Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

14 thoughts on “Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

  1. This is based on phonics from the start of the English language education here in in Japan. Katakana English is not English and focus on the different sounds that English letters make is the key. Like “SH”, “CH”, “PH”, the fact that the letter “A” makes three sounds “aye”baby, “ahh”apple, and “aaa” father. This is the root of the problem and it starts way before ekaiwa teachers enter the picture. Phonics need to be taught to preschoolers. Methodically. Because the Japanese language and culture are very strict and doing something half way (like learning English without phonics) will get buried by the intensity of katakana.

  2. Yeah, the lack of phonics is a killer. That, and please people teaching English in Japan have students write “t” and not ”十”. We have stroke order in English, too! It’s small stuff like that that end up mucking up the big stuff.

  3. I agree 100%; for me, that’s the difference between language ability (= command of vocabulary/grammar and so on) and communication ability (for ex. putting yourself into the shoes of the receiver in order to communicate your message). As a non-native English speaker who has to switch between 3 languages on a daily basis, I often say that “simpler is better”, it is better to break down a sentence in a few simple words than use a fancy word like “Abenomics”.

  4. Phonics don’t need to be taught in preschool, necessarily. They just need to be taught at some point, and my impression is that they never are. There are English dictionaries in this country that have katakana pronunciations in them—baaaaad idea…

  5. If phonetic sounds are not acquired during the critical period (before age 6 or 7) the possibility of fluency is drastically reduced.

    The earlier, the better.

  6. OK, so right now I was watching the NHK kids’ show “Eigo de Asobou” with my daughter and they are so totally guilty of this problem, though in the sense of oversimplifying the language in a very unnatural way. For instance I just heard the following exchange:

    “Let’s play blocks!”
    “Put on three blocks!”

    Can I buy a preposition, Pat?

    There are a few English natives working on the show but as far as I can tell from browsing Wikipedia, they have all lived in Japan for a very long time.

  7. I have no idea about phonics or whatever, but I don’t think it is the end of the world if kids miss out on phonics and have to work around it with some kind of Japanese accent. The problem is they don’t seem to recognize that they are saying things that aren’t comprehensible to the “outside world” and I think this bubble is reinforced in various ways in the media and the way English is taught…

    But then again it also raises the question of whether thats really necessary anyway. In India (so I have come to understand), there are millions who are fluent in English for the purposes it is used within India, but if they were to talk to your average American investment manager communication would be pretty challenging.

  8. Adam(u)’s point about India is interesting, because it directly addresses the point of learning and using English. In India it’s because English is the/a national lingua franca, but Japan already has one of those.

    I think you could make a good case that the point of studying and teaching English in Japan is not for Japanese people to communicate with the world, but to a) try to obtain information from outside without necessarily sending anything in the other direction, and b) impress other Japanese people with their ‘command’ of a prestige language.

    It’s clearly not the fault of ‘tainted’ foreigners that many Japanese assume their idiosyncratic English is the real thing (however you choose to define that), and I realise the post title is overplaying the actual message. I saw a bit on TV a couple of years back about a JHS (I think) textbook that had switched all the Japanese characters names to use Japanese name order because ‘people should respect Japanese culture’ or some such. Fair enough, people are entitled to call themselves whatever they want, but it kind of misses the point of learning English as a global standard. The more local variations you insist upon inserting, the less useful it becomes in that role.

    I’m rambling now, so I’ll just agree with Joe that the NHK kids’ English show is painful, but that the effort of trying to model ‘untainted’ English for my kids has made me realise just how much code-switching I really do. It’s pretty tricky, ne?

  9. I think that Adamu’s main point holds for Japanese in Japan who are actively trying to learn English on the side. One of the main reasons why Japanese English levels suffer in comparison to other countries is that this type of learner is relatively rare.

    Europeans who are excellent in English typically have immersion education and are learning a language much closer to their own.

    Singapore, Hong Kong, India, etc. have the obvious “advantage” of being former colonies with native speakers of English of various ethnicities with family English-speaking roots going back multiple generations.

