09 December 2009


Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan


It is hoped that the ten reasons listed here are comprehensive enough to take in most of the important factors involved in making an analysis such as this. In summary form, the ten MAIN reasons are the following:

1. Japan is linguistically and culturally self-sufficient--so most Japanese do not have a pressing need to learn or use English (English is a FOREIGN language), nor is English used much for social or communication purposes in Japan--certainly not between Japanese.

2. Japanese is not closely related to English--so it takes longer for beginners to learn how to learn English than learners with an Indo-European language background.

3. Japanese is not written with an alphabet--this makes literacy for EFL a hindrance to learning the language. If you try checking to see if your students even know alphabetical order or how to touchtype using a standard alphabetic keyboard, then you will see just how big a factor this is.

4. Learning to read and write Japanese fluently takes away too much time and effort from the rest of the curriculum, including EFL learning.

5. Lack of national consensus on foreign language education--most agree change is needed, but it is hard to get agreement on concrete steps.

6. The situation at universities--negative washback from entrance exams and the preparation for them at the senior highs.

7. The situation at universities regarding teacher-student relations, backgrounds, goals--i.e., elite academics, non-elite students, mismatch of expectations, poor results with general education studies.

8. A lack of EFL programs, specialties, majors, minors, concentrations. There is plenty of 'General English'. Indeed, that is one of the 'bitter ironies' of teaching EFL in Japan. Many of us have jobs because English is required, but we end up wasting far too much time and effort trying to teach students who are in class only because they have to be or have a vague idea that they want to study English with a foreigner.

9. The foreign language teaching and learning 'culture'. That is, the overall approach to teaching and learning EFL (and these are collaborative activities) that is specific to Japan. Japanese EFL teachers tend towards 'yaku-doku', which could be called a version of 'grammar-translation'. Meanwhile, foreign teachers are drawn to mostly production activities--conversational pair practice--for which there is little or no accountability in terms of evaluation.

10. The language teaching 'profession' in Japan. There is a lack of serious and useful teacher training and professional development. In higher education, those who are most often designated to teach EFL courses have backgrounds in literature, linguistics, and teacher training, not actual EFL teaching. If asked, many will even say that they are not EFL teachers and are not interested in teaching EFL.

A more detailed explanation and discussion of the ten reasons follows.

Reason 1: Japan is linguistically and culturally self-sufficient

Japan is linguistically and culturally self-sufficient.

That is an overstatement because modern, developed Japan clearly imports and assimilates ideas, cultural products, technology, etc. from the rest of the world. It does this in much the same way many developed countries do. However, that does not mean I agree with the long-held view that Japan (and other Asian cultures) are simply imitators, not originators. That is one of those numerous self-swallowing, clichéd assumptions held by many that one could waste a lifetime arguing against because one has to assume it is true simply to discuss it.

So let us look at some basic facts. Japan has a population of just under 128 million; that makes it one of the world's 'populous' countries. It is also the world's number two political economy in terms of size and always ranks high in per capita measurements and development indicators.

Most of Japan's relatively large population is considered 'native-born' Japanese. This description also could be used to include the single largest ethnic group, 'Korean'. Despite considerable dialect variation in the spoken language (including Okinawan, which could be considered a separate language or group of dialects) , most native-born Japanese learn and use a standard dialect of Japanese for education, literacy, and formal social relations (such as the conduct of business).

Unlike a country with a relatively small population, Japan's national language is not threatened--not even perturbed--by such phenomena as 'global English'. Most Japanese do not need to access directly information, news and innovative ideas from outside their culture through the use of global English. Instead, most Japanese live in a country that uses translation and interpretation on an enormous, commercial scale in order to bring in outside information.

In addition to translation and interpretation, there is another important process that keeps Japan using Japanese almost exclusively. The Japanese language brings in a large amount of vocabulary from foreign languages. The first main source is Chinese. The impact of Chinese on modern Japanese is something like that of Norman French and Latin on modern English.

The second main source providing new vocabulary (and sound sequences too) is English. A good indication of the level to which Japanese 'nativizes' the English it borrows is the role elements acquired from English's lexicon now play in the derivation of new words for the lexicon of Japanese. This is sometimes called 'Japlish'.

Some of these new Japanese Japlish terms have even made it back into English, at least amongst the people who are interested in Japan: OL, salaryman, anime, etc. This sort of phenomenon is hardly unique. First, the Japanese language has already done it quite prominently with morphemes got from long-term contact with Chinese (for example, the Japanese term for 'automobile', 'ji-dou-sha'). Second, look at how new terms in English are derived from discrete elements from Latin and Greek (sometimes the two different types are joined together based on English's own rules for lexical derivation).

Despite the concern of language conservatives that foreign influences are overwhelming Japanese, one could plausibly argue the exact opposite: Because Japanese so readily adopts and adapts vocabulary and morphemes originally from English, the language has become enriched, nuanced and even more capable of expressing ideas and information. Therefore, loan words help to make Japan and Japanese linguistically self-sufficient and lessen the need for most Japanese to engage meaning directly in a foreign language.

Now some proponents and enthusiasts of globalization have said that translation and interpretation can not keep up with the proliferation of new knowledge in order to integrate and assimilate it across cultures and languages. So the concept of 'global English' has been enlisted in support of the larger mission of globalization. A basic formulation is the following: Japan must drastically raise its overall low level of English in its population in order to compete with developed and newly industrialized countries. Some in the government and education have even called for the adoption of English as Japan's official second language.

