Teaching English to Japanese Learners
May 16, 2018 Teaching 1890 Views
NB: The information contained within these notes is generic and while is relevant for Asian learners, not just Japanese, not all learners will have the problems outlined below. Learners are individuals and these notes are not meant to be exhaustive but an introduction to the issues faced by Japanese/Asian learners.
Despite studying English for at least three years in Junior High School, three years in High School and the possibility of two-four years at university, many Japanese adults still have real problems using English. Although recently teachers have been using more communicative methods in Junior High Schools, translation is the main method of teaching in High School and this is the system most of our adult learners have been through – where the focus has been on grammar and reading. Most Japanese English teachers are reluctant to speak English themselves, or may not have high communicative ability, as most learning in schools is aimed at getting students through exams.
Japanese people tend therefore to be stronger with reading and grammar, and less confident with pronunciation, listening and speaking. This often means as adults they have a lot of latent knowledge but are unable to access or use it. Grammar points may have been explained or understood incorrectly – especially as many English teachers are not native speakers or even confident users of English – and these ingrained errors can be difficult to correct/change.
Differences in Japanese and English
A lot of problems Japanese learners have with English stem from the interference of their first language (L1 transference) or the lack of an equivalent between English and Japanese.
Transference is common in language learners of any nationality. Transference is where learners transfer knowledge about their L1 and apply it to the L2 (Japanese being L1 and English L2). While this can aid language learning especially if the languages are similar, it can also lead to incorrect generalisations.
The differences between Japanese and English can make it harder for Japanese learners to acquire English particularly at the same rate as, for example, their European counterparts. For example some common interference issues include: sound differences (pronunciation); word order; use of subjects; articles; plurals; sentence structure.
Being aware of common problems experienced by learners allows teachers to better help learner/s address the problems and aids preparation to ease potential problem areas etc.
Many learners come to Shane: to learn English from native speakers who can teach them grammar and correct pronunciation. Many learners are reluctant to speak as they are concerned about getting the ‘sounds right’.
The sound system of Japanese is, in some ways, easier than English. For example: Japanese: 5 pure vowel sounds that might be long or short, 15 consonant sounds, few complex consonant clusters. Compared to English: 12 pure vowel sounds (5 long, 7 short), 8 diphthongs (double vowel sounds) and 24 consonant sounds. So it is clear that English has more sounds than Japanese. This is why learners often have difficulty in correctly perceiving what they hear. Learners need to realise there is a difference in the sounds of English and that a change in the sound can result in changing the meaning of the word. It is important they learn how to produce the sounds easily and correctly in conversation.
Some sounds that Japanese learners have problems with include: b (ban) – v (van); th (thick) – s (sick); u (hut) – a (hat); l (light) – r (right); f (fat) – h (hat). Refer to Appendix 1 for more information about problem sounds for Japanese speakers.
Learners often use katakana (the syllabic alphabet) to transcribe new English words. This affects both their intelligibility as not all sounds in English can be accurately rendered in Katakana, as well as affecting the number of syllables in a given word and forces the addition of vowels, as Japanese has few consonant clusters compared to English. This method of recording vocabulary impedes both the acquisition of language and phonology. Learners need to learn alternative ways of recording language and pronunciation so these problems do not become ingrained for example using the IPA.
Japanese is more regularly timed in pace and syllables are produced at roughly equal intervals. While English which is predominately stress timed and more emphasis is given to certain syllables and words.
Some activities to practice individual sounds as well as word stress can be found below.
Use mirrors/pictures to highlight the importance of tongue and mouth positions
Minimal pair sentences – Learners identify which word/sound was uttered: You’re driving too fast – watch out for the curve/ kerb or There’s a huge bat/ vat in the attic.
Syllables & Stress: Using word stress cards have learners group words according to their stress patterns or number of syllables.
Mix’n’match: give learners a word card and they find their partner by finding someone with a word that has the same stress as them.
Stress Bingo: focus on stress patterns using known lexis.
Stress Mapping: Teacher provides a topic and learners come up with words associated with that topic categorising the words by their stress pattern
Japanese learners can have issues with English grammar, some common problems include (this is not exhaustive):
Articles: These not only do not exist in Japanese but in English are generally unstressed function words (grammatical rather than carry meaning). Learners have no L1 equivalent and often cannot hear them.
