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Problems That the Japanese Might Face When Learning English

Problems That the Japanese Might Face When Learning English | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Learners from Japan have to face cultural issues as well as phonetic problems when learning English.

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

Social Pressure

Like in many other Asian countries, Japanese students are used to ex-cathedra teaching, rather than actively participating and contributing to the lessons. One of their biggest fears is to ‘lose face’ in front of others, which not only means losing their own face by making mistakes. Giving a correct answer and thereby letting all the other students literally lose their face for not knowing or expressing the right answer is almost worse.

Motivation Challenges

Another issue Japanese students might have to face is the lack of motivation to actively speak English. Since the entry tests for university in Japan only require English reading and writing skills, listening and speaking skills are not beneficial for the students and might be unnecessary in their eyes.

To break this barrier of possible reluctance, teachers should use many pair/group work activities to allow the students to practice in an environment with less pressure and the help of other students. Using choral repetition instead of picking out an individual student to practice pronunciation will also take away the pressure and creates a less threatening atmosphere.

young children

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Sound Awareness

Another big issue, which English learners from Japan will have to face, is the difference between the sounds ‘l’ and ‘r’. They can’t distinguish the alveolar lateral /l/ from the palatial-alveolar approximant /r/ (American English: alveolar tap /ɾ/) because they are not part of the Japanese phonetic inventory. Part of their phonetic inventory is the alveolar lateral flap /ɺ/ which represents a sound intermediate between /r/ and /l/, which makes it even harder to differentiate.

Affective ways to teach the difference between r and l are activities that include listening to audio material (native speaker), repetition and identifying minimal pairs.

Using a sagittal section of the head to visualize the actual location of the articulation can also help the students to get an idea of how to produce the different phonemes.

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Like many English learners, Japanese students struggle with the pronunciation of the voiceless (inter-) dental fricative /θ/ (‘th’). Instead of letting the students only mimic the teacher’s mouth movements and being corrected by the teacher, it is important to make sure that the students are able to correct themselves. By using (pocket-) mirrors, the students will be able to compare the teacher’s and their own movements and will be able to adjust if necessary.

Besides the specifics of the ‘th’-problematic, Japanese English learners have to face the general issue of consonant clusters. There are no consonant clusters in the Japanese language at all. Every consonant is followed by a vowel which ultimately means there are no ‘real’ consonants (exaction ‘n’) in the language. A good example of the methodology to inject vowels is the way how foreign words are adapted to Japanese (supermarket スーパーマーケット suupaamaaketto).

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It might be challenging for students, who are used to these English loan words, to pronounce them correctly, but using activities that introduce and practice consonant clusters (e.g. trying to eliminate the vowel between two consonants by speaking as fast as possible) can help the student to solve the issue.

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