But most people are going to be practical about knowledge and learning EFL. If they need English to get knowledge, they will try to learn English. That can be stated even more specifically. If they need English to get USABLE knowledge and information for their jobs and personal lives, they will try to learn English.

Another important factor is the non-linguistic aspect of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic contact: that is the social side, or human relations. Since most human relations are created and maintained in Japan using a form of Japanese, there is very little need for inter-personal communication in English.

A good indicator of Japan's relative cultural and linguistic self-sufficiency is its ability to export cultural products, such as J-Pop music, films, television dramas, manga/comics, and anime/animated films.

Reason 2: Japanese is not closely related to English

Japanese is not closely related to English.

Language families

What people usually mean by this is that English and Japanese are not from the same language family groups, and that Japanese does not belong to the Indo-European super-family of languages. It is fairly common knowledge among Japanese as well as the foreigners who flock to study Japanese (Japanese as a Foreign Language, JFL) that Japanese is not closely related to any other languages. Actually, what some recent linguistics says is that Japanese and Ryuukuan are members of the larger 'Japonic' family. So technically, modern Japanese (and all its dialects) has a relative, the Ryuukuan language (and all its dialects). At a popular level in Japan, Ryuukuan is often equated with Okinawan, and Okinawan is thought of as one of the many spoken dialects of Japan. The fact that most Okinawans also speak and are literate in standard forms of Japanese only reinforces the popular view, since the same thing could be said about most Japanese. That is, they speak a local and individual variation of a regional dialect, and learn and use standard forms of Japanese for education, business, literacy, etc.

Clearly, we can say English is not closely related to Japonic or Japanese. English is often referred to as a Germanic language. This makes it a sister language of Dutch, Flemish, German, Icelandic, etc. Others might note the close lexical and typographical resemblances modern English has with Romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish. You might say that modern English SOUNDS like a Germanic language, but LOOKS like a Romance one because of the Latinate vocabulary and the fossilized French-looking spelling conventions.

Comparing and contrasting Japanese and English

In foreign language education in Japan, English and Japanese often get placed side-by-side for comparison and contrast. This is true of much of the content of EFL classes in Japan, from junior high/middle school to university-level. You could call this the type of linguistic analysis for pedagogical purposes that is thought to support the learning of English, but it is also for the purpose of comparative cultures. In the realm of comparative cultures and cross-cultural learning, reference is most often made to 'American' (but also 'British') English as a standard form for learning EFL. Such an emphasis can be misleading, but it is understandable enough given the relative importance of English as a 'global language' and the global impact of American culture. The fact that the US has a population that is much larger than the UK's, Canada's, Australia's, New Zealand's and Ireland's also deserves consideration.

Unlike modern English, which is demonstrably related to known groups of languages, modern Japanese can be called a language 'isolate' of somewhat obscure origins. Origins of modern languages can be very obscure in the absence of literacy and textual artifacts. And even these have a distorting effect, since we still can not recover fully the spoken language. Such is the case of Japanese. More technically, it should be said that 'Japonic' is the actual family and isolate, and that Japonic consists of Japanese (and all its dialects) and Ryuukyuan (and all its dialects).

English can be classified into relationships with west Germanic languages as well as the larger Germanic grouping. This then allows English to be put into a relationship with a 'super-family' that has penetrated the popular consciousness of language, the Indo-European languages. This means that it can be said that English shares ancestry with German, but also Latin and Greek. However, this also means English shares a line of linguistic descent that stems from an historic super-family of languages that also has lines of descent in Russian and other Slavic languages, as well as languages considered 'exotic' by many Americans or British, such as Albanian, Farsi, Kurdish, Pashtun, Indo-Persian, Hindi and Urdu.

Reinforcing this view that there is an 'Indo-European' nature to English is English's history. English has a long history of language-changing contact with other languages, but the most extensive contacts have been with other Indo-European languages (Celtic, North Germanic, Norman French, literary Latin, etc.)

Like English, Japanese is a 'contact' language. In the case of Japanese, though, the exact nature of the cross-linguistic contact is obscure until literacy practices, a writing system and large amounts of vocabulary were adopted from China. Modern Japanese is most likely a literary creole that is in its origins the results of contact (or waves of contacts) due to human migrations to the archipelago. (Much the same could be said about how modern English was formed.) In the case of proto-Japanese, migrations were followed by cross-cultural consolidations across speakers of N.E. Asian (non-Chinese) languages, S. Asian (non-Chinese) ones, Pacific ones, and ones already spoken on the Japanese islands before the migrations.

Outside of sheer coincidences in typology and traits, Japanese has marked similarities with other NE Asian isolates, like Ainu and Korean--namely, word order (S-O-V), lexical morphology, and phonology. And, like these N.E. Asian isolates, it has been related for the purpose of hypothetical discussion with another broad grouping, namely the Altaic super-family, especially the Tungusic branch of E. Siberia but also the central Asian ones falling under the label 'Mongolian'. This is because just about all the languages being discussed here are typologically speaking, synthetic and agglutinative. However, in terms of its phonology, syllable structure, and morphology, and lexicon, Japanese has also been usefully compared to the super-group of Malayo-Polynesian languages.

Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition

Linguistics existing to support language teaching (LT) and learning (LL) is often referred to as 'Applied Linguistics' (AL). AL is often linked to sub-field called 'Second Language Acquisition'(SLA), even though SLA doesn't contain the sort of content with which linguistics is identified (that is, linguistic description and explanation). The relationship of AL and SLA to LT and LL is attenuated by AL's and SLA's theoretical and conceptual abstraction while its research agenda is often separated from LT by different professional agendas (since applied linguists are based at universities). Perhaps the biggest issue is that most of the research results of academic AL and SLA are not generalizable to larger sets of learners (such as, all EFL students worldwide, or EFL students in E. Asia, or EFL students in Japan, etc.).

However, one common-sense notion that is shared across AL, LT and LL is centered on the relationships of the first/native language (L1) with the second or foreign language (L2, especially when the second or foreign language is not acquired from very early childhood. The idea is simple: If a given L1 (e.g., Japanese) is not historically or genetically related to a given L2 (e.g., English), the acquisition or learning of that language will be more cognitively difficult and take longer.

This idea of language difference in terms of issues in acquisition has been academicized somewhat in AL. AL has at least two ways of realizing the idea in its discourse of theory and research. These are often referred to as 'Contrastive Analysis' (CA) and 'Error Analysis' (EA).

Let us look at Contrastive Analysis first. For CA, the L1's and L2's language systems (e.g., phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax) are compared and contrasted in detail, and the differences are used to PREDICT issues in learning the L2. For example, in phonology, Japanese is said to have no distinction between an /l/ and an /r/. So CA would predict that Japanese learners of English would have a hard time distinguishing English /l/ and /r/, both in terms of perception of speech and in production. On the other hand, Japanese /r/, at least for an English speaker, actually sounds phonetically similar to English /l/, /r/ and /d/. So /r/ sounds could also be an issue for English speakers learning JFL, marking an accent but actually interfering with intelligibility of their Japanese. Imagine such issues multiplying across differences in terms of phonology, morphology, lexicon and syntax. The implications are complex, to say the least.

Perhaps the issues that arise with CA predicting errors that don't occur while not predicting errors that do is the fault of linguistics and language description. If the language descriptions and concepts you are using to carry out a contrastive analysis are inadequate and faulty, then the errors you predict might be nonsense. They might not reflect any language reality, including the developmental language of learners (often referred to as 'inter-language' in AL. Also, languages are supposed to share some traits almost universally while other traits mark a language as unique. So these marked traits could be difficult for any beginning learner, no matter what the linguistic background. For example, English is an Indo-European language that, perhaps due to significant language contact with other languages, has lost much of its inflectional system. This has huge implications for how tense, mood and aspect are actually achieved when one communicates in English. Therefore, regardless of the language background of the EFL or ESL learner, one can predict that the 'grammar' of the English 'verb' will be a source of a lot of confusion and learners' errors.

And then there is Error Analysis. EA came about because some people noticed that CA predicted errors that didn't occur among L2 learners, but at the same time, L2 learners seemed to experience and produce errors that CA didn't predict. So EA looks in detail at the actual L2 performance of learners and attempts to produce a systematic analysis of their L2 errors and learning difficulties.

Which is not to say that EA is a perfect corrective or supplement to the inadequacies of CA. First, a distinction should be made between random MISTAKES that do not reflect the actual state of the L2 learner's language competence and the ERRORS that do indicate some sort of persistent issue. Second, EA is supposed to generalize to a large group (such as the entire population of Japanese learning English at the beginning level). So the hope would be to detect errors that characterize most if not all of that population. But EA is largely behaviorist in its assumptions, so error behaviors could be linguistically or psychologically misinterpreted by the researcher or classroom teacher using such an approach.

Implications for learning a foreign language

Still, there is a commonly accepted feeling or intuition that, if two languages are not related (such as, they have a different word order or are pronounced very differently), it takes longer to learn the L2. This is not to say that Japanese is so unique in relation to English that Japanese learners of English should have more difficulty than any other language group of learners whose native language is not related to English. There is nothing in the conceptual apparatus of AL or ELT that would support this.

However, since Japanese and English are not closely related at all, this lack of linguistic affinity is something to consider in terms of planning for language teaching and language learning at schools. Unfortunately, it is not addressed adequately. Part of this is the damaging effect that results from Japan drawing on English-speaking countries for the theories, concepts and practices that embody the dominant ideology, technology and infrastructure of LT and LL.

Re-stating the issue

Which brings us back to reason #2 for why English learning fails in Japan. Because of the differences in language typology, the beginning stages of LL will take longer and involve more cross-linguistic and learning issues. These cross-linguistic and cross-discourse issues could range anywhere from phonetics and phonology through vocabulary and syntax and overlap with how to structure a a paragraph, essay, or research report. If we think of learning a FL as a classic 'bootstrap' dilemma, perhaps the core issue here will become clearer. It takes a lot of patience, hard work, repetition, review, and attention to the details of the FL in order for a learner to get beyond the helpless beginner stage. Once beyond this helpless beginner stage, the learner enters a new phase: they will have learned enough of the L2 to succeed at learning it further, perhaps up to mastery, if they are patient enough.

