Sunday, 12 January 2014

Why is it hard for the Japanese to speak English?

Despite being the world's third-largest economy, Japan fares poorly with the rest of the world when it comes to speaking English. 

When it comes to scores on the widely accepted TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), Japan is ranked 27th among 30 Asian nations, below North Korea, Mongolia and Turkmenistan.

To find out why the Japanese find speaking English difficult, I got in touch with Masayuki Nakao, a Ph. D Student of English Language at Hiroshima University

His answer was simple: "We don't need English in our daily lives or our daily conversation," he says. "We just basically use only one language, which is Japanese. Businesspersons of course, need English to have a meeting with international companies or to negotiate with other persons who are not Japanese."

"But in our daily life, we don't need to use English. It is I think a crucial reason why there are many Japanese people who don't speak English."

Masayuki Nakao, who is doing his Ph. D in English from the University of Hiroshima, Japan
Reproduced with permission

English and business

Even when it comes to businesses, though, Japanese struggle to speak the language. Despite being a major world exporter, a survey of 1,156 white-collar workers showed that only nine percent of Japanese claimed to be comfortable with the English language.

But with English being the world's lingua franca, nearly 50% of Japanese companies require future employees to have knowledge of the language, up from just 19% in 2009. In fact, Rakuten, Japan's largest online retailer, has informed staff that their lack of English will stand in the way of promotion.

Masayuki's father Yoshiyuki has been teaching English in Hiroshima for more than 30 years now, and he tells me that the government is taking steps to address this problem.

"The Ministry of Education is taking into full consideration the linguistic situation in a more globalised world we Japanese may confront with say 20, 30 years later," says the 62-year-old.

A paper which looks at English language
and literature that Yoshiyuki Nakao
contributed to.
Photo for illustrative purposes only
He says that because Japanese companies need English to communicate with the outside world, pressure is being put on the Ministry of Education to hasten the process of teaching English to the Japanese.

"Industries give high pressure on the Ministry of Education to encourage teachers to use the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), TOEFL, IELTS (International English Language Test for Students) etc. at school," he explains. 

"Of course there are lots of branches of Japanese industries outside Japan," he says. "We need staff talented with high English proficiency.

"I am sorry to say that there are very few of high proficient English speakers.

"The English proficiency level of Japanese are relatively low in comparison with other Asians like Korean and Chinese in terms of the average of TOEFL," he adds. 

"I wonder why. This is perhaps due to the introduction grade/year of learners and also to how English is needed for daily life."

English education in schools

At present, Japanese students start to learn English in junior high school, but the government is now taking steps to introduce English at elementary school level so that Japan's next generation are able to learn the language faster.

English teachers of Japanese origin "are given some study leave (one month or so) to study abroad," explains Mr. Nakao. " They are given regularly lessons about the new way of teaching methods and linguistic theories by the Prefectural Educational Board." 

But despite the changes that the government is introducing to Japan, it is quite difficult to find official statistics on how many English speakers in Japan actually exist. 

International education company Education First recently released a survey on where Japan stood among countries that don't speak English as a first language. The study showed that Japan ranked 14th among 44 non-native English speaking countries.

But Ryan Lin, himself an English teacher in Japan, says that this number is far from the truth. 

"First of all, going to school and being taught English are mandatory, but you're not actually required to LEARN anything," writes Lin, who was born in the United States, on his blog. "In some schools, there is very little motivation to learn, and kids just screw around in class all day.

"The teachers, helpless to remove the kids from school, have developed a 'just pass them along' mentality to get the problem students conveyor belted out of the school system," he says.

Self-portrait of Ryan Lin.
Image courtesy
"In other schools that are more stringent and have better kids, it is the teaching style that holds students back from being able to speak English," explains Lin.

"Here, classes mostly emphasize written grammar and vocabulary, caring almost exclusively about spelling and syntax. 

"Following the traditional Confucian style, teachers talk at the students and scribble on the board, while students sit quietly and stare blankly back," he says.

Afterwards, everyone opens the textbook and reads the prepared passage aloud after the teacher, with the teacher translating along the way," he adds. 

"Then they read it again. And again. Then they are timed on how fast (not well) they can read it."

In addition, says Lin, students cannot answer simple questions. "Students will consult with their nearby buddy for half a minute or so before deciding on and answer and choppily spitting it out," he observes. "This is attributed to lack of urgency in learning conversational English, cast aside in favor of "written test" English."

Pronunciation is also a problem in the classroom. "They haven't heard the sounds of actual English very often, so spoken English is difficult for them to understand," he explains. "They're not used to hearing the unusual consonants and vowels that don't exist in Japanese, along with connected speech concepts. 

Flaws in the teaching system

But despite the changes that the government is trying to introduce, Lin says that it is the teaching system that is at fault for the poor state of English among the Japanese.

"These pronunciation troubles are mainly the fault of their teachers," explains Lin. "In my experience, nearly all of the teachers have the same pronunciation problems I mentioned above. They all speak in katakana English (mimicry words using Japanese syllables), which spreads through the ranks of students like a virus."

"English teachers are hired solely for their English ability," he says. "If they can pass a standardized English test, they can become an English teacher. I haven't seen the test itself, but according to their abilities, I'm assuming it isn't that difficult."

Link that to the poor test scores Japanese nationals have when it comes to standardised tests and it's easy to see what he's talking about. But while there aren't many opportunities for the Japanese to speak English, there is plenty of written material available for them. 

"[There are] Lots of bookshops and publishers dealing with English books in Japan," says Yoshiyuki Nakao. "Through Amazon there are no difficulties to access to English books. 

"As far as web is concerned, English is number one," he adds. "We Japanese can read English with ease. There are English programs broadcast in Japan [with] easy access to them. But we have difficulty in orally communicating with foreigners."

And that could be because the Japanese seldom need to use English in daily life.

Population decline

But the Japanese will need to learn English sooner rather than later: Japan is one of the few nations that suffers from population decline. Japan's population shrunk by a record 244,000 in 2013 and is expected to shrink by 20% of the current population by 2020.

This leads to shortages of Japanese nationals of working age, which means they have to look abroad to hire workers.

"In all schools, most teachers can only speak one language: Japanese," says Masayuki. "Most teachers can't speak English so the children of foreign labourers, if those children go to some ordinary Japanese school, they can't have education." 

"Of course, we have some private language schools," adds his father, but "very few people go there because they cannot afford to pay a lot of tuition continually."

Because of Japan's geographic location, communication with the West is seldom possible for Japanese nationals and the government has moved to make signs bilingual in English and Japanese for foreigners.

There are also online forums (see above link) where foreigners in Japan enquire about places where they can find other English speakers and Mr. Nakao encourages the Japanese to attempt to converse in English with these foreign nationals to aid them in speaking the language. 

"I was able to develop my pragmatic communicative ability," he says. "Through a lot of readings I am pleased to say that I got rid of the scared feelings of English.  Go on. [It's] Never too late! 

"Multi-faceted humanities are condensed into English," he adds. "It’s great fun to study English. I would like to share this abundant richness with students."  

English, he says, will help Japan communicate far better with the rest of the world, and help bring to the world Japanese culture.

"Not only [will we] be able to know what’s going on globally, but [it will] also [help] to deepen understanding our Japanese way of thinking and feeling," he says. "Think globally and do locally or vice versa. 

"English is a key to achieving this," he adds. "Japan is able to grow better culturally as well as economically through English. How to cope with Fukushima (as we have done with Hiroshima) is a challenging task we are confronted with right now. 

"This is [an] internationalized problem, a problem we have in common in this small global village. English will connect us together."

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