English is an official school subject starting in junior high in Japan, and, recently, English activities have become mandatory in elementary school. Thus, a typical student studies English for at least five years. Yet a recent article in the Japan Times estimated that only 30% of Japanese people could speak English in Japan.
One reason is that English education is limited. Most students are only interested in passing exams, which doesn’t necessarily lead to fluency or understanding nuances of the language. Personally, I could have benefited from fewer textbooks and more natural English.
That being said, here is a list of things I wish my English teachers had taught me in English class.
5. How people really greet each other
People greet each other in a variety of ways. Asking how the other party is doing is not that much of a problem, but it puts us under much pressure when we have to respond.
Back when I was in school, I only knew one way to respond to the question “How are you?” and to respond with “I’m fine.” I wish my teachers had at least told me there are other ways of responding. Even a shortlist of simple adjectives would have been helpful (good, okay, great, not bad etc.).
Here are some greetings that I wish I had learned in school:
- How’s it going?
- How’s life?
- How are you doing?
- How have you been?
- What’s going on?
- You alright?
- What’s up?
4. Casual expressions
Here is some vocabulary that a typical 15-year-old student in Japan learns in their English class: encourage, national, pleasure, unfair and improvement.
While important in the long run, these words are not necessarily the words you need for everyday conversation.
Once, I was having pizza with a couple of English-speaking peers. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know them very well, and because of my limited English, I was a little too quiet. And I guess I didn’t have much appetite either.
I could have told her I didn’t understand what she meant, but I didn’t want to make things awkward.
Then a girl next to me asked, “Are you full?”
I was clueless.
All I understood was that she was asking if I was something. I didn’t know what “full” meant in that context, and I didn’t know what kind of answer she expected. Almost 17 years later, and I still remember the puzzled look on her face. I could have told her I didn’t understand what she meant, but I didn’t want to make things awkward.
Here are some example phrases that I found commonly used in everyday conversation but not in my textbooks:
- I’m freezing. (I’m cold)
- I’m starving. (I’m hungry)
- Did you get that? (Did you understand?)
- Can I see? (Can you show me that?)
- Can you make it? (Do you have time?)
- Need a hand/ Can I get that? (Do you need help?)
3. Phrases when you’re shopping
When learning vocabulary, I wish my teachers had taught me how store clerks or cashiers communicate with their customers.
It was those simple short phrases that puzzled me the most. There’s nothing complicated about them when I see them in print. I recognize every single word in each phrase.
However, when the simple words are grouped in a phrase, I get completely lost, and at that point, my brain automatically shuts itself down. I believe that this is true for any language, in any case.
Here are some examples that I found challenging to understand and respond to, simply because I had never heard them in classrooms:
- Are you finding everything OK?
- For here or to go?
- Would you like a bag?
- Can I help you find something? (And how to respond politely when I just wanted them to leave me alone.)
- Will that be all?
- Would you like the receipt in the bag? (This was confusing because the bag to me always meant the one I was holding.)
2. Simple verb pairings
Learning collocations (useful word pairings in English) was much more important than memorizing new words that even native speakers use only a handful of times. This is because a simple verb can mean so many different things when combined with other relatively simple nouns in English.
For a long time, I thought that “have” meant only “to possess,” but it’s a word that can mean a lot more. It’s one of the first English verbs Japanese students learn from their textbooks, but they don’t know it can also mean “to eat” or “to drink” too—e.g., have a slice of pizza or have a beer.
We can have coffee in the morning, have a walk in the park or have a chat.
It’s amazing how we can describe our day with just a simple verb.
And there are so many more:
- Pay attention
- Feel free
- Keep quiet
- Get together
- Come around
- Go out
1. How fast people really talk
I believe that teachers should let their students know, regardless of their fluency levels, that a typical native speaker talks twice as fast—at least—as what they are teaching.
In this way, students at least know what to expect when they go out to explore the world on their own. But, on the other hand, teachers are paid to be patient (in theory) and tend to slow down if they even slightly sense that their students are having difficulty understanding English.
One method to teach fluency is to take a short passage from a textbook, read it at a natural speed and ask their students how much they understood. Then teachers can break the passage down into smaller units, from sentences, phrases and words.
Many students can understand the phrase once they see it in print. Once they understand the contents, reread the same passage naturally and see how much they comprehend compared to the first time.
A genuine desire to learn sometimes only starts when we feel entirely defeated.
Students appreciate honest teachers who don’t spoil their students and learning a language isn’t always easy. A genuine desire to learn sometimes only starts when we feel entirely “defeated” by our inability to comprehend the frankest sentence being spoken to us.
The important thing is not to slow down when reading the passage. In this way, students can get exposed to natural English while not losing confidence and motivation altogether.
What do you think? What should students in Japan focus on? Do you have any tips or tricks for teachers in Japan? Let us know in the comments!