The problem with English in Japan is most Japanese never get beyond the helpless beginning bootstrap phase. They don't learn enough English to learn how to learn it. Unfortunately, if they depend on their schools, universities or the commercial ELT industry to help them, most will not make much progress. For one thing, this is because much of the ELT industry, institutions and programs have failed to acknowledge how and why English is difficult to learn if your native language is Japanese (or, in the case of more and more foreign students, Chinese). They have also failed to appreciate just how difficult it is to teach such a large population of beginning learners. To conclude, this should give you more than a hint of the reasons that will follow (e.g., ELT industry, government policies, institutional management of foreign language education, teacher training, etc. ).

Reason 3: Japanese is not written with an alphabet

Japanese is not written with an alphabet.

The writing system used to represent Japanese in continuous text is notorious for its complexity. Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) have been adopted and adapted to write Japanese. But one problem with Chinese characters is that they don't fit nicely onto Japanese. Chinese is a group of languages characterized, in part, as being 'mono-syllabic'. That is, one content morpheme of one spoken syllable in length is usually written in text with one character. However, Japanese is, unlike Chinese, highly inflected and multi-syllabic. Using Chinese characters to represent Japanese leads to syllabic and lexical opacity--one character might stand for one, two, three or more spoken syllables.

To make matters worse in terms of the complexity of written Japanese, Chinese characters are typically used to stand for different words or morphemes that may (or may not) cover some of the same semantic areas. For example, the same character might be used to represent two words or morphemes that are synonymous, even though their pronunciations are totally different. This explanation only hints at some of the complexities in adapting such a mismatched writing system to Japanese.

As written Japanese evolved, the Chinese writing system was modified and enhanced to make it more useful for full-blown Japanese texts. In order to help solve the opacity issue, two syllabaries have been put to use to complement the use of Chinese characters. These are called hiragana and katakana.

As these sets of written syllables are used today in written Japanese, hiragana (a cursive set of syllables) is used to write much of the multi-syllabic inflections and particles of the language. It is also often preferred over the use of the kanji for many high-frequency, everyday words and phrases. Clearly, the idea of using a word-level graph (such as a kanji) to write a language comes to Japan from China. But the use of syllabic graphs might come from India through the diffusion of literacy practices associated with Buddhism.

The other syllabary, katakana, captures in written form the same simplified, idealized syllables abstracted from spoken Japanese and captured in hiragana, but it is written with elements derived from kanji and displays the same sort of angularity. Katakana is typically used to write foreign loan words, especially non-Chinese ones. It is also used to represent the elements of Japanese vocabulary that imitate aural, other physical, and mental phenomena (what is called roughly 'onomatopoeia' in English, though it is much more extensive and developed in Japanese). It can also be employed to show emphasis, analogous to the way all caps or italics might be used in English.

Full-blown written Japanese will typically show mostly kanji and hiragana, with a smattering of katakana (unless the text was about foreign loan words, or was a menu at a western restaurant). A text of Japanese might also have quite a number of items in the roman alphabet (called romaji in Japanese) and Arabic numerals (though Chinese numerals are also often used). But roman letters are rarely used to romanize Japanese, except in the case of synonyms like 'UN' or 'NATO' (which do have their own Japanese pronunciations in the spoken language). Romanization does happen in advertising and on shop signs. You are most likely to see words written in the roman alphabet in academic discussions where an English or other foreign word or phrase is placed in the text and then explained in Japanese.

Since most Japanese--the sort of language that would be spoken informally but also formally--is rarely put into alphabetic form (romanization). Most native speakers of Japanese are literate in their own language, which is largely not alphabetically written. They lack much familiarity or fluency with the writing and spelling conventions of English.

For example, most university students will struggle with a dictionary laid out in traditional alphabetical order (A to Z) because Japanese language dictionaries are typically put into a syllabic order. And one hindrance to personal computer use in Japan has been learner reluctance to interface with a computer using an alpha-numeric keyboard that looks totally alien in terms of the salient features of Japanese literacy. In other words, units of written Japanese refer to words and syllables, not sub-syllabic elements, like letter-to-sound correspondences.

Even though the JIS computer keyboard in use all over in Japan does incorporate aspects of Japanese literacy, it is still most quickly used for input in computing by those who can touch type using alphabetic units (which are then converted bottom-upwards to syllables and then, when necessary by convention, to Chinese characters). The majority of Japanese can not touch type and find the idea of alphabetically analytic input of language to be alien to their feel and grasp of their own written language in situations that require interaction with a computer or word processor program.

Japanese English learners, especially visually oriented ones, might feel that written English is simply too exotic and strange for them to process visually or analyze into meaningful language. English speakers often have the same reaction to written Japanese. Written English's complex spelling conventions are largely outside the writing practices of Japanese literacy, and, to the extent that those spelling conventions actually reflect a phonetic, phonological or morphological reality, they largely do not reflect anything similar to be found in Japanese.

Complicating this are some of the the linguistic peculiarities of English. In the previous installment, I asserted that it could be argued that English is a Germanic language in terms of its pronunciation, but its spelling makes it look like a Romance language. Well, both of these aspects are foreign to Japanese learners of English. Their language's phonology is not similar to a Germanic one, and their approach to writing and spelling conventions is not a Latin or Romance one.

Connecting with e-mail and to the world wide web only really took off in Japan once G2 and G3 mobile phones became ubiquitous. Little wonder then that the Japanese quickly took to web site addresses that are read like digital bar codes instead of ponderously typed in the standard http:// form.