Tenses: In Japanese the final verb in the sentence signals the overall tense of the sentence. So it can be hard for learners to remember to match tenses throughout a sentence. Also Japanese uses tenses differently and without the range that exist in English, (e.g. using present simple to convey future events).
Auxiliary verbs / relative clauses: These do not exist in Japanese and can cause problems in the formation of perfect/progressive (continuous) aspect, questions, negatives etc in English.
Word order: Japanese has a SOV (subject-object-verb) word order, with prepositions following nouns, and other particles (to form questions for example) following the sentence. All of which is different to English (SVO).
Omission of subject: In Japanese this is often implied and tends to be carried over into English. This can also lead to problems with personal pronouns (s/he) as these also tend to be implied in Japanese.
Relative pronouns: Do not exist in Japanese.
Omission of -s for present simple 3rd person verbs: Japanese verbs do not change for person or number.
Use nouns as adjectives / adverbs etc: Japanese nouns can also function as adjectives or adverbs. No distinction between countable and uncountable nouns in Japanese.
Many difficulties Japanese learners have with English are not actually down to problems with the language itself but are more the result of cultural differences. Generally speaking in the Japanese education system learning is very passive. The classes are typically teacher centred and there is a preference for explicit instruction above interaction and classroom dynamics. This can cause problems for the ESL classes where the focus is reversed.
While having quiet learners can be nice for the teacher it is not necessarily good for the learners, as they tend not to ask questions they have for fear of disrupting the class. This leads to some learners checking information with their peers, relying on the textbook, dictionaries etc and can make it problematic for teachers to check they have understood concepts and language correctly. Some ways of dealing with this include: using the learners’ names; encouraging participation; giving learners some kind of leadership; giving them some responsibility in class and of course clear consistent checking of concepts
Communication in Japanese is heavily influenced by age, gender, relationship and relative status of the participants. Japanese is rife with abstraction which can be difficult for English speakers to relate to. Learners are often concerned with what is appropriate to say and how their response might affect the other person. This leads to learners struggling to find the best way to express themselves and can result in English that sounds too vague or tentative to a native English speaker.
This leads to learner struggling to find the best way to express themselves and can result in English that sounds too vague or tentative to a native English speaker.
Other cultural factors to consider are body language and physical contact. In some cultures demonstrative contact (i.e. touching someone’s arm while you are talking to them) is an important form of communication. However, this can make Japanese learners uncomfortable or result in them getting the wrong idea.
Japanese learners also tend to like something tangible to show what they have been learning i.e. a text, a handout, something that can be copied for the board. For many learners copying something from the board gives it importance and relevance, so a lesson without any boardwork is often felt to be a waste of time.
In classroom speaking activities learners tend to respond well to topics such as sport, hobbies, interests etc. But are often stuck when asked why they like it. Analysis is often not a part of daily life or in schools, and can mean learners cannot give reasons for things in the English classroom. It can also be difficult for Japanese learners to express opinions or use their imagination. Most learners feel that it is their “job” in the class to memorise what the teacher says and that there is only one ‘correct’ answer for any given question.
Some ideas for helping learners with potential issues during speaking tasks include:
Giving opinions - Give learners options / Be encouraging, never negative / Allow time to formulate ideas (e.g. prepare at home) / Use roles to give them opinions
Being imaginative - Use situations/people you are sure they can identify with / Follow on from a reading/listening / Ask them to finish off sentences / Tell them exactly how many sentences/ideas you want
Elicitation/Guessing - Use simple language & be clear / Learners write down ideas & compare with a partner / Create a secure atmosphere in the class so learners are comfortable & feel able to ask questions if they do not understand / Put them in pairs to think about answers before they tell the whole class / Practice!
Being independent of the teacher - Clear instructions & do an example together / Do NOT participate / learners will expect you to take control - Stand well away from the activity / Make sure learners understand if the activity is spoken or written
Pair/Group-work - As above / Set a time limit & stick to it / Teach useful language, e.g. Do you agree? /
Monitor carefully / Start with a controlled activity before moving to a less controlled activity
Mingling - Keep it short initially / Clear aim e.g. talk to everybody, record their answers, then report back / Give simple instructions & break down the activity into clear sections / Give them something to hold on to or fill in