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Why are Japanese so bad at English?


Everyone knows Japanese people aren’t exactly Masters of the Universe when it comes to speaking English, despite receiving six years of English education. Six years? Are you kidding? You could build yourself a Great Pyramid in less time. I’m pretty sure. Just chop up some limestone and stack it up. Probably take you a couple of years at best.

But okay, there are clearly some good reasons why Japanese folks can’t speak English. And if you study Japanese, you also need to avoid the same traps.

Ask any foreign English teacher, and they’ll tell you, “The grammar-translation method doesn’t work.” Sure, but people also say that we swallow spiders in our sleep and the Apollo moon landings were merely elaborate hoaxes. Foreigners tend to all say the same thing about Japan because, well, everybody else says the same thing, so it must be true. But the grammar-translation method actually does work. Maybe it’s not the fastest method, but hey, it gets the job done. Well, mostly.

I was at a soba shop in the countryside this past weekend, sitting around a wood-burning stove, eating home-made noodles and some green thing I’d rather not describe. And all around me are farmers who, if you added up their ages, would come to about a thousand years old. And for some odd reason (i.e. my presence), they start naming lists of English words they know, like numbers, colors, animals, foods, vehicles, appliances, and random words like “straight,” “curve,” “hot,” “cold,” “big,” “small.” Japanese farmers even know amazing things like “mania” and “fantastic.”

So many English words have entered the Japanese vocabulary that even the crustiest old dude with a plow can cobble together enough of a sentence to get his point across. For younger people, the breadth of vocabulary is astonishing. By graduation, every high school kid knows a couple thousand English (or English-esque) words, easily enough to hold a conversation. Give them a vocabulary test and they’d pass it. So why can’t they speak?

Grammar certainly isn’t the reason. Sure, they leave a trail of discarded articles and particles like Sherman going through Georgia, but so what? Ken also be making some crazy ungrammatical sentences and people still be understanding him. No grammar? Hey, that be no problem.

Shyness? That’s a well-worn excuse, but I’ve known enough Japanese bosses (not to mention spouses), to know that Japanese people can be assertive to the point of terrifying when they want to be. Fear of sounding like an idiot? Sure, but it’s no worse in Japan than anywhere else. A culture of conformity? That’s just more well-worn mantra about Japan that people repeat too readily. So why all the muteness? There’s certainly a number of factors, but I’ve come up with a solid five:

Three Curricular Reasons Why Japanese People Can’t Speak English

1. Inadequate reinforcement of the lessons

It’s not that the grammar-translation method doesn’t work, it’s that it’s not backed up by something more. School students get a lesson once a week if they’re lucky, for less than an hour. That lesson explains grammar and introduces vocabulary. And then . . . whooosh, you might as well send them to Siberia. Japanese kids have tons of words and a smattering of grammar, but no examples of how to use the stuff in action. They need reinforcement: real-world materials showing the variety of ways in which words are actually used. There’s no reading program, no opportunities for conversation or presentation, no schedule for watching movies. The grammar explanation isn’t the problem. It’s that it isn’t rounded out with further study.

2. Classroom control

Now, if you’re a teacher, you can probably relate to this. Traditional, lecture-centric teaching requires everyone to shut up and pay attention to you. It’s just that there’s a fine line between classroom control and turning your class into a mini-prison. Shut everyone up too much and you can’t restart them.

From a student perspective, too, there’s a tendency to avoid doing anything that even remotely approximates work. Remember being a student? Man, I sure do. The last thing I wanted to do was, well, anything. I just wanted my teacher to leave me alone so I could go back to reading G.I. Joe comics and daydreaming about jumping out the window. And that was in college.

These combined forces create a situation in which the teacher is speaking, everyone is nice and quiet, but nobody is listening. The message is being lost, and little learning is happening. It’s like teaching someone to swim by giving them weekly lectures on swimming. This situation exists in schools around the world, and unfortunately, does little to prepare people for the act of speaking. It’s certainly not unique to Japan. Some teachers just use too much stick and not enough carrot. At the risk losing some classroom control, it wouldn’t kill you to get people out of their seats and actually interacting with each other.

3. Inadequate practice

Students learn, but they don’t get to apply their knowledge. According to self-proclaimed linguistic savant K. Seymoreofmystuff in The Skill of Speaking Fluent Japanese, speaking requires skill, not just information. Kind of like how I’m the greatest basketball player ever with a remote in one hand and a can of beer in the other. There’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and actually being able to do it. Put somebody face-to-face with another human being and all sorts of things happen to their brain. They sweat, blank out, pee their pants. It’s not always good. You gotta practice for that.

Two Cultural Reasons Why Japanese People Can’t Speak English

1. Silence constitutes an acceptable response in Japan

People are allowed to get away with not speaking. In fact, they’re encouraged not to speak. Japan cultivates a society based upon keeping your lid on tight. Nobody wants you to go off doing something crazy, like saying what’s on your mind. The thinking seems to be that if you start encouraging people to exercise free will, pretty soon they’ll be out robbing liquor stores. (Okay, possibly true.) From childhood, the population is kept in line by well-meaning parents and teachers, who use all manner of physical and verbal discipline.

Within the few times I’ve taught in elementary schools, I’ve seen a coach knock his players on the head with a baseball bat, a History teacher punch a kid in the chest and a Special Ed teacher body-slam a student who wouldn’t get a haircut. And that was in a good school district. I was like, Jeez, once that lid comes unscrewed, watch out. Japanese people aren’t shy when they’re the one holding the stick. Students are just conditioned by abuse from those charged with protecting them. They learn that if they joke around, speak at the wrong time, or act out too much, they’re likely to incur the wrath of those above them. Several years of such treatment and you’re going to be conditioned pretty well to avoid any output.

2. Japanese people by and large don’t understand that English is not optional, but essential

Everywhere they look, most of the words are still in Japanese. The majority of the people look Japanese. It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist, except on TV. The chances of a Japanese person having to use English appears to be about on par with needing an abacus. So in the schools it gets scarcely more attention than Art class or P.E., not that those aren’t also great subjects. I recently asked a class of university English majors how they intended to use English and their answers fell within the narrow range of “I don’t” to “I want to have foreign friends.” It’s like a mildly interesting hobby.

But it’s not like Japan’s still an island nation that you reach by clipper ship. With cheap jet travel and the Internet, the distance between nations is gone. And what’s the future language of the Internet going to be? Not Japanese, that’s for sure. To the extent that the Net is important—in international trade, exchanging medical and scientific knowledge, and distributing services—English is the language to bank on. And bank that cash you can, assuming you can communicate. The language of raking-in-the-bucks internationally is, for the near future, very much English.

Japan as a nation is kind of like, English? Meh. A few corporations have adopted the language, but for most of the population, it’s business as usual. It’s easy to miss this fact as a foreigner, if you spend time in Irish bars hanging out with the few Japanese people who have chosen to study English. But for the Japanese majority, English isn’t spoken partly because it’s not important. Doing your laundry every day? Now, that’s a priority. English, ah, you can get around to it later.

Lessons for Japanese Learners

If you’re studying Japanese, you have to make sure these same five factors aren’t harshing your own mellow. In the same order, here’s how:

1. Back up your studies with real materials

Reading, movies, conversations, whatever you like. It’s important to study grammar, sentences, and kanji, but you also need a lot of real-world exposure. Reinforce and apply what you’ve learned.

2. Stop thinking classes suck

100% of the people I’ve know who were awesome at Japanese also took an awesome number of classes. Just make sure to seek out lessons that provide speaking practice. Don’t sign up for boring, lecture-style classes. Take lessons with that have 8 or fewer students, or hire a tutor, and you’ll learn a ton. But here’s the deal—a class is only a few hours a week, so the rest of the time is your responsibility. People say, “I took Japanese class for a year, and I didn’t learn squat,” or “I only learned 30 kanji all semester.” Hey, being in class for two hours a week didn’t prevent you from studying the remaining 166 hours of the week. Nobody’s stopping you from learning more kanji. Don’t blame the class when there’s a mirror handy.

3. Practice speaking

What’s easy on paper is hard in real life. Make opportunities to speak Japanese. If you can’t capture a real, live Japanese person, one on the internet will probably do. Use a language exchange site like The Mixxer.

4. Don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes

Study politeness levels and correct vocabulary, but when it comes time to speak, forget all of that and just speak. Do the best you can and people will forgive your mistakes. The more you speak, the better you’ll get.

5. Make Japanese a priority

Things that are optional, like my dishes, don’t get done. Make it essential in your daily life. My dishes, I mean. What you do with Japanese is your business.

About half of life is doing the right stuff. The other half is avoiding the wrong stuff. It reminds me of the ancient Japanese saying: “You’re in the army now, you’re not behind the plow.” So now get out there and be all you can be.

© Japan Today

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my favortie is "i am Japanese so i can`t speak English" yet there may be 5 or 6 or more Japanese people around them speaking more than acceptable English. what does he say about himself (usually a him) and what does he mean about the people around him that are Japanese and speaking English?????? when called on it, they are usually speechless in any language.

5 ( +8 / -4 )

From my personal experience, most Japanese do have a basic English learning experience in school, but never get a chance to practice or use their newly-found skill. English, for most students, is just a classroom experience, nothing more.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

How about that katakana has basiclly created a second English language in Japan? Why would someone run the risk of sounding silly by trying to speak real English when they can fit right in by saying: "shorto" or "steakee" or "cakee"? Hell even the ads in Japan butcher English.

27 ( +25 / -1 )

Well, like he says in reasons 2 and 3, the reason is blatantly obvious. It's not what they study. Why would you expect someone to be able to do something which wasn't what they had studied? And the reason for that can be laid firmly at the Ministry of Education's door which sets the courses and ratifies the textbooks.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Agree with herefornow, katakana pronunciation stinks... at least my 3 yr old son can tell the difference. In his words: "Mommy says "トラック", daddy says truck" he's kinda getting an understanding at least

2 ( +2 / -0 )

With cheap jet travel

Really? Where?

Nice article otherwise.

1 ( +6 / -6 )

A poor curriculum and poor teaching are definitely part of the problem but in the years I did teach here, I ran into a few problems.

1) People who have got to a reasonably high level and who start to get a bit of a big head about their abilities. These people were resentful of my approach, which was to show them a lot of areas for improvement, as it showed them that their English ability wasn't as good as they thought it would be.

2) Being scared of making a mistake, and sticking only to what they know rather than giving things a go.

Whereas, the odd student would say something like 'they were word fighting' knowing it may not be correct but that the meaning will be understood, and that if it is wrong the teacher will teach them the right word.

3) The whole translation thing. Sometimes students find it hard to grasp that while 99.9% of the time English and Japanese can express the exact same idea, often the means to do so are different. Too often what comes out is Japanese idea with English words.

4) Lack of curiousity. One of the tough things about learning a language is the sheer volume of vocabulary that needs to be memorised. You won't do it without a strong sense curiousity. As an example, in a company class, I pointed to the fire extinguisher in the room, and asked the students what it was in English. None knew, but I pointed out that 'Fire Extinguisher' was written in English on it, and this vocab item had probably been staring them in the face every day for the last however many years.

5) Sole reliance on the lesson for progress. Lesson is fine, but there are so many ways to learn English. Movies, newspapers, internet etc. etc. so use as many different ways as possible.

6) Laziness. Sorry, I'll say it. Learning a language is tremendous effort, and sometimes people just don't want to put in the required effort.

12 ( +12 / -0 )

Akula, well said. This is what I was writing while you were writing your comment.

To learn something you have to actually do it. You cannot learn to drive a car, ride a bicycle, cook, play golf or anything else solely by studying in a classroom. Classroom study may help, but you must actually practise doing what you are studying to learn it. This is certainly true about learning a language.

I believe that one of the greatest problems is the Japanese fear of making a mistake. You cannot make a mistake if you do not speak. However, you cannot learn if you do not speak and, I would add do not make mistakes. Making mistakes is part of any learning process.

