“Oh boy, here we go again. Another post about how bad Japanese people are at speaking English. Yes, we know already…” No, this post will go a bit deeper than just a shallow observation of their English proficiency. That is already obvious the moment you land in Japan. The Japanese are not that good in English, but it is not because of their lack of interest. The problem lies elsewhere.
In Japan, kids learn to speak English for six years, starting from junior high. One might think six years is a lot, and they should be quite fluent, but this is unfortunately not the case. The focus in the school class is not on speaking English but more on grammar and sentence structure. You see, in Japan, one remains silent in class until spoken to by the teacher. In the West, the student is encouraged to speak out and interact with the teacher and share his opinion. In Japan, speaking out is considered rude and egoistic. So the children will only repeat what the teacher says or given their turn to read a sentence.
A couple weeks ago, I was given a great opportunity by Edina, a cram school that teaches English to children, to participate in an ‘All Day English’ camp. Here children who want to practice their English more would join this camp and speak English all day. Together with eight other APU students from different countries, we were there to assist the teachers and guide the children through the camp and speak English to them. This was to increase the children’s international experience and hear English from other than just Japanese people. The children’s age ranged from nine to fifteen. In my team, I had four boys, ages thirteen to fifteen. This experience gave me a different perspective on the English speaking ability issue of the Japanese people.
Interests in the English language
These four boys were at first very shy to talk to me. This has nothing to do with them being Japanese. I am a stranger from a different country and much older than them. As an icebreaker, we had lunch together. Here we were able to talk a bit to each other, and as you know, food connects people. Regardless of where you, from food makes people happy. After lunch, we had a search trip to the mountains, searching for answers to our questions we had been given. This was very fun, and it helped my team to bond. Bit by bit, the boys started to become more confident to talk to me. I noticed that they were afraid of making mistakes. Japanese culture tends to be a perfectionist culture, and making mistakes will make them lose face. Losing face is something they rather not.
This camp’s objective was to speak English all day, and we, the teaching assistants, were given instructions to avoid Japanese as much as possible. This is not a big problem for me as my Japanese is still on a beginner’s level. However, I revealed to my team that I am still learning Japanese, making mistakes in the Japanese language. This is, obviously, easily noticeable to them. My Japanese is worse than their English. This gave them more confidence to talk in English.
What surprised me was their English was not as bad as they thought it was. Yes, they need to work more on their pronunciation. Still, they were understandable, and their vocabulary was strong enough to have a conversation. They were underestimating their capabilities. During the camp, the kids had to keep a diary and write their experiences in English and what they had learned. We had to assist the children with any questions they had when writing their experiences and correct their English if they made mistakes. I was stunned by how well they could write in English.
In total, 44 children that participated in this camp. The camp started right after the children finished school and entered their big summer break for your information. The reason I am pointing this out is that these kids are interested in improving their English in their free time. I can imagine their parents would motivate them and/or push them to participate in the camp. Still, nonetheless, it is their free time. I thought that the Japanese had no interest in learning English, but that is not really true. There is a genuine interest in learning English.
Problems in learning English
In Japan, there are three writings (alphabets if you will) that allow you to write Japanese. Hiragana is a writing that has 46 phonetic characters. These characters are used solely for Japanese words. The second writing is Katakana. This writing also contains 46 phonetic characters that are used exclusively for foreign words. The third one is called Kanji. Kanji are Chinese characters that describe the meaning of a word. One needs to know approximately 2000 characters in order to be able to read the newspaper. Japanese words are written in Hiragana, but using only Hiragana will make the sentence look childish and make it too long. Therefore some words turn into Kanji as this uses fewer characters and looks more mature. One of my friends pointed out a good problem in learning English which has to do with the Katakana writing.
As mentioned above, Katakana is used for foreign words. So, for example, the word ‘coffee’ is not an original Japanese word. Therefore, it will be written in Katakana like コーヒー ‘kohi.’ The word ‘sushi’ is an original Japanese word and thus is written in either Hiragana (すし) or in Kanji (寿司). In our alphabet, we have consonants such as K, G, B, et cetera. In Japanese, you do not have loose consonants except for the letter N. In other words, if you would like to write the letter K in Japanese, for it must be with a vowel-like KA, KI, KU, KE, KO. The letter K does not exist in their ‘alphabet’ only in combination with a vowel. The same goes for S, T, N, H, M, Y, R, and W. This leads us to something we could call ”Katakana English.”
For the children to make sense of our alphabet, they write the words in Katakana, but then the word loses its pronunciation. In order to write the word ‘bus,’ the children learn to write バス which is pronounced as basu. There is no ‘S’ in their alphabet without a vowel. So they needed to choose between SA, SHI, SU, SE, or SO. And therefore it became basu. Another good example is the word ‘cup.’ This is written in Katakana as カップ, which is pronounced as kappu. Yes, how did they get the letter ‘A’ in there? And that is how most of the Japanese speak English in Japan, namely: Katakana English.
One day I was telling my Japanese teacher that I went to a convenience store named ”Family Mart.” This is the actual name that is shown everywhere in the store. Because it is written in English, I pronounced it in English as Family Mart. The teacher had no clue what I was talking about. I looked weird at him as Family Mart can be found in every corner of Japan’s streets, so how come this Japanese teacher does not know about Family Mart? Classic misunderstanding in this regard. In Japan Family Mart is pronounced as (ファミリーマート) ‘Famiri Mato.’ When pronounced the Japanese way only, then the teacher understood what I was talking about.
Basu, Famiri Mato, and Kappu can still be understood when you understand the context. But Katakana English can go really weird with ‘digital camera,’ ‘air conditioning,’ or ‘personal computer.’ To be honest, these words are long and difficult to pronounce for people who do not use English much daily. So, the Japanese made it easier to pronounce these words into デジカメ (dejikame), エアコン (eakon), and パソコン (pasokon). As a result, these words are confused as English words when they speak in English. If you have learned to say eakon for air conditioning your whole life, you would actually believe this is an English word.
As mentioned above, children learn English for about six years, but they barely spend much time on English in class. I read somewhere that they would spend less than an hour in English a week. I cannot be sure if this is true, but it would not be that far off. In Japan, in order to succeed in the English language, one needs to join a cram school. Here you will learn more English than at school, but these cram schools are quite expensive. This increases the threshold for Japanese people to learn English. Not every family can afford their children to a cram school. Japan is a very competitive country that just does not want only the best for their children, but they want more than that. Therefore, the best is not enough, so parents spend a lot on their children to have them receive the best education. Cram schools are big business in Japan. According to The New York Times, Japanese parents spent $10.9 billion on cram schooling their children. But as mentioned above, not everyone can afford it, and not all cram schools provide English.
As a result, English is not accessible for many Japanese other than that short English class or wealthy enough to afford it.
The Japanese do want to learn proper English, but their environment does not allow them. It is sad to see motivated Japanese people who want to learn English but cannot as the threshold is too high. The Japanese educational system should focus more on proper English rather than Katakana English and spend more time on the language. It is 2017, and for me, it is unthinkable to not being able to speak English. How does one make a trade with other countries? How does one improve their diplomatic connections with other governments? How does one understand what is going on in the world? English is the key that opens the door to the world. Without it, you be looking at a closed-door, and you can merely look through the keyhole.