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The Difficulties of Learning English as a Native Japanese Speaker

The Difficulties of Learning English as a Native Japanese Speaker | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Learning another language is one of the most powerful tools for connecting people around the world from different cultures. Opening an immeasurable amount of opportunities, learning English has many benefits including but not limited to expanding career options, exercising another part of the brain, and improving the ease of traveling to a foreign country. However, particularly for natives of Eastern countries, learning English may be very difficult due to the exoticism of sounds, writing, pronunciation, and structure. While Japan is unique in a sense, having a booming influence of Western culture after World War II, native Japanese learners face difficulties in learning English due to phonology differences, grammatical differences, and limited exposure to native sources.

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

Differences in Alphabetic Systems

Many may think one of the biggest barriers for Japanese people to learn English is the alphabet, however, it is common for them to be exposed to “Romaji” from a very young age. While their writing system is based almost entirely on three alphabets, learning 26 letters is not nearly as hard as it is for a Western, monolingual English speaker to learn thousands of characters. However, the problem lies in their accessibility to individual pronunciation sounds, especially becoming problematic for certain consonants. According to the Frankfurt International School, “Japanese has five, pure vocal sounds that may be short or long…[the students] often insert short vowels between the consonants (e.g. strength)…[they] may even have difficulty incorrectly perceiving what they hear,” (esl.fis.edu). Particularly, what I have also found from my experience is their trouble with pronouncing “l” and “v” sounds, as those are not traditionally found in their language, as they might replace these with “r” and “b” sounds respective. Additionally, in terms of grammar, the Japanese lack auxiliary verbs, resulting in problems with parts of speech such as negation in simple tenses. Furthermore, there also is trouble in sentence structure as Japanese has a subject-object-verb word order, compared to English’s basic subject-verb-object. These are just a few of the many differences that many Japanese feels intimidated to tackle, making it very difficult for them to learn if they do not invest adequate time and attention to detail.

Also Read: What is the difference between TESOL and TEFL?

Cultural Challenge

While language differences serve as the biggest barrier for Japanese people to learn English, it is also worth noting the cultural differences and isolation the country faces compared to other regions of the world. According to Ikoku Tsuboya-Newell at The Japan Times, “the poor achievement is blamed on the way English is taught in schools. It is said that there is too much classroom emphasis on grammar with very little time devoted to actual conversational practice,” (japantimes.co.jp). This problem may appear to be a vicious cycle due to the teachers employing methods that they learned with, however, I believe with proper instruction, enthusiasm, and engagement from a native English speaker this can change. What a teacher cannot change however is the nature of Japanese people feeling insecure about their English abilities. As for politeness, it is a part of their culture to not want to cause a disruption.

Also from my experience, I noticed this prevalence when I visited there.

Overall, learning another language can be extremely rewarding yet tiring, requiring plenty of hours of time and dedication. English is one of the hardest languages to learn, especially for Japanese people as the differences are very intricate. While they may be able to form basic sentences after years of learning, it may take them a lot more time and instruction for them to understand the fine details and processes of English.

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