Teaching English to Japanese Learners

Teaching English to Japanese Learners 1/2

by Sophia McMillan

(Shane Training Centre, Japan)

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).

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.

Individual Sounds:

* 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.

* Pronunciation Trees

* Tongue Twisters

Word Stress:

* 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 English.

About kintaro63

Writer and teacher in Japan
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