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.
英語が出来ません (I Can’t Do English)
The fact is, Japanese people know a ton of English.
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. I take that back. It’s actually way better to try speaking English in Japan than in, say, the U.S., where if you mess up somebody’s going to snap “speak English!” Then probably shoot you, just because they can. 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.