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Why is English difficult for the Japanese?

Tuvo

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Hello there!
I am a new person here and firstly I would like to introduce myself and the purpose of this thread. Since I am conducting research concerning in which way the Japanese find the English language difficult, here is the topic. I would like to ask all the people concerned who feel willing to contribute to my research (in any way, providing me with any valuable resource, book, website, comment - all those things are highly appreciated).
1. What is difficult for the Japanese learners of English in the English language in general?
2. Which sphere of the language is mostly influenced by their native language?
3. What are the aftermaths of this process?
4. What are the differences between the English language and the Japanese language in terms of phonology, syntax and semantics?

Any contribution to my research is welcome. Thank you in andvance!
 

Lacota

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What do you mean by question 2 and 3? Could you elaborate?
 

Glenski

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1. Speaking as an English teacher in Japan for almost 20 years, this is not a question that one answer will do.
2. I don't understand the question.
3. I don't understand #2, so this question is hard to answer.
4. I suggest that you audit a Japanese language course even for a day or two and see for yourself. In short, though, English has more sounds, so the older the Japanese learner, the more fixed they are in their ways of pronouncing Japanese (and mispronouncing English). Also, foreign words are either pronounced with katakana (イメージ for image) or with shortened forms (paso con = personal computer). So to pronounce these properly among other Japanese is not needed, but they find it difficult to surprising to learn how words are really pronounced. Mixed consonant sounds are also troublesome (fly, strong, scratch), and there are obvious difficulties in the pairs of sounds such as R vs L, V vs B, etc. Moreover, word endings cause problems sometimes because Japanese has no hard consonant endings. For example, the word "lab" stops with the B sound in English, but it's a "bo" sound in Japanese, causing the word to sound like "labo". And, there are further quirks like being able to pronounce the last O in San Francisco, but not in Toronto ("toront"). Some semantic differences also exist when English loan words are used; "image" is often used instead of "imagine". Politicians love trying to look sophisticated by incorporating loan words into their speeches, even when the meaning is not what it should be (their favorite now is to say "eco" instead of "environmentally friendly" or "ecology"). If you are talking about mere spelling issues and pronunciation, phonics is not taught here, so that causes a plethora of problems.
Language differences: English - Japanese
This Is Japan (in English): Differences between English and Japanese Grammars (Gillian)
Ten Differences Between Japanese and English That Make Japanese an Easy Language To Learn - ようこそ ベイティー先生のクラスへ
A paper on syntax
Just type in some keywords like "differences", "English", "Japanese", and the key points you seek (pronunciation, syntax, phonology, etc.) and Google will find tons of stuff for you. If you are into researched papers, use Google Scholar instead.

And, another major reason Japanese find it hard to learn English is that they expect miracles and shortcuts, when there are none. Plus, their education system is so royally screwed up in how English is presented and taught, especially in primary and secondary schools. College isn't much better.
 

Lothor

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Agree with all of the above, and also suggest that motivation is a factor. Relatively few Japanese people spend time in an environment where English is necessary, so do do not really see the need to learn it apart from for academic reasons. The British have a reputation for being poor at learning foreign languages (I'm British by the way), which may be for a similar reason.
If Hirashin is not too busy, he might be able to add something interesting to this thread as a Japanese high school teacher of English.
 

Glenski

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With regards to motivation, they lose it during their final 2 years of high school. (I used to work in one.) That's because the teaching switches from grammar and oral practice to college entrance exam prep, a really boring thing. So after they get into college, they are sick and tired of such studying, still want to make foreign friends, but they don't know how to get past "My name is..." and feel they never will. On top of that, their HS studies are largely done by Japanese teachers whose own command of the language is poor, and who teach the entrance exam prep in Japanese (despite MEXT directives to teach mostly in English). Then, they enter college and are overwhelmed when their mandatory English courses are taught mostly in English. Down goes motivation again.

Finally, as Lothor mentioned, the workplace is a problem. My students are science majors, and you'd think they would realize that whether they do research for a living or just company work in a science area, English is the language for a big part of their careers. But they don't realize that. Instead, they parrot back that globalization is important and upon them, and then counter with "But we will live in Japan and not need English". Stupid contradiction. Science teachers don't usually have company experience, so they don't encourage students to learn English because they themselves don't realize how it's used on the job (mostly emails for reading & writing, followed by various business documents, and mostly casual conversation on the phone or face to face with customers/clients, all until they get up to higher managerial roles at which time they need more and might even get sent overseas with zero training to prepare them). TOEIC scores are required by many companies, but I have found that not to be the case for companies who hire my students. And for those that do, they usually just want students to jump through the hoops and get a score -- ANY score -- just to tick it off the checklist.