Also, the interface of Japanese mobile phones is set up for quick syllabic level input and conversion of the content words to kanji. Roman letters are a tertiary system, beneath and much more limited than features for handling kanji and the two syllabaries. However, the linguistic habits of many Japanese have adapted to the need for speed in text messaging. For one thing, this has led to the increased use of roman-lettered acronyms to stand for conventionally shared and frequently used phrases.

Some people have even started complaining because these acronyms are taking on pronounced forms and invading the spoken language. Parents are often shocked when they listen to their teenage sons and daughters conversing in mobile phone acronymic 'short hand' at the dinner table. Such developments are interesting for the ongoing evolution of Japanese as a vital, modern native and national language of international importance in the high tech era. However, these changes will have little or no positive impact on English learning in Japan.

Reason 4: Learning to read and write Japanese fluently takes away too much time from the rest of the curriculum

This reason is really an issue that closely relates to the previous Reason #3. Modern Japanese is an isolated language (or set of language dialects) of unknown affiliation, written with a mixed system of Chinese characters (which for the most part are logographs or morphographs) and two syllabaries--as well as Arabic numerals and a small amount of Roman alphabet (such as for acronyms, like 'NATO' or 'OECD').

Written Japanese works well for the fluent reader of the language, especially if that person is already a fluent speaker of the language (this is true for many written languages, including English). But it takes considerable amounts of time to master literacy in Japanese because, for one thing, of the cognitive and memory loads of memorizing thousands of the Chinese characters. It takes even longer to be able to manipulate the characters to produce written Japanese, even though computers, word processors, and now high-tech mobile phones have lessened this burden.

Mastering a level of literacy in standard Japanese is one of the main reasons given for students here getting such a late start at English as a foreign language (EFL). EFL learning does not really begin in earnest for most students until the first year of junior high or middle school.

Now educators, government officials, parents and social commentators fret that today's students have much lower levels with the standard national language and literacy of it. This might be true, though so far actual documentation of the perceived decline is dubious.

Instead what might be happening is that high standards and expectations are being applied to unprecedented numbers of students because so many senior students proceed on to university or college as a matter of course. Academic literacy as conceived by elite academics, educators and bureaucrats has failed to catch up with the social reality of the 'massification' of the university system.

Still, if standards for the national language and literacy in it are perceived as falling or failing, Japan has still yet another reason to be wary in committing to improving foreign language education for all students.

Reason 5: Lack of national consensus on foreign language education

This reason, once it is grasped, leads the analysis to many specific problems that are embedded in education in Japan. If you ask many Japanese, they will complain quite strongly about English language teaching and learning in the country's schools, from the junior highs/middle schools (where EFL first becomes a part of the official curriculum) right on up to its colleges and universities. So you might think that there is some sort of consensus for change. But it is not enough to agree that something is wrong with English Language Teaching (ELT) and classroom learning in Japan. There has to be some sort of consensus about what to do about the inadequacy of ELT and learning in order to improve it.

Instead of a consensus, what you will find in actual advocacy and practice breaks down along contradictory lines. Some advocate the education of more translators and interpreters. Some think that the current generations of Japanese who finish secondary and tertiary levels of education (and this is now the majority of young people now) ought to be able to read and even write within their specialties and professions. This thought is similar to the policy that drove EFL learning in Japan between the first and second wars. And to this day you will see the legacy of that period's 'Reading Method' (often misleadingly called 'Grammar Translation') in current EFL classes from the middle school level upwards. Still yet another voice of reform says that Japanese need practical English, and they often cite oral English or 'English conversation' being the best example of what they advocate.

All these priorities bring with them problems. First, you can not train most people to be translators and interpreters, so the education system here needs to be better at selecting talented students for these specialties. Also, if the nation's needs are for people to translate or interpret Japanese into English, more native speakers of English also have to be involved. Second, it can be excessively difficult and boring to be forced to read a FL you can't speak. In effect, it turns English into dead Latin, and most students simply flounder in Japanese translations and related 'grammar explanations' of the English texts rather than read in English. Third, most Japanese don't experience a pressing need for oral English skills, except when they travel overseas or if they work in a business or a branch of government that conducts its international activities at a level beyond translation and interpretation services.

Many in Japan have identified the same problem--an education system that fails at foreign languages. Now they have to take stock of why specifically their system fails and then forge some sort of working consensus for each level and type of education.

At the university level this might be centered on working language policies across the curriculum addressing FL learning's place in the wider general education curriculum. Reform could also be concentrated on better integration of FLT and FLL with majors and specialties for which foreign languages are a key skill.

As for general education, so much of EFL in Japan now falls in this area. There are actually very few programs for majoring in EFL or even majors that require it as integral to a given specialty. Instead, EFL is in effect an ill-fitting part of general education. If institutions do not take foreign language teaching and learning within general education seriously, should they be surprised that the students do not?

Reason 6: The situation at universities, aspect 1, the entrance exams

Basically, the reason/problem for this installment concerns the entrance exams of universities and colleges. The common explanation is that, due to negative wash back from university exams, senior high schools concentrate too much teaching and learning on getting ready for such exams. This deadens English at the upper secondary level. Also, the senior highs are locked into a similar situation because their entrance requirements adversely affect junior high English teaching and learning (especially year three, the final year of junior high or middle school in Japan).

The Japan HEO Blog agrees that entrance exams are a major issue, but some of the following analysis may not agree with the sort of 'causal explanations' you will hear at JALT conferences.

