What are The Challenges for English Learners in Japan?
I have taught in a Japanese high school for the past four years as an assistant language teacher, which gives me a particular insight into the problems and advantages of EFL in that area. This will naturally require some generalizations. Individuals have very different problems from one another, but broader shared issues do crop up.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate William L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
For context, I work in two Japanese high schools as an assistant language teacher in Toyama prefecture. I go to one school four days a week, which caters to students who can only study part-time. I also work at a farming school, where students have the opportunity to research agriculture with real, working farmers. Neither of these schools emphasizes English, so the average student would have a difficult time understanding even simple English vocabulary. Many of them, who should already have had three years of English instruction, come to me not knowing conjugations of “be,” or the alphabet. Many have hard lives or behavioral issues. This is not to disparage those students, but to give context; my view of Japanese English levels may be skewed by this.
However, it is worth noting that internationally, the Japanese have a reputation for weak English levels. The average TOEFL score for Japanese students was the third-lowest in Asia, above only Tajikistan, and tying with Afghanistan (“Test and Score Data Summary for TOEFL iBT tests pg. 14). Japanese students face many challenges when it comes to learning English.
Gap between two languages
The first roadblock to teaching TEFL in Japan is the Japanese language. English and Japanese share no common ancestors, which means that students have little in the L1 that can aid them in acquiring English. Japanese word order is very loose, being highly dependent on the case, but the main verb always occurs at the end. Coupled with this, many Japanese students are not explicitly schooled on the drastically different role than word order plays in English, leaving them confused as to how to structure a sentence. I have often seen Japanese students begin speaking English with long pauses in their words, in an order that makes it clear that they are trying to translate a preconceived Japanese sentence.
Japanese culture can also make teaching difficult
Culturally, their education model is very teacher-focused, with students taking on more passive roles (Atkinson, pg. 83). This model of education is particularly harmful for foreign language acquisition because it deemphasizes productive skills. While they might be able to read and listen, many find themselves unable to produce real language.
Another aspect of the culture that can make things difficult is the island mentality of Japan
Japan has over 120,000,000 people, almost all of whom speak Japanese. Moreover, it has a powerful economy. While it does rely on trade, English tourism does not make up as much of their GDP as a country like Thailand, where students might see more immediate benefits to English education. Students can see little reason to learn English outside of the classroom because they could feasibly go their whole lives without really needing it.
So, a teacher in Japan must take on several roles, in response to the endemic issues. We must be very gentle, and find ways of explaining content that they can understand. While many say that the best practice is to use only English in a classroom (and that is the viewpoint presented in this course), some Japanese can be very helpful when explaining the basics of sentence order, and grammatical categories, which are often ignored in primary education.
EFL teachers must also push the boundaries of Japanese education. Japanese education rarely makes use of projects, speeches, or productive skills, and many students and even colleagues will try to dissuade you from those kinds of activities. While it is important to respect cultural differences, as this course has emphasized, a foreign language education without productive, speaking related skills will inevitably lead to poor speaking skills.
Moreover, foreign teachers have a responsibility to spark enthusiasm in students. This is true of all teachers, but in Japan, students might not immediately understand why they should be learning English. It is important to pepper lessons with information about foreign cultures, travel, and the practical use of foreign languages. It is also important to have faith in the importance of your subject. Knowing another language is a net benefit in a person’s life, especially if that language is as widespread and economically dominant as English. We need to believe in the importance of what we teach, so that students can believe in it as well.
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Despite all of the difficulties associated with teaching in Japan, it is still an excellent place to teach. Linguistic and cultural barriers can cause difficulties, but some students are eager to learn, and supportive colleagues. With effort, EFL teachers in Japan can promote effective language learning.
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