There seems to be a listening problem that Japanese have. They seem to have developed the mental ability to block out noise, and to them English may be noise. This is a survival techniques they need to live in an excessively noisy country. Foreigners are driven mad by the noise that surrounds us in the land of the recorded message: Japanese simply ignore it. I developed this theory after going to Laos where young kids who had studied English for six months could speak English well, much better than Japanese who had studied for six years. I wondered why, so I talked to a friend who taught there a long time ago. He said they are jungle people and have good hearing. You hear a bird. They tell you what kind of bird and can imitate its song. That reminded me of the first time I went trekking Thailand. I was walking through a jungle village and said something to a fellow trekker. The whole sentence was repeated behind me by a boy who had never studied English, but was good at listening.

Finally, perhaps the biggest problem is what is taught in high school. I sometimes see high school kids studying on the train. When I see what they are studying, idioms, complicated and extremely advanced grammar and so on, I wonder what the school actually teaches. My conclusion is that school teaches them that English is difficult, to difficult for most of them to succeed, which is exactly the opposite of what the school should teach. Why is that they study such advanced English but still cannot say, "I do not understand" instead of "wakaranai"?

17 ( +17 / -0 )

I was a high school teacher for 9 years, which included a 6 month stint in a Japanese High school. Many current western teaching methods are what we call 'student centered' which effectively means you look at the curriculum you are required to deliver and you devise teaching and learning strategies to make it as engaging and interesting for the students as you can. It can be very hard work - time consuming, high energy and draining if you do it properly. What I saw in Japan is what I'd classify as 'content centered' teaching or even 'teacher centered' teaching. The classrooms appear dull, repetitive, monotonous places where no real inquiry takes place, and in the case of English, no real life, stimulating practice of the language ever happens. English is just another dull 'ol school experience. I really felt as though it was for the teachers as well. Delivering the same old lecture, year after year, to a group of kids conditioned not to challenge anything, within a super rigid system. They'd gotten lazy and apathetic as well. I lasted about a month of teaching from the dull as dishwater text before I felt so bad for the kids, and so concerned that they were learning nothing from me, that I looked for more engaging material. It was an activity based, pair/group work style text that required the active participation and use of target structures. At first, the kids didn't know what had hit them. Then, they started to love it. By the end of the semester, I was replaced.

12 ( +13 / -1 )

One has to understand that Japanese education is focused on rote learning and memorization. "Good" students are one's that are quiet, do what the teacher tells them to do, and memorize, memorize, memorize.

Society and mass media as well are a part of the problem. While everyone acknowledges that Japanese "students" are not good at spoken Japanese no one in the adult world ever attempts to, for example, use proper English in their media presentation or advertising. Everyone is paying lip service to the problem yet none truly want to correct it either.

MEXT is the biggest problem, a bunch of old fogey's sitting in their offices making decisions on what and how teachers should teach English without them every truly understanding the situation in the classroom. They tell them what should be done, and by magic expect that it will happen.

Everyone needs to realize that English like and other language is a tool for communication and like learning anything else takes effort and hard word, and not just playing fruit basket. Everyone says to English teachers, make learning English fun and enjoyable here. Yet if you tell any math teacher, or any other core subject teacher, the same thing all they will do is laugh at you.

5 ( +6 / -1 )


While everyone acknowledges that Japanese "students" are not good at spoken Japanese

I apologize, that should read spoken ENGLISH!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

borschtMay. 06, 2012 - 08:08AM JST

Nice article otherwise.

Really? Where?

First the grammar translation method is donkey balls, not only because of the obvious, that Japanese syntax is so different from English syntax, but because English has 2 grammars. A wriiten grammar which is heavily laden with latinate syntax and lexis, and a spoken grammar which has a post simplified germanic syntax (SVO and prepositions replacing nominative, accusative, dative and genitive case) and is heavily laden with Anglo-Saxon lexis. The fact that Japanese in schools are taught neither in a systematic way (Subject Nouns = Countable/uncountable Singular/plural? Regular/irregular? Articles = zero/definite/indefiniate?. Verbs = Transitive/Intransitive? Cogitation? Tense constructs? Regular/irregular? Object Nouns = Definite/Indefinite articles? Pronouns? Prepositional connection? Accompanying relative clause?) and just thrown in the deep end with a Japanese deconstruct of the sentence, 'the boy who is wearing the blue coat was friend of my brothers' makes a total joke of learning English in the japanese public educational system. This and the funducation of games, more games and shouting out a sentence in unison and at 5 decibels the norm.

Second, he makes no reference to the fact that half the Japanese teachers of English in Japan that I have met can't even speak English and textbooks such as New Horizon are constructed with that in mind, allowing the teacher to spend half the lesson in teacher talk time, in Japanese, of some obscure grammatical point or another which arose in the unit of the book.

Third, as others have mentioned, vocab pronounced in katakana is only English in Japan. It is incomprehensible outside Japan and it makes English outside of Japan incomprehensible to most japanese. I bet those thousand word vocab sprouted off to the author all finished with a vowel, when 70% of them shold have ended with a consonant (Shoto...lunchee... gorendo ritureaba).

Fourth, forget apologizing for the japanese, there are plenty of other islands in the world (Iceland, Indonesia) and plenty of other cultures which teach 'silence is golden' (Finland, Norway), the simple fact is that the Japanese education system is more about making proper Japanese than educating students on a specific subject, whether it be English or world geography. A proper japanese is monolingual and Japanese are educated to the general same life skills. What the second part means is that public education in japan is not just about lifting people up to the standard norm, but pulling others down to that standard norm. He/She may enter high school with an interest and enthusiasm for English, but the education system is gonna do its best to change that. Until these defines of what a Japanese is? are altered, everything else is moot.

-1 ( +7 / -8 )

Ask the Irish. 12 years spent studying it at school from around 4 and still most people know nearly more than a handful of words!!!

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Awfully egocentric article. Didn't the author learn about humility living in Japan ? (;一_一)

-1 ( +10 / -11 )

Ken, I love your tongue in cheek style, but just a small correction. The grammar-translation method is so widely criticised because it was originally develop for teaching "dead" languages which are no longer spoken, like Latin and Classical Greek. The grammar-translation method is therefore famous for the teacher focusing on written vocabulary and grammar, and the students not speaking in class. However in your article you say that grammar-translation method isn't the problem, and then go on to point out that more speaking and less grammar is the answer.

I could point out more problems with your article, but since you pretty much establish your complete lack of knowledge about ESL theory in the first section I'd sincerely advise you to do some reading on the subject before you have the gall to criticise those who clearly know a lot more about the subject than you do.

Conincidentally, I agree with many of your points, you just irritated me by dismissing the legitimate criticism of the grammar-translation method.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Japanese can't speak English because they don't practice speaking English. There's no other reason. Reading and writing English doesn't count as practicing speaking English. The same reason why most people in Croatia can't play golf. They don't make it a habit of playing golf.

Why they don't practice is another reason altogether. Maybe they don't want to? Maybe they don't enjoy it?

The idea that Japanese need English is the biggest myth of all. Maybe two percent will need it during their work, but that's about it. The rest of the citizens shouldn't be forced to practice something only a few percentage of the people actually need.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

The idea that Japanese need English is the biggest myth of all. Maybe two percent will need it during their work, but that's about it. The rest of the citizens shouldn't be forced to practice something only a few percentage of the people actually need.

It's part of an inferiority complex when looking at other Asian countries like China where for many the 2nd language is English. But they, the Japanese fail to keep in mind that Chinese and English, iirc, are grammaticaly similar, making it easier to study.

I agree with your point here. I would rather see kids who want to learn the language take it as an electives class. However until the University and HS entrance exams STOP putting English into their exams nothing with change.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Because there is no need to learn the language. Once they graduate they won't use it. Take for example Microsoft customer service in Japan, you call them and not a single person can speak English. Yeah, Microsoft customer service. Unless people start believing it is necessary to learn the language in order to success in the real world, they won't do anything. If companies and other businesses out there start making it a requirement (sort of like Rakuten did), then people might feel like "I need to speak English"... maybe.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

gaijinfoMay. 06, 2012 - 10:55AM JST

The idea that Japanese need English is the biggest myth of all

Not a myth at all. The myth is that all Japanese need English.

It is calculated that English as a functioning language in a non-native speaking country averagely works out to near 3% of a country's GNP through service and information industries.

English-speaking countries are responsible for about 40% of world's total GNP. If you can't operate in English in the science and IT industries, you're basically out of the loop in 21st Century.

The biggest myth of all is that the Japanese don't need English.. they sure do.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

The biggest myth of all is that the Japanese don't need English.. they sure do.

Maybe if they are in IT.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

The reason Japanese can't speak English is simple: nationalism. It is considered "unJapanese" to be proficient in a second language. Real Japanese only speak Japanese. Look at Ichiro, for example (or any other long-term Japanese Major Leaguer). Of course by now, after 7 or 8 seasons in the US, his English is good enough to get through one of those formulaic post-game interviews, yet he still insists on using an interpreter. Why? Because he knows that if the interview were ever broadcast in Japan, he would look foolish (slightly feminine) or unJapanese speaking English. In the rest of the world, bilingualism is regarded as a plus; in Japan it's thought of as a negative.

3 ( +9 / -6 )

Aside from the lead-up to the actual numbered list of reasons why the writer believes Japanese struggle with English, he makes some good points. The whole 'Japanese know a lot of English because of the sheer number of English words that enters the vocabulary' is rubbish. 90% of that is unintelligible Japanese-English, for which the meanings have changed or were never similar to their English counterparts to begin with. What's more, there ARE gairaigo from other language that the Japanese don't know the root from and so if they try to throw it out in English will be met with nothing but confusion (if the person they are speaking with is not familiar with the word). Sure, it's not a big jump from 'energish' to 'energetic', or even 'allerugi' to 'allergy', but ask a group of foreign tourists from the US to make a 'guts pose' on the 'gerandu' (ski slope) and they'll have no clue what you are talking about.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Yubaru: "Maybe if they are in IT."

True, in strictly Japanese circles it's not at all necessary, but there are other industries in which Japan is passed over constantly because of lack of English; like entertainment (and yet you always get complaints here as to 'why'?) or international companies hiring of people for overseas.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Yet again, love the article. Perhaps some things are exaggerated but I the idea is right. I am very lucky that the junior high school I work at has prioritized English. It is 4 times a week with tonnes of homework that requires original sentences and my classes are mainly speaking.

But I can completely sympathize with the students who can't do English...I studied French for 3 years and I would be hard pressed to go beyond greetings at this point. It was solely because I never really applied myself to the language. However, German was much more interesting to me because of the chance to go on exchange so I worked hard for it and found that my 1 year of study already got me past my French level.

So, I guess the trick would be finding a way to inspire students to want to make English a priority and give them ample oppurtunity to use it.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

YubaruMay. 06, 2012 - 11:31AM JST

Maybe if they are in IT.

Not just.

An export driven economy, which, in the future, with a declining domestic market will depend a lot more, on foreign markets needs English.

An economy which depends on quality manufacturing at the best price, therefore needs to manufacture outside Japan needs English.

An economy which will see the number of domestic manufacturing jobs decline, because of the previous point, and will need to build a proper service and information economy, that can compete competively, will need English.

Actually spend anytime in any Japanese business, which is not totally dependent on the domestic market, and it is becoming quite obvious, with all the foreign acquisitions, foreign partnerships and foreign capital investments, that the lack of English in the japanese business world is becoming a bit of problem.

I could tell you so many stories from the airline industry, where translators are now banned at high level conference meetings, so a certain famous Japanese airline is reduced to sending lowly cabin attendants as their reps because none of the board or upper management speak good enough English, to the steel industry, where a certain company, 7th largest in the world, is faced with a constant financial headache to its foreign investments because it has no English speaking upper management to get the foreign factories fully operational to the Japanese standard.

The flight attendant stories are quite hilarious. Ms. N Suzuki, Cabin Attendant of 3 years deciding future Star Alliance policy with the presidents of Luthansa and Singapore Airlines.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Europeans need English to communicate with eachother on an everyday basis. Japan is isolated and Japanese don't pop over into the next country on the weekends.

Japanese may be bad at English, but are probably still better on average than your typical foreigner is at Japanese.

