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Why Aren't Japanese Better in English Communication?

Communicating with people from foreign countries takes more than just being able to hear, speak, read, and write English. It takes experience living overseas.

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Japanese students are taking an English speaking test at a junior high school in Tokyo on November 27, 2022 (provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education)

Are Japanese just weak at English?

The international community is truly puzzled by this. When I attended international conferences, such as the Technical Committee of the European Computer Manufacturers Association (now ECMA International - headquartered in Geneva,) I was often asked about this.

"Why can't Japanese speak English well?" the other attendees would ask. Sometimes, I held discussions with these foreigners and native English speakers. But at the time I didn't really understand why Japanese people couldn't speak English well, either. Perhaps the teaching method in schools could be wrong, I thought.  

So when asked questions like the above, I used to share this reply. Despite their poor English, I would tell them, "working adults who have matriculated from Japanese universities have studied English for at least eight years, starting from junior high school, through university graduation." 

When I explained this, those foreigners were always surprised. "What on earth did those Japanese students study about English?," they would say. 

Now that I think about it, it's possible that the way English was taught was just wrong. 

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At least the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) seemed to think that the way English was taught was wrong. Therefore, over the past years they have tried to introduce new teaching methods. But these, too, seemed to fail.

Children learn from the English language teaching AI robot Musio X in their English class at Doshisha Elementary School in Kyoto, October, 2018.

What's Wrong with Japanese English Learning?

Now I am completely retired from active duty. Nevertheless, I sometimes look back on my active years of living and working abroad and think about what helped me learn English. 

I realize that the English most useful for my work was the English I learned at private English school and while I was living abroad. These two experiences made all the difference in developing my communication skills. 

Of course, I also studied English at public school. But even if I learned from it, I think it was only a few percent effective in teaching me English useful in my professional life.

English is a vague term. In this case, though, when I say English, I mean the ability to communicate in English. And communication is not only the ability to understand what is written or said. It requires expressing yourself, too.

diplomacy
PM Kishida and other world leaders attend an "emergency" G7 and NATO summit meeting on November 16, 2022, in Bali, Indonesia (© Kyodo)

English: An Essential Tool in Today's World

More than 100 years ago in the Meiji era, Japan desperately tried to acquire Western culture and technology. The government wanted to overcome the daily struggle for existence. It sought to catch up with and overtake the West, and to keep Japan from becoming a colony of the West. For that reason, it was absolutely necessary to acquire reading comprehension skills in English. 

Nowadays, developing countries, especially, need these skills. However, Japan is no longer a developing country, is it? Japan is a developed country, in my view. And competition among developed countries is also intensifying. 

In order to survive as a developed country, Japan must play a leading role in all areas of the international community. For that reason, the importance of the ability to speak and write in English should not need repeating.

English
One Japanese high school student chose to study abroad and mastered communication skills there. He was inducted into the US National Honors Society in 2020. (© Ren Fukami)

How to Effectively Acquire the Ability to Communicate in English

Frankly speaking, the best way to learn to speak and write in English is to go abroad and patiently continue discussions with native English speakers. Doing so is like killing two birds with one stone. 

On the other hand, danger lurks if you convey information without knowing the customs and culture of the other country. In that case, there is a high possibility that you will offend the person, business or country with which you are trying to communicate. 

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Or you will be misunderstood. I've seen it countless times. This is the reason why not only English language training, but also overseas experience is important for the ability to communicate in English. 

When a Japanese company dispatches an employee who can speak English but has had no overseas experience, it understands this lag. Generally, the company assumes that it will take two years for their employees to be effective while working in a foreign land. Moreover, it realizes that about four years is generally required for the company to make a profit from that personnel investment. And then usually the employee can return to Japan.

This Japanese stationmaster is explaining train stations to foreigners in an interviewed with an overseas television crew (© Sankei)

Conclusion

Communicating with people from foreign countries takes more than just being able to hear, speak, read, and write English. You have to know what it's like to be immersed in a foreign environment. 

In my observation, overseas experience, or the equivalent exchange with foreigners, is the only way to acquire the ability to communicate with people of another language and culture. More or less, this can be said for people in all countries, including English-speaking countries.

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Author: Hirokazu Sato

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