By TAKUMA FURUKAWA
Studying English at school. Photo by Betty Thang.
I’ve always wondered why most Japanese native speakers are not good at speaking and listening to English. I belong to an international interaction circle at The University of Tokyo called TGIF, and I feel that among non-native English speakers, especially Japanese speakers including myself, seem to have a preconceived idea that they are not “up-to-par” with native English standards. I began to consider the underlying possibilities for this phenomenon and how Japanese people could overcome this and learn to speak English with confidence and fluency.
One of the reasons they find speaking English hard is related to how most Japanese people view English. Almost all Japanese people learn English for a minimum of 6 years, during junior high and high school, but what they learn is mostly grammar. Those English classes test students on their grammar knowledge, which makes them afraid of grammar mistakes. This attitude towards English makes them think of it as a skill which should be studied as a subject, as opposed to a way of expressing oneself.
Although English is a language of communication, most English teachers never touch on the subject of pronunciations and intonations. Therefore, most native Japanese speakers have a strong inferiority complex regarding their pronunciation and are sometimes strict towards others’ pronunciations - which can be seen by the unsupportive comments on videos of a famous personality messing up when speaking English. On the other hand, if you try to pronounce words correctly (not with a “typical” Japanese accent), you will often be laughed at and seen as someone trying too hard or showing off. In these situations, it’s really hard to find English easy and interesting. Then what is the way out?
To uncover the "big secret" to answering my question, I decided to speak to non-native English speakers who were also non-Japanese citizens. I wanted to see how foreigners dealt with this type of situation. When questioning two PEAK students at the University of Tokyo and a student from China studying at the University of Illinois, I was surprised by the results. The resounding reply was that they studied English primarily by listening in class at school, by watching English-speaking television dramas, and talking to native English speakers. In fact, what they learn in school does not differ much from what is taught at Japanese schools. I wanted to know more about the secret to their confidence when speaking a language other than their mother tongue.
Towards the beginning, they felt embarrassed when they could not speak English fluently, but they learned to overcome their unease and fears and practiced to improve their English. Now, they all feel confident that they can express their thoughts and communicate under most circumstances.
“I often make mistakes when I first learnt English, and my friends would laugh at me. But I was glad I brought them happiness ... having the environment to speak English and learning it in a fun way is quite important,” said Huang Zihan, a female student from Beijing.
“My mother has always been trying to encourage us to speak in English,” said Lam Yi Nok, another student from Hong Kong.
Surprisingly, Zach Lin, a student from the University of Illinois, said, “I can’t say I’m very confident in English, even now, since it’s still not easy for me to follow the speed of native speakers.” A common theme, as I’ve discovered through my survey, is that non-native speakers of English start off embarrassed when making mistakes in English. The difference, though, is overcoming that fear - that nervousness - and actually trying to put yourself in those situations to improve your language skills.
In conclusion, there are three main points we can learn from: First, in order to learn to speak English, we should practice conversations more outside of school by watching dramas, listening to news, and talking especially to native speakers of the language. Secondly, every one often feels embarrassed when he or she first learns a language. However, they can work to overcome it by accepting that mistakes might be made and that it is more important to move past that embarrassment and keep on practicing. You require "thick skin" to learn to speak a language. Finally, confidence in English varies from person to person, but with the right amount and type of practice, we can learn to confidently communicate in any type of situation.