Anyway, my standard answer is that the schools try to teach English like they teach math. Well its not math and its not a test. You have to need it and you have to use it, every day, or you can forget about it. Japanese have no need for it except to pass a test, and its not enough.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

one additional point: studying japanese culture in english for 6 years puts a pretty well permanent limp on students' journey into the outside world.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

After 5 beers or 2 Rum shots ,,,, Japanese Do speak English!

12 ( +12 / -0 )

When I'm in Japan being immersed in the culture I pick it up a lot easier than studying Japanese in the US where English is every where and no Japanese anywhere...this applies to the Japanese student learning English in a country where everything is in Japanese...immersed in an English speaking culture would accelerate their English skills.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

It's because most of them are not truly interested in learning English... There's no passion for it... There's no true passion for learning about its culture, or being immersed in it, or anything.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I am very lucky that the junior high school I work at has prioritized English. It is 4 times a week with tonnes of homework that requires original sentences and my classes are mainly speaking.

FYI all Japanese JHS have English 4 times a week and tons of homework.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Dog my response was partially tongue in cheek, however not all Japanese need to know a 2nd language. It's BS to believe otherwise.

Unless one is in a specific industry or business where it is a plus or even a necessity the average person has no need for it on a daily basis.

Please dont try and tell me my garbage collector has to be able to speak English to do his job.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

If I was going to learn Japanese, I would insist on being taught by a Japanese person...not just anyone who could speak Japanese. A Japanese teacher teaching English is not the way to go. Here in Canada, immersion is the way to learn French. When the student enters the room where French is being taught, no English can be spoken. You can only speak French. So if Japanese students entered a class where one could only speak English the whole time you were in that room, they would learn better. I take care of hundreds of Japanese students who come here to learn more English and even after 5 years of learning English in Japan, they have a hard time. Using the English as others here have stated is imperative. Students and probably their teachers see English as a subject rather than a form of communication. We have 91 students coming in a month and when I have a student living in my home, it helps them greatly to actually use English as a form of communication because after a couple of days (I let them use their translators when stuck in the first couple of days), they do much better. I see the improvement once they are ready to return to Japan. So, to me, using the language is very important. Young students are also a bit shy about using English because they are not confident that they can do it perfectly. We had a girl 2 years ago for 3 weeks and she spoke little English but the night before she left, she gave a beautiful speech in front of a crowd of students and host families in perfect English. We were so proud of her. It goes to show that immersion with the language all around you and boosts of confidence is something that students need. I am so glad I recorded her speech by the way.

1 ( +5 / -3 )

What's the fuzz about speaking english...hehehehehe This is Japan.... they have their culture like rice for them and bread for caucasians. You cannot just criticize their way of english nor their way of communication. They are Japanese. Yes there are some Japanese born and raised in USA and they sure speaks like americans. I, too laugh when I read some english ads on the street but after analyzing the country and culture, I think it's fine. It's their accent. How about some other countries english pronounciation..... listen to Aussies english... Monday sounds like Mondai... Americans Spanish.... hehehehe now tell me if they pronounce the words correctly. I.e Comprende.... Americans pronounce it Comprendei..... a simple Dog in american english can sometime sound Dawg... Geezzzzzz now for the perfect english speaking guys here, which is the best , very clear english do you think is best. American, Canadian or British english... ;))

-5 ( +2 / -7 )

Because they don't watch enough movies like The Expendables.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Unless one is in a specific industry or business where it is a plus or even a necessity the average person has no need for it on a daily basis.

There`s no telling how much each student will require any school subject in their future lives. You just have to give a child as full an education as possible. If you had young kids in school, would you tell them not to bother studying English?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Six years of learning nothing is an incredible waste of time. After which the mere thought of speaking English must be seen as a chore because that's how it was presented.

Regardless of the motivation of students, the language of English is not respected in Japan for its sounds and forms due to katakana. There's no reason to even try to be correct. It doesn't have to be English. Having a separate language script for foreign words ensures that that language is always messed up. It's a fail by design.

It actually comes out of history. Japanese are not allowed to learn about history so respect for their own language is low. Thus learning English becomes used as a partial replacement language and for new things rather than another separate language. In time, the Japanese language will be a shadow of its former self and the English used will not be understood by a real English speaker either because of katakana.

What is the goal of learning a language if it is only replacing what exists? Other countries do not have this problem on the scale of Japan because they likely respect their own language enough that they want to keep it, know their own history, and so learning to respect another language to communicate with others does not require the losing or merging them.

The premise of why Japanese learn English is not clear. Is there a need? As a major exporter yes. But perhaps more Chinese than English.

If you want to learn English have a reason.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

BTW a Chinese student learning English for two years will beat a Japanese student who "studied" for six(!) years any time. The reason is that there is a clear demarcation of the idea that another language is a skill to hone and improve on, not just a craft show hobby

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Isn't the relatively poor level of English a good things for all you eikawa teachers out there? If the Japanese were better at English, most of you would be out of a job. The whole business model of the eikawa schools is not based on making Japanese actually able to communicate in English speakers, but making them improve just enough so that they'll pay for more lessons.

4 ( +5 / -1 )


Here in Canada, immersion is the way to learn French. When the student enters the room where French is being taught, no English can be spoken.

That's a good point - how many years of French education did us anglos get in school, six? How many of us are actually able to use it in conversation? Probably not that far off from the Japanese. Contrast that with the Quebecois who seem to pick up English much better, but maybe because of their constant exposure to it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The so-called grammar-translation method does not work. After 6 years of it the grammar of Japanese student is dreadful and they cannot translate.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

There`s no telling how much each student will require any school subject in their future lives. You just have to give a child as full an education as possible. If you had young kids in school, would you tell them not to bother studying English?

Ok then let's be practical about it, let them learn Chinese, seeing as how Chinese culture and business is just as prevalent here as English.

Students should have a choice and not be force fed English.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Yubaru: You may be correct about it being 4 times a week now. But for the past 3 years I taught at a school which only had English 3 times a week. And of those 3, 50 minute sessions, one was completely mine to do as I pleased...which meant 2 hours of textbook English a week. That school had the lowest English scores in our city.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@ UnagiDon That is true.... When you don't use the language, you lose it.... but not completely. When I moved to Quebec for 4 months, I was surprised at how much I had learned and could converse somewhat. It means that if I had lived there a couple more years, what I learned in school would be very useful. It could be the same with Japanese. What they learn could become useful as a stepping stone should they move to an English speaking country. It could make it easier. A friend of mine from Japan thinks that Japanese are taught English because of the tourist industry and common Japanese courtesy. She is thinking that if someone (a tourist) is confused, that Japanese people should be able to politely help that tourist who is probably English speaking. Personally, (along with my friend) I don't think Japanese should be forced to speak English.... this is Japan... the visitor should prepare themselves to speak a little Japanese. :)

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Two things I'd add:

We had 2 translators in our office. They were the best. But for some reason - and this applies to my good wife as well - they struggle something terrible if they need to speak english on the phone! What is it that makes them lose their english speaking ability once the phone connects with their ear?

Second thing. I did french for two years until the teacher suggested I try german. I can speak one or two phrases in each language and count to ten in both. And that's it. A 30 minute lesson once a week in a language that as a schoolchild you can never imagine you will need, will not make you bilingual. Japanese kids are not going to come out of school bi-lingual anymore then their counterparts overseas will be.

And yet many countries do make their kids bi or tri lingual. Fillipinos speak eanglish spanish and their own local dialect. Most Taiwanese can speak english.

The answer is to get in early when that brain is empty , virgin and waiting to be filled. I read a book once about a guy whose mother was on a hippy trip around asia. Ended up pregnant in HK. When he was born his mother had to work and he was during the day put in the care of an old Chinese woman. He grew up learning both languages and in his book he said that he just took it that there were two ways of saying things.

Get in early and all kids can be multi-lingual. Learning a new language after the age 12 is way hard.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

It could be because to be really good at English you'll need to show it by speaking it and will earn the wrath (read jealousy) of your colleagues and labelled someone that really shouldn't be trusted. Until the current generation of salarymen in their 50's and possibly 40's has moved on this is a fact that is not going to materially change.

Aside from not wanting to stand out, it's also cool and kawaii to speak English poorly. Nuff said...

-1 ( +0 / -1 )


It is calculated that English as a functioning language in a non-native speaking country averagely works out to near 3% of a country's GNP through service and information industries.

3.2 of the world's GDP in 2005 was due to agriculture. Does that mean all Japanese should learn how to become farmers?

A small percentage of Japanese need English. That is all I was getting at. Most Japanese can live their whole lives without needing to know any English. It's not required by everybody, just like knowing computer programming is not required by everybody. Only those that want to use it to work.

Teaching something to everybody so that only a small percentage can use it is a huge waste of resources.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

When I look back on my own experience, the level of motivation had lot to do with this. I was one of the worst students in my high school English class in Japan. Then I became inspired to learn English after meeting English speaking Japanese people who did very exciting things in their lives. I wanted to emulate them and then I was able to pick up the language in a fear years. I listened to FEN and took a few courses at an international Univ. in Tokyo. I was speaking English and it was good enough at least to transfer to college in the U.S. It's been over 30 years since then. My English is now good enough as a professional working in the U.S.

12 ( +12 / -0 )

Yubaru: You may be correct about it being 4 times a week now. But for the past 3 years I taught at a school which only had English 3 times a week. And of those 3, 50 minute sessions, one was completely mine to do as I pleased...which meant 2 hours of textbook English a week. That school had the lowest English scores in our city.

Until last year English in JHS was only mandatory for 3 classroom periods per week. It just changed to 4 this year for all grades.

And of those 3, 50 minute sessions, one was completely mine to do as I pleased...which meant 2 hours of textbook English a week. That school had the lowest English scores in our city.

And sorry to say but part of the reason your English scores were so low was BECAUSE you took one hour per week to "do as you pleased". It's hard enough to try and get students to learn what their supposed to without having time taken away for activities other than one's that focus on their needs.

Meaning that what they need to learn to pass their HS entrance exams and not learn anything practical.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Interesting article and comments from everyone. I have a TEFL diploma and currently in the middle of a B.A. in East Asian studies with the intent of making my way to Japan as an English teacher. This is all very insightful.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I found the majority of comments spot-on. A few I'd like to emphasize:

High school English and grammar translation: the latter is not necessarily bad, but as Tamarama mentioned, the devil is in the details. The number of patterns required for achieving a respectful level of English is not that large, but instead of repetitive construction of the essentials, HS curriculums tend to touch here and there, with no built-in cumulative work - and, worse, with a plethora of archaic constructions of such complexity that even native instructors find explaining them a challenge. Students are unable to differentiate between the essential and the worthless, between the rather simple and the truly complex, and many eventually chuck the whole thing into the inscrutability of the Western mind. In my college classes, I ask students to understand that 80% of what they've been presented with in HS is BS. A further point: when doing grammar translation, translate directly, even if this results in strange Japanese (or vice versa). The entire point of grammar translation is to give speakers an intuitive understanding of a foreign language: the idea that, oh, this is what Japanese would sound like if it were English! (And, by the way, the two languages are really not that different. Focus on the similarities to foster an intuitive understanding.)

"After 5 beers or 2 Rum shots ,,,, Japanese Do speak English!" - beautiful! Japanese often adopt a group-oriented approach towards solving problems, with ideas tentatively tossed into the group for evaluation, winnowing, and morphing into a consensus. This approach may work well with things like design but works very poorly with language. Many, though, lose this inhibition under certain circumstances, such as alcohol. (This is one reason why I support the lowering of the drinking age to 17 for speakers of English in a class setting.) There are various other methods for reducing this unfortunate tendency: pair over group work, putting students "on the spot" to force them to formulate in front of their peers - my college students are accustomed to me roaming the room, occasionally halting the lesson to force an individual to speak in front of all. They are aware that it WILL happen, and that it could be THEM next: this keeps them on their toes.

Some of the best non-native English speakers I've ever met have been Japanese, completely rebutting the argument that it cannot be done. These people tend to have achieved the two points mentioned above, as well as what others have posted. These types are an inspiration to me in my endeavours to improve my Japanese.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Exams in English in Japan do not include an oral component, therefore the Japanese do not bother with speaking English. They can understand written texts quite well, as that is necessary for passing the exam, but are generally hopeless at speaking.