The university system in Japan is notorious for its entrance exams, and it is popularly thought that such exams exercise a negative 'wash back' effect on language teaching and learning at the senior highs. However, such explanations are flawed in their simplicity.

English of a sorts is indeed a prominent part of the national 'center exam' that most university applicants take and is also typically a major part of the second set of exams many students face. (These are the exams that universities, faculties and departments create and administer after the center exam.) I have also heard some at universities say that, unlike most of the other subjects on entrance exams, English always gives a "nice spread of scores" (meaning that there is something more like a predictable 'bell curve' in the ways scores are distributed). This can be a reassurance of some reliability if you have to make high stakes decisions on whom to accept and whom to reject

The arguments against the entrance exams usually develop into more elaborate explanatory theories with implied solutions, such as the following: Because the content of the exams tends to be literary, not practical, and includes a lot of translation problems, the wash back effect at the high schools means that they will not teach practical or communicative English. However, high schools are going to teach a lot of exam English--that is, preparation for exams--regardless of other considerations (such as whether or not students want to learn 'communicative' English). Do you think, for example, that if a university started using the TOEIC or TOEFL or Eiken/STEP for entrance qualification, high school teaching would be invigorated towards 'practical' and 'communicative' English? Would teaching specifically for exams like these actually create more practical and communicative English at the high schools?

Consider the example of the national center exam. It changed recently and now includes listening questions similar to the ones you might find on TOEIC, TOEFL and Eiken /STEP. This mostly resulted in senior high English classes increasing their listening components. It did not transform the English at the senior highs into a new realm of practical, communicative English.

Another problem with the theory of the wash back is it is wrongly one-way. As it turns out, high schools have a wash back on the universities. That is because most universities and colleges (except an elite group of the top 50 or so) are now desperate to get high school graduates to apply and enroll. Even if the top universities are not desperate in this numbers game, they are also in a new type of competition. That is, they are more eager than ever to identify and select the more capable and already-educated students from the high school populations. In other words, students ready to go quickly onto more specialized study and then graduate school.

So most non-elite universities and colleges really can not set too many difficult hurdles in way of admissions' qualifications. Moreover, university entrance exams are often authored specifically keeping in mind the sort of high school populations they have traditionally drawn on to get their quota of admissions each year. The institutional exams are really more a major way for the universities to earn income from the applicants. Not only do universities want to match their admissions quotas; their fiscal administrators tell their admissions offices they need to keep their number of total applicants well above the number they actually admit. The tests are written as part of the way to make money off all the applicants. Some have argued that such considerations actually go beyond the need to test any abilities, proficiencies or achievements of their applicants.

What would happen if, for example, most of the students applying to a particular department took a university's entrance exam and failed to get a qualifying score in English? Would the department fail to get a sufficient intake of students? No, it would simply lower the required score until the necessary number got admitted. In effect, it would waive the English requirement.

While it might seem strange for anyone to argue for a strong wash back effect from the high schools on the universities and colleges, that really is not the point. The point is, rather, if it ever existed, there is no longer any strong, negative, one-way wash back effect coming from the universities raining down on the the high schools.

If anything, the universities and high schools have disconnected and re-connected in a weaker but mutual 'wash back circuit' . That is because the university system in Japan has become for most institutions and most high school graduates a mass, near-open admissions system. If university entrance exams have negative wash back, it is mostly in terms of the nature of the students a given institution, faculty or department attracts. It is more and more a 'buyer's market' in university admissions for those high school graduates who have the money and time to attend higher education for 4 or more years. And once again we are considering a two-way wash back effect because universities manipulate the content and level of difficulty of their exams to reflect what they think are the abilities of the students they are most likely to get first as applicants and then as enrollments.

Overall, the entrance exams guarantee a level of basic literacy in Japanese and some numeracy for most of the students going onto higher education. And that is about it. The transition from a fairly selective small system to a mass system has probably had more to do with the quality of English education at the highest level than university exams. Which will help keep this discussion going into the next installment.

Reason 7: The situation at universities, aspect 2, elite academics, non-elite students, mismatch of expectations, poor results, with no accountability for those results

The situation at the universities will actually have to comprise its own 'series within a series' and will result in more than one actual reason as to why English learning fails in Japan. This is the seventh installment of the series, but the second to focus on the situation at the universities.

The previous installment concluded with this statement: "The transition from a fairly selective small system to a mass system has probably had more to do with the quality of English education at the highest level than university exams." This will serve as the start of the current installment.

The higher education system of Japan is now a mass, near-open admissions system. This could be a good thing. Imagine millions of students enrolling in universities and colleges every year and freely choosing to study English as a foreign language (EFL) because they want to study it. However, as many who have taught EFL at a university, college or junior college here quickly come to observe, higher education can be a very difficult place to teach EFL.

So why is that? The author of the Japan HEO Blog has taught EFL in Japan for 20 years, 17 of which have been at the level of higher education (though not exclusively). There are a considerable number of related reasons why universities and colleges fail at EFL.

The first reason for the failure of universities and colleges at EFL is the mismatch of faculty with the student populations--which then creates mismatch with the learning requirements and needs of those students. The higher education system is mass and with near-open admission standards for many if not most institutions, departments and programs of study. Yet the university system continues to train and hire academics as if a very selective, elite system were the prevailing reality. So the university system expanded greatly in the 80s and 90s, the very same system, through its graduate programs, continued to create a core of academics to teach and do scholarship and research. Little wonder then that the faculties hire and promote academics with elite backgrounds that leaves them distant from the student populations in their charge.

