Top>Opinion>What is lacking in English language education in Japan?


Shigenori Wakabayashi

Shigenori Wakabayashi【profile

What is lacking in English language education in Japan?

Shigenori Wakabayashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Applied linguistics, psycholinguistics, morphosyntax

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It is often said that Japanese people are unable to communicate[1] in English. Many people respond to this by saying that there is no absolute need to study English, that English cannot be used to make yourself understood abroad as much as Japanese people think it can, or that it is more important to develop language analysis skills, Japanese language skills and theoretical thinking skills than English language skills. All of these arguments may be true, but none of them directly explains why Japanese people are “unable to communicate in English.” Below, I want to consider the answers to this question alongside the “differences between communication in the classroom and communication in real life” and the “skills needed by English teachers.”

The gap between “what we want to do” and “what we are doing”

If you ask children[2] why they want to learn English, most of them answer that it’s because they want to broaden their horizons, meet new people, or learn about new things. Indeed, if you can use English, you will also be able to hold conversations or use social networking services with people with whom it is only possible to communicate in English, and to collect and communicate information that can only be acquired in English. What students want to do is “broaden their horizons through English.” However, what most children are doing in English at any given time is studying for tests. Irrespective of whether the test is TOEIC, an end-of-term test or an entrance examination, studying for a test means studying for a test. If you study for a test, your test score will improve. Studying for tests is not a bad thing, but it is not the same as improving your ability to communicate in English.

Students want to broaden their horizons through English, but what they are actually doing is studying for tests. How does this gap arise? One reason must be the replacement of their original objective with “assessment,” reflecting an idea that studying becomes meaningful for students only when they are evaluated highly through their tests scores. An even more significant reason is the fact that in reality students are given few opportunities to “broaden their horizons through English.”

Communication in the classroom and communication in real life

Many of the English communication activities carried out in lessons at elementary, junior high and senior high schools, and universities are akin to a “quotation game” in which the teacher explains the content of the education material and checks the children’s understanding before asking them to exchange information using the vocabulary and sentence patterns they have learned. They end up being forced to communicate information that they have little interest in transmitting or acquiring simply for the purposes of learning English expressions (Yanase & Koizumi, 2015). This “quotation game” is similar to tests in that it involves practicing English by answering “questions to which there is a correct answer.”

This is not how communication works in real life. The information that is transmitted and acquired and the human relationships that are built are the important thing, and English is the tool for doing this. In order to create real communication in schools and classrooms and allow children to “broaden their horizons through English,” it is necessary to create situations for children to find people with whom it is only possible to communicate in English and communicate what they want to say and the questions they want to ask using English. If they are able to do this in Japanese, they will not be broadening their horizons through English.

If these situations can be created, it becomes possible to envisage specific scenarios. Students’ vague ideas about “wanting to learn English” then become more specific goals, such as “I want to learn about X,” “I want to tell people about Y” or “I want to become friends with Z.” Preparing these opportunities would be hard work, but would surely lead to an increase in the number of children who enjoy “broadening their horizons through English.”

The role and training of English teachers and what can be done to improve them

The only way to achieve the above is to improve the ability of English teachers to create opportunities for communication. For example, it might be a good idea for them to visit schools in China, South Korea, Thailand or Malaysia and study the English lessons given there. No doubt, junior high and senior high school teachers will be busy with their schools’ club activities and university teachers will be busy with their research. However, finding out how English education is provided overseas would surely be useful for improving lessons. What’s more, in addition to viewing lessons, why not negotiate with overseas teachers to hold joint lessons by linking their classes via Skype?[3]

Schools and administrative authorities should allocate budgets and time to fostering English teachers’ ability to create opportunities for communication. Many English teachers will only have experience of teaching for tests. By receiving training on how to create opportunities for communication, English language teachers themselves would build up their own experience of “broadening their horizons through English.”[4]

Other reasons why Japanese people cannot communicate in English

The reason why Japanese people (think they) are unable to communication in English is probably because they have not had (many) experiences of “situations in which communication can only be carried out in English.” As long as somebody remains in Japan, it is unlikely that he or she will come across many such situations. To put this simply, it is alright for students not to be able to use English in Japan because they never need to communicate in English. However, in order to prevent students from becoming afraid to communicate in English when they are adults, we need them to experience numerous opportunities to broaden their horizons through English while they are still at school, even if this means working nervously to prepare for such situations in advance and doing whatever it takes to communicate somehow or other even when things do not go as well as expected during conversations.

As students build up their experience of communicating in English and start to handle more challenging content, they will come to realize that studying English at school is not enough on its own and that they need to work hard to acquire the English skills necessary to handle this content. When this happens, they have put in the everyday work needed in the same way they do during club activities at junior or senior high school or when learning kanji at elementary school. I would like to explore better ways of making this a reality at another opportunity.


  1. ^ Of course, things like reading and understanding works of literature or writing a novel in English can be included in “communication,” but the communication I refer to above is two-way communication in which the speaker and listener switch roles on a relatively frequent basis.
  2. ^ By “children,” I am referring in general to young children, pupils and students.
  3. ^ For example, in the Advanced Communication classes held at Chuo University’s Faculty of Letters, during the first semester of 2015 we linked classrooms with the Australian National University and the University of the Philippines and held a total of seven joint classes in which students from both sides took part.
  4. ^ In order to create opportunities for communication, it is necessary for the whole school to provide support. It is also necessary to overcome problems such as class sizes being too large, teachers being responsible for too many lessons or teachers having too many responsibilities in addition to lessons.
Main references
  • Yanase, Yosuke and Koizumi, Kiyohiro (2015), How Should We Teach English from Elementary School Onwards? [Shogakko karano Eigokyoiku wo Dosuruka?] (Iwanami Shoten)
Shigenori Wakabayashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Applied linguistics, psycholinguistics, morphosyntax
Shigenori Wakabayashi was born in 1962. After graduating from university and working as a senior high school teacher, he studied overseas in the United Kingdom. He completed his PhD at the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics (now the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics) at the University of Cambridge (his college was Clare Hall). He was appointed to his current position after working in a variety of posts, including Professor at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University. His area of specialization is empirical and theoretical research into second language acquisition based on generative grammar, but he is also active in the field of English language education.
Major works that he has coauthored include: A Guide to English Language Teaching Terminology - Revised Edition [Kaiteiban Eigokyoiku Yogo Jiten] (Taishukan); What is Common Sense When It Comes to Learning English? [Eigoshutoku no Jyoshiki/Hijyoshiki] (Taishukan); Detailed Explanation—Research into Second Language Acquisition [Shosetsu Dainigengo Shutoku Kenkyu] (Kenkyusha); Beginner’s Guide to Researching Second Language Acquisition [Dainigengo Shutoku Kenkyu Nyumon] (Shin-yo-sha); and Generative Approaches to the Acquisition of English by Native Speakers of Japanese (Mouton de Gruyter).