Why Japan doesn't want to learn English

This reminds me why “cultural capital” (Bourdieu) also plays a crucial role in the acquisition of practical skills :slight_smile:



I’ve read the interesting article you introduced in the post. In my view, it can tell the real situation about English learning in Japan. Not all agreeable, but in the most part agreeable.
I’ll tell my experience in schooldays (in 20 years or more ago, honestly) and give my opinion about the English learning in Japan, as myself a Japanese who has never visited English-speaking countries long (only a few days in an Asian country), and who has learned English for almost three years with LingQ and language schools.

We used to learn English in our schooldays more for passing the high-school university exam, not being able to use practically, never for speaking with people from foreign people. Our learning focused on grammar, which I didn’t hate much. We had to translate the grammar-complex English sentences or paragraphs into Japanese. We had to grasp the meaning of the phrases just so correctly, and we "analysed "the structure of the sentences (relative clauses, difficult phrases, possessive pronouns etc). I find these exercises not good at all (In these days I felt good), because learners cannot think as English speakers do. I think the translating process is a big obstacle for language learning. Many Japanese, including I were (und are, maybe) quite good at English grammar. This has to do not only with the learning method above, but also somewhat the Japanese character (to be meticulous and making mistakes) and the education system. When I participated in English learning classes a few months ago, a moment when another learner questioned the prepositions (on, at, or in etc), which surprised me a little. On top of that, I know that I don’t understand the basic concept of “tense” now.
There was far less time for listening these days because there were no exams for listening. We had hardly any chances of speaking to foreigners. At the university, I’d never taken an English class for English conversation and never taken classes where lecturers spoke English in much time. In these situations, anyone who wants to be able to speak English, goes abroad for staying or going at the foreign universities (or local high schools). There have been English programs in Japan, as the text says, like 英会話, eikaiwa in English, by the NHK, the Public Broadcasting Company, but in my view, a big problem is that in half or more of the time, the teachers speak “Japanese”, not English, for explaining the grammar or the phrases which are used in the daily conversation. I find the contents not interesting (to be honest) and the reasons, I gave it up. A very few of learners could master English by NHK programs, but just unbelievable. Other 英会話スクール, English lessons or schools could be options, where I go often now. I’m not sure if this is good for my English conversation skills.

The situation has changed somewhat recently. The listening tests have been introduced more than 10 years before. Since this year 2022, the oral speaking tests will be introduced in high-school exams (Japan is enthusiastic about exams). In the English education, the practical use for communication such as speaking has been more underscored. I’m not sure if the reform could bear fruit, but as a common Japanese character as too humble, shy (as for me), and that they do neither speak up nor give opinions in the class (unlike Americans, German, Korean and people from other countries), I’m sceptical that Japanese students can acquire the English speaking ability.

The title in your post is not acceptable for me, I’m sorry, because as the writer points out that quite a few of Japanese students or parents want to learn English. In my surroundings, young people (might be limited) can speak fluently and communicate with workers from foreign countries. In Japan, lots of books about learning English have been published recently. Of course, this is for a commercial purpose, but I think most Japanese feel ashamed about not being able to use and speak English. They feel stupid, which is not true. Plenty of Koreans, whose mother language is similar to Japanese, can speak English. The cultural capital, as you mention, such as, don’t make mistakes, or not argue, or a little bit afraid to be familiar with foreigners (I’m not sure if this is true) can be undeniable.

Lastly, what I want to say is that the time Japanese consume for listening or reading English is far not enough. There are books translated into Japanese by good translators. They don’t have to read English books. They don’t need to use English in most of time in most Japanese companies. High-school students preparing for English exams don’t have much for reading and listening. Fundamentally, we have little “input” activity. So it is a matter of course that Japanese cannot use (much less speak) English.

I’m sorry if my writing has many mistakes and be hard to read.

Thanks you for LingQ for giving a platform for input activity!



The same time in Japan :slight_smile:

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Awesome, dmty!