The solution then is to have oral exams, but this will never happen.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Much could be achieved if they stopped voicing over English on TV and in the cinemas. It would expose the Japanese to a lot of practice material and at finally they would hear somebody speak English with a proper accent.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Why are Japanese so bad at English? The same reasons why I am so bad at Japanese. >.<

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Yubaru: That is exactly my point! The school didn't prioritize English. I was given a full class every week which meant they even had less time to learn the grammar properly and practice it with their JTE. A lot of students were enthusiastic about me being there but they just didn't have the base knowledge they needed because the JTE was rather incompitent along with not having enough time.

However, at the same time, I was teaching at another JHS 4 days a week. Over there, they had already implemented English 4 times a week as a rule years ago. They also had me teach all the students but usually once every other week so the JTE had more time to teach, drill, review and then speak with me. It works a lot better that way.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Scrote: The Eiken/STEP tests at certain levels have a speaking component. Also the new TOEFL test has a speaking compenent as well. I have helped JHS prepare for the Eiken tests several times, and with a bit of practice, the vast majority have passed...some even have passed the pre-2 level.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Foreigners tend to all say the same thing about Japan because, well, everybody else says the same thing, so it must be true.

Falling back on the same old dogma as usual. One err ... "foreigner" says so, so all say the same thing? Already we are off to a bad start.

I think the main reason why Japanese are often bad at English is mixture of factors. One is majority of them dont seem to realise they have to sit down and study at home. So many times Ive seen students come in once a week (or less) and expect to progress. It just isn`t going to happen.

Another is management at schools. Ive seen so many that are just out for the money. They put no money into teacher training, nothing into developing their school as a business. They only worry about it when things go wrong. And many of the schools have management that dont exactly excel in English in the first place. They never formally studied the language, nor lived overseas for any length of time. How can these people give solid advice in the first place?

So many schools I know have the attitude that, "Well little Johnny is 12 years old, so we`ll put him in with all the other 12 year olds". They completely fail to understand that not everyone is the same level, plus with the psychology of some students, putting everyone in the same level based just on age can be a recipe for disaster.

The teachers ... so many times Ive seen people ask, "Do you understand?". If the students come to school to improve, obviously they have less than perfect understanding in the first place. Quite often students think they understand when in reality they dont. But they`ll say they understand and walk away ....

And lastly, many of them dont need English at all. They never have and never will. Someone do a questionnaire and actually ask the students if they have used English,and it will be an overwhelming no. Ugh ... Im going to quit while I`m ahead ...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Hey! They more Japanese that can not fully understand English the more $$$$ for me!! Come on down to my private Eikaiwa baby!! No joke! People complain, but then people like me, make $$$ from this because Japan NEEDS ENGLISH to make $$$ to sell their Toyotas, Sonys etc..

-6 ( +4 / -10 )

Many students, esp. boys, once they grow out of teacher-enforced English classes in JHS develop a dislike for the language once they enter HS and become to have their own opinions even though heavily influenced by the culture such as "This is Japan, we don't have to speak English." Also, as they become increasingly Japanized as young adults they even say to me in class "Don't speak English !" in a semi-joking/threatening manner. And once they become adults and occasionally come back to visit their ole alma mater, they merely wave their hands dismissively when I say a single English word to them like having put away their childhood toys now that they're men. This island mentality, this group mentality of us vs. them, this rejection of things foreign as legit behavior, this island.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

All about hours of dedicating yourself and having the passion to learn. I assist a professor at a church in teaching english to not just Japanese, but Indian and Russian, although these are adults and not younger kids. And well the Japanese are learning pretty good, this one lady from India is having a really hard time with pronounctiation. :( So I think don't it is just Japanese, it matters on the person, I know have a Japanese friend speaking english with a british accent and even a know a Korean lady who has a great british accent as well.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

This one line from the author could have summed it up nicely.

But for the Japanese majority, English isn’t spoken partly because it’s not important.

Go to areas of Thailand and Vietnam where kids rely on tourists to get by. Amazing English ability!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Good article, very true. Students not speaking is a big problem, you can't learn a language without speaking and listening, any kind of interactive conversation. When it's potentially considered "offensive" for a student to even ask a question (lest s/he be insulting the teacher's ability to teach) you don't have a very good foundation for language-learning.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'm thinking a translator... My 17 Y.O. second cousin is about to tour Japan. I'm sure he is smart enough to learn something! But why learn the language when all he needs to hear is a thousand young girls screaming his name! I'm sure someone can translate! Knowing him he is already learning some key phrases and greetings.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

First, many in Japan will simply see no need to learn the language.

Second, having traveled the world, I can't remember anywhere else where the speaking of English is as ridiculed and/or laughed at like it is here in Japan. For some reason (revenge?) the media, the general public, and even the education system see nothing wrong with English being equated with games, childish images, ridiculous exams, and othering anyone who speaks the language with some level of competency. It's a real shame as I see many young people excel with their studies and English and really do something with their lives.

Lastly, there is a shocking lack of focus on listening skills and the appropriate use of English. In the former case, what is the point of studying a language that you spend no real time learning how to comprehend? As for the latter, for a culture that places great emphasis on "keigo" and "TPO" - it astounding to me to see how inappropriately many use the language. Say "ohayou gozaimasu" and I get the same back. Say "good morning" and get silence, laughter, or worst of all someone running away. :-( In the end, both are aspects of the curriculum and it almost seems to me that MEXT doesn't really want to foster English speakers.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Japanese people are lagging behind the regular and flourished language ,English ,by following the complicated pattern of alphabets( Hiragana, Katakana and Kanjis) , pronunciation and vocabulary. English is one of the easiest languages of this world. This language , depending on the alphabet, containing only 26 letters. This language has good grammar, including the regular usages of three tenses consisted of four sub-classification.In Japanese the letter like"L" is left out and vowel sound are not clearly expressed. Hence "Asit" becomes "Asito" in Japanese. Such a great differences in between English and Japanese are also to blame .

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

As somone who went through typical japanese education system, here are my 2 cents.

Need to start English classes at an early age, like 1st or 2nd grade. And just focus on speaking/pronounciation at elementary school level. We can work on grammar and vocaburary when we are 15, 25 or even later, but it's a lot easier to teach/learn pronounciation at a youner age.

Combined with #1 above, we need native English speakers to lead the class, no as assistants !!! All my Japanese teachers were great "Engrishu" speakers, this needs to end.
8 ( +8 / -0 )

Gosh, what a lot of words for a simple topic!

Why can't Japanese speak English?

Because they don't study speaking English.

They study memorizing useless information for exams for status.

They can do that.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

its all about the Katakana

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Let me turn this subject on it's head, and answer a question with my questions. Aren't there several years of compulsory Spanish and French taught to children in the U.S. and Canada? Why can't most U.S. children from non-Latino backgrounds unable to speak Spanish? Why can't most children in supposedly bilingual Canada unable to speak much French?

Probably for many of the same reasons. The grammar-translation method rules everywhere still even though there might be a little more interactivity in U.S. and Canadian teaching styles.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Oh boy! You got to love my Monday morning grammar errors above! Sorry there is no edit function here... once you post you are forever damned! LOL

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The fact is that if the Japanese Government really wanted to, it could develop effective English language programs in schools. The reality is that the politicians really do not want people to speak English any more than they do. If people started to speak English well they may just understand the foreign media and maybe even become more Western thinking. Their sons and daughters might marry foreigners in greater numbers than they already do, and they might start asking silly questions about nuclear reactors and the like. Look what happened when a crazy foreigner started asking questions at Olympus, imagine if Japanese people became more like that! This society is designed to be closed. North Korea blocks the internet and foreign TV, here they just make sure that even though everyone has access to it, no-one really understands what is going on. And by the way, they do not really want you foreigners to speak perfect Japanese either. I have been here many years and love Japan, but just feel very frustrated that Japanese politicians continue to allow their grandchildren to waste years of their life struggling and learning in a way that is designed to ensure they will never ever learn to speak English.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Mombusho want it that way.........

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I feel that this article missed one point which is that it is also a huge problem that Katakana is considered an acceptable substitute for english pronunciation. They need to take Katakana out of english class and in romanji studies and they need to start teaching real phonics. English is not the only language that is difficult for Japanese. Japanese is just a phonetically weak language and students dont understand that proper pronunciation requires you to excercise your mouth muscles like any other muscle when trying to do something new.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Being perfectionists, stops them in their tracks so as to not get embarrassed.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Because they are surrounded by butchered English, hideously used in music, on TV, in movies, advertisements, product names, product wrappers, slogans etc etc etc...

Yes Bus Life!

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Al StewartMay. 07, 2012 - 12:18PM JST

I feel that this article missed one point which is that it is also a huge problem that Katakana is considered an acceptable substitute for english pronunciation. They need to take Katakana out of english class and in romanji studies and they need to start teaching real phonics. English is not the only language that is difficult for Japanese. Japanese is just a phonetically weak language and students dont understand that proper pronunciation requires you to excercise your mouth muscles like any other muscle when trying to do something new.

Very wrong on a number of points

Phonics and phonetics are chalk and cheese. English phonics is the spoken decoding of English lexemes (the alphabet), of which there are 25 of them. Phonetics is the transcription and decoding of spoken English with phonemes, of which there are 47 of them, at the lowest calculation. Phonics is as much use to spoken English as Katakana. Phonics is concerned with written English and the relationship between written and spoken English is one of the weakest links of any languages.

The relationship of the Japanese basic writing script has a very close relationship with the spoken language. You learn hiragana and you can prounce pretty accurately any Japanese word written in hiragana.

Japanese is a phonetically strong language. The vowels and consonants are pretty well clipped into a set pronunciation and Japanese stress is pretty much equally applied to all syllables.

English is a phonetically weak language. Because of coarticulation and complimentary articulation. Although English has only one phoneme to represent the sound /t/, there are actually at least pronunciations/varients of that phoneme. Say the words 'Tin' ;Bottle' and 'But', and notice the different ways that you pronounce the /t/ sound in each word.

Also because English has real stress applied to any lexeme of more than one syllable, English has the dreaded schwa sound (the 'er' sound in worker) which has no alphabet representation. Notice the schwa sound in 'A pen', 'The pen', 'Sister', 'Chocolate' and the best of all 'Another'.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Afraid you are wrong. Katakana poses a major obstacle to learning english ; in much the same way as learning only roomaji Japanese hinders progress in Japanese. Other asian countries, china for example learn english in english, not in some substitute 3rd way lanaguage (Like katakana)

Japanese is a phonetically strong language. The vowels and consonants are pretty well clipped into a set pronunciation and Japanese stress is pretty much equally applied to all syllables.

Wrong, Japanese has a relatively low number of phonems compared to many other languages. This is one obstacle to pronunciation.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Well i spose your point no 2 indicates that Katakana is an obstacle. Sorry~

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Japanese DO NOT need to understand english, in case you have not heard they have their own language.

Yes Japanese learn it at school but like everything they "learnt" at school they forget it the second the exam for it is over. It is because they don't actually learn anything they remember what is needed. I've hired new grads from university in Japan for them to not know anything about the subject they studied at university for 4 years and constantly refering to their text books they got from university for the entire extend of their knowledge base. So much so that when I told them they made a mistake they said the book said that was the way to do it, I told them the book is not correct and they could not accept it.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Sorry i am not a linguist and i admit that purely. My point is that proper pronunciation of english is a huge problem for Japanese people as they cannot easily reproduce the sounds in many other languages as Japanese as a language is missing many sounds. For example: R, W, V, F, TH and more. As far as pronunciation goes, the Japanese language is weak in that area as many native speaker of japanese have trouble mimicking sounds made in other languages. Where as most english speaker can duplicate the sounds of other languages with less trouble.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

y3chomeMay. 07, 2012 - 04:08PM JST

Wrong, Japanese has a relatively low number of phonems compared to many other languages. This is one obstacle to pronunciation.

