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Why do Japanese Learners Face Difficulties when Studying English?

Why do Japanese Learners Face Difficulties when Studying English? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

English is causing many problems in Asian countries which can be seen just by the high demand for English teachers - including ESL teachers. One of the countries is Japan, a country with a good economy and a society well known for their kindness and politeness, but unfortunately also for the low number of English speakers. There are many reasons why English is likely to pose problems in Japan but there are many possibilities to improve the English lessons to offer lessons that help Japanese students to achieve a higher English level.

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

So why is it that Japanese students struggle that hard about the English language and what could help them to overcome these problems?

1. English is only written during lessons (Student Talk time is too low)

Japanese students face in general English lessons that are focused on written tasks and practices. Due to Japanese culture, respect towards teachers is highly valued and is shown to belong to others by listening quietly and following instructions that appear to be written tasks or copying notes from the board in many cases. Since the focal point is grammar and drilling the student's talk time is massively increased. Instead of writing the teachers need to elicit verbal answers from the students. Speaking should make up the greatest part of a lesson, although the student talk time is based on drilling and controlled by the teacher – which of course would not be the ideal case.

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2. Students are not asked to express their thoughts in words (Spoken and written)

Japanese are well known for being quite detached and not stating one's opinion directly or straight forward, which is also seen in the lessons in which the students are not asked to comment or express their thoughts. Forming own sentences, written and spoken, is a key point to become more confident about using a new language and is not practiced enough or not at all in Japanese schools with the result that the students won’t be able to use the studied grammar and words to communicate accurately in real life. Simple tasks like diary entries and role-plays could help students to express their thoughts in English.

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3. The contact to English speakers is not common yet

Facing the same problem that English is not verbally practiced is also because most Japanese barely have contact with English speakers. Even though there are a lot more travelers or exchange students from foreign countries. Getting in contact with them seems to be quite difficult for the Japanese, even though it would be important for them to have an opportunity to practice the studied grammar and vocabulary and to listen to correct pronunciation or to have the access to e.g. slang words as well. If the teacher is not a native speaker either he could at least integrate materials like movies or audio tapes to offer the students a source of natural English. Also, to decrease the students' talk time there could be questionnaires that the students have to answer verbally in pairs or role-plays relying on the movie or tape.

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4. Low motivation because English does not seem to be a relevant skill in Japanese society

Another reason for the low number of Japanese who are on a conversational English level or above is low motivation. Since there is no urgent need for most Japanese to study English because of a small number of foreigners in Japan and the fact that many things related to business can be managed in Japanese or another Asian language such as Korean or Chinese. To motivate students a lesson should be fun and interesting in the first place. Besides, the students need to see their improvements and possibilities and reasons why they should put the effort into their studies. Simply having basic conversations and for example having the ability to ask for a way or to help someone else who asks for the way could be enough for a student to understand that studying English a great opportunity. While older students may need to be shown other reasons such as career opportunities.

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5. The way of teaching

English is taught in Japan by using Japanese. Not only written but also spoken. Especially pronunciation is taught by the Japanese writing system “Katakana”. This allows the students to get a basic idea of how the words are pronounced, but in many cases, it is not even close to the pronunciation of a native speaker, which does not only cause problems to communicate in general but also to understand spoken English. That will probably increase student’s motivation to practice since they won’t be able to use what they have studied. Teaching students the phonemic alphabet in the first place would help them to achieve correct pronunciation.

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These are a few examples of reasons why it’s so hard for Japanese students to learn English. The success of each student is dependent on their effort and especially in today’s society, there are a variety of possibilities for students to practice English. Still, the foundation is built during the classes and as a good teacher, it’s one's responsibility to offer lessons that will help each student in the best way possible to reach a student's personal goal or to meet the required standard of e.g. the school or the company.

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