On Not Speaking English in Japan

I recently helped some Taiwanese students come to town.

The weeks leading up to their arrival were confusing. We had drawn up plans for their arrival and e-mailed them, and a few weeks later we still had no reply.

“I heard it is because the Chinese are very lazy,” I was told.

Nippon Ganbateu
When they finally arrived, it felt like they were starting a revolution. There were about 13 of them, dyed hair – not the classy burgundy-brown dye of Japanese women, but the green streaks and bleach-blonde bangs of high school punk bands. There were uniforms, but the skirts were over the girls’ knees. All of the girls and some of the boys were wearing makeup.

At my school, uniforms are inspected once a month for tears or fading. Skirts are measured with rulers for proper width. A handout was distributed showing the angle at which pony tails could be worn; it was illustrated with arrows.

The Taiwanese students gave a short speech in Japanese. The speech was about Taiwan’s support for Japan after the Tohoku Earthquake. They sang a song and held up flags.

Then the Taiwanese kids held up a sign they’d handwritten in Japanese. The sign should have said “Nippon Ganbatte!” (“Japan, keep at it!”) but they spelled it wrong. The sign read, “Nippon Ganbateu!

The Japanese audience didn’t know how to handle that. Nervous laughter rippled through the audience and then erupted into hearty chuckles.

Someone had made a mistake in public.

Do you know where is?
I was privy to setting up a meet-and-greet session with some high school kids, where Japanese students presented a power point presentation to the Taiwanese guests. They did it in English, since it was the common language.

The presentation was solid for Japanese students, who had spent at least a month writing and practicing pronunciation and gestures. They performed admirably.

The Taiwanese presentation was made by a single student who looked like a JPop idol. The girls were swooning over him, the boys were intimidated.  Then he started speaking in English. Natural, Asian-influenced English.

“Hello everyone how are you? Let’s start enjoying my presentation, OK? Let’s look. Now, who can see my map of Taiwan. Can you see my school? Do you know where is the school?”

The Japanese audience was dumbfounded. When he asked questions, they were too shy to speak up, too terrified that their English couldn’t compare to his.

The Taiwanese kid was speaking a glorious, almost-exact replica of English grammar, but still speaking in a way that would humiliate many Japanese students.

Practice Makes Perfect
If you’re asked a question in Japan, you’d better have the right answer. Most students live by the credo, “If at first you don’t succeed, abandon all hope of ever succeeding.”

Practice makes perfect, so everyone practices, forever. It’s a lovely and fascinating aspect of the traditional culture when it comes to archery or flower arrangements, but detrimental when applied to speaking English.

It comes from a long line of Japanese instruction – you can’t, for example, forget the stroke order when writing in Japanese. Students giggle when I write my hiragana from top to bottom instead of left to right. They’re embarrassed for me, but I’ve still successfully communicated with them. That point gets lost.

Nippon Ganbateu!” was a spelling error, sure. But it still communicated a message, a message of particular irony in the situation – the encouragement to carry on after a disaster.

The trouble with learning English in Japan is the terror behind making mistakes. I got everything the Taiwan kid was saying, despite errors like “Do you know where is the school?” Japanese students are so afraid of saying something wrong that they often don’t say anything at all.

The perfect becomes the enemy of the pretty good.

Entrance-Exam English
Students in Japan learn rules about English that compound this problem. The English used in college entrance exams is ridiculously formal, English you wouldn’t speak to the president, but maybe you’d use it with Jesus.

Or, they’re ridiculously specific about word use, less like an English test than a Bar exam. Consider:

“I may as well throw my money to the ground, as to give it to you.”

This is the proper expression sought after by a practice English exam for a university. The incorrect answers include:

“I’d rather throw my money away than give it to you.”

Can you explain why? Take a minute, it’s 15 seconds longer than a 17-year-old Japanese kid has.

Ready? It’s because rather implies a preference for where the money should go – as if, given the choice, you’d actually prefer to put your money in a garbage can than to trust your grubby friend with it. It ignores real English and replaces it with a bunch of two- and three-letter words that are notoriously hard to keep arranged properly.

Part of this is because, of course, Japanese people don’t have access to English enough to gain an intuitive sense of what they should be saying. They’re forced to understand the language through the use of rules and formulas, and are taught phrases that illustrate those formulas. It’s like an algebra lesson.

Born to Fail
One of the nicer things about being an American is my culture’s love of failure. Americans don’t just tolerate failure, we think it gives people character. We want our heroes to crawl out of the mud. It cultivates the soul.

But Japan doesn’t embrace failure. The system is rigged against it – if you fail at a task once, it shows that you weren’t able to prepare, you didn’t put in the time or energy to get it done when it counted. Failing is reserved for the lazy.

This is the flip side of the country’s more inspirational philosophy that anyone can do anything, so long as they have the mental focus to persevere through a lifetime of practice and preparation.

It’s inspiring, which is a shame, because there aren’t a lot of people I can talk to about it.

You may as well throw away your “like,” as to use it on This Japanese Life’s Facebook page

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15 Responses to On Not Speaking English in Japan

  1. As an aspiring spanish teacher, this is worrying. There’s nothing that will prepare you for this kind of situations but it’s important to know about them. I really liked this post!

    • owwls says:

      Thanks! I do have to say though, I have tutored students from China and find that these problems are really localized to Japan…

  2. kamo says:

    Yes yes. Oooh yes. I’ve always liked the Edison (I think) quote when, told that he must have failed a thousand times, he replied: “I haven’t failed 1000 times, I have just discovered 1000 ways which do not lead to success.”