Relatively few Japanese people spend time in an environment where English is necessary, so do do not really see the need to learn it apart from for academic reasons.
I would like to see numbers to back that up. I am finding that most companies (2/3) actually DO require workers to use English, although not 24/7 every day. It depends on what sort of positions they are in and how long they've been with the company. Globalization is creeping into many facets of work life, even with small companies. You constantly hear anecdotes of a mom and pop shop suddenly needing to contact foreign places to buy or sell parts or supplies or products, and nobody can communicate in English. Or businessmen are suddenly told that their small company has formed a branch office in Thailand, and they will be sent there for a 3-6 month assignment in just another month or two, and they will need English. Small to medium companies hire more people than the bigger ones, so they contain more of the workforce, yet they have less in the way of money to pay for language training, and on top of that they don't even know how to provide it to their employees.
 

madphysicist

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My thoughts, after helping many people of different nationalities to learn informally...

Some of the problems Japanese students have are common to many learners of English:
a) English spelling does not correspond directly to pronunciation and is often incomprehensibly weird
b) English has many tenses that do not exist in other languages and several possible auxilliaries - consider a phrase such as "I would have had to do it" or "If I had not been used to doing it"
c) In English, word order is very important. In some languages there is much more freedom to move parts of the sentence around.
d) English has a lot of vocabulary, partly because in many cases we have both a Latin and a Germanic word for the same thing. You can often see this just by picking up a bilingual dictionary - in my Italian-English dictionary, the English section is nearly twice as thick.
e) English has so many groups of speakers that pronunciation, vocabulary and slang can differ wildly. Of course this is true of any language, but a foreigner who has only been exposed to American idioms and accent will often struggle to understand my British speech even though it is very close to standard British English. Then consider all the other different countries where English is widely spoken.
f) English has a lot of vowel sounds. These don't correspond to the spelling and vary a lot by region, so it can be pretty hard for non-natives to pick up a "native" sounding accent (or even an understandable one).

Specific to Japanese are:
a) As @Glenski said, there are far fewer sounds in Japanese. Most Japanese will struggle to say L, R, V, Z, TH, WO (as in "women"), WE (as in "where"). I once tried to help a Japanese girl by getting her to read a magazine article aloud so I could see what her biggest issues with pronunciation were. First sentence: "Real women always wear jewellery". Poor girl.
b) Japanese verbs don't have many "tenses" corresponding directly to the English ones, which compounds the problem in b) above.
c) Japanese sentence order is just the other way round from English, e.g. the sentence "the man I saw yesterday" becomes "the I-saw-yesterday man" and the verb is at the end of the phrase not the middle. See here:
Head-directionality parameter - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
d) Generally in terms of grammar Japanese and English are different in just about every way languages can be.
e) As the others mentioned, usually Japanese students are not taught by native English speakers. Japan is generally lacking in foreigners compared to other developed nations and so there are fewer opportunities to interact directly with native speakers unless the Japanese person actively seeks them out. Although many Japanese can read English surprisingly well, this doesn't correspond to conversational ability.
 

Glenski

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Japan is generally lacking in foreigners compared to other developed nations and so there are fewer opportunities to interact directly with native speakers unless the Japanese person actively seeks them out.
I agree to a certain point. We foreigners comprise less than 3% of the population, and most of them are Korean or Chinese. But Japanese are too shy or embarrassed to take advantage of the opportunities they have, even when they are shoved down their throats. For example, at my uni of only 1400 students, we have a weekly English lunch chat, but only about 10-20 show up, and always the same people. Same for the monthly travel presentations we have. Japan has tons of books in stores to help them study for TOEIC, but even though Japanese take TOEIC more than anyone else, that doesn't help them learn the language to converse. TV is full of English learning programs, and even if they are on late at night, people are too lazy to record them and use them later. I used to teach a listening course, and on the first day I get the class to list all the opportunities available in the country to expose them to such materials. It's an awareness-building thing, and they make quite an impressive list. Know which one item they claim they use the most? Listening to music (with or without the liner notes, usually without). Even when I point out how bad this is to learn ANY language (due to poetic license in lyrics, wildly different inflections compared to conversation, etc.), they just don't get it. Japanese students, in my opinion, simply don't know how to study (and they admit it). They just want a quick easy enjoyable fix.
 

madphysicist

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@Glenski
Yeah maybe I didn't phrase it that well. I don't think one even has to interact directly with native speakers to get a decent grasp of a language, if there's enough motivation there.

Of course there are always opportunities available - you could go online and find plenty of native speakers to interact with one way or another. But I think most Japanese are not seeking out opportunities, and in Japan it's relatively easy to have zero exposure to English if you're not trying. Here in Germany it seems one gets exposed to English all the time because there are a lot of foreigners about and they generally don't speak much German. I include myself in that; most people I interact with daily can speak English so well there's little need to practise with my rusty German. Perhaps there is also some social pressure here to speak English well, whereas I feel in Japan they may have the opposite - sometimes they seem embarrassed to pronounce English properly or be seen to be trying too hard.