    We often think of Indians speaking English as very advanced learners, but some are basically native speakers. There are millions of Indians for whom English is their primary language growing up and many tens of millions more who are educated primarily in English. This is quite a bit more scary than the failings of Japanese English as you can find people who speak ONLY English and who are unable to communicate fluently with Americans, Brits, etc.

    Koreans and some other groups (Filipinos) have massive migrant populations living in English-speaking countries and these connections, which are based in histories of poverty and marginalization, are an “advantage” for English.

    Are Japanese learners of English who go through lame K-12 type classes with a focus on learning vocabulary and grammar worse than people elsewhere who go through this same sort of education? Many English Canadians go through the same thing with French and learn from non-native speakers as well. The further you get from Quebec the worse it is – you don’t find good French speakers (or even “speakers” at all) coming out of schools in Alberta or British Columbia unless their parents deliberately place them in immersion programs. The results might be worse than Japanese English given the resources put in and the fact that English and French are almost as closely related as languages can get.

    Most Japanese learners of English are effectively hobbyists building on a solid but unexceptional reading-focused grammar and vocab foundation that they get in school. There is absolutely no “secret” reason why the results of this kind of thing are worse than they could/should be as many Japanese seem to believe. There are pedagogical adjustments (getting rid of Katakanalish) that could produce some positive results but there really is no magic bullet for Japanese English apart from the obvious – people who want to speak English need to go to English schools or to live and work in English for years. If Korea has an advantage, it is that it produces more people in that sort of grouping relative to the “hobbyist” group and one reason why this is the case is that Korea has lagged Japan in terms of GDP per capita and average wages, even through Japan’s recessionary years. I’ve never seen an indication that there is some grand trickle down that means ordinary convenience store employees or bloke on the street types in Korea can speak better English than their Japanese equivalents.

    Japanese learners of English just need to chill and realize that learning solid English is a major life choice, it isn’t something that can be squeezed in by listening to tapes on the train or two hour bi-weekly lessons.

  10. “Koreans and some other groups (Filipinos) have massive migrant populations living in English-speaking countries”

    For Filipinos, at least, this is because they are almost as much of an English-speaking post-colonial country as India is. Most people in the country speak at least a little English, and the majority of printed material of most types seemed to me to be in English.

  11. Roy – are there Filipinos who grow up without learning a “local” language? I take it that many people go to school entirely in English.

  12. The balance between English, Filipino (i.e. the “national language” version of Tagalog, the Manila-region language) and local dialects has changed over the decades, and at present I think throughout the country most humanities subjects are taught in Filipino, with some taught in local dialect (if applicable) in early years, and science/math subjects usually taught in English. As well as a separate English class, of course.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as 100% English language education anywhere in the country, outside of the usual international school that requires you to be a foreign national anyway. A certain amount of English proficiency is ubiquitous everywhere you go, even the very poor slums or rural villages, but – unlike India – there really doesn’t seem to be much of a class of people who primarily communicated in English amongst themselves, although code-switching is also ubiquitous.

    That said, print is another story. All serious newspapers are in English, and the vast majority of books written and published there are as well.

  13. I suspect this bubble happened a long time ago with the chinese character and it ended up in what today is known as “on yomi”. I suspect they brought the writing in the past with its original pronounce (the Chinese one) and the bubble took care of turning it into “on yomi”. Just like it is happening today with “wasei eigo”.

  14. Japanese learners of English need to start very young (by the age of 3 possible), and be exposed to the kind of neutral “mid-Atlantic” pronunciation which is free of any strong regional characteristics. This means no Californian, no Irish, etc., please! Starting young is obvious for many reasons, but one that too many Japanese seem to forget is that, by the age when English is generally introduced, students brains are loaded down with tens of thousands of katakana English words, all of which have distorted pronunciation, and some distorted meaning. (Ph.D., linguistics, Tokyo)
    Our son, born in Japan, has been totally bilingual in Japanese and English since the age of 3; he completed a Law degree in Japanese and an MA in Global Studies in English.
    PS Do all those Americans out there know that India has the largest English-speaking population of any country?

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