    I banged on about this at greater length just last week – http://fightstart.blogspot.jp/2012/05/perseverance-or-impossibility-of.html
    I don’t know what your policy on links in comments/brazen post pimping is, but feel free to edit this out if it’s an issue. I promise it’s relevant though, in fact it covers much the same ground, just in a less coherent, more sloppily presented fashion. No new ideas under the sun, I guess.

    I like your line about Jesus. All the more so because strictly speaking (ahem) you wouldn’t use English at all, but (badly spelled) Aramaic. It all comes back round in the end…

    • owwls says:

      What? You mean Jesus don’t speak American!? (JK)

      Anyway – no worries about blog spam! Def. a relevant take on the issue…

  3. You ever spoken to a Todai grad in English? You’ll want to punch him in the face. Actually, you’ll still want to punch him in the face if you speak to him in Japanese. He can’t communicate like a human in any language, probably because the white-collar class are trained to be mentats. In fact, trained to be mentats very poorly, since they aren’t “developed to staggering heights of cognitive and analytical ability.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mentat)

  4. mypandahero says:

    This kind of makes me want to become an English teacher in Japan. Would it be allowed for the teacher to have his or her own ways of teaching? Like, if I want to use the “normal” way of teaching (that I learned from here in Swedish schools) instead of the Japanese way.

    • owwls says:

      One of the myths about “teaching English in Japan” is that you are actually a teacher… Native speakers are rarely able to pass the Japanese exams, earn the certifications, or get hired. Instead, we’re what’s called “ALTs” – Assistant Language Teachers. This means we are permanently handed an “assistant” label, meaning our classes are never alone and always approved by a full time, Japan-trained teacher.

      This basically means your lessons are under the eye of a dictatorship. Certainly, there are benevolent dictators, but at the end of the day, you’re still not given the freedom to teach as you’d like.

      • Cori says:

        Even if you could teach your students more natural English (and we do try) and you threw out the books, the students would fail the tests, which is unfortunately, all that seems to matter.

  5. It sounds ridiculous, but I just realized that that mentality might be contagious…
    I have been in Japan for almost a year now, and I’ve studied Japanese at a language school for roughly 8 months. My listening, writing and reading are pretty okay, but my speech is a completely different story. I have good pronouncation when I do speak, and my grammar isn’t that bad either, but in reality I rarely do speak. Basically I have become paranoid when it comes to opening my mouth and communicating with Japanese people, even some of my teachers at school.
    I have never been so paranoid about speaking (and making mistakes) a language as I am with Japanese.
    When I first came here (before I started school – when my Japanese was pretty limited as well, I might add) I spoke a lot more than I do now.. Somewhere along the way, I then developed this paranoia and so now I am more likely to sit quietly than risk making a mistake. Of course it might have to do with the culture in itself, as you describe in your post, and once you’ve been here long enough, you notice it. I wouldn’t call my teachers or Japanese people in general rude (quite the opposite), but there’s definately a difference in how they react to failure than what I am used to.. Even as a foreigner, I can relate to that pressure that I’m sure Japanese people feel in terms of English..
    The problem with being so afraid of failing, is that you’ll never get the chance to really learn though…

    • owwls says:

      Yup. Learning Japanese in America I did OK, got As, impressed a few classmates. Came to Japan and it was like a huge buzzer started ringing everytime I said “ni” instead of “e.” Even the very dedicated Japanese instructors would cut me off mid-sentence if I got my particles wrong.

      The baby step idea – the idea of laying a foundation and slowly refining it – is kind of contrary to Japan’s “break it into a billion perfect parts” philosophy. You screw up your ni and e or wo and wa and that’s it, tear down the building and start over again.

      A giant pain in the ass for every gaikokujin.

  6. zoomingjapan says:

    I’ve been teaching English in Japan for 5 years now.
    I’m not a native speaker of English and I had to learn quite a few foreign languages throughout my life as well. Among them are English, French, Spanish, Latin and later Japanese.
    My native language is German.

    With all that experience in studying languages I was quite shocked when I saw how it was done in Japan at first. And I was also shocked to see what I could do in jr. high and that Japanese high school students wouldn’t be able to do it, probably even university students would struggle.

    I think waht you said is ONE reason. Definitely.
    It’s not only about giving a wrong answer, but they’re also not used to speak out loud, sharing their opinion! Most of them don’t even practice that in Japanese, so there’s no way they can do it in English.

    The Japanese school system has to be evaluated and changed. It’s old-fashioned and especially nowadays it doesn’t work well anymore. It might still somewhat work for subjects like math, but not with a spoken language like English.

    They study to pass tests only. They can solve the most difficult grammar problems. They have studied tons of vocabs. However, they lack actual output practice. They cannot write an essay, they cannot have a normal conversation. They never get to practice it.
    They don’t learn how to USE English (read: how to communicate in English), they only learn how to pass their tests.

    Thanks for this great blog post!

  7. Great story, a good example of the English learning differences in other countries. I’ve been teaching English in japan for two years now and often see kids get laughed at for making a mistake. I’ve been trying to get my elementary school kids in the habit of saying any English they know, regardless of correct grammar or even correct words. As long as they try to communicate with me in English, I’m happy. Because really, that’s what a language is, a tool for communication. I was so thrilled when one of the elementary school students turned to me and said, “today me mother happy birthday.” she wanted to tell me it was her mother’s birthday and didn’t care that she didnt know the correct way to say it. Hopefully the elementary school kids will continue to foster this challenge spirit. One can hope.

    • owwls says:

      Yeah I wish I knew how to stop them from laughing at mistakes. I almost want to tell them, “You learn English through making mistakes.” Its like, if we could get the kids to realize how afraid of mistakes they are, and then to, like, Ganbatte! through it, maybe they’d start seeing screw-ups as noble and good, haha. :) We can dream…

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