Tofugu readers tend to be dedicated to improving their understanding of Japanese language and culture. So I think many reading this can agree that learning a foreign language can be a reeeeeeal pain. Learning a new way of thinking is a struggle no matter what country or culture you’re from. It’s hard for me to understand certain concepts in Japanese, as I’m sure it is the other way around.
This got me thinking.
Each year, my university invites a handful of international students from one of our partner schools in Japan to come and spend a few semesters living and studying on our campus. Many of these students are dedicated, long-time English language learners and members of the English Speaking Society at their university in Japan. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to ask a few questions and see what these students thought about learning English.
Meet the Students (Kind of)
For this study, I interviewed 5 exchange students: Mizuta-san, Ota-san, Suzuki-san, Watabiki-san, and Yoshiyuki-san. Out of respect for their privacy, I’ve withheld the participants’ school and their first names. Let’s meet our English student participants:
Major: Chemical Engineering
Major: Chemical Engineering
Let’s see what they have to say, shall we?
Q. How long have you been studying English?
Mizuta-san: Nine years.
Ota-san: Since junior high school, about eight years.
Suzuki-san: For seven and a half years.
Watabiki-san: For nine years.
Yoshiyuki-san: Eight years.
Q. Do you consider studying English a passion of yours?
Mizuta-san: Yes, I do.
Ota-san: Yes, I think you shouldn’t study for study, but should study for fun.
Suzuki-san: Yes, I do.
Q. Do you want to move to an English-speaking country?
Mizuta-san: Yes, I do. If I have the chance.
Suzuki-san: Yes, I do.
Watabiki-san: No. I love Japan.
Q. What in your opinion are the hardest parts of learning English?
Mizuta-san: Speaking English without hesitation.
Ota-san: I don’t have confidence in my sentences.
Suzuki-san: A lot of slang and accents which are different from country to country.
Watabiki-san: We have no problem living in Japan without English. There are no chances to use English in daily life.
Yoshiyuki-san: Enriching my vocabulary.
Q. How is this different from Japanese?
Mizuta-san: We need to be more emotional in English than in Japanese.
Ota-san: Because I’m afraid of making mistakes.
Suzuki-san: Maybe it is relatively easy for us Japanese to understand Japanese slang or accents in different parts of Japan because Japanese is spoken only in Japan. But English is an international language. So I often face difficulties in understanding what native English speakers say, because it is hardly possible to acquire all of those words.
Watabiki-san: We use Japanese everyday.
Yoshiyuki-san: I just have fewer opportunities to listen to English than Japanese.
Q. Why is this “hardest part” difficult for you?
Mizuta-san: Because we are not used to doing it, and I feel a little afraid of making grammar mistakes in English.
Ota-san: It’s really hard to check sentences. I don’t have confidence in translation tools or electronic dictionaries, because they often make mistakes.
Suzuki-san: There are too many English slangs and accents across the globe.
Watabiki-san: No opportunities to use english Each day.
Yoshiyuki-san: I’m poor at memorizing.
Q. How have you helped yourself compensate for these difficulties?
Mizuta-san: Practice and memorize English I learned in English classes.
Ota-san: I make sure to study grammar.
Suzuki-san: I make some time to talk with native English speakers on a regular basis. I try to understand as many different things as I can.
Watabiki-san: I study when I can.
Yoshiyuki-san: I’m learning more English words by reading a book for the Eiken test.
Q. What are the easiest parts of learning English?
Suzuki-san: English sentence structure is simpler than Japanese.
Watabiki-san: Learning Vocabulary.
Q. Are these “easiest parts” similar to Japanese or different?
Mizuta-san: Different, but simple.
Suzuki-san: The latter.
Watabiki-san: Some English words are used in Japanese as if they are Japanese words, but most of them are different.
Yoshiyuki-san: Different but simple to learn.
Q. Why do you find these things easy?
Mizuta-san: Because my English classes in my school days had focused on reading English.
Ota-san: English is systematic and the meaning is clear in sentences. On the other hand, Japanese has many kanji, which you have to memorize, and the meaning often depends on the context of sentences.
Suzuki-san: Japanese seems to have a lot of expressions to explain the same thing.
Watabiki-san: I have two reasons: first, everyone can easily improve their vocabulary if they study, and second, there are relationships among English words. For example, “ped” means “foot” so “pedal,” “biped,” “pedestrian” all relate with “foot.”
