Why are Japanese so bad at English?


As globalization makes headway (国際化が進み), calls (要求) for increased ability in an international language like English become louder and louder. However, Everyone knows Japanese people aren’t exactly Masters of the Universe when it comes to (~ということになると) speaking English, despite receiving many years of English education.

Although English is a compulsory subject (必須科目) in junior high and high school in this country, Japanese still have a hard time achieving even daily conversation levels.


The English level of Japanese is ranked 35th out of 72 countries. The top three are the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, which are all northern European nations. Among Asian countries, Singapore is placed 6th, Malaysia 12th, the Philippines 13th, India 22nd and South Korea 29th.

Even though most Japanese learn English for at least six years in school, why are we still not reaching sufficient (十分な) proficiency (実力)? 


The English education of Japan is wrong

There are clearly some good reasons why Japanese people can’t speak English. If you study another languages, you also need to avoid the same traps. “The grammar-translation method doesn’t work.” Usually, the poor achievement is blamed (非難されている) on the way English is taught in schools.

It is said that there is too much classroom emphasis (重点・強調) on grammar with very little time devoted (捧げられる) to actual (実際の) conversational practice. The emphasis is mainly on the silent skills of reading and writing. English education in Japan often attaches importance to reading and writing.


Listening is rather passive (受動的な) as opposed (~に反して)  to being an active part of a conversation.The focus is on accuracy (正確さ) and avoiding grammatical mistakes in Japan. Students spend a great deal of time (多くの時間) copying out what is written on the blackboard and memorizing it in preparation for tests (テストに備えて).

As a result, we often describe (〜と評する) English lessons as boring. The teachers themselves — most of whom were taught in the same way as they now teach — do not have adequate (= enough) English communication skills. 




Even so, why can we hardly speak English ?

So many English words have entered the Japanese vocabulary. For younger people, the breadth (幅) of vocabulary is astonishing (驚くべきもの). By graduation, every high school kid knows a couple thousand English (or English-esque) words, easily enough to hold a conversation.

Give us (Japanese) a vocabulary test and we’d pass it. So why can’t we speak English? Grammar certainly isn’t the reason. 


Because of a culture of conformity (協調・一致)? Because Japan is an island? Because the frequency between Japanese and English is different? These are a well-worn (使い古された) excuse (弁解). Another commonly given excuse for poor development of English communicative skills is “character” (性格).

Then a terrible curse (恐ろしい元凶) is shyness? Yes! It is said that Japanese are not willing to speak up in front of others. Plus, we are too afraid of making mistakes and feel we must speak perfect English. In a sense (ある意味) we impose (強いる) silence on ourselves.




5 reasons why Japanese people can’t speak English


①  Inadequate (不十分な) Lessons

Japanese kids have tons of words and a smattering (生半可な) of grammar, but no examples of how to use the stuff in action (実際の使用方法を学ぶことはありません). So we need reinforcement (補強) : real-world materials showing the variety of ways in which words are actually used. And there’s no opportunities for conversation or presentation, no schedule for watching movies in classes. 


②  Classroom Control (管理)

Traditional, lecture-centric teaching (講義中心の教育) requires everyone to shut up (黙ること) and pay attention to teacher. It’s like  a mini-prison. Teacher is speaking, everyone is nice and quiet, but nobody is listening. And little learning is happening. Unfortunately, does little to prepare people for the act of speaking. (This situation exists in schools around the world)


③  Inadequate practice

Students learn a lot, but they don’t get to apply (応用する) their knowledge. Speaking requires skill, not just information. There’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and actually being able to do it. You gotta practice for that.


④  Many Japanese are shy

Japanese people are allowed to get away with not speaking. In fact, we’re encouraged (奨励される) not to speak in some cases. Japan cultivates (耕す・養う・磨く・洗練する) a society based upon keeping your lid on tight (お口にチャック). Nobody wants you to go off (急に発する) doing something crazy, like saying what’s on your mind. The Japanese is… the world’s shyest race, no doubt about it. 


⑤  Japanese people don’t understand that English is very important

Everywhere we 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 …is almost nothing. For the Japanese majority, English isn’t spoken because it’s not important. 





The government has decided that beginning in 2020 all high school graduates must achieve a level of English equivalent to B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR).What is this B1 level?

People who have achieved that level are expected to be able to, for example, understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters (お馴染みの問題)  regularly encountered (遭遇する) in work, school, leisure and so on;

deal with (対処する) most situations likely to arise (起こりそうな) while traveling in an area where the language is spoken; produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest; and describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.


Oh, my goodness! To be able to achieve that level, students must be exposed (さらされる) to the language for a minimum of 2,500 hours. Remember the number of students per class in Japan can be as many as 40 with just one teacher.

Sure, English education will start in the third grade from 2020, but from elementary to high school students will still only be exposed to English for less than 1,000 hours — despite the expectation of results more indicative (示して) of over 2,500 hours of exposure (露出時間).

So, the outcome (結果・成果) is already very clear. Only the students who are lucky enough to have more exposure and experiences in an English-speaking environment will achieve the level of B1. Well, I guess we just have to wait until automatic interpretation machines hit the market.