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Possible Reasons why Japanese Students have Difficulties Acquiring English

Possible Reasons why Japanese Students have Difficulties Acquiring English | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Japan is a First-World, Asian country, well-known for its clean vehicular designs, its production of famed animations, its ability to wow the Western world with hygienic efforts even at leisurely events (World Cup 2018), and overall its impeccable attention to detail in most areas of life. Yet, even with these accolades behind the name, there remains a sore spot, which any foreigner who has experienced Japan in the flesh, can verify exists. That is, the surprising lack of ability of the general public to understand and/or produce comprehensible English, an established global language.

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


Despite all its many endeavors to increase awareness of and exposure to the English Language within its schools; business places, and to encourage its acquisition and use, Japan’s position in the global ranking of English as a Second Language comprehension remains rather low, and with much to be desired. This is evidenced by the way Japan demonstrates how vital having an initial, genuine interest in learning a foreign language is to its acquisition. Japan also demonstrates the importance of the role that culture and society play in language learning and its overall use. It presents a sore example of over-emphasis on accuracy versus fluency, which leads to a display of a serious lack in the acquisition and demonstration of receptive and productive skills.

Also Read: How much can I earn teaching English in Japan?

Teaching techniques

To begin with, few things are now a more widely understood and guaranteed experience than disinterest in an activity, conversation or routine in general. While one can never solely be surrounded by or allowed to participate in the things that spark joy and “rev” one’s engine, when it comes to learning, generating interest is of great importance. This is what is often found wanting within a Japanese classroom. With first-hand experience on Junior High school classroom dynamics and proceedings, the logical conclusion is that teaching materials and techniques are to be carefully deliberated and effectively employed. If the students demonstrate a lack of interest in the subject, the teacher (or teacher's heads) must seek to bring about positive change.

japanese students

Social challenges

However, what if the issue lies outside of the teacher’s power altogether? What happens when the socio-economic influences of the students’ environment, factor at a higher degree than one could anticipate? In Japan, one often witnesses severe apathy towards the English Language (and foreigners in general) especially on the part of the older generation. The widespread belief is that it serves no true purpose outside of the high school entrance exam, and since only very few have dreams of overseas travel, the masses are left considering the subject as a complete waste of learning time. With apathy so greatly steeped within the culture itself, one might wonder if there is any hope at all. One suggestion, to possibly dissipate the lack of interest, would be to increase their exposure to the more entertaining side of the use of the language, as seen in TV and radio programs, books and even the Internet (and its meme culture). It may not need to be as purely academic and starched as popularly believed.

Also Read: How much can I earn teaching English in Japan?

Pressing on further, a grave cause for concern and a major contributor to the low level of ESL comprehension is Japan’s educational system’s one-dimensional focus on accuracy over fluency. It hinders their progression in several ways, thus blocking them from producing much more than near robot-like programmed rote language. With a slim focus on fluency, they forfeit honing the specialist skills necessary to transcend past a mere textbook relationship with the language. Additionally, productive or active skills suffer, as much time is not spent on introducing the students to authentic conversations and literary works. One would think that the fix would be an easy one, i.e. to forgo more errors by changing the approach to teaching with outdated and irrelevant materials. Unfortunately, with a staunch emphasis on standardization, it is highly probable that the positive change hoped for within Japan’s educational system may be a long time coming.

In summary, Japan has long since taken steps to alter the narrative that foreigners cannot expect much more than Japanglish, (which is much more than a simple shtick) or Katakana English, yet it seems to remain the same. The culprits are a general apathy towards English (and the foreigners who are the main users of the language); the Japan-centric culture of the society which is the environment that shapes the learners in question; an over-emphasis on test-based language learning which lends itself to a serious lack of specialist skills, such as prediction and deduction, which are vital aspects of communication in any language. For any hope of positive change, the onus now lies with the teacher’s ability to generate and continuously regenerate, an interest in the language. And in seeking out-of-the-box methods, such as: ensuring that lessons are more personalized and/or relevant to the students’ situations and/or daily life, the current trends of society or their source of entertainment; striving to engage all the senses required for learning within any activities planned for lessons; establishing English as a global language by incorporating events and activities outside of the classroom that evoke interest in using the language.

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Finally, shifting the focus from a merely test-based, textbook, theoretical knowledge towards a more practical, presentation and conversation/discussion-based learning environment will prove more useful in the long-run for enhanced English Language comprehension.

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