Well apart from the fact that I don't know any language that has any phonems the rule of phonology is that the less number of phonemes/sounds or variants of those basic phonemes that a language has, the more phonetically strong (lexemes conform to phonemes and phonemes are regular to their base sound) that language is.

Therefore Spanish is considered a phonetically strong language, while English, with its 230 phonemes/variants of the basic 47 phonemes is considered a phonetically weak language and this is the achille's heel of teaching phonetics.

In isolation, the English phonemes/sounds can be quite clearly distinguished and elicited from the student. In discourse the task becomes more difficult if not impossible. 'Want' in isolation is quite easy to phonetically transcribe, something along the lines of / wont /. However 'Want to' changes the base lexis' phonetic transcription. For someone whose first language is a phonetically strong language, such as japanese or Spanish, the transcription of 'Want to' would be / wont tu / but the native speaker's pronuncation would be / won ter / at the beginning or in the middle of an utterance and / won tu /, if it came at the end of an utterance.

Nevertheless English phonetics, with all its faults, in the classroom is a far far far better aid to teaching English in the Japanese classroom than katakana and phonics is a total fraud to the teaching of spoken English.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Thanks for reading. Seriously.

A lot of people wrote nice things. That made me happy. Then Frungy wrote a mean thing and it made me sad, but probably it was just because I happened to be listening to 2Pac’s “Life Goes On.” Thug life, baby. So I poured out a little Japanese malt liquor from my balcony. My neighbors find me amusing, no doubt.

Most folks don’t know that before I write anything, I go to the temple and pray. Just looking at me, you wouldn’t think I’m so spiritual. But I so am. They don’t call me the Bob Marley of Japan for nothing. I fairly reek of patchouli. So this time when I prayed, I said, God, I mean, Japanese God, do I have enough degrees, licenses and panache to write about this subject? And Japanese God said, Dude, for sure. If not Ken Seeroi, then who? If not now, then when? Now let’s get a beer, already. Anyway, I think that’s what he said, because he had a really thick Tohoku accent. So if what I write isn’t correct, don’t blame me, blame God. Japanese God, I mean.

So then I typed a long, tearful reply. And also some more stuff about the grammar-translation method. But of course I can’t just write a paragraph like a normal human being. I got all spastic and wrote a whole post; so I put it up on http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/, which is where all my stuff originally appears. PS, if you want to address me directly, that’s the place to do it. PPS. Thanks for the inspiration, Frungy. Seriously.

-9 ( +3 / -12 )

Japanese education is "committee think."

That's the total problem with Japanese education.

It's a bit like Microsoft.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Where as most english speaker can duplicate the sounds of other languages with less trouble.

ROFL. I also find that French speakers are the best ones at adapting to any foreign language. We get the perfect accent so easily. You don't agree ? That's weird. It's just you can't hear your own defects.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

oh im bored of study japanese i can understand what they say they write ,they force me to do more better writting and writting well maybe im become crazy ,the work of being with senile old people im fell im becoming soon.i mixed with english sometimes,i can get my salary and pay my bills and property being happy in my simple life no need to become leader and popular,im satisfied anyway idont step other feet.ja ne

1 ( +1 / -0 )

ROFL. I also find that French speakers are the best ones at adapting to any foreign language. We get the perfect accent so easily. You don't agree ? That's weird. It's just you can't hear your own defects.

The French? Getting the 'perfect accent so easily'? That is 'ilarious!

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Well I got to admit its the teachers fault and thecirriculum. Teacher usually either are proficient in English or Japanese. The cirriculum teaches them things they will not use 90% of the time. I am half american and Japanese. My cousins would often ask me for help with homework. I use to look it over and say god who speaks like this anymore and when is a student going to use these phrases. I use to teach english privately and would have a class of about 5. I would cater towards each student. They ranged from grade school to business men and women in professional fields. Each cirriculum is different. So for school kids I would hold a poll on their hobbies and interests. This way they memorize it better since they can relate. They would build the other stuff up and learn quick. Also how to pronounce words by how not just to say it but how to shape your mouth to obtain a certain sound.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

There is a joke. What do you call a person who can speak only one language? Answer: An American. Japanese people can speak English quite well. Look at Japanese - Americans. People born and raised in America. They speak English perfectly.

The problem is exposure. If you live in Japan and HAVE TO SPEAK it everyday to survive, you will learn to speak Japanese very well.

If you expect to learn how to speak English in Japan, just use all the kids who take Spanish in high school and see how well they speak Spanish - as an example, and you will then know why the Japanese don't speak English well. Not enough immersion.

Same goes with China and Korea and India.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Actually the Japanese have a difficult time speaking English because it is an inferior and barbaric language compared to the beautiful, complex, and flowing nature of spoken Japanese.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

learn the Italian language Japanese friends if you do not like the English language :D

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I'm a linguist so I would know the complexities of learning a language for survival vs. learning a language to fulfill some academic requirement. They are different. In general 99% of the time, you can't learn and speak ANY language well from just taking classes. You have to be IMMERSED into the environment where you need to use it to function and survive on a daily basis. Of course I'm in the 1% who can speak and understand in over 8 languages, but again I'm a linguist.

-7 ( +2 / -9 )

I am annoyed by the double standard applied here. Many Westerners and others seem justified and comfortable with putting all Japanese in one category when the discussion is about the shortcoming of Japanese people. On the other hand, when the discussion is about good quality, “unique” of Japanese as a group, some people passionately make a point about individual differences and that people are pretty much same anywhere. This is the reason why Japanese people often think (probably defensively) of themselves as “unique” rather than “defective” in some ways.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Fifty years ago I went to Japan to study and back then I heard this same statement. Then I heard the same statement again, applied to the Koreans. Later living in Europe I heard the very same thing about the Spanish. I also heard that the Americans and the English are incapable of learning foreign languages. I also heard that the French hate learning foreign languages and want everyone to speak French. All of which turned out to be, in the words of S.I. Hayakawa, "glittering generalities and mostly untrue."

I fail to see how a person's national origin or ethnicity keep him or her from learning a foreign language. It all depends on the person and their motivation to learn the language. Many of you mention a "passion". I think that is the key. To master a language one must be inspired by something more than the idea that it is "essential". What do we mean by "essential" anyway? Business, basic survival etc.. what exactly does "essential" mean here?

What is true is that not everyone has the talent to learn a foreign language or play the violin or paint like El Greco. That talent isn't limited to any certain nationality or ethnic group. I have met many Japanese who speak English exceptionally well. The same with Spaniards and the French. It's funny when Europeans tell Americans they can't learn foreign languages when about 30% of American families are bilingual. Growing up in the 1950's in the Eastern part of the US I was raised in an Italian-American neighborhood. I am the first generation born in the US. I had to speak my immigrant parents' (especially Mom's) native language. Many of us didn't speak as well as we could have but new arrivals could still understand us and communicate. The next generation began to lose the ability of speak the language of their ancestors and that is pretty much true of most immigrant based nations.

Two cases at hand. Not long ago I met a Japanese woman who had gone to Italy to study art. She needed the language so she learned Italian and very well. Not only that, she found that life was cheaper in the south so she went to the region of Calabria to study and paint. She even learned the local dialect and spoke it well. Her English was pretty good too. Another time I met an English woman who was a total Hispanophile. She spoke Castilian with absolutely no trace of an accent and then spent several years living in the South and spoke perfect "Andaluz".

My wife, on the other hand, had no interest in learning foreign languages yet when we moved to Spain she was doing the shopping and making change in Spanish in less than a year. Now that's when a foreign language is "essential". Later we came to the US and she learned English well enough to have her own business within three years. Not too bad for a Saitama country girl who never planned on going any further from home than a day trip to Kyoto.

While the above article contains a lot of good information for ESL teachers I cannot accept the basic premise "Why are Japanese so bad at English?" anymore than I can accept that kind of blanket statement about anyone else.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I'm mexican and have visited Japan twice. of corse I can speak

some japanese, enough to move by myself inside the country.

When I was ther for the first time I noticed that not many people can speak English

Speak Englñis is easier than japanese or spanish..

Spanish is much worse..for them.


-1 ( +1 / -2 )

its ok native english speakers can't even speak the language. english english has dozens of variations, so does american english.

just do what i tell americans, austrlians, new zelanders i know. if you aren't sure what to say, draw a picture.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I think most Japanese can write and read English better than they can speak it. The fault is that spoken English is not taught correctly and it doesn't help that most Japanese English teachers can pronounce English words correctly. One problem every knows about Japanese and English is the pronunciation of 'rice'. Since the tongue position of a Japanese R is between and English R and L, it doesn't usually come out right. So why don't they teach the tongue position? L is with the tongue on the front teeth and R is with the tongue near the back of the throat. I find written Japanese much harder than spoken Japanese. But, I have issues with Kanji since I really don't think it belongs in Japanese and having imported it, it has change the language. For example, some sound a now absent from modern Japanese that were there before Kanji as "we". To me, languages that are hard are ones that assign gender to objects. It would be nice to know why some objects are male and some female. For example, why in German, a girl is a thing.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Where are all those Masters of the Universe in the US speaking the Spanish , French and Russian from their junior high and high school classes...I mean, they study it for four years, why can't they speak it?

Is that the kettle I hear? How can people from a country where very few people have mastered a second language, declare with authority the reasons the Japanese 'don't speak English'? The nerve of it blows my mind every time I read an article like this.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Reading a lot of the comments, I think maybe the original question of the article might come off a little stronger than the author intended.

I don't think anyone intends to attack the Japanese people. If anything, people are frustrated with the way the Japanese govenment diservices it's people in wasting tax money on questionable methods of English education.

I know why he used this question. it is something JAPANESE people ask all the time. This is a question many of us struggle with every day as teachers or students.

I think the real question is "How can Japanese Education better meet its goals to produce students proficient in oral English communication'

The ministry of Education has stated this goal. That is what parents wish for their children when sending them to English conversation lessons. That is what TRILLONS of yen are being spent on every year by the government and the people.

Other countries might not be proficient in foreign language, but are they spending the same amount of time and resources on it? Right or wrong, the U.S. for example seems to spend little resources on language, so there is not point comparing apples to oranges.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Why are Japanese so bad at English?

Are they? I think the people who really want to become fluent, will.


2 Japanese woman at work (overseas) who speak close to perfect English. A friend who speaks very good English and is self-taught. Not to mention lots of other friends and associates.

If they want to, they will.

I think the "problem" is that "we" expect "them" to do as we do, when they prefer to do as they do. I sure as hell don't remember my high school French or German.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

KATAKANA - this is the main reason J-People can't speak any English. Starting with learning English in Katakana (a huge nono, but still enforced by teachers who can't speak any English themselves), katakana words in everyday life (including idiotic TV Shows), etc.

For learning better English, immersion is necessary. Watch English channels (Discovery, National Geographic, BCC, Disney, etc), with no subtitles for 3-4 months, and you will see an immediate improvement in listening and understanding, vocabulary increase, etc.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I have another question. Why are Americans so bad at Japanese? Or french? Or Spanish? Or Rusian? O any other language? Trust me, you are.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

There are no bad students, only bad teachers. "Why are Japanese so bad at English?". Maybe because of so many americans, without proper qualifications, go to Japan thinking about making easy money teaching english...

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

Dog - your dismissal of any legitimacy in teaching phonics as means of teaching spoken English smacks of the absoluteness of a dyed professional.

Many of my elementary students who have enjoyed the fun/interest of phonics as one aspect of a language learning endeavour would disagree.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The only way for Japanese to learn English is 'make a big effort' and keep doing it. I know because a certain Japanese I know mastered the language. She majored in English at college and on her own, tapes the audio part of popular American TV shows onto cassette tapes and listen to them to improve her pronunciation. Now she's correcting my English when I make a mistake.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

browny1May. 08, 2012 - 10:35AM JST

Dog - your dismissal of any legitimacy in teaching phonics as means of teaching spoken English smacks of the absoluteness of a dyed professional.

The teaching of phonics as a tool for spoken English in the EFL classroom, as opposed to the teaching of English reading/writing in the EFL classroom or its use in the ESL classroom, is flawed and the sad excuse for ill trained non-professionalnative speaking English language instructors and JTEs who can't speak English.

