Why Can’t Japanese People Speak English?
By Yumi Nakata
On July 13, 2014
Is it a question that has been asked many times. Why do Japanese people struggle to communicate in English? Even though English is taught in junior high school and there are thousands of English conversation schools all over the country, the level of English in Japan remains low.
This is especially problematic when Japanese students travel to study abroad. A number of professors at the school I work at told me that their Japanese students often have difficulties communicating in English. These are not students from the inaka parts of Japan but rather international students pursuing doctorate degrees, so it is pretty serious.
But why is it that Japanese students can’t communicate in English? It is the Japanese education system? It is cultural? Or a mixture of both?
Reason 1: Ineffective English Education.
Although Japanese students learn English for six years (starting the first year of junior high school), many of them still can’t communicate in even basic English. This is because the English education in Japanese schools is mainly geared towards helping the students to pass the written university entrance exams.
Japanese students who want to get into national universities have to do well on the “center” exams that are administered throughout Japan once a year. The center exams do not test communication skills, only writing and grammar. Thus the students spend hours memorizing complex English grammar rules but never spend anytime actually using English to communicate.
Reason 2: Inactive Student Participation
As I’ve written about in my previous article comparing the Japanese and American education systems Japanese students are discouraged from speaking up in the classroom. Instead the system relies on rote memorization of the information from a Japanese teacher who themselves are not very good English speakers.
There is very little student discussion or group activity and even in our English class, whenever our teachers asked “any volunteers?,” we were all silent. Having now studied in America, I think that active participation is extremely important in order to improve English communication skills.
Reason 3: Shame Culture
This relates to the reason #2 but because of the “shame based” culture in Japan, many Japanese people have an intense fear of making mistakes or being embarrassed in public. Even when the teacher encourages open communication, many Japanese students are too shy to speak up during class because they don’t want to make mistakes in front of other classmates.
Japanese people are for the most part genuinely interested in learning about other cultures and do wish to communicate in English, but until the government radically overhauls the English education system and Japanese people learn to not care what others think, they will never progress beyond “this is a pen”.
What do you think Japan can do to improve the level of English?