Reminds me when I talk to my IT colleagues in “Denglisch” (Genglish). For example:

  • Plain English (too complicated): “Have you uploaded the files and shared the documents yet?”
  • Plain German (not cool enough): "Haben Sie die Dateien schon hochgeladen und die Dokumente weitergegeben?
  • Genglish (“Hey, we belong to the global IT avant-garde”) : “Hast Du die Files schon geuploaded und die Documents geshared?”

I agree with the video: At least bring the “verbs” back! :slight_smile:

However, maybe that’s a general solution to our L2 problems: just incorporate all the vocabulary from English that is needed into our L1s and use an L1 pronunciation.
QED: Being proficient in English is completely overrated :slight_smile:

But, of course, we won’t give up our German grammar because it’s still:

  • Ich uploade
  • Du uploadest
  • Er / sie / es uploadet
  • Wir uploaden
  • Ihr uploadet
  • Sie uploaden
    and that’s only the present tense…

English is simply not sophisticated enough to match the beauty (some might say: the horror) of German verb conjugations :slight_smile:

Anyway, the main message is here:
Japan, you’re not alone.
Let’s stop the invasion of global English that is sometimes not even English anymore (because non-native speakers invent their own versions of English) :slight_smile:

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There are many reasons for someone not wanting to learn a language maybe they don’t see the value in it or simply don’t have the motivation to learn it or don’t see the language as something worthy of their time .

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Hi rohigeshi9tagao5,

Thanks for this interesting insider perspective!

“The title in your post is not acceptable for me”.
My apologies!

Yes, the title of my post doesn’t reflect the socio-cultural “ambivalences” (the high status of English, the pressures of a globalized economy, etc. vs. an obsolete grammar-translation method without sufficient “input” activities, the Japanese style of communication, specific cultural norms, etc.) that underlie this “gap between enthusiasm and proficiency” (Erik Margolis).

In this context, it should also be mentioned that it is “much” more difficult for native speakers of Japanese (or tonal languages such as Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, etc.) to learn English than for native speakers of Dutch, German, or Scandinavian languages, since the latter, like English, all belong to the Germanic language family.

If Mandarin, for example, was the global lingua franca, then Asian native speakers would probably dominate the top ten of a world-wide “Mandarin proficiency” index.

“I think most Japanese feel ashamed about not being able to use and speak English. They feel stupid,”
The Japanese are one of the best educated peoples on planet Earth, and human beings in general can master any language they want, therefore the Japanese (like any other nation) can master English as well - but it requires more effort than for native speakers of Germanic languages.

Besides, language learning has little to do with intelligence or innate talent, but a lot with

  • good learning habits / strategies / methods
  • the selection of the appropriate material,
  • milieu-specific “cultural capital” (in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu) i.e. specific values, norms, and expectations that can foster / hinder learning.

So, as you wrote: “Fundamentally, we have little “input” (PB.: “and output”) activity.”
Yes - and with little input/output, no human being can master a language - not even their L1.
Therefore, the end result is completely predictable…

Yes, but that would be trivial, sensu: “You don’t want it - don’t do it - period”.

But the more interesting aspect here is:
“People want it (learning math, learning an L2, learning how to program, etc.), spend a lot of money, time and energy in acquiring XY - and still fail!”

This leads me to the general topic of “transclasses” related to the problem of “social mobility” in all societies. See, for example: The reality of transclasses - Thot Cursus.

And then you have to ask: What is happening here? (see some of the reasons we mentioned in the comments below: wrong learning method, wrong learnng strategies, a specific “cultural capital” that hinders learning processes, etc.).

One of the few global success stories in improving English and other L2s in the classroom is the introduction of bilingual education, as it trains all four SLA skills, while usually focusing on specific subject matters rather than the L2s themselves (e.g., teaching history, biology, etc. in English or another target language).

So, if Japan / the Japanese government “really” wants to improve the English skills of its students, the introduction of English-Japanese education in as many schools as possible is probably one of the main roads to English paradise :slight_smile:

See, for example:

An interesting article and given WHEN they start to learn English is a bone of contention for me. In order to cut that learning curve drastically I think teaching English is Elementary School would help a lot. You could even have English schools for that or even just full English classes in some subjects. This is done in some places like Canada and even South Korea for French with some International Schools.
My only concern is to make sure in the process loan words don’t dominate more. When I say “Pink” in Japanese I say “Momoiro” not “Pinku” because the former is the actual Japanese word for it. I will say on the other hand I get using the loan word for Organic because the Japanese word is like at least 2, if not 3 words.
I brought up “Pinku” because it is used predominantly over “Momoiro” I believe.