I learnt a few things from listening to music although usually it's just extra bits of vocab. My main listening resource is Japanese tv dramas of highly variable quality :)
 

cocoichi

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In order to get valid data, I would change your research method.

Right now without any introduction, you state/assume that Japanese find English difficult. How do you know for sure they find it difficult? Have you asked a group that is diverse and big enough to represent the Japanese nation whether they find it difficult or not? If you find that in your opinion they do not speak it very well, it does not necessarily mean that they find it difficult. You also don't segment your population. Right now you put poorly and highly educated, young and old, men and women, urban and countryside, etc all in the same group.

The answer to question number four should be available to you through essays/papers/books about the technical aspects of the Japanese language.
 

Tuvo

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What do you mean by question 2 and 3? Could you elaborate?
Sorry for not being clear enough. Let me explain. I would like to be provided with some resources which would enable me to analyse the aftermaths of the English language being influenced by the Japanese spoken by the native Japanese speakers.

Right now without any introduction, you state/assume that Japanese find English difficult. How do you know for sure they find it difficult? Have you asked a group that is diverse and big enough to represent the Japanese nation whether they find it difficult or not? If you find that in your opinion they do not speak it very well, it does not necessarily mean that they find it difficult. You also don't segment your population.
Perhaps the way I put it is not clear but I used the very word DIFFICULT to emphasise the aspect of non-fluency and certain limitations which prevents the Japanese from being fully linguistically aware of the grammatical correctness of the sentence/phrases they produce. I understand that this word may be misleading in the sense that it engenders certain preassumptions but I didn't mean that. The aim of my question was to be provided with some useful sources which I may find handy and for all of those which you all have gatheted here I am truly grateful. I hope that this is clear now.
Moreover, I am preparing a presentation concering the aspects of English which are difficult/challenging for the Japanese in any possible meaning of the word DIFFICULT. I want to create a general view of the Japanese people learning English but, obviously, the main focus is on the young.
 

mdchachi

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Sorry for not being clear enough. Let me explain. I would like to be provided with some resources which would enable me to analyse the aftermaths of the English language being influenced by the Japanese spoken by the native Japanese speakers.
I may be dense but I still don't quite understand what you're getting at. Do you mean like grammatical problems? Like the fact that Japanese doesn't have articles or plurals therefore they frequently don't use these aspects of English grammar correctly?
 

Glenski

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Since I am conducting research concerning in which way the Japanese find the English language difficult, here is the topic. I would like to ask all the people concerned who feel willing to contribute to my research (in any way, providing me with any valuable resource, book, website, comment - all those things are highly appreciated).

I would like to be provided with some resources which would enable me to analyse the aftermaths of the English language being influenced by the Japanese spoken by the native Japanese speakers.
Analyzing the aftermath (a weird choice of words) is different from asking why English seems difficult. This is the first confusion I've run into.

You are conducting research? Is this for some sort of class project? I don't do homework for people. This is the second point of confusion. If you are doing research, then look up currently published literature, don't come to an anonymous website discussion room. If you want help from other teachers, this place doesn't have many. Go to ESL Discussion Center instead. But from the way you put things, it looks like you want some sort of survey answered in order to complete a course project. Hell, I found sites to answer some of your questions just with a simple Google search; if you are really doing research, use Google Scholar. Frankly, I don't think the data you seek exists.
 

Tuvo

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You are conducting research? Is this for some sort of class project? I don't do homework for people. This is the second point of confusion. If you are doing research, then look up currently published literature, don't come to an anonymous website discussion room. If you want help from other teachers, this place doesn't have many. Go to ESL Discussion Center instead. But from the way you put things, it looks like you want some sort of survey answered in order to complete a course project. Hell, I found sites to answer some of your questions just with a simple Google search; if you are really doing research, use Google Scholar. Frankly, I don't think the data you seek exists.
The truth is, I am conducting my personal research. This is by no means a school project. If it were such a project, I would not ask for help. The objective of my question, I repeat, was to use the resources provided by the people who have more experience in teaching the Japanese than I personally have. I am grateful for those websites you have enumerated here and I take all the pieces of advice into consideration. I am, obviously, capable of looking for information in Google and I think it is clear that I have already looked for some.
I will make use of some of the pieces of information you have provided, thank you very much for your help.
 

Glenski

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Thanks for explaining that. The way you started the thread with 4 questions, and with the use of phrases like "my research", it seemed as if you were conducting a formal survey for something official. Can I ask what sort of personal project you have going?
 
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