Why Japanese Students Struggle with Communicating in English
During my stay in Japan, Japanese people often told me how they can’t communicate in English despite studying the language for six or more years in school. In Japan, students in junior and senior high learn English grammar and vocabulary in compulsory formal English classes. English is also taught in elementary school as foreign language activities. Yet despite spending several hours in English classes, many Japanese people graduate high school with poor English communication skills.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Rachel M. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
One of the issues that hinder the Japanese people’s ability to communicate in English is the English education system itself. In Japan, high schools and universities use entrance exams to determine who to admit to their school. Thus, Japanese students spend a large part of their school life preparing for these high stake exams. Since the English section of these entrance exams tests reading and listening skills, a majority of English class is dedicated to developing these two skills with little time spent on speaking and writing. Even if teachers want to use more classroom time for speaking and writing activities, they often feel limited by the pressured to develop receptive skills while also completing the curriculum on time. As a result, several students can understand English well, yet aren’t able to easily produce the language themselves.
Another reason why many Japanese students have a difficult time communicating in English is due to the classroom culture that they learn in. Learning a foreign language is a process that requires lots of mistake-making. Therefore, language learning can be especially intimidating for many students when the classroom culture in Japan tends to value correct answers and high scores. This can put a lot of pressure on learners to use perfect English to express themselves. Unfortunately, Japanese students are often penalized for speaking or writing with grammatical errors even if their English would be easily understood by native English speakers. When writing sentences or creating dialog, students often closely follow the textbook examples and script rather than experimenting with English to express their creative ideas. Students do this because they’re less likely to receive corrections if they closely imitate the textbook. This type of environment can discourage students from applying English to express themselves and their thoughts.
Lastly, several Japanese students don’t see a need to learn English for purposes other than passing the entrance exam. Outside of tourist hot spots, many Japanese don’t often interact with English foreigners. Several major English TV shows and movies are available with Japanese subs or dubs and popular English books are often translated into Japanese. Japanese people can live comfortably in Japan and can access popular English media without needing to speak or write in English. English fluency is often regarded as a nice bonus skill to have but not a skill that is strongly needed to be a contributing member of Japanese society. Thus, many students feel unmotivated to learn English.
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In conclusion, there are various reasons why many Japanese people struggle with communication in English. English classes in school are heavily focused on the receptive skills needed for high school and university entrance exams. The environment that students learn often values perfect answers which can make it difficult for them to make mistakes and experiment with the language. And finally, several students don’t see a strong need to learn English since they are living in a society that uses mainly Japanese. To improve English communication abilities in Japan, changes need to happen to the English education system, classroom culture, and general viewpoint on English.
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