The building blocks of spoken English are the phonemes, not the lexemes of English and after the initial stages, phonics soon proves very flawed. The words 'Law, Door, Corp, More, For, Four, Ball' of the top of my head, all have the phoneme / o: /. Might it not be easier just to teach the sound / o: / and transcribe the words as / lo: / / do: / / Ko: / / fo: / / fo: / / bo:l / ???? Besides the rules of English pronunciation of lexis are very much determined by etymology, rather than any sane rules of English spelling which themselves were only codified 250 years ago. Thus the pron of 'Hype' and 'Hypocrite'.

The fact is that the majority of EFL instructors do not have the proper skills and are like someone teaching maths who can't use algebra. Yes he can add and subtract, but does that qualify him/her to teach math? Of course not, so why do we allow these EFL instructors to teach spoken English just because they can read English and speak English, yet have no understanding of the sound composites of the language?

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

When I communicate with native non-English speaking people around the world, a lot of their English isn't so bad. A Swedish person can speak and write a good amount of English, even if it isn't perfect. It's because he learned English as early as the age of 6, as it's required in their education system.

When it comes to other Asian countries, a lot of their students are speaking/reading a decent amount of English. Which then allows them to go abroad and study without too many problems. A lot of Korean people, who come to my state to study, already come with enough English just to get them by.

Japan is an exception, which I view with mixed feelings. I kind of agree that it may have something to do with the katakana in the system. I seriously agree that motivation is a key factor to all this. I also agree that a lot of Japanese people won't have a need to use English if they're not going to come across any foreigner. (Much like some people in English speaking countries, who feel no need to retain a second language.) Yet, I think some Japanese do have the potential to cross the international boundaries other than the internet. I think there's this stigma placed on Japan, that because it's one of the richest countries in the world, it's expected to have an important role in the international community. If teachers can take away that stigma, and reshape the way English is taught in Japan, perhaps, some Japanese will not see English as a chore. (And then, they can fix all the crazy grammatically incorrect English names they put on random items and signs! Ahahaha..)

I'm currently learning Japanese. Just completed two semesters and I feel that I learned a lot by two different professors. Both of these professors are Japanese, and they both made us have to speak as part of our learning experience. I had to exchange some conversations with my fellow classmates, and it was really fun (although, that made us get out of our comfort zone). Before taking these courses, I was self-teaching myself a little bit of the language so I already had a grasp of about a100 kanji. Taking a class helped me to apply the kanji even more (even if I had to re-learn some of them). Nihongo no class wa tanoshii deshita! Te form ga daisuki desu. Takusan shitta.....

And before any of that, I had five years of Italian, starting in junior high. Over the course of those years, I started to lose a bit of motivation with the language. By my fifth year, I was ready to move on. Compared to learning Italian, I found Japanese to be easier to pick up on. Plus, I'm always seeing some form of a Japanese text every day as oppose to Italian, where I really didn't see much of it back in my high school days. Motivation + persistence + enjoyment = a self-fulfilling experience. ^__^

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Dog - thankyou.

As a professional teacher of 30+years experience, I wouldn't be so absolute in my claims to suggest something is a fraud without acknowledging it may have some benefits to some.

eg Is there no benefit in teaching for arguments sake - The fat cat in the hat sat on a rat. - to children?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Television - BEFORE "bi-lingual" -was my best - and ONLY teacher in Japan... (I can act as interpreter for Japanese-French and English)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

browny1May. 08, 2012 - 02:14PM JST

eg Is there no benefit in teaching for arguments sake - The fat cat in the hat sat on a rat. - to children?

Of course, if you're teaching children to read and write English, but the article was about Japanese inability to use spoken English to any effect and if we take your example of, 'the fat cat in the hat sat on a rat' we can see all the flaws of using phonics as a vehicle of presenting and facilitating spoken English in the language classroom.

To a speaker, whose first language is a phonetically strong language, like Japanese, that gives equal stress to all syllables the script will be uttered as / the fat cat in the hat sat on a rat /. Each syllable will be given the same stress each lexis item will be succinctly pronounced in isolation and there will be no allophonic variants of any of the basic phonemes.

A native speaker will pronounce it, please excuse the phonetic transcript, / the fa ka tin the ha sa to ne rat / There will be main stress on the nouns, less stress on the adjectives and weak stress on the articles and prepositions, Intonation will be determined by the 4 beat/8 beat sentence utterance. There will be final consonsant vowel merging ('sat on' becomes 'sa ton') and you will have allophonic variants ( for example the phonemes /t/ in 'fat cat' are two different variants of the base phoneme. The /t/ in 'fat' is a non-plosive allaphone, while the /t/ in cat is a plosive allaphone).

Phonics is really limited as a tool for teaching spoken English because English is very much two different languages; spoken English and written English. This distinction is greatly aided by the fact that Japanese is a phonetically strong language and Japanese students are expecting to hear what they read, just like there own language, and of course katakana is the final kick in the teeth.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Dog - Thanks again.

But I beg to differ. I would never say, "the fa ka tin the ha sa to ne rat" when introducing spoken sentences to chiildren.

And I would never expect children to.

Enunciation with Clarity never will diminish the chance of a child being able to speak fluent English in the future.

Introducing basic phonics with the explanation of "English is full of irregularities" can do little harm to childrens progress.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

browny1May. 08, 2012 - 04:52PM JST

Introducing basic phonics with the explanation of "English is full of irregularities" can do little harm to childrens progress.

Totally agree. One should always take a flexible 'wholistic' attitude to approaches and methodologies for the language classroom. Even katakana has it's uses in the contrastive analysis of English and japanese sounds, and grammar translation is a great vehicle for showing the impossibility of Japanese to English translation.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Because there is really no place to practice english?

Japanese people can have gaijin friends to help improve their English. But the gaijin friend probably want to speak japanese instead of English. So you have a gaijin speaking japanese and the native speaking english....

They could go overseas but they requires money...unless you have a rich daddy that's not going to happen...

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

It's their accent. How about some other countries english pronounciation..... listen to Aussies english... Monday sounds like Mondai... Americans Spanish.... hehehehe now tell me if they pronounce the words correctly. I.e Comprende.... Americans pronounce it Comprendei..... a simple Dog in american english can sometime sound Dawg... Geezzzzzz now for the perfect english speaking guys here, which is the best , very clear english do you think is best. American, Canadian or British english... ;))

Dialects are one thing, but even though they sound different they all are based on the correct spelling. When Japan creates "Japlish" via katakana, it is sometimes unrecognizable to an English-speaking listener even though the speaker is speaking it EXACTLY as written. If you had any idea how long I stared at シェークスピア before figuring out what it was supposed to represent, you'd know what I mean.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The fat cat in the hat sat on a rat.

Hmm, just said it aloud myself. ALL the pertinent t's were "non-plosive". Eliza Doolittle (after her training, of course) would have enunciated all the t's plosively. If I pay attention to it, I can make them plosive as well. The same thing happens with "butter". If I want to sound overly pretentious I will use "buh-ter" with a phony British accent. In my normal usage, however, the word comes out as "budder" (ditto "ledder")

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@Dog "One should always take a flexible 'wholistic' attitude to approaches and methodologies for the language classroom"

Sounds like a typical conceptual argument that doesn't change anything in reality. You need to get over your Mr. Know it all attitude dude,

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Japanese are sexy and they don't suck in english. their eigo is really cute and SEXY! ~___^ <3

-7 ( +2 / -9 )

There is a joke. What do you call a person who can speak only one language? Answer: An American. Japanese people can speak English quite well. Look at Japanese - Americans. People born and raised in America. They speak English perfectly.

Some of the worst Japanese I've ever heard was spoken by Japanese-Americans. They speak English fine because that's what they've learned since birth, regardless of what they look like. Genetics proves nothing, if that's what you're getting at. I have to agree that I believe there's truth in the theory that in order to develop the correct physiology to pronounce a new language correctly, it's better to start young and be exposed to native-level speakers of that language. Growing up with teachers who pronounce English poorly, no matter how sound their grammar may be, will limit you from developing a natural pronunciation of the language. If you started learning Spanish at age 8 and your primary exposure was a teacher with a heavy Southern (American) accent, your Spanish will probably not sound passable to a native speaker from Latin America.

Motivation is another factor. The average Japanese student is bad at English for the same reason the average American student is bad at Spanish, French or German. If it's a requirement and the student has no passion to become fluent and instead only cares about passing a test, whatever's learned is probably forgotten soon after the test is over. In both countries, the student knows that they will realistically never have to use the language they're learning in the real world unless they choose to do so.

Also in both countries, though it may no longer really be the case, people may have gotten used to the notion that businesses in other countries will cater to them. Many Koreans and Chinese are better at learning English because they see the opportunity for business expansion in North America and Europe. Americans and Japanese might realize the need for learning Chinese to do business in China but think it's too difficult and give up because there are other low-hanging fruit in their own countries.

However, find a Japanese girl hooked on K-dramas and she's probably learned more Korean in 18 months than 6 years of English. It's all about motivation, really.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It has got to be related to Japanese attitudes to language in general. There is little speaking in any class, not only English classes because, unlike "logocentrics" they do not particularly like listening to themselves speak. Listening to oneself speak in the Western narrative self (Derrida, 2011, McAdams, 1997) and we get a bigger kick out of expressing ourselves in language (Kim & Sherman, 2007), whereas for the Japanese language is just a tool of communication and getting a kick out of listening to oneself speak is as distasteful as vanity is to us (the Japanese are however keen on vanity, see below). Since there are very few communication opportunities in English in many parts of Japan, the you-like-to-hear-yourself-speak-don't-you basis of Western style communication-centred approach does not import well, so they have stuck to the grammar so far.

One type of way of improving the situation in the communication class is to make use of the Japanese mirror-self, and their joy in visual self expression, and turn linguist communication into a visually performative act. This means that circular seating in classrooms is an absolute must, and classrooms with glass walls help (Nova used that tool effectively at least until they went bust). I find that non-linguistic praise ("Well done" is just more vain-glory) in the form of tokens or class money, also works.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

They should encourage free discussions in English courses, like they do in our foreign language courses.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

There was an interesting program on NHK that talked about Korea aggressively recruiting other Asians to do their university studies in Korea. It seems that this or these universities teach in English. Later the graduates are recruiting into Korean companies as LG and Samsung. No wonder Japanese companies are loosing to Korean companies.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Nice article.

I would tend to agree with all the points made and add that japanese students tend to have a couple of self destructive assumptions, one is that they will always suck so there is no point in even trying to get it right if they can just get it in the ball park, and the second is that they can suck horrendously but the victims of their sentences will be able to figure out what they are trying to say anyway.

I spend all my time trying to keep my students using simple sentences and not constantly try to us the flowery metaphors and idioms that they seem to think will make them more artsy and intuitive or something.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

For those making fun of Japanese pronounciation (i.e. butchering), please.

Why would someone run the risk of sounding silly by trying to speak real English when they can fit right in by saying: "shorto" or "steakee" or "cakee"? Hell even the ads in Japan butcher English.

It's an English origin word but no sense in changing into an English pronounciation.

It's simple herefornow. The Amercan pronounciation of "sushi" (soo-shi) sounds silly to Japanese. It's butchery but Japanese don't make a big deal out if it like you.

Finally, the most sensible post goes to

Why are Japanese so bad at English? The same reasons why I am so bad at Japanese. >.<

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

I recently read a very interesting article from the president of my Japanese company. Basically it says that Japanese people have problem to understand word/concept that are not translatable with kanji. Thus not only English, but any languages is a compelling of songs for them that has no meaning. I believe this is a very deep and difficult to solve cultural issue.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

When I went to Japan, I met with locals. They told me that the reason English is spoken so poorly is because, though they are taught English, they are never taught how to pronounce letters and syllables.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Why are Japanese so bad at English? What a stupid question. Because it is not their language DUH! I am not siding with anyone here but just bear in mind. Other nationalities also pronounce other language funny. Japan have their own culture. Don't try to change Japan speaking ways just for a few thousand Gaijins ways of talking. International language or not, it doesn't matter. Just leave it like that because it's Japanese way. Americans usually laugh at their Rednecks english. Geeeshhhh that's a shame because they are your own americans. So why criticize Japanese with their way of speaking english. I have noticed some americans living in Japan have also funny accents and phonetics when they speak Japanese and other languages. Just let it be as Sir Paul McCartney says.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

It's all come down to different phonetics and pronunciation, and of course the various accents around the world may make hearing a non-native speaker speaking to a native speaker sound funny.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hi from Tokyo. Imho the worst problem is the attitude of Japanese people.