The mismatch is somewhat similar to my experiences in the US. Take for example, the small state college where I got my bachelor's degree in 1979-83. Many of my professors were from well-to-do families who paid for them to go to elite universities, including a lot of Ivy League degrees. This was especially true of professors in the humanities and social sciences. Most had absolutely no clue whatsoever what it was like to grow up in area like rural south central Pennsylvania or to have to attend a particular institution for FINANCIAL reasons. Part of their elite arrogance was to assume that students were at a small state college because they had not achieved academically well enough to get into a higher-rated institution.

The situation in Japan is quite analogous. Many if not most of the people who are professors at the universities have had a much more privileged background than their students. This mismatch leads to a large breakdown in teaching and learning at the universities. First, many of the professors are hapless at teaching basic general education courses, including EFL. Their scholarly and research activities have been more likely limited to a very narrow academic specialty. Second, their teaching methods assume that most students should be like they were--attending a universities for academic knowledge and even a career in higher education.

Third, in the case of English, the breakdown happens in at least two areas, much to the detriment of EFL at the universities and colleges. Most of the professors assigned to teach English do not have any interest whatsoever in teaching EFL as a part of general education at their institutions. Their educational backgrounds and current 'research' activities more likely fall under labels like 'linguistics', 'English-language literature', and 'English education' (this last term refers to typically small departments that oversee English teacher training for secondary school education). Therefore, general education EFL, while extensive in terms of what is listed in the course catalog, is an embarrassment in the actual classroom. It flounders for lack of proper teaching, teacher development, program structure and evaluation. However, it also fails miserably as a specialized area of study. In fact, there are very few EFL programs at Japanese universities, and what programs do exist, you should remember, enroll only a small number of students. These programs and departments do not primarily exist to provide EFL to the rest of the institution. More than EFL undergraduate courses of study, you are far more likely to see programs in literature, linguistics, education, and cross-cultural studies.

The effects of this situation play out in problems, issues, and deficiencies that might exceed my ability to describe them. So I will instead try to generalize to a useful level of explanation. Students at universities will most likely take EFL classes as required General Education. These are large classes with an unmanageable mix of students. Students with low ability and low motivation, students with low ability and higher motivation, even the occasional students (typically ones who have spent time overseas) with high ability and, well, confused motivation. Students might also take EFL classes as options within an array of interdisciplinary classes. They have to take a certain number of credits to fulfill graduation requirements, but they have choices of what they can take. However, optional EFL classes are often designated 'enshuu', a term that I have difficulty translating. It is supposed to mean a course that is not run as a lecture course, but then it becomes hard to give a definitive answer as to what the other possibilities are.

In contrast to traditional lectures, an 'enshuu' is supposed to be more participatory and involve activities. This might sound like it has potential for a communicative EFL class, but its status as 'enshuu' can undercut students' perception of it as a legitimate university course. If you as a teacher of an 'enshuu' combine its already low academic status with language learning activities that students are not familiar with or which they see as 'non-academic', students may react by treating the 'enshuu' as a sort of play time. 'Enshuu' typically earn fewer credits than lectures and seminars. Also, when you teach an 'enshuu', the issue of placement will rear its ugly head. You might try to run a course called 'Advanced English Writing', and students who can not earn a valid TOEIC score because their proficiency is so low will register and attend.

How does all this relate to the 'reason' given at the start of this piece? My theory is that general education and optional 'interdisciplinary' studies are, in part, a mess at the universities because of the demographic (lower academic standards) and economic (greater affluence, or at least an expectation of it) shifts from a selective, elite system to a mass, open one. The universities and their departments, and the elite academics that dominate them, often have absolutely no clue whatsoever as to what role general education and interdisciplinary studies should play in the education of their non-elite students. As it turns out, neither do their students! The academics seem to expect students to emerge from senior high school ready to be trained in narrow academic specialties (the elite assumption being that there is an underlying level of educational achievement before admission to higher education). The students themselves simply want clear guidelines and training to enable them to pass, graduate and get a job.

Reason 8: A lack of EFL programs

It is often said that Japan has not committed sufficient 'resources'--money, personnel--to improve English teaching and learning. However, I would argue that in terms of public and private spending, Japan actually spends more money than most other EFL countries, both in total and per capita. The problem is more the 'scatter shot' approach.

In terms of public policy and expenditure (but note, this includes, for example, language education at the numerous private, non-profit senior high schools and universities), much of the issue could be called a 'socio-linguistic pipe dream', and that pipe dream is the often-expressed goal of making Japan a country where most of the population will have functional fluency and literacy in EFL. Because of the pursuit of this pipe dream, so much in terms of personnel and money is wasted on students at the secondary and tertiary levels who have never shown much aptitude or desire to learn English. That might appeal to the modern sense of 'fair' and 'democratic' (two terms you will often hear in education here in Japan) but it dooms EFL teaching and learning here to delivering a vague, goal-less general education requirement, with the result being, predictably enough, ineffectiveness and wastefulness.

What Japan needs to do instead is systematically to identify language learners with the aptitude, motivation and long-term patience to master foreign languages. And then the educational system needs to implement nationwide programs that train EFL majors, minors and concentrations.

