The frustrations of an English teacher in Japan

Why I learnt to speak 5 languages – and working on my 6th…

From an early age on, I have been very driven to explore the world around me. I recall ordering ‘une baguette s’il vous plaît’ (or at least, this is what I thought it sounded like!) in France when my parents would send their six-year old Dutch girl to a bakery during the holidays. A few years later I realised that it would take quite a bit of effort to communicate with people abroad and go beyond being polite.

As a teenager, I loved digging myself into my schoolbooks to study English and French and German as optional languages. Later, I picked up Swedish and currently I am learning Spanish to enjoy our Central American adventure to the fullest. I admit that at times, I got sick and tired of all these vocabulary lists, but I was driven, and I wanted to be able to make friends abroad while travelling!

Why I became a teacher of the English language

Add to this a passion to broaden one’s horizons, the fact that Esperanto hasn’t really picked up making English the closest thing to a universal language, and this is how I ended up as a teacher of the English language. I’m happy to see how the teenagers I work with can spread their wings into the vast world to try and understand it a bit better, and interact with people of different cultures and languages. Being able to communicate in a different language enriches one’s experiences greatly: exchanging with locals, reading books and articles in local languages, finding your way more easily, getting a better idea of what you may be eating, getting you to unknown places, etc.

English in European schools

The objectives of teaching English as a second language in high schools in Europe seems obvious: expanding vocabulary, teaching tenses to form grammatically correct sentences, focusing on spelling, reading and writing skills, and last but not least speaking skills and pronunciation. It proves to be successful as most Europeans (in some countries a little bit better than others) have at least a decent basic English.

English in Japan

When I travelled through Japan for more than 6 weeks, I was shocked by the poor level of English of the Japanese people I met. I must admit that I felt slightly frustrated as my use of English was most of the time not understood at all. During the first two weeks of our travels on the Southern islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, we only met two Japanese natives with a decent English. Agreed, these islands are not the most touristy, nor the most industrial ones, but when reaching the very touristy and must-see Kyoto, I was still puzzled by the pitiful level of English of the locals. Even in Tokyo! Whenever we needed to make a booking, choose a dish in a restaurant or ask for the road, I needed to speak in such a broken English for people to understand me that I felt embarrassed myself. Often a Japanese person would just stare and smile at me, creating uncomfortable situations.

Some people however, came to me and were willing to speak English. A woman we met during a hike in the Alps, a husband and wife in a ryokan in Hokkaido and a teenage girl in a restaurant, pushed towards us by her dad… and that was about it…

A simple approach is to assume that the learning of English is so poor that Japanese people cannot speak it. However, in the Japanese culture, loosing face is such a no go that many people would rather answer a simple “no” to the question “do you speak English?” than try and take the risk of making a mistake.

English in the Japanese classroom

English is mandatory in Japanese schools but the problem is that its program mainly focuses on grammar rules and expanding vocabulary in order to pass complicated theoretical tests, allowing pupils to go to the next level. English is often taught from a mathematical approach. Incorrect use of tenses is immediately rejected by teachers, leaving students paralysed to try again. Japanese teenagers have to spend hours learning grammar rules but hardly any attention is paid to implementing these rules into conversations.

As an English teacher, the most rewarding sessions are the improvised ones when my students debate passionately about topics that matter to them. They almost forget that they are speaking in English, and they are not that ashamed of making mistakes as they want to out their point of view on the topic. These sessions allow them to gain confidence and be more daring, to understand that beyond mastering a language, learning it opens doors and allows them to communicate with the world. Of course grammar is important and these sessions inevitably end by grammar points!

Expressing yourself, your feelings and desires is another obstacle as Japanese students are not encouraged to do so. Keeping silent is more often encouraged. On top of that, English is hardly needed in Japan as TV programs, the internet, video games and literature are Japanese to start with or translated, and there are not too many foreigners living in Japan. So why bother?

I hope that with young generations more Japanese kids realise that English can be fun too, and that the curriculum and the way of teaching will evolve to include speaking skills. Having a conversation with a foreigner opens up your world so much, gives you so many new insights on what else there is to discover and no foreigner will disapprove of an incorrect grammar tense! But on the contrary, they will try and understand you: grammar does not need to be perfectly correct in order to communicate.

And this is the very specific reason why I consider it a challenge to go back to Japan, and to learn Japanese before. I know I won’t be able to become fluent and understand the subtleties of this extremely rich and complex language. So what? My desire to understand the culture better is stronger and worth the effort. I have already downloaded the NHK lessons!

Professionally, working as a teacher of the English language in Japan, having conversations with students, not judging them on their mistakes but encouraging them to make as many as possible to make progress would be a fantastic challenge. Hard work, the braveness to allow yourself to make mistakes, the curiosity to discover what is abroad and the desire to communicate with people is the only way to learn efficiently.



7 thoughts on “The frustrations of an English teacher in Japan

  1. Hi:) Love the article! I’m also an EFL teacher in Tokyo and I completely get what you’re saying. I find it a real shame that some students can speed read a Times article or MLK speech but introduce themselves properly.

    Hoe long have you been here? X

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, thanks! We’ve have spent only 6 weeks in Japan. We travelled around from Kyushu to Hokkaido. You are still teaching in Tokyo? How did you get a teaching post? This is something I am interested in for the future. I am a teacher of the English language by profession but I don’t have a TEFL degree, do you know if this is necessary? And where are you from? Good luck teaching, awesome job! 🙂


      • Ooh we’re going to Hokkaido in January, will you be writing about it? Yeah, I’m still here now. I applied for a job with Shane English School and was lucky enough to get it. I don’t have a TEFL degree but I have an English Degree, a CELTA and I’m doing my masters in TESOL next year. In order to teach in the UK and in reputable schools a Cambridge CELTA or a Trinity London TESOL are needed. Hope that helps 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the info! Good luck with your masters! We wrote a few very nice articles about Hokkaido, including some stunning pictures of wildlife and landscapes. Check our blog and in the menu, go to Asia -> Japan -> Hokkaido. It must be a completely different experience in winter, we would love to read your impressions! 😄


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