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The Cultural and Institutional Obstacles that Japanese Students of English Need to Overcome

The Cultural and Institutional Obstacles that Japanese Students of English Need to Overcome | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Many challenges come with teaching English in Japan that is unique and not innately obvious to some people. In addition to the more universal challenges of learning a new language, there are inherent cultural obstacles that English learners must overcome in Japan as well as several problems with the current course of study that is being taught. However, English teachers should do their best to work within the limits of the system to foster an interest and passion for language that lives on outside the classroom and beyond the school years of learners.

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

Vastly different language system

Japanese does not use the Roman alphabet, but rather three separate alphabets; two original ones and one that borrowed heavily from Chinese characters. The alphabet, grammatical structure, and cultural perspective of their language are completely different from English. Additional reading and writing practice will be necessary, and it is imperative that a solid understanding of phonics is taught as soon as possible.

While this is one of the more obvious challenges that many foreign learners face, one unique problem is the number of romanized loaner words that are used in the Japanese language. One of the three Japanese alphabets is almost entirely dedicated to these borrowed words. ‘Television’ for example is called a ‘celebs’, a ‘remote control’ is called a ‘remote-con’. Many of these words have been used by students on a near-daily basis well before they started their English education and so learning the correct pronunciation can be difficult. Bad habits are hard to unlearn. Furthermore, some English words have taken dramatically different meanings. Idol, for example, has become a word used to describe singers and performers rather than just any role-model one could idolize. Patience and constant reinforcement of the correct pronunciation and traditional meaning are needed to teach learners how to re-create more accurate English.

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The history of Japanese isolation

Japan is a monocultural society with a long history of isolation and independence from western influence. All other countries and peoples are labeled under the singular term of gaikoku (foreign country) and gaikou-jin (foreigner). This has led to a sentiment among Japanese students that English is unnecessary or even a hassle for them to learn. In the Japanese countryside, where values are even more conservative and old fashioned compared to the city centers like Tokyo and Kyoto, there are fewer foreign residents and opportunities for students to encounter authentic examples of English apart from the internet.

However, like most children, younger Japanese students are still very curious. If provided with opportunities to learn about other cultures with English, their motivations and interests can grow. This can be accomplished by teaching the cultural context of language alongside the relevant vocabulary and grammar points. By framing English as a bridge to other countries, cultures, and people, Japanese students can more clearly see the benefit of learning English and may want to seek out the opportunities and perspectives it provides. This can be done most effectively by providing students with authentic examples of English and providing small lessons that can act as windows into other cultures. Many things can unify cultures and interests, such as music, arts, and sports. Appealing to the interests of students to grow their motivation can help foster a desire to further their English education.

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Japanese Olympics and the 2020 English curriculum changes

Many changes have come to Japan after their winning bid for the 2020 Olympic games. Recently there has been a significant rise in the foreign population. Hitting a new record of 2.5 million people by January of 2018, foreign residents now account for 2% of Japan's population. While this might seem low compared to a country like Canada, it is a big change for Japan. Also, the Japanese ministry of education has been trying to implement drastic curriculum changes to English education throughout the country. While their intentions are good, their approach leaves something to be desired. They are starting the English education of Japanese students from a younger age, and also increasing the list of vocabulary to be taught at each year level. However, simply increasing the quantity of English content in schools won’t necessarily increase the quality.

These curriculum changes are meant to increase focus on self-expression and English problem-solving skills, but they aren’t providing any opportunities to practice said skills. This is largely in part to the somewhat lackluster coursebooks and a focus on developing reading and writing over impromptu speaking and listening skills. Armed with the knowledge that these obstacles exist, teachers of English in Japan can do their best to adapt their lesson plans accordingly. While the coursebook and related works/tests are mandatory, there are still opportunities in and between lessons for teachers to promote more communicative based teaching and interactive speech. There is also nothing stopping a teacher from supplementing their lessons with other, more effective coursebooks, so long as it remains somewhat relevant to the curriculum. Creating original materials and bringing in authentic examples can also be extremely helpful in increasing learners’ exposure to English while adjusting it to their level.

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Giving Japanese learners of English the tools to succeed

While teachers must keep to the government curriculum, that doesn’t mean that English learning has to be contained to the classroom. With about four or five 50-minute English classes a week, a full year of English classes rounds up to about 120 to 145 hours. That means a cumulative English education of about 790 hours from the beginning of junior high school to high school graduation in Japan. Even with the most effective curriculum, that would put Japanese highschool graduates at roughly a B2 level of English (CEFR). Sadly, many learners graduate school well below that level of English fluency.

For learners to effectively learn a language, they need every opportunity to be exposed to it. While a teacher’s lesson ends with the class, they can still try to inspire students to pursue English studies in topics they are interested in or passionate about. Outside of more classic forms of academic study, movies, books, music, and even videogames in English can be enjoyed at wildly different levels of understanding while helping to expose learners to the language. Listening to English in a specific context can be incredibly beneficial to developing impromptu listening skills, even if one cannot fully understand. Teachers can accomplish this by providing students with information, resources, and even digital links to English content. Many do this via a communal English board displayed in schools that learners view at their leisure. Framing English as not just a chore, but a fun and engaging pursuit can help to set up English learners for life by inspiring them to take responsibility for furthering their English Education even after they graduate.

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Some obstacles come with learning any language, and while there may be more unique problems with English education in Japan, that doesn’t mean it is impossible. Far from it. It falls on to the teachers to do their best to work within the system, to tailor and adapt their lessons to fit the specific cultural and institutional differences that exist in Japan. While these obstacles exist, do not forget that there are still solutions and improvements that can be made to classes to help foster an affinity for personal growth and English Education.

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