Yoshiyuki-san: I have done well in grammar tests since I started studying English. In junior high, I found I liked English grammar more than my classmates did.
Q. How did you begin learning English?
Mizuta-san: As mandatory education in middle school.
Ota-san: I started because we have to study in junior high school.
Suzuki-san: It was a compulsory subject in my junior high school.
Watabiki-san: Almost all Japanese start learning English when they enter junior high school. First, we learn easy words and sentences like “hello,” “nice to meet you,” and so on.
Yoshiyuki-san: My mother made me go to English school when I was 11.
Q. If you were going to teach an English speaker Japanese where would you begin?
Mizuta-san: I would consult the International faculty at my home university.
Ota-san: I would start with greetings.
Watabiki-san: Same with how I was taught. I would teach them “konnichiwa” means “hello” and “arigatou” means “thank you.”
Q. In your opinion is it harder to teach an English speaker Japanese or to teach a Japanese speaker English?
Mizuta-san: Both of them are equally difficult.
Ota-san: For me, it’s harder to teach an English speaker because with a Japanese speaker I can teach in Japanese. It is difficult to teach delicate nuance in English.
Suzuki-san: The former.
Watabiki-san: It is harder to teach an English speaker Japanese.
Yoshiyuki-san: To teach an English speaker Japanese, I think.
Q. What were the best methods and activities to learn English you have had?
Mizuta-san: I think singing songs in English is the best.
Ota-san: Reading foreign books that I’m interested in. For example, novels and science books.
Watabiki-san: I force myself to use only English when I practice and not Japanese.
Yoshiyuki-san: Living in an English-speaking country. I did a homestay in Australia for two weeks
Q. What were the worst methods and activities to learn English you have experienced?
Mizuta-san: Memorizing single English words with Japanese translation.
Ota-san: This may not be what you expect, but for me it was textbook exercises. In Japan, school teachers teach grammar a lot, but the students don’t get deeply in touch with English. Junior high school English textbooks are really thin.
Suzuki-san: Just memorization of English words and phrases. It is important to use the words not just memorize.
Watabiki-san: I have no idea.
Yoshiyuki-san: Reading English sentences silently.
Q. What are the characteristics of Japanese education or the Japanese people that influence how you learn English?
Mizuta-san: Japanese English education is likely to be focused on reading English rather than speaking, so most Japanese people feel difficulty when speaking English.
Ota-san: Classes teach reading and grammar a lot, but I hardly learned listening and speaking.
Suzuki-san: Japanese English education just focuses on reading or writing. So most Japanese cannot speak or listen to English. Even some Japanese English teachers cannot.
Watabiki-san: I think the Japanese are generally shy and introverted so we tend to study English alone, only reading books or listening to CDs.
Yoshiyuki-san: They make us recite English sentences.
Q. What kind of activities do you enjoy most in the classroom and why?
Mizuta-san: Singing songs and pair work. Because we can speak English in those activities.
Ota-san: Talking with English speakers, because I can really get in touch with another culture.
Suzuki-san: I enjoy conversation, just because I like speaking English.
Watabiki-san: Having a conversation with people whose English skills are different from mine.
Yoshiyuki-san: I like small-group activities. It is easier than telling the whole class my opinions.
Q. What kind of activities in the classroom do you dislike and why?
Mizuta-san: Word quizzes, because they are boring.
Ota-san: Memorizing grammar.
Suzuki-san: I hate just translating English into Japanese in class, because it is meaningless when I communicate with English speakers.
Watabiki-san: Having a conversation with people whose language skill is equal to mine. I can’t learn and I can’t teach.
Yoshiyuki-san: Giving a presentation. I don’t like speaking in front of a large audience.
Q. What kind of activities to do with the language do you do outside the classroom?
Mizuta-san: Hanging out with foreign people.
Ota-san: Reading books and watching movies in English.
Suzuki-san: Listening to English music.
Watabiki-san: Improving my vocabulary with books and dictionaries, and listening to English CDs.
Yoshiyuki-san: I made a speech for ESS (English Speaking Society). I liked learning how to make a speech, and trying to overcome my weaknesses.
Thanks again to all five dedicated students who took the time to answer my questions. It was really interesting to see how many of their responses lined up. Especially in regards to the benefits of practicing speaking and listening instead of just reading and writing.
Writing and compiling this interview definitely motivated me to dust off some of Japanese textbooks. If you have any language learning sentiments or stories of your own, please share them in the comments. Stay diligent with your studies!