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Common Issues Japanese Learners Face When Learning English

Common Issues Japanese Learners Face When Learning English | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Through my experience as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, there have been numerous difficulties and challenges my students face in learning the English language. My students are primarily between the ages of 5 and 15. These challenges involve the pronunciation difficulties the students face coming from Japanese pronunciation, as well as the methodology of teaching English in Japan They may not apply to all of Japan but are definitely prominent issues within my area.

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The Problem of Making Mistakes

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This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate James W. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.


The most commonly known challenge in learning English for Japanese people is pronunciation. This is either due to sounds not appearing in their native language, such as l, or being overexposed to English. In my experience, the r sound is gradually becoming easier for the students to understand. This is due to changes in how English is taught in the country. It is now being taught more regularly down to third grade, with classes with a native speaker every week. Because students are now being exposed to these foreign sounds at an earlier age, they can understand the difference more easily. The effects of this change are very noticeable as some students in the higher grades still struggle with the sounds, due to lack of exposure at an early age.

To overcome this disadvantage, I had to help the teachers in the higher levels focus more on phonetics so the students can overcome this challenge. This change has led to a reversal of expectations. Phonetics is much more of a problem for the older students, whilst the younger students have much closer to native pronunciation and can readily distinguish r and l. That said, the more present problem is the over usage of katakana English. For example, want instead of want. Some English teachers, however, argue this is not an issue as it is just a part of world English and fixing it is an over adjustment. Thus, although the challenge may seem to just be pronunciation it is a deeper challenge, as it is balancing different expectations from teachers on completely accurate pronunciation, or accepting world English.

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The Problem of Making Mistakes

In Japanese schools, there is a greater focus on there being one correct answer and learning the answer to the tests instead of how to reach the answer. This challenge has come up many times in my work, where I deviate from the exact pattern the students learn and instead use a similar way of phrasing, or even just change a word. One example is that my students were learning "What color do you like?". I then tried substituting animals for color, knowing they understood animal but it took some work for them to understand you can change one word. As long as the student is aware beforehand that there can be multiple uses for a phrase, it can be overcome.

Furthermore, unless the student understands that English is flexible and can have multiple correct ways to say the same thing, they will simply be too shy to answer unless they fully remember the one way they know. As there is also a growing amount of English education with a much more slowly growing amount of English teachers, students are also at risk of being taught one structure from a teacher not trained in English as being the correct way and the only correct way. This will then require further effort from the trained English teacher to help the students overcome this rigidity in their English for a more natural method of expression. This challenge may be the greatest challenge students face in Japan because if they aren't consciously aware of these issues, they will only get worse over time.

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To conclude, there are two critical challenges to overcome for learners in Japan. The first is pronunciation. Although this is primarily for older students, it is still a difficult challenge to overcome. Especially for the older students as they don't usually have the advantage of early exposure. The second challenge comes from how they are taught English at school. Once a student can overcome their fear of being wrong or the idea that there is only one correct way, their English learning ability will drastically improve.

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