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What are Problems for Learners in Japan? Most of my experience in teaching students English as a second language has been with Japanese students. My students have been as young as four and as old as eighty. When I was first asked to teach, it was 1984; from there my journey began and my journey continues. The Japanese language phonology consists of five vowel sounds. Modern Japanese has fifteen consonant sounds which are paired with the vowels with the exception of the n (ん) which can be an ending. No other Japanese words end without a vowel. The n always used with a consonant and vowel like bin or ban. Any English word is a struggle if it does not end with an “n”. For example “Starbucks” is popular in Japan, but the Japanese will use their slang version “sutabaru” (su-tah-bah-lu). Note that the lu is written in Roman characters as ru. The actual pronunciation is the placement of the tongue at the roof of the mouth to say the ‘l’ sound but to pronounce the ‘d’ sound. When the student tries to say the same name, it becomes su-tah-bah-ku-su with each syllable ending with a vowel sound. Another consistent pronunciation difficulty is “th” which the Japanese pronounce with a “su” as suffix and “zis “ as a prefix. Thus, “ zi-su Mao-su” could mean “the mouth” , “the mouse”, “this mouth”, or “this mouse”. When they write it, the meaning is usually clarified, but not always. Over the years the English teaching ability has changed considerably. My host grandfather was 87 years old in 1984. He had grown up in the Meiji Period in Japan. Emperor Meiji brought Quaker English teachers from the US and England to teach English. His own children were also taught in the same manner. Grandfather’s English was still good when he read or spoke. He could not speak fluently, but his pronunciations were very good. As a comparison, his daughter and grandchildren were taught in the Taisho and then Showa eras. These two eras saw a rapid decline in the teaching of English and the change to Japanese English teachers. Post World War Two saw a rebuilding effort, but the teaching moved to teaching to tests with Japanese produced low quality English books and relying on teaching and translating the information into Japanese. Teaching to tests limits the student to be able to have practical real world skills for speaking. The textbooks often contain grammar and spelling mistakes. These are copied and memorized and even included on entrance exams. Thus, the student is forced to learn wrongly in order to pass an exam. The teacher does not speak in English or avoids it as much as possible. This extends even to the university level. Teachers, if they fail to speak properly “lose face”. Students who know there are mistakes will not point them out because it would be disrespectful to the teacher. The students who came to me for learning changed over the years. In 1984 the students needed extra tutorials to understand their English lesson from school. This proved a difficulty because the students had limited time and wanted to be taught in Japanese. I taught them in Japanese, but to my youngest students I taught them in English. Pronunciations required and still require the most work and patience. I tutored one young lady who had passed her TOEIC with high scores, but her pronunciations were horrific. She would consistently end every syllable with a noun. A simple word like a one syllable “stop” became a three syllable “su-toh-pu”. She was capable of graduate level studies, but she was not capable of providing an understandable oral defense. My tutorials with her were a struggle with phonics. It was at this time that my own Japanese language tutor taught me basic linguistics and taught me the various positions for my tongue, especially for my speaking and reading Japanese. Using this information, we slowly reworked her pronunciations. I went on to use this experience with each of my Japanese students. There are, in Japan, many dialects. I speak standard Japanese and four dialects. Japan has an ever changing slang which gets a makeover in every generation. I introduced the word “sutabaru” (su-tah-bah-lu) for Starbucks earlier. These slang words can come and go like a fad but many will stay. Many of the dialects are closer to the original Japanese language giving those speakers a greater number of consonants. The difference can be seen in the foreign language speakers who are from these regions. For them it is a much less daunting task to learn English and the teacher can attend to other areas needing improvement. But the weakness remