Me on Zoom yesterday

Me at home watching The Fury in our upstairs videotheque on Sunday, but how I actually FELT doing English interviews all day yesterday.

It is no secret that while most Japanese high school and university students are exceptionally adept at reading long, complex, nuanced and often extremely sophisticated reading passages, answering labyrinthine, finickety and ultimately pointless multiple choice questions about the contents therein, they are, on the whole, equally terrible at actually speaking the language – Japan ranks very low in global English proficiency, a deep-reaching psychological ‘complex’ about the tangible lack of fluency that it would be no exaggeration to say is practically a national trauma.

There are several reasons for this dire situation. One is that classes in Japanese schools are largely excessively teacher oriented without enough active practice of speaking the language : the students sit passively, copying information from the blackboard into their daily notebooks, focusing on the anally retentive minutiae of grammatical usage they are required to have extensive knowledge about for tests while not usually uttering a word of their own volitionexcept for repeating, parrot fashion, the drills of the teacher, who will quite often be speaking an English that is a very Japanese version of the language, with approximations of words rendered in the katakana syllabary (imagine reading a Spanish textbook in your own native accent without making the slightest effort to have the natural cadences and emphases of the language you are studying, rendering it almost incomprehensible to someone whose mother tongue is Spanish ): – a tragic misjudgment in linguistic pedagogy that more than often results in halting, torturous failure in miscommunication.

Do I exaggerate? Possibly, a little. But I don’t think so. Not really. Yes , there are plenty of people here who have gone the circuitous route of studying abroad or gone to extracurricular lessons at language conversation schools with native speakers or Japanese teachers who know what they are doing, but those regular students who have been agonizingly peristalsed through the full education system, (with only the odd ‘fun and games’ lessons with a peripatetic clown- like foreign assistant teacher and the extraordinarily tedious textbooks and ponderous reading passages as their knowledge of the language) could quite realistically graduate from university able to read and understand deep philosophy but not be able to answer the fundamental question : ‘’Where do you live?’

Do kids in the US leave school actually fluent in spoken Spanish? Can my friends and family back in the UK all speak French convincingly even though they studied it at school for several years ? They cannot. So the problem is certainly not limited to Japan ( and let’s face it; I have not even come close to attempt mastering Japanese, so should I even be having this conversation?) In my case, though, thinking of myself as the same age as the kids I was talking to yesterday: as a sincere and motivated young pupil, I was chomping at the bit to start learning French when I was 11 years old -a weirdo who asked for a French dictionary on his ninth birthday I was so intrigued by the idea of there being completely different ways of saying the same thing. I was obsessed. I was a ‘linguist’. I wanted to travel and be able to communicate. I was driven.

So, though, were the students, allegedly, who took yesterday’s practice interviews, though to enter a high school that specializes in English and an array of other languages : a deservedly respected institution that produces independent, self-confident, internationally minded students who are relaxed with non-Japanese and are enthusiastic about conversing in what sounds like ‘real English’. They still need work – I teach some of them for the university entrance exams, but it is certainly a good start for any person who wants to explore the liberal arts while also becoming conversant in at least two other languages besides Japanese. If I had been one of the interviewees yesterday ( who on this easy occasion KNEW ALL OF THE QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE), I would have prepared and memorized all of my answers at the very least, as well as jazzing up my English conversation ability in general : practicing various phrases, learning useful vocabulary, ready to look into the cold green eyes ( no, I was doing my very best to encourage the huddled nervousnesses that sat before me and was definitely one of the friendliest of the examiners ) of the English teacher from England before them, asking: , ‘so why do you want to come to this school?’

Whether it was coronavirus blues; inept and incompetent school and cram school English teachers, a particularly lazy or untalented batch of applicants, or whether they have just unfortunately fallen prey to the generally insular, nativist tendencies that have crept across this nation like cold underground plant tendrils in recent years as Japan has become more isolated again, with ever fewer young people studying abroad, a phobia of the foreigner despite the postponed Olympics – whatever the causes, the general level of English ability on display yesterday – whether they were there in person or attending on Zoom – was quite atrocious. Embarrassing. . And exasperating. For once I was actually glad to be wearing a mask.


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  1. Very interesting. I want to teach English abroad and am eagerly awaiting taking a CELTA course. The CELTA method sounds quite interactive & fun.
    I’m a product of the California public education system (kindergarten through doctorate degree). I can attest to the US having an equally ineffective method of teaching foreign languages. For one thing, the US should start teaching foreign languages at elementary school age and not waiting till the students are teenagers. I never understood why all California elementary schools didn’t teach Spanish alongside English. California has always had a large Spanish speaking population and all universities in the US have entrance requirements of 2 years of foreign language courses. Why not teach’em both at a young age and make everyone fluent in 2 languages?

    • Definitely. But then again, we arrogant anglophones don’t really even need to learn foreign languages so the vast majority of us don’t. It is sobering sometimes to see on fragrance blogs that some of the best writers are not even native speakers: I remember when Olfactoria invited me to send in a piece, she was very clear about having to vet it for grammar and spelling mistakes etc – an Austrian having to lay down the law for all the people who can hardly even write in their own language let alone learn another one. Wings Of Saffron on here is INCREDIBLE as well – a better user of English than probably 95% of people whose first language it is.

      This post was just something that I tapped out at lunchtime on my phone, as D has just found it (yes, I lost it again, and didn’t have it for two months and didn’t care). It is perhaps a bit brutal and thoughtless, as it makes it sound as if I believe that only native speakers can teach English, which is emphatically not the case. I don’t think you have to have a ‘perfect’ accent in a foreign language at all, but you DO have to be intelligible to others. Some Japanese school teachers do teach English perfectly well and take pride in actually being able to speak it, but I also know for a fact, as I hear it every day, that a whole lot of others are teaching the pronunciation in an appalling manner that the kids pick up and then find they can’t communicate in. It drives me crazy.The government is supposed to be making changes to the system, but they are faltering again and going back on promises. I think deep down, they don’t actually want people to be able to speak English, not really. There is something fundamental there; they WANT to keep treating it as though it were Latin or Greek, an academic subject to prod and examine in cold texts. On the other hand, deep down, many young people really do want to be able to speak English, so if you did come here, you would certainly find a lot of willing students: you couldn’t really get more disciplined or attentive students (if sometimes far too shy and passive), but a big personality can bring it out.

  2. Tara C

    I went to a private school that taught French alongside English starting from kindergarten (5 years old) and it was very effective. I fell in love with the language and speak it fluently today, 50 years later. So I completely agree with what bibimaizoon suggests above. When studying child language development at university, they said that past the age of 12 it is very difficult to attain native fluency due to brain development characteristics.

    • Which is why when I came to Japan in my mid twenties and was faced with the phenomenally difficult (for me: plenty of my other friends have managed it) task of learning a language that I just found extraordinarily difficult to absorb, I just couldn’t manage it. I gave up being able to read Japanese in the FIRST WEEK. I have slowly absorbed enough to be able to speak it to a certain level, but I am basically completely crap considering how long I have been here.

      French at 11 was great: it would have been even better when I was younger.

  3. Robin

    Smiling broadly at the last sentence.

    Found this fascinating. Big reason I look forward to reading you. I get a glimpse of other worlds, whether you’re sharing your experiences of traveling or of living and teaching in Japan.

    This is all new to me and yet I get it. It rings true, resonates with my own understanding of the way people think and behave.

    French and English are Canada’s official languages and we in the west of the country study French through high school, a minimum of 3 years, I think. But our French-speaking population is comparatively tiny and we don’t have much of a chance of speaking it conversationally in this country outside of a study environment, unless we go to Quebec or New Brunswick for a crash exposure. We can conjugate irregular verbs with the best of them but can’t put an original sentence together or follow a French or French Canadian film without subtitles. Well, that’s not entirely true, but most of us are semi-hopeless.

    Ah, Neil, wish I’d had your drive. French would have come in handy for a wine writer. I did learn to speak Spanish fairly fluently (in a really, really rudimentary way) when I traveled in South America for six months after high school because we had to speak it every time we communicated with anybody. (Kick-started our Spanish by studying those little Berlitz guides for a year before we went, and that actually worked out to be super helpful.)

    I can imagine how exasperating it was for you, sitting there listening to those students, with all that understanding of the written word in English but failing to grasp the spoken element. Fingernails on a chalkboard.

    • The thing is, these kids are so sweet on the whole (the ones I was doing the interviews with the other day are about 15, even though they seem much younger somehow), but the education system they have DOES THEM A HUGE DISSERVICE. They can’t speak because they don’t get a chance to. And then when they do, they get taught this pronunciation that is so far off the way anyone in an English speaking country would speak that they are really upset when they go abroad and can’t get through to anybody. It is the same in Italy – Italian students are often taught by teachers with extraordinarily strong Italian accents: when I taught at an international language school in London, the Japanese and Italian students would complain to me because they found each other mutually unintelligible. You don’t have to speak with a US twang or the Queen’s English, but there definitely needs to be an APPROXIMATION to what the majority of speakers understand as English. I also have trouble here sometimes when I don’t get the pronunciation or intonation exactly right.

      As for me being driven, I don’t think that was the right word I should have used, really. In the same way that I am musical, but was too lazy to properly practice scales and arpeggios and so it could never really go anywhere, I was also good at absorbing the pronunciation and picking things to say up by ear, but was never thorough enough with learning grammatical rules (because I couldn’t be arsed). It was enough to get into a good university, but I quickly realized that I was actually truly at the bottom of the heap in French grammar, and I never went to my Italian grammar lessons because ultimately I just wanted to study and write about literature. Gradually, I cast off anything linguistic and sat alone in a room watching Italian neorealist films or reading Dante and Pirandello, and found I got the best marks writing about them in English. I have never come close to mastering another foreign language, so perhaps this post is entirely hypocritical.

      • Robin

        What I take away from all this is your compassion for the students who aren’t getting the quality of language education they need to take their English on the road, and how that hampers them so significantly.

        I really enjoyed reading about your approach to languages and music. Not, not precisely driven. I can relate.

      • Yesterday some students were discussing whether the J government should change the English education system or not, and they unusually took the tack that the focus in Japan is on reading and listening and that that is ok : a cultural choice : the ‘Japanese Way’. I can see it as being a valid point, in a way, treating it as an abstract academic subject, but then it also struck me as being almost insulting – to suggest that you want to peruse passages of arcana but never actually speak to the speakers of that language and open up windows on all the communication possibilities around the world. There is a profound xenophobia there.

  4. Katie

    Great post! Glad to hear of another person who asked for a foreign dictionary as a kid 🙂 (I asked for a Russian one but was crestfallen when I realized I couldn’t decipher the pronunciation symbols, and that people don’t actually learn languages by buying dictionaries. Never learned Russian). But I did become proficient in Spanish, fluent in German, and dabbled in Italian and Armenian.

    • Languages are exciting. And there are of course plenty of very proficient English speakers in Japan, including a lot of my colleagues. This education system really doesn’t make it easy for them though

  5. I imagine it would have been even harder to listen and speak through the masks, without the visual cues of lip reading.

    Like others here, I have found that motivation makes a huge difference to success (to any degree) of learning a language… how many students just suffer through it to get a passing grade?

  6. When I was going to university, there was a Japanese student I knew, he played soccer for the school. He picked up all of the bad behaviors of his fellow students and was very rude at times, but he never truly had the english language skills needed to be truly fluent. I once told him, “It would be nice if you put enough effort into your grammar as you do with your popularity and social life.” Needless to say, we did not get along well at all. We were both members of “Globally Minded Students”. He did not bring much of Japanese culture to the group, just wanted a place to hang out and chill. Truly sad, I would have loved to find out more about his culture, but he just seemed to want to forget it while he was at school.
    Wish more countries took foreign language courses seriously. The states here are just the most horrific, when it comes to speaking a second language. At least in Japan they have the skills to read things written in the language they are studying, here in the states most students never even accomplish that.

    • You wouldn’t BELIEVE how high the level of reading is. It is great cerebral training, but is ridiculously unbalanced when compared to the speaking ability.

      As for your Japanese classmate, I empathize with him. I was talking to a colleague of mine, and he said that Japanese and English are like the north and south poles : diametric opposites in terms of word order, grammar structure etc. Neither D or I have ever grasped this nor become able to make coherent sentences ; we know words but can’t string them together. Sometimes it can be quite mortifying.

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