When I asked last week for reader input, I received the following question from a Japanese reader:
Do you think Japanese people learn English more? Why do you think most of all the Japanese people are not good at English? How do you think the Japanese people can improve their English?
It’s a very good question, and one we have wondered about many times during our stay in Japan. Getting by with English does not work too well in Japan. Most people seem not to speak English at all, even though everyone learns English in school. Contrast this with Taiwan or Shanghai, where at least the younger generation is happily prattling away in English. Their English may be less than perfect, but at least you can communicate.
Sometimes, we heard the lack of English communication skills in Japan blamed on the way English is taught in schools: it’s very theoretical, and there’s not much conversation practice.
While many people in positions where you’d expect some English knowledge don’t speak any English at all, we often found English proficiency in the strangest people: the guy who delivered our fridge (not the one who sold it to us), the guy at the local florist, a guy directing the traffic next to a construction site, or the guy working at our local pet shop. These people all worked in jobs that do not seem to require knowledge of English in the least. We were even joking that admitting to speak English would ruin your job prospects in Japan. But jokes aside, I have a different explanation: it’s the Japanese quest for perfection, that is keeping English knowledge sealed behind closed lips. In principle, most people know some English, but in order to avoid making mistakes, they prefer to abstain from trying it out. Those people who astonished us with unexpected English skills probably just felt they had less to lose in their low-profile jobs and were thus less worried to practice their language skills. As a result, their English became much better than that of the silent theoreticians.
While Japanese perfectionism is undoubtedly on of the pillars of Japan’s success, it becomes a hindrance for learning a foreign language. You just can’t learn a language without making mistakes and looking a little foolish in front of others. It happened to me all the time in Japan. Japanese people who have lived abroad in general speak very good English, for the very reason that once you’re abroad, you’re forced to speak the language no matter what.
It has to be said that there is a manifest interest of the Japanese population to learn English. We have met many people who attended English lessons in their free time as adults and approached us in order to practice.
In my experience, there’s only one piece of advice for learners of a foreign language: speak it as much as possible, no matter how foolish it makes you feel.
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