At the university and college level, this has to start with faculties, programs and departments identifying and specifying the foreign language needs and goals of their enrolled students. This information then has to be compiled to form language policies across the curriculum that all stakeholders at the universities and colleges sign on to as practical agreements leading to real changes to the curriculum and graduation requirements. For example, students in a public administration program might take so many credits of EFL in order to get a nationally recognized 'concentration' in it and would achieve a minimum TOEIC or EIKEN/STEP (a criterion-referenced EFL exam here in Japan) score as part of their graduation requirements.

Reason 9: The foreign language teaching and learning 'culture'

What is meant here by the term 'culture' is the overall approach to teaching and learning EFL (and these are collaborative activities) that is specific to Japan. Aspects of this issue might really reflect EFL situations in developed E. Asia (such as S. Korea, Taiwan, and eastern urban China) and even worldwide, but I hope to get at the heart of what is particular to the situation here in Japan.

It is often said and written that TEFL here in Japan is dominated by 'Grammar Translation'. However, usually the term grammar translation means teaching and learning a FL with compilations of grammar and then activities centered on translation of texts, often authentic and literary ones.

If you have taught at a JHS or SHS here in Japan (for example, as a JET Programme ALT), you might have noticed that students themselves do not actually do much translation (rarely above the level of an isolated sentence) and that the texts used are always 'graded', that is, reduced and re-written with control of vocabulary. Classroom discourse is in Japanese and dominated by the teacher, who presents specific rules of grammar and vocabulary terms. The communicative focus and flow, such as it is, is to get the unknown, opaque English code (L2) into the known, understood human language (standard Japanese). English texts are used mostly to illustrate the previously taught grammar rules and vocabulary.

I would argue that the overall approach goes back to the popularity of the so-called 'Reading Method' between the first and second world wars in the 20th century. The idea behind the method was appealing and simple: since it was impractical to teach oral methods in most EFL situations, why not promote a high level of EFL reading instead? The Japanese term is 'yaku-doku', which does not translate as 'grammar translation' but rather 'translation reading' instead.

So this reading method persists, and no doubt it has proved practical as a way to deliver general education English to the entire school population. However, it hasn't really led to a differentiated, sophisticated or flexible culture of teaching and learning EFL. Instead, it has resulted in a minimal level of familiarity with EFL and language learning in classrooms (and in EFL countries, this the classroom is the key 'interface', since there is no English-speaking society outside the classroom). This 'minimal level' of doing things traps both the learners and the teachers who have to oversee such a system.

Reason 10: The language teaching 'profession' in Japan

At all levels, EFL teachers face a situation where English is treated as just another school and test subject, and yet the effective teaching and learning of a foreign language require something well beyond the standard treatment as a school subject. So it is hard to write this reason without seeming to be harsh on the teachers. However, much of this situation hardly seems to be attributable to the teachers, but rather programs, schools, school boards, universities and the national government.

For teachers at most levels, there is a lack of serious and useful teacher training and professional development. In higher education, there is also the issue of who is designated to teach EFL courses. Most have backgrounds in fields that are supposed to be related to and support TEFL (e.g., literature, linguistics, and teacher training), but the reality is that such academic backgrounds prove limited for serious language teaching or the development of future language teachers.

It also means, at least at the level of higher education, academics are not rewarded for their language teaching but instead for their scholarly achievements in their original specialties (literature, linguistics, and teacher training). Moreover, this creates a double problem at the universities and colleges: university and college personnel are not really serious about creating effective EFL programs and courses for the general student population, but even the training of EFL teachers slights EFL at the expense of concentrating on education, applied linguistics, and theoretical ELT (largely imported from the US, UK and other Anglophone countries). This issue then proliferates because such inadequate teacher training programs send out young teachers to teach in the junior and senior highs.

Meanwhile, at such 'professional' organizations as JALT here in Japan, scholarship and 'research' about EFL learning and teaching abound, but a closer look at much of this discourse reveals the true state of the 'profession'. On the one hand much of it lacks any real depth of understanding of EFL and EFL in Japan. On the other, when it does reflect expertise, it too often reflects imported teaching techniques and materials which are mostly superficial adaptations of ideas that come from Anglophone countries' ESL or British ELT for Europe.


The list has been compiled and manipulated somewhat arbitrarily to make it a 'ten point' one. The actual list contains more than ten reasons. More could be included. Those that have been included could rightfully be taken to task and argued against. The Japan Higher Education Outlook Blog, however, will make it its next task to post more information and ideas that might help improve the lot of EFL and FL teachers and learners in Japan. Hence the start of a new series of articles under the category of 'TEFL Forum'.


Vũ Thị Phương Anh said...

Good article! I learn a lot from thís article about EFL teaching and learning in Vietnam, too. Even though we are a very different system, your observations, interpretations of the causes, and your recommendations of solutions for the problems are worth learning from. Thank you.

Vu Thi Phuong Anh

CEJ said...

Thank you for your comments, Vũ Thị Phương Anh s.

I hope someday to visit Vietnam. Recently my father-in-law (who is Japanese) visited there and said he left with a deep respect for Viet culture. He said the Vietnamese are very good at doing something down to the fine details, and so they are going at producing refined things.

I've decided to move my ELT-related posts over to their own blog, so see more at:


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