I'd like to mention two points:

Japan's mentality, so-called 島国根性 (shimaguni-konjo) lit. "mentality of island nation." Their days complete only in Japanese words, no need to learn others. And therefore they don't get used to see people from other nations. Japanese people weighs on precision. Most people believes "my English speaking is no more than 70% perfect" (or 97% or 20% or whatever less than 100.00%) - they give up themselves.

First point looks somewhat similar to English-speaking nations - People believe they don't need to learn any other languages. But I like them - they do try only a few words, let's say Kawaii or Oishii. This is the attitude Japanese don't have. :D

1 ( +2 / -1 )

In America ( U.S.A) is teh same, American people doesn't speak fluently spanish nor other languages. Not to mention. Chinese or german for example. .

0 ( +0 / -0 )

About 10 years ago when I was still in upper high school, I used to talk to a japanese guy named Hiroki over ICQ (or maybe it was MSN). Considering that he was japanese, I found him very, very good at english. When asked about he explained that he did watch a lot of american sitcoms, movies, read a lot of english books and so on - and that he had had this interest for "western" culture since he was about 10 when he started playing computer games (not arcade games) such as Doom, Quake and other "western made" games. So in a way he was like the opposite of a class mate of mine (who read manga, watched japanese movies, studied kanji and was a real "jap nerd"). He also said that he think the english they got in school "sucks" - especially the "teachers" - and he blamed the government/board of education/whatever for not really caring about that part of education. He told me that he was easily the best guy at english at his school, and credited it all to those american sitcoms and western movies which he watched pretty much every day. EXPOSURE is the key here and I could really identify myself with him. I also got a computer at a young age and started learning english even before it all started in school. And I've always been something of a movie-geek. On top of this: in Sweden the only movies and TV-shows that gets "dubbed" is those meant for children. Even teen-movies are in english.

Once again: it all comes down to exposure. If you moved to japan and lived there for 6 months - being FORCED to learn the language (and not sitting around by yourself in a hotel room), then you WOULD learn japanese for sure. No doubt about it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Why are they (Japanese) so bad? Says who? All the relevant categories of people, such as academics, students, young people, speak with a varying degree of excellence. Language students and teachers speak the best. Cleaning ladies do not speak ... that good. The question seems to be a somewhat artificial preconception with the purpose to write an article of artificial assumptions. Why are Italians and French are not so good at English? Why Russians or Chinese are also bad? Why Americans and British are not so good at anything but English? .... and so on and so forth....

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

aaa....i say everbody is serious,english is not necessary far as we work in japan,the reason only as for it,

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Pronunciation is not important at all! Italians, Greeks, French and Scottish people speak English with a strong accent and so do most non-native English speakers in the world. Why put some much emphasis on pronunciation in Japan? Why such emphasis on academic scores? What about grammar? Japanese learn more grammar at school than we do as foreigners...Do all Japanese want to be English Teachers?? It is useless and takes too much time. The most frustrating thing I have seen about Japanese who want to learn English is when they say 'help me learn conversation English, because I really want to..' but when you give them advice on how to learn they dont listen. For example, if you have 1 or 2 lessons per week, fine, but what do you do on your spare time? Do you watch movies in English only? Usual answer is NO. Do your read novels in English? NO. Excuse: I dont understand. Answer: THAT'S WHY. You either really want to learn or you don't, if you do break away from traditional methods because obviously they DO NOT WORK.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I dont know why Japanese are so poor generally at English, but I went to Taiwan over the weekend and it was so easy to meet and talk to young people in the clubs, an excellent standard of English spoken over there, take note Japanese!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Why are Italians and French are not so good at English? Why Russians or Chinese are also bad?

Sure ? ;-)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I agree with those who pointed out the lack of practice for Japanese and the reason behind is shyness for sure. Because, Japanese do want to speak English, but they are afraid to turn idiots in front of others. The other reason is probably the difference between the grammatical construction between western languages and Nihongo (Japanese language). This complicate the reasoning and speaking for Japanese trying English and Gaijin that strive to learn Japanese as well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There are many reasons that Japanese are poor speakers of English but one that causes a lot of trouble at the outset of learning English is romaji. Young students are taught the romaji system in primary school. Then later, in middle school, when they start studying English by learning the ABC's, they conflate romaji with the ABC's and right away they are in trouble. The pronunciation of letters, especially vowels in the romaji system is not the same as English. Romaji has only five (like Spanish and other latin languages) while English has about 13 or so that are expressed with only six letters. In order to learn to pronounce English they need to forget romaji and that's not easy.

A better way would be to teach the ABC's and English pronunciation first in primary school and then years later, say, at the end of high school, tell the students, "Oh, by the way, you can use the ABC's instead of kana to write Japanese words in a system called romaji.

Another thing that would help would be to ban the display or use of katakana within 30 meters of English classrooms. All katakana does is prevent the student from learning correct pronunciation.

These steps wouldn't fix everything but they would help.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Exactly @herefornow I took a class with a bunch of Japanese students and every other word I said made them convulsed with laughter. I didn't realize why until recently. Also, they use a lot of those butchered english words on TV all the time

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

... a lot of those butchered english words on TV ...

Indeed, like the whole media industry seems under the impression that all "U" must sound like "A" - thus pronouncing their work places "stadio". IT industry ... says "Linax". It's interesting that these things are not fixed, even though kind of obvious.


0 ( +0 / -0 )

I read all of these posts and think to myself. Why is it that we as western people can not speak Japanese or another language for that matter. If so many people enjoying bashing Japan why do they live here ?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Yes, Paul Jones makes the main point. Why is it that only a handful of foreigners in Japan, even among the long term ones, ever bother to learn Japanese? And yet they blather on about how poorly we Japanese speak English. We can't talk about how poorly foreigners speak Japanese because so few even try, especially Westerners.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

if you want to see theenglish lanuage being butchered go to www.engrish.com

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Also, Japanese speaking English poorly is somewhat a stereotype. A racial stereotype. Lots of Japanese speak excellent English. But maybe people think they must be foreigners.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

This explains a lot. No wonder the Koreans are whopping on the Japanese. I have found more speakers of the language here in Korea than I ever did in Japan. I noticed students would go out to areas foreigners frequent and put themselves in a situation to use English on the spot talking to them. Good on them, now Japan needs to do the same or allow Korea to surpass them.

@Paul Jones / gokai_wo_maneku - Well, IMO the main reason is that Japanese is only good in Japan and useless everywhere else. Unless you live there (mainly expats) there really is no point in learning it. I dont know about you but besides English I also do Spanish, French, Japanese and currently picking up Korean. I have the 3 main world languages down, JP and KR I dont need but are more for my enjoyment.

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I have met plenty of Japanese people in Australia and America and they all spoke English quite well, although strangely enough some of the new arrivals didn't speak that well?? I also have some friends that speak English very well who live back in Japan now, but spent a couple of years overseas when they were younger. I even have a couple of friends who speak extremely well considering they have only ever lived in Japan and studied at School there with a couple of years at an English School. I have some foreign friends who have lived in Japan for 10 or more years and can understand Japanese very well, but can't put a sentence together other than to order a beer. As far as I know my whole French class from School has not produced one French speaker, but a couple that speak Japanese after living there for years and one that speaks Chinese after living there for years.

Its easier to learn a different language living in that country, but its not impossible, Not everyone is the same either.

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Also, Japanese speaking English poorly is somewhat a stereotype. A racial stereotype. Lots of Japanese speak excellent English.

Entirely correct. I have friends from various parts of Japan and they can speak English.

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@Psyops, Please notice that I said even long term foreigners who have been here 20 years, even married to Japanese with Japanese speaking children. Yet, they don't bother to learn. Why is that? Life would be so much easier if they spoke Japanese, and they acknowledge that. But they still don't bother.

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Also, by the same token, I've met foreigners here who speak marvelous Japanese. Some even able to imitate the local dialect where they live. They also read it, and I'm not just talking about translator friends.

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Why are Japanese so bad at English?

Because this is Japan and people speak Japanese here.

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Because they are so good at Japanese! Why do they even need to learn anything else? Mostly they don't have the guts to live out of Japan anyway! If you look at the proportion of Japanese living overseas, it is among the lowest in the world. For the Japanese, it is easier to pretend that Japanese is spoken everywhere, as you see in their films :-))

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working for a Well known Japanese company here in San Diego, California I am surrounded by There are many Japanese, men and women. All the women speak acceptable English, even the ones who are not married to an American. Out of the 100 or so men who work here, I am yet to meet one that can carry a conversation in English. Why is that!!?? It boggles my mind. Yet, I got a Japanese guy friend, who hasn't been to college, works in a Japanese Restaurant and speaks fluent English. Go figure. He still makes mistakes sometimes, but hell, so do I.

I'd like to proffer that the reason Japanese do not speak English so well is that they are afraid of making mistakes, you know, loosing face. And then, on the off hours all these Ex-Pat Japanese guys are playing golf with visiting company personnel from the homeland instead of jumping in to the Local Scene. Also, this company sends employees over here for a year at a time to learn English and experience life in a foreign country. Most of them spend most of their time with other Japanese Ex-pats having Nabe parties or going to Las Vegas in a Japanese only group.

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After six years of study...98% of Americans can speak flawless Spanish, 97% of people in the UK can speak fluent French and 99% of Australians can speak and write proficient Japanese. Yet most Japanese are bad at English. There must be some logical explanation.

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I've heard that French people are extremely impressed with the way American tourists speak French. Unlike Japanese tourists in the USA, American tourists in France are highly respected by the locals because of their excellent command of the language. The average American tourist in Paris is able to walk into any restaurant or cafe and order a meal in fluent French. They wouldn't dream of ordering in English. Perhaps this is why there are so many American English teachers in Japan. Americans are simply better than most at learning foreign languages.

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...the reason Japanese do not speak English so well is that they are afraid of making mistakes, you know, loosing face.


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They are afraid of losing face. That explains it. Then how do you explain how companies like Sony, Toyota, Nintendo, TDK, Nissan and dozens of other Japanese companies that have offices all over the world manage to operate on such a high level for decades? The success of Japanese companies abroad proves that not lack of English ability is NOT an obstacle to doing business abroad. Obviously there are enough Japanese who do speak English quite well. Sony owns one of the biggest movie studios and record labels in the United States. I wonder how they managed to do that with such poor English ability?

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*The success of Japanese companies abroad proves that Japanese English ability is NOT an obstacle for doing business abroad.

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Interesting articles & comments, but the #1reason Japanese cant speak English is EXHAUSTION, both physical and mental.

Without getting overly technical, properly spoken Japanese maintains a constant pressure within the body and provides a form of internal exercise. (French is similar, albeit less efficient). Its this fact alone that results in Japanese speakers' rigid bodies whilst speaking & powerful vocalization abilities.

I once 'helped' a group of clients perfect their American English pronunciation by having them exhale explosively and afterwards keeping the windpipe open. As the suspected, that constant 'leaking' of air (like a punctured tire) immediately fixed things. An unintended consequence, however, was an OL turning blue in the face and having to excuse herself.

The point on mental exhaustion is then compounded by the above. Japanese is a hyper efficient language. Grammatically and Logically, its closer to computer programming than the base arithmetic others are used to. As a result, it relies on a certain emotional and logical acuity not present anywhere else. So, basically, Japanese speaking English are constantly searching for 'useless junk' to cram into their communication, which is extremely taxing, in the same way that speaking to an elderly person with dementia is.

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Without getting overly technical, properly spoken Japanese maintains a constant pressure within the body and provides a form of internal exercise.

