Inability of students to communicate is a common failing of English education in Japan

Here’s a scene most teachers have faced before. One of your better, more earnest students goes abroad to an English-speaking country for the first time. Upon their return to Japan you ask her how her English was, only to be told, “I couldn’t speak. Nothing would come out!”

Or try this one. Several non-Japanese are visiting your school. You see this as a chance for your students to get in some real English practice. But later the visitors tell you, “Unfortunately the students couldn’t speak any English. They just used gestures or Japanese.” Afterward, you ask your students what happened. “We couldn’t think of what to say. We didn’t know the right words,” they claim (in English).

I call this “The Performance Gap,” that communicative void where students have to move from receptive to productive English skills. All the knowledge, practice and good intentions crumble when under actual pressure to speak English in real-time scenarios. And we’ve all heard the apparent primary cause: Students study only grammar, not actual communication. This has become the all-purpose excuse for the performance gap. But should it be?

Now it’s true that there is a natural gap between receptive and productive skills with almost all second-language learners, but communicative lessons emphasizing production have been widely practiced in Japan at various levels of education for a generation or more (after all, isn’t this how many reading this article teach?). Many other countries also tend to emphasize grammar-heavy instruction in schools and yet have less of a visible performance gap. I have seen little correlation myself between successful performance by students whose English training has been hitherto largely “academic” and those who have been privy to more communicative teaching. Some are able to perform under pressure whereas others crumble regardless of the teaching methodologies they’ve encountered in the past.

Perhaps then there are some better ways to understand the phenomenon. Other causes of The Production Gap that I’ve noted include:

1. Treating all English communication as a TEST!

Students in Japan have a tendency to think that any and all English production is a test of their worth as humans. It’s like American Idol–they’re auditioning and being judged. After all, they have associated English with tests and grades from middle school onward.

2. Seeing mistakes as failure; believing that perfection is a prerequisite to communication.

I’m not a fan of playing amateur ethnographer, but it’s hard to escape the fact that Japanese culture focuses heavily on the avoidance of risk and error. This means that many Japanese find regimented or set patterns comfortable. Unfortunately, using a foreign languages is not well suited to this type of mind-set. The unfortunate association of a mistake with wholesale failure (more closely allied in the Japanese language too) can be crippling. I also find that students who do not associate making mistakes with failure tend to be better in terms of language performance.

3. The (false) assumption that if any structural aspect of English is wrong, like one digit in a complex mathematical calculation, the end result will be unintelligible.

This is closely connected to the point above. We recently hosted several Thai doctors who led sessions with our (medical) students in English. Technically, in terms of grammatical control, they were not always better than the Japanese students they were teaching, but they were still able to carry out fruitful, content-based lectures and presentations in English with the skills they had performance fluency well beyond the reach of almost all of our students.

4. Not having a clear idea of what they want to express, even in their first language.

If you don’t have a clear understanding of what you want to say in your mother tongue you are certainly not going to express yourself well in a second language. And as for having nothing to say in your first language at all…well, need I say more?

5. Failure to use circumlocutions and indirect communication strategies.

I can’t remember the names of the various forms and documents in the world of Japanese bureaucracy. So, if I have to go to the town hall to get a piece of paper proving, say, that I’m a land owner I might say in Japanese, “I need that form which proves I’m a land owner. Sorry, I don’t remember exactly what it’s called.” Living “abroad,” I am quite used to using indirect strategies like this. Our students, having less experience abroad, tend to just freeze if they don’t know or can’t retrieve the exact word.

6. Failure to negotiate that which is not understood.

Another advantage of experience living abroad. Something complex and detailed is explained to me in Japanese, say, details of my pension plan. I point out that I don’t quite understand the meaning of a certain term being used. Sorry. Could they explain the concept to me in a different way? It’s a strategy of rephrasing and negotiation–and it works. Instead of freezing up when something is not clear students should use the English they do know to negotiate. In fact, native speakers of any language do precisely this when things are unclear.

7. The mind-set that English is as dependent upon protocols and formulas as Japanese.

Every language has set formulas and established social protocols but English does not have nearly as many as Japanese. When Japanese students struggle with simple exchanges by trying to translate, “Yoroshiku,” “Otsukare sama” and “Ogenki desu ka?” they are missing the fact that much English discourse is extremely flexible, open-ended, and certainly less concerned with social rank.

8. Unnecessary concern over register and address forms in English.

Again, all languages contain a variety registers and address forms but it is much less of an issue in English than in Japanese. The use of “simple” words, such as personal pronouns, can be highly sensitive and convoluted in Japanese. There are numerous ways to address others, with significant social ramifications. Verbs are likewise inflected or completely changed according to register. Some Japanese students therefore avoid using “you” and “he/she,” and even hesitate to use simple verbs like “go” when speaking English, feeling that these are somehow too rough or direct.

9. Sloppy, convoluted teacher talk.

Students generally listen to every word the teacher says, much like you’d listen to detailed street directions if you were lost. So, when what should be a simple classroom question from the teacher turns into “So, OK, I guess what I want to ask, or rather check if you will, is what your favorite sport is-like that.” You’ve lost them. You might subsequently think, “They can’t even name their favorite sports!” but in this case the void of silence is not their fault. It’s the teacher’s.

10. Students are in “classroom mode” not “chat” mode.

In a class of 35 students the teacher starts by asking Sayuri what she did on the weekend. Although the teacher knows that Sayuri can speak English pretty well an awkward, frustrating silence ensues. Why? Sayuri is probably thinking: “Why does the teacher want to chat about what I did this weekend in an English class? The other 34 students surely aren’t interested. Does (s)he want me to use some particular form or vocabulary item we’ve been practicing recently? If so I wonder what.”

Most students are in classroom mode, not chat mode in formal classes. As a result, these types of questions can be jarring and awkward. Avoiding these in any formal class was one of the most useful things I learned in my first few months as a teacher in Japan.


Guest is an associate professor of English at Miyazaki University. He can be reached at

2 thoughts on “Inability of students to communicate is a common failing of English education in Japan”

  1. Three easy steps to better English education:

    1. Get rid of katakana.
    It’s an impediment to learning foreign languages. It makes people internalize the wrong forms of words. It develops a mindset which attempts to Japanize the foreign rather than to adapt to it.

    2. Smaller classes in schools.
    15 is good for a language class. 45 is ridiculous. Spending money on education is well worth it.

    3. Send teachers abroad!!!
    In Europe, foreign languages teachers are obliged to study abroad and to spend time abroad regularly thereafter. Japanese teachers are actively discouraged from doing this, not only by lack of opportunity when they are students, but also by lack of holiday time when they are working.

  2. When I studied French in the U.S., my French teacher was from France. My Spanish teacher was from Spain. Why are the English teachers in Japan from Japan? There are foreiners here who are perfectly capable of teaching English.

    Granted, public schools do hire native English speakers as ALTs.
    ALT stands for assistant language teacher. So long as they remain “assitants” Japan will continue to fail to learn English.

    (I’ve recently given up my job as an ALT because I could not stand there any longer thinking “I could have these kids speaking English if only the entire Japanese English teaching staff would shut up.”)

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