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Why do the Japanese suck at learning English?

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

It’s been said time and again: 日本人は英語がダメ (Nihonjin wa Eigo ga dame, The Japanese are terrible at English).

In spite of the strong emphasis on 英語教育 (Eigo kyōiku, English education) instilled in a rigorous school system and the numerous 英会話学校 (Eikaiwa gakkō, English conversation schools) scattered across all the major cities, the fact remains that many of us have no idea how to say “right” and make it sound different from “light.” In fact, many Japanese still associate English learning with the あまりに古典的な (amari ni kotentekina, all-too classic) phrase “This is a pen” found in textbooks of old, and find it difficult to move on from that sentence.

実際に (Jissai ni, actually), “This is a pen” was taken out of English textbooks decades ago but the phrase has stuck around as the embodiment of all that’s wrong with the way the Japanese learn English. Thirty-nine-year old Kenji Yoshida says that in his 中学時代 (chūgakujidai, middle school years) in Okayama Prefecture, his seventh grade English textbook began with “Hello. I am a boy,” which struck him as being just as ridiculous as “This is a pen” and also reeked of gender discrimination. 酷い教科書だった (Hidoi kyōkasho datta, It was an awful textbook), sighed Yoshida. そこでもう、英語はつまらないものと思ってしまった (Sokode mō, eigo wa tsumaranai mono to omotte shimatta, At that point, I thought English was dull).

Others profess to feel the same, like Masato Ozaki, who told me, 中学時代の英語でつまづいて英語アレルギーになっちゃった (Chūgaku jidai no Eigo de tsumazuite, Eigo arerugii ni natchatta, I struggled with learning English in middle school and developed an “English allergy”).

Eigo arerugii is a real thing, by the way, and it courses through the bloodstream of many Japanese, sometimes for generations. My paternal grandfather, for one, hated English and flew into a rage whenever anyone in his hearing range referred to rice as raisu instead of the proper Japanese ご飯 (gohan). It didn’t help when his grandchildren pointed out that raisu is totally Japanese. おじいちゃん、ライスじゃなくて「rice」 だよ! (Ojiichan, “raisujanakute “rice” dayo! Grandpa, it’s not “raisu” but “rice”!)

Ojiichan, however, was partial to the German language and would sometimes make a great show of displaying his knowledge of German medical terms. Through him, I learned that in Japan, “allergy” is “arerugii,” mimicking the German word “Allergie,” and “energy” is “enerugii,” taking its cue from the German “Energie.” Modern Japanese medicine was founded on German teachings, and many older doctors in Japan still write out their patients’ diagnoses in German, on sheets known as カルテ (karute, charts) — the katakana rendition of the German “Karte.” Ojiichan‘s own father and grandfather were doctors, and apparently preferred to say ja instead of the Japanese はい (hai, yes). (There’s a theory that the Japanese greeting of ya comes from the German ja, and it’s a pretty convincing one.)

So why do the Japanese suck at learning English? I’ve heard of a whole lot of reasons. Among them: because it has a totally different phonetic system; because the schools teach grammar first and conversation later; or because most Japanese never get a chance to learn what is known as 生きた英語 (ikita Eigo, living English) through interacting with 外国人 (gaikokujin, foreign people). While all that is undoubtedly true, I have a feeling that 他になにかある (hoka ni nani ka aru, there’s something else). Maybe the Japanese are just not into English. After all, as a lot of my friends and acquaintances keep telling me, 英語なんてわからなくたって生きていける (Eigo nante wakaranakutatte ikite ikeru, Even if I don’t know English, I’ll go on living).

Another factor is that the Japanese are mildly suspicious of those who are adept in English unless they were professional translators, academics or working in マスコミ (masukomi), which is short for mass communications, i.e. the media. The caricature figure of the 英語つかい (eigo tsukai, English user) goes something like this: They’re 嫌味っぽい (iyamippoi, snide), カッコつけてる (kakko tsuketeru, snobbish and superior) and prone to non-Japanese gestures like shrugging or throwing up their hands. Oh, and they’re likely to be talking on the phone in English in a public place, just to brag to the world that they’re グローバルな人材 (gurōbaruna jinzai, a global human resource). Not very flattering, is it?

We’re also taught that the English sentence is composed of three main components: subject, verb and object (S, V and O), and the stark black-and-white clarity of it all is jarring. The Japanese are used to muting the subject in a conversation to the point that it’s often hard to discern whose thoughts are being expressed, and by whom. Names and nouns are often left out. News reports refrain from 実名報道 (jitsumei hōdō, using real names in their reporting).

In many cases, people will refrain from saying わたし (watashi, I), referring to themselves as こちら (kochira, this general direction), and the person they’re speaking to as そちら (sochira, the opposite direction). Interestingly, オタク (otaku, nerd) originally means “your home,” which was the way these people supposedly addressed each other. The implication was that they were too delicately sensitive to acknowledge themselves and others as human beings.

All that aside, it’s widely acknowledged that Japanese women are much better at learning to speak English than men. The aforementioned Kenji Yoshida says that it’s because 女性の方が度胸があるし失敗を恐れない (Josei no hō ga dokyō ga aru shi, shippai o osorenai, Women are more courageous and they’re not afraid to fail). Lately though, he’s been studying English again, in preparation for his upcoming 新婚旅行 (shinkon ryokō, honeymoon) to Florida. 妻の前で恥をかきたくないから(Tsuma no mae de haji o kakitakunai kara, I don’t want to lose face in front of my wife), he said. Ah, the losing-face motive. It’s a powerful antidote to bad memories from middle school.