The Most Problematic Challenges for English Learning in Japan
Japan is a Pacific Island nation whose history is marked by periods of nationalism and seclusion, as the Japanese government closed the borders to international trade. The lack of foreign influence in Japan has enabled a unique culture to flourish and the population to remain nearly 98% homogenous, meaning nearly everyone that lives in Japan is Japanese.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Andrew C. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
English in Japan
Within the past hundred years, government policy has changed and Japan has opened its borders to trade and tourism, becoming a major global economy and popular international tourist destination (Lambert, 2019). To catch up to global trade partners, the Japanese government recently lowered the mandatory age of English study from middle school to elementary school. The English language has persisted as a popular language to learn, but incredibly different due to the differences in language structure, culture, and classroom dynamics. The Japanese government has found an interesting solution to overcome these obstacles and teach English to its youths: outsourcing (Shimizu, 2010).
In Japanese school, English has traditionally been taught in middle school and high school. As of 2018, instruction has recently moved to become a regular subject for elementary education as well. There are many differences between Japanese and English, including grammar, word order, pronouns, and omission of the subject. English is taught by Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) with the primary focuses of instruction through reading, writing, and listening comprehension using audiotapes, and only recently has made a focus on speaking.
Speaking English is incredibly difficult for the Japanese due to their language structure and unique, non-Roman alphabet. The Japanese language has two separate alphabets: hiragana, a language used for natural Japanese words, and katakana, used for a loose pronunciation of foreign words. However, the katakana alphabet fails to capture many aspects of the English phonetic alphabet. Japanese students studying English will very often come across words that they are unable to pronounce, word order differences, and words that lack equivalency in their native language. This creates a barrier in students’ ability to produce English as a means to communicate and decreases self-esteem (Shimizu, 2010).
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Classroom dynamics vary across the country. Some class sizes are quite small, allowing more tailored lessons and sharper progress, to larger than 37, the current government maximum. Likewise, teaching resources vary with city and prefecture. Some classes have blackboards and others have computers with interactive whiteboards. It is difficult to have a uniform educational experience or opportunity with varying class sizes and resources. Japanese educators take a different approach to teaching and with learning methodology than in America, often focusing on the whole rather than the individual. This can be both beneficial if a large group need help to understand a topic and to keep pace, and detrimental, if few students have trouble and can be left behind, or talented students fail to be challenged. The differences in size, resource availability, and ideology create an opportunity for inconsistencies to permeate in English language instruction (Case, 2008).
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Japan has recognized its shortcomings in its English teaching ability and has chosen to outsource the problem to foreign nationals from English-speaking countries. This move has aided the country in overcoming historical-cultural boundaries, improve foreign relations, and increase societal diversity by exposing Japanese citizens to foreigners in their communities. These individuals are titled assistant language teachers (ALTs) and work alongside JTEs.
Together, JTEs and ALTs recreate lesson plans based on authentic or created materials that suit the level of the students and improve classroom dynamics by doubling the number of teachers in the classroom. ALTs work to provide feedback on pronunciation and the practice of useful, common, everyday English, while also acting as a resource for valuable cultural insight on their native country and culture. This solution has shown to provide the Japanese with a better understanding of different cultures and benefit strongly from native English speakers in their instruction (Martin, 2010).
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Japan has come a long way in the development of educational techniques and methodology since the inception of English education. Many cultural boundaries must be overcome before English is as prevalent and wide-spoken as some European or Asian countries, but progress is being made in the right direction. ALTs have helped improve international relations with Japan, offer exposure of Japanese citizens to foreign nationals, and provide critical feedback on language instruction and use. Given the recent introduction of regular English language study to elementary school students, it will be exciting to see the growth in the English-speaking ability of Japan in the future.
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