Oh and since the article brought up South Korea, English loan word use is way too dominant. There is an “Asian Boss” clip where he challenges Koreans to say a sentence without using English loan words. They fail every time. Granted it’s younger people so maybe for the Elderly it might be. I feel like if I wanted to learn Korean without as many English or any English loan words I would have to learn it from a fresh North Korean refugee.

I wonder what will happen to Japan when they allow select dual citizenship. I would like to do this and don’t really want to rock the boat in radically changing Japanese culture much as some may fear this. I imagine the citizenship will likely extend to Koreans, Americans, Taiwanese, Canadians, most of Europe, and Central and South America to name a few.

Oh and I think the last comment in the article was terribly unfair as in my opinion only a few places in the world handled CV as well as Japan.

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Besides just English, I think for International Japanese businesses to get a leg up on contract negotiations and general good relations a few other languages might be taught. I’m thinking underutilized ones like Kiswahili as well as English as the majority but minority languages around like Bantu. For India, Hindi but then Telegu and Tamil.
Heck even if English is the US’ language learning Indigenous languages from here might bear unexpected fruit.

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thank you for introducing another interesting article.
I’m neither a specialist about linguistics, nor a teacher about languages, but since long before, my previous frustration and also long-standing struggle until now, I wonder how I can acquire language skills more efficiently and more easily. Most people say there may be no easy way, which I understand, but the experience of massive listening and reading and acquiring vocabulary have made me somewhat realize this activity is important. Yet, for me, only input learning is not enough. Output activity like writing with summarizing articles etc, are necessary (Speaking to others is of course important, but I’m a shy person).

By the way, what I’m very interested in is that we are always in trouble with learning English and lament not speaking English so much. There has been a long debate whether the English education system in Japan is terrible and need to be corrected. During these twenty or more years, the focus of the English teaching has shifted from grammar, which I’ve mentioned before, to the communication, the obligatory English learning from about the third year of public elementary schools has been introduced recently. Some parents also take their children to the 塾 (juku, afterschool in English) since their early period like from 3 years old. They think that to have a good ability to catch words and differentiate pronunciation like L & R (this is terribly difficult for Japanese) is important, and this might lead to the immersing in English. Experts promote for this early learning, but other experts oppose, because they stress the acquiring of the mother tongue (Japanese) at first. In my view, I’m a little bit sceptical if children should learn English so early. As for the argument about learning methods, when grammar is too much ignored, students may not be able to understand the basics of English and don’t read well. In the position of experts who put emphasis on grammar, students don’t need to exercise speaking so first. As the antitheses of the current education, books handing grammar rules in detail have been published. This trend might also be different from the LingQ system, namely massive listening & reading system.

Dispute over the English education has been ongoing, but since this year, the speaking skill will be tested in the high school entrance exam. I’m not sure if this is a good decision, but in my opinion, I want to point out another aspect. Due to the aging society and unfortunately its shrinking of Japan, Japanese should discuss not the English education itself, but how the country should be formed. That is whether Japan should be more open about the immigrants (like Germany and Canada) and make sure that they can work in my country and live together. If we accept them, we maybe should change our mindset and learn English also other languages more communicatively. It makes sense that Japanese can speak both Japanese and English. If Japanese refuse to change the situation, they don’t need to learn English and stick with Japanese stubbornly. Some people may say ja, some people say no. This is a really, really difficult political topic, but the Japanese society avoid thinking about that thoroughly.

Thank you for reading my text.


One thing that boggles my mind is that classroom instruction is primarily conducted in NL instead of a gradual shift to the TL. Due to the inconclusive and sporadic nature of school testing, it will be better to consider the test result as an essential building block where a student can process and consume the material at that level even if that student has scored a 100% on the test. Language learning is a dynamic and continuous process where gains and losses occur daily. The greater challenges lie in everyday encounters with the language, and more language maintenance is needed at the beginner and intermediate levels.

