idea to introduce English formally in Japanese elementary schools because other Asian countries such as Singapore have done so with tremendous success. However, success in Japan is not guaranteed. To many Japanese elementary school students, English is still not perceived as a necessity, and so a different approach will be needed that both takes note of the successes achieved in countries such as Singapore, but which also recognises that the two countries' experiences with English have been, and remain, very different.

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1. I would like to express my gratitude to Toru Kinoshita, Peter Longcope, Peter Matanle, Hisashi Morita, Miki Watanabe and Junko Yamashita for their invaluable comments and suggestions.

2. There are large numbers of ethnic Koreans and Chinese living in Japan, many of whom have assimilated into Japanese society and experienced language shift to Japanese. Most, if not all of them, use Japanese for inter-ethnic communication.

3. See the 'Speak Good English Movement' online at: http://www.goodenglish.org.sg/. Accessed: 19 August 2010.

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About the Author

Liang Morita was born in Singapore and studied linguistics and sociolinguistics in Singapore and Britain. She taught in Thailand and researched language shift in the Thai Chinese community. She currently teaches English and sociolinguistics in Japan and her research interests include bilingualism, English education and higher education.

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Copyright: Liang Morita.
This page was first created on 30 September 2010.

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