They Don’t Speak English in Narnia

How would I sum up the feeling of Japan when contemplating English education?

It’s like crawling into a wardrobe and then complaining that you find yourself confronted by a lion and a witch when you were hoping to smoke a pipe with Ian McKellan.

It really does seem to operate in that world of fantasy and unrealistic expectations. Because, while good teachers are hitting their targets, the general public continues to bemoan the fact that Japan remains notoriously poor at English conversation.

This is nothing new. Japan has been collectively wringing its hands for decades about its poor performance in English, and it’s unlikely to quit wringing them anytime soon. Indeed with the Olympics approaching they may be in danger of breaking a figurative finger or two.

So what exactly is the issue?

Well the issue is that even though Japan knows what the myriad reasons for its difficulties are its been reluctant to acknowledge them, much less tackle them.

Indeed, rather than look at systemic reasons why the nation remains poor in its conversational skills students often seem keen to blame themselves or the English language itself, often going so far as to claim that for a Japanese person it is simply too far from their native tongue to get a handle on it. I’ll grant that compared to a native speaker of a European language they have a tougher challenge ahead of them, but the performance of other nations with equally distant or non-existent relations with English would suggest that it is far from the impossible task some would have you believe it is.

The real answer, and it is ridiculously simple, is schools aren’t teaching kids how to speak English.

That’s it.

By and large, with the exception of private and international schools, Japanese schools don’t teach speaking. If the kids come out of the general system able to speak it’s thanks to the efforts of those within the system, the teachers who go the extra mile, the parents who encourage it at home and of course, the students themselves who somehow find the time in their packed schedule to learn something which currently benefits them to the tune of…zero.

Now, I’m a language teacher, I’m not about to claim that learning a foreign language has no benefit. Economically speaking it’s obviously worth it. A recent episode of Freakonomics Radio placed the ROI on learning English at as high as a 20% increase in potential earnings. Culturally it’s an enormous boon. In terms of your health, bilingualism is routinely cited as something that potentially reduces the risk of mental difficulties in old age.

There are benefits everywhere you look.

Yet, for the average high school kid in Japan.


Because it won’t help them get into university.

And from the moment kids are old enough to be dropped off in a cram school or get fitted for their junior high school uniform that’s the only game in town. So until the target of that game changes let’s just be content with Narnia.

Not every destination is what you expect it to be.


5 responses to “They Don’t Speak English in Narnia

  1. You’re right. I do think the biggest reason they find it hard is that the languages are so distinct, but, as you said, that doesn’t mean it can’t be learned. It just means it takes a bit more effort and, of course, more effective methods. Every so often I see kids lose the playful experimentation with language they had before they got sucked into worrying whether this stock answer is the right one to use in this blank on the test and it drives me nuts. They lose all sense of language as a tool to communicate and focus almost entirely on form and not on function and meaning. Not all kids by any means, but every so often it happens. It’s a shame, but when all their teachers and parents have to go by in terms of a judging stick is the school test, it’s not surprising. But, as everyone says, unless the final testing system changes, there is unlikely to be any improvement.
    Can’t really blame the teachers, either, as they are stuck in the system, too. Or should that be, ‘They are also stuck in the system.’ Too, also, which is better? No, but which should I write? Which is correct?
    You get my drift.

    By the way, is your book thing still coming out?

    • Couldn’t agree more. There are kids in my conversation classes who can’t stand grammar lessons as they are terrified of the wrong answer but absolutely flourish in a more relaxed atmosphere where we correct as they go rather than with a giant red pen.

      And as for the book, I haven’t announced yet as I’m busy with family visiting this week but take a peek at Amazon…

  2. Thanks Matt. As always a very nice piece of writing. From my observation there are a few reasons behind it .First of all, learning of a foreign language can be easily done by somebody who also likes to work independently, not so much as Japanese people in the group. It requires a lot of individual time to understand the grammar structures and to learn new vocabulary . These characteristics do not necessarily fit into Japanese characteristics. In here everyday life is being fulfilled by the group activities. Plus (especially boys) don`t feel like learning English the same as any other foreign language, because they are not influenced by the Western culture as much as those who are not living in a far away island country. Finally, most of Japanese boys and men like engineering, where the fruits of labor can be easily seen.

    • Very kind of you Bart, and some very interesting points about the cultural factors that contribute to a lack of motivation and interest on the part of many students.

      Language can indeed be difficult to measure, especially compared to something like engineering, that’s why long term planning is so essential in private lessons so that you can set the student on a clear path.

  3. Well done on the book – will stick it on my to read list.

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