The encroachment of English into other languages is a part of language evolution because the world is closer and more connected than in the pre-social media era. On the one hand, a native speaker doesn’t have to ostentatiously use the coined English terms in the language just to be associated with the prestigious image. On the other hand, remember we play a more significant part as global citizens in our secondary identity. The most important thing is to have the option and the ability to do amazing things in the languages which include one’s native tongue.

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Wow, I could thrive using Genglish! Here’s my response in loan-word Japanese: アップロードをさせられませんでした

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Fascinating post. I read something somewhere recently that argued Japan’s companies often underperform outside East Asia because of the country’s terrible English skills. High quality products that they struggle to market to rich Americans and Europeans.

I do wonder how much the improvement in AI translation will change this. AI translation has gone from a bad joke to fairly usable in only a few years. It’s bound to improve the relative economic performance of countries with poor English.


“High quality products that they struggle to market to rich Americans and Europeans.”
But don’t they hire American and European “specialists” for the marketing part?

Having good language (i.e., English, German, Spanish, etc.) skills is nice, but it’s much more important to know the local markets well. And you need native speakers living in the respective regions for this, because only they have the necessary cultural background knowledge.

“how much the improvement in AI translation will change this.”
I agree. A really “fascinating” topic, but AIs are neither associative-semantic processors like human minds / consciousnesses nor do they have the cultural background knowledge that is often necessary for successful communication processes between humans

In short, AIs are helpful tools, but it’s machine-based intelligence (machine learning, natural language processing, etc.) without any consciousness.

However, intelligence based on consciousness is exactly what is required for many (but, of course, not all) human communication processes…

“Most people say there may be no easy way,”
I’d like to introduce two main distinctions in this second language acquisition (SLA) context:

  • simple vs complicated
  • easy vs hard
    On the one hand, SLA isn’t rocket science so it’s not that complicated.
    On the other hand, learning a second language is a time-consuming process (as is acquiring other practical skills) - and that’s hard.

So, practical SLA is both simple / straightforward (from an intellectual point of view) and hard (when it comes to L2 mastery).

In this sense, practical SLA processes resemble handstand pushups:

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“Yet, for me, only input learning is not enough.”
That’s true for all of us :slight_smile:

And the reason for this is very simple:
Input-based learning is mainly based on “recognizing” language forms in co- and contexts.

However, if we want to “produce” L2 sentences ourselves, there’s a lot more mental effort involved (knowledge about implicit and explicit grammar, formulaic language, i.e. “collocations”, etc.).

The exercise analogy is a good one. During COVID I tried to develop strength through bodyweight exercise. I even bought the 600 page Overcoming Gravity to try to learn as much as I can.

I’ve made much more progress since I’ve joined a gym and got a personal trainer.

The main advantage of the personal trainer is ensuring I train hard and regularly. He sets me new challenges as I meet old ones so that I am following the SAID principle — Specific Adaption to Increased Demand. My understanding of biomechanics, of health, of training loads, … remains low. What has changed is the application of specific and consistent effort. A simple principle + effort + time = results

Similarly, you can work very hard at language learning using incredibly inefficient methods (say, daily in-person classes where you only to use the target language for a few minutes per hour) or be very complicated (learning off grammar rules in great detail), but you’ll get further with understanding a simple principle (we acquire languages when we understand messages in the target language) and consistently applying effort over time .


“There has been a long debate whether the English education system in Japan is terrible and need to be corrected.”
When it comes to second language acquisition at school, there haven’t been many global success stories on this planet in the last 100-150 years

  • with one exception:

“In bilingual education, students are taught in two (or more) languages.[1] It is distinct from learning a second language as a subject because both languages are used for instruction in different content areas like math, science, and history. The time spent in each language depends on the model. For example, some models focus on providing education in both languages throughout a student’s entire education while others gradually transition to education in only one language” (Bilingual education - Wikipedia)

“That is whether Japan should be more open about the immigrants (like Germany and Canada) and make sure that they can work in my country and live together.”
I agree 100 percent.
Improving English (or any other L2) in Japan is not that important compared to this question.

Maybe Japan can handle this topic better than Germany or other European countries such as France…