While living in Japan and working as an assistant English teacher, I’ve lost track of how many times Japanese people have asked me why most people in Japan can’t speak English. Due to compulsory education requirements, every Japanese citizen must take 6 years of English language courses. What’s more, starting from the 2011 school year, elementary school fifth and sixth graders are also required to have an English class once a week. Some school districts even offer English classes for kindergarteners and elementary school students in grades first through fourth.
But even after spending half or more of their adolescent years studying the English language, many Japanese struggle to carry out an everyday conversation in English. This isn’t just a casual observation by Japanese citizens, either. Japanese students have among the lowest English TOEFL scores in Asia.
So when Japanese tourists want to take a trip abroad, many are unequipped with the practical language tools necessary to go about daily life in English. The reality of this can be discouraging and even come as a shock to people who have spent years studying back home in Japan, especially when they realize phrases like “Is this a dog? No, It’s a pen.” don’t come up in conversation as much as their textbooks had suggested.
The following is a compilation of impressions of Japanese tourists who have limited English ability while traveling abroad.
1) So many people say “uh huh” when listening to someone talk.
2) People say “Ya” or “Yeah” more often than they say “Yes.”
3) I feel like I will always be stuck with loose change. Whenever I pay with a large bill, I get a ton of coins in return.
4) I thought for a long time about what I could talk about at the front desk of the hotel, but landed up not saying anything.
5) I’m surprisingly fluent in saying, “I can’t speak English.”
6) I was relieved to find a Japanese store.
7) Why do foreigners get so happy when I take a picture with them?
8) I regret not being able to speak a lot of English
9) When my English-speaking friends laugh, I laugh too even if I don’t know what’s going on.
10) Whenever I ask for directions, I can never understand what the person is saying in English.
11) Native English speakers can never pronounce my name correctly (ex. Shingo becomes Chingo)
12) I never want to speak English in front of other Japanese people.
13) Instead of asking, “How much?” I just pay with large bills hoping it’ll cover the cost.
14) About once every three times when I order coffee, I will receive water. When I say, “koohii puriizu” (“Coffee please” said in the Japanese syllabic alphabet), the clerk will ask, “Water?”
For those in Japan who are reading this article to help improve your English skills, what are your thoughts on the impressions of Japanese tourists who have low English language ability?
For English teachers living in Japan, how do you feel about this Japanese tourist’s lack of confidence speaking English?
For those of you living in your home country, what do you think about a foreigner’s perspective while traveling in your country?