It's just another way of communicating, is all. No more special or different from any other language. But I'm not surprised your students are exhausted, if you have them breathing funny and turning blue in the face....:-)

I once 'helped' a group of clients perfect their American English pronunciation by having them exhale explosively and afterwards keeping the windpipe open.


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The trick to mastering an accent is to master the accompanying body dynamics. And anyone who has followed this approach immediately begins the metabolic & mental changes that simultaneously occur. This dynamic well accepted in Japan, where the practice of KIAI is commonly known & accepted.

Western knowledge & practices also support this, but its only understood in the context of 'enhanced of charisma' via powerful or musical speaking. Its not voodoo, its simple physiology: the physical production and reception of sound affects us on a physiological level. Again, something known by any 6yr old taking KENDO.

This dynamic is the entire reason why Japanese & many Latinos feel the need to insert vowels between/before naked consonants: to do otherwise results in immediate, physical discomfort. Believe it or not, all things arent subjective. Otherwise, cult/fraternal organizations wouldnt place so much emphasis on the power of the voice.

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Kyle Albert, what you write here is absolute nonsense. It's the sort of New Age thinking that never really works, like the Law Of Attraction scam.

You want to master an accent? You listen carefully and repeat. You record your own voice against the native speaker's and make corrections as necessary. However, this only works if you have a very good ear. if you don't, you can't hear the accent to copy it.

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What I have written about is the method employed by actors and intelligence professionals, who are trained to observe & copy things like: tongue position, sound origination point, and facial expressions/gestures. What you have described is a method that relies essentially on guesswork. And then you belittle those who fail to learn following your method, as lacking ability? Absurd! It is teachers, like you, who lack ability--or perhaps motive. Any gaijin wishing to speak flawless Japanese MUST copy certain physical gestures. To suggest otherwise is tantamount to insisting that a bagpipe can imitate a flute, 'with a good ear and practice'. Absurd!

Also, your describing Japanese cultural knowledge as 'new age' nonsense shows a real, unsurmountable level of obtuseness and disrespect towards those around you. And then people are mystified as to why their students fail to learn. Proper vocalization relies on proper body usage; proper body usage enhances vocalization.

Pay attention more.

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Twenty years ago you could have made a fortune selling that rubbish to the Japanese in the same way that eikaiwa schools and Genki English cashed in on the naive Japanese population. Pity the throw-away money has run out because seriously, they would fall for the stuff you are peddling.

I don't respect nonsense and I don't suffer fools. You've been owned on both accounts!

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Kyle, you aren't the founder of Zuiikin English are you, by any chance?

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First thing to memorize is Alphabetical letters A-Z, then memorize their sounds. Then exercise your tongue to their sounds, then combine the sounds of the letters while you read english words, then you get it :)

Like a grade 1 >.>

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This article is about Japanese students' (presumed) inability to learn English. This article as well as much of the commentary confirms that it is fact teachers' inability & lack of understanding that is to blame. Most would seem to agree that 'Eikaiwas suck', which really (again) just reflects the quality of teaching/methods. Japanese people are awesome at everything develop & systematize themselves, but suck when taught American methods by Americans? Gee golly, I wonder what that means?

Imitation of the physical/applied aspects of a process, whilst ignoring the originators' ideas regarding said process has been central to Japanese ingenuity for centuries! From the development of Kana from Kanji, to martial arts, to modern automotive and electronics... the method has never changed. Likewise, the same applies for acquiring language competency, the proof of which (outside from my own experience) is the fact that the Intelligence community and Hollywood both rely on this method.

Sorry Socrates, but not all things are subjective: physical imitation/immersion is key to mastering any physical process, language being a key example.

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I am a retired English teacher and a UN representative of an NGO. I also spent my last summer in Vietnam with a thousand diverse Asians i.a. 200 Japanese. Based on experience and reading, Asian elites are attending elite US colleges, and getting through studies as quiet as a mouse: no practice speaking. I am also a pop-singer and note that not a single Asian American, first, second or third generation, is on my top 1000 singer list. In contrast I know Asians who speak both English and Esperanto and they swear that learning the easy, democratically organized, politically neutral language, Esperanto is 4 or 5 times easier than learning and using English. English speaker, stop torturing your and my Asian friends and give them a break. Native English speakers, monolingual English speakers, learn Esperanto, share in the responsibility of being bilingual, and you will see a very different world.

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English-Learning in Japan

The Japanese education authorities appear to be making the same old mistake: throwing more money at even more native English-speakers who are to give their pupils 'communicative competence'. They fail to recognise that the real problem in Japan is the widespread misunderstanding about how languages work and how one learns them.

It is true that such misunderstanding is common throughout the world. But in most places this is offset, to a greater or lesser extent, by a practical intuition as to how one should go about learning a foreign language. In Japan this intuition often seems entirely lacking. In its place, particularly among Japanese men, there is frequently an analytical approach to language-learning that can be crippling.

But there is another problem, probably even more serious. Large numbers of Japanese, including many English-teachers at universities, believe they cannot understand anything expressed in a foreign language, either spoken or written, until they have translated it into Japanese. They will not communicate better in English until they rid themselves of what is both a basic misapprehension and a disastrous practice.

Meanwhile it is sad that the Japanese authorities have apparently not noted the doubts that are beginning to be expressed about Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). It is strange that anyone should ever have thought CLT would work. You do not learn anything by talking, particularly if the talking is to others as ignorant as yourself. To talk you have to already have something to talk, and you can only acquire that by observation, which means listening and reading. (The radio is probably the most useful resource for those who want to learn how to communicate.)

True confidence in speaking a foreign language, as opposed to the bogus confidence induced by pair work and role play in the unreal world of the classroom, comes from knowing you have gained some mastery of the language. That mastery comes from learning the traditional things (for there are no other): the vocabulary, the grammar and the sounds - and learning them in the right way.

Are the leaders of the global English-teaching industry now at last prepared to tell the truth to the Japanese? Or are they afraid either that they will give offence or that they will reduce the returns from a lucrative market?

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Honestly I think it comes down to good old-fashioned cultural elitism. The idea in Japan is that "We Japanese are unique" and should only speak Japanese. Foreigners can't use chopsticks, Japanese culture is unique and the facial shape is unique. Any reasonable speaker of Japanese of course realizes this is the same sort of silly crap you'd see on FOX News...

But to the average Japanese, even to educated professionals, this is the law of the land. Japanese are convinced they cannot learn English, therefore they don't learn it. Neuro-linguistic psychological stuff... It's terrifying how effective social conditioning is.

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I lived in Tokyo for two years as a teenager/young adult. The take-away on this that I got is that its 99% Japanese would rather die than get embarrassed speaking bad English. So they don't speak. I love the culture, but its a weird one.

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Asking Japanese people to speak proper English is like asking English people to speak proper French or Spanish. And those are equally or even more spoken than English, concerning the amount of people who speak them. But hey, I wonder how many of you English natives speak any other language besides English xD. None? I thought so.

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There are some reasons why Japanese people cannot speak English. They don't do enough input activities. They don't practice speaking. The opportunities to speak English are not provided. I guess most students don't learn the importance of learning English. Education is only way to improve the situation.

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I am not even sure who wrote this article. By and large the biggest group of English speakers from Asia who speak and use English especially in America are actually Japanese people.

The first reason: 1. Inadequate reinforcement of the lessons this is the same excuse the world over where ever you go in the world not just in Japan for not being able to use English or whatever language a student wants to learn.

Class Control: Huh this person should not be in the classroom. I am already contrived to believe they are insane with the advice they are giving which is not much at all. From this teacher's perspective students should be on Thorazine and drooling on themselves just enough to make the class interesting.

Inadequate practice? What does that mean... this guy is giving out hints of what he does in his spare time which is watch games and drink beer. Why not spend some of the time he does these activities and actually develope interactive lessons and activities that entice students to practice the skills we wish them to perform and then there would actually begin to be some sort of practice which is missing in most classroom situations in Japan and other countries.

Silence in grand when nobody is getting made to look inferior. The silence is not just related to Japanese students Korean students do it as well as many other Asian student too. Many Asian countries accept a little physical or mental abuse to keep the students in line. If you are a western teacher it might seem startling to get a glimpse behind the curtain but certainly the students are more aligned to learning that back home where you might be fired, sued or other bad things for things student do or do not actually do. All systems have good and bad things to exploit if you want to be a great teacher then you need to exploit your goods in ways to enhance student learning and change way learning in done one classroom at a time.

Finally, listening to the last bit of advice that English is everything or nothing at all makes this guy seem out of touch with reality especially within the country he is living in. As technology advances, the need to actually mentally learn or physically accept the challenge of learning a new language becomes less. Google has fairly good translation tools and Microsoft is beginning to set out real time voice translation software to use with apps like skype. Actually the days of English teachers may be coming to an end unless you live in a society that is already English speaking.

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One final note,

After looking over several comments everyone is concerned with English teaching. The protocols of learning go beyond the English lesson and nobody so far has addressed these issues as I read people's responses to the article itself. Learning is not about learning words, vocabularies, explicit or implicit details about everything we require students to study. The most fundamental part of the equation to learning is building upon learning concepts. You want to strip away student learning confusion. A student should be able to take a 1,000 page book which would be like a regular house light and shrink it to the size of an Led while maintaining enough light and understanding to produce information or response to information that could with more help create a sun in its wake.

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"School students get a lesson once a week if they’re lucky, for less than an hour. "

But this won't cut it. I get regular Japanese lessons on Skype from Preply.com ( http://preply.com/en/japanese-by-skype ) and it's just enough for me to master the language. So I'm imagining that a less-than-an-hour weekly class will not help these kids at all to learn a new language, even if it's something popular like English.

If you want to learn something new, especially if it's something as complex as a foreign language, you need to practice constantly and consistently. Learning a few words/phrases/rules once in a while will get you nowhere.

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Not to be too gloomy; but face it, Japanese people don't change anything until disaster forces it. And even then, they may simply sit in water as it comes to a boil and still not jump out, much like frogs. Their cultural value for accepting even the worst circumstance, is well known.

The Emperor Hirohito even famously replied to a demand for surrender when it was clear Japans defeat was just around the corner, "I will sit and think about it until I understand it" . The Japanese word for surrender supposedly had something to do with sitting on a mountain and doing nothing. That is the royal approach, while the workers approach is, be quiet and hope the Sempai eventually stops yelling at you. And I will at least survive (but they didn't).

People in Japan, who are among the poorest critical thinkers in the world can still get a job paying 50K/yr if they just kill time and show up. At the moment, that does not require English, so it doesn't seem like a necessity, And it never occurs to the individual how the long term macroecon works. By the time it becomes evident they will lose their jobs and high pay, it will be past the tipping point and too late to ever catch up.

Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, INdonesia and Malaysia (not to mention China) are set to expand economically and linguistically and already are preferable trading partners for those who actually want to communicate and be satisfied customers. Face it, too much trouble to deal with Japanese poor English and their laughable social codes. Business looks forward to the first opportunity to replace the Japanese as partners; no such thing as loyalty, when it isn't profitable and no fun to fail at communicating.

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I'm a Japanese born in Japan and growing up in Japan.

Why we Japanese people cannot speak well in English is because there is no chance to speak to foreigners. If you may allow me to say exaggeratedly, we don't need English in life. Other reasons are dependent to this.

Yes, you know, actually there are a lot of chances if you want to get more practices. However, ordinary people don't have to do purposely like most Americans who are not interested in Japanese anime don't want to learn Japanese language. Moreover, in my opinion, 99% of foreigners leaning Japanese language cannot speak, read, write or listen in Japanese well because they often omit functional words and have a shortage of Kanji knowledge. I assure that most of them only say the words they know randomly. So we must tend to assume what they want to say and it's rare that theirs are satisfied to communicate with. I know this is a distorted thinking people annoyed, but this article is the same as this.

What I mentioned above that English is not required is somewhat incorrect, but that we dare not to learn is correct, definitely.

My first impression when reading this article is terribly disgusting. This article says English teacher skills in Japanese school is disaster and the school system is not adequate. Exactly. However, this article misses the biggest point why we don't try to learn English enthusiastically. 

It's just we don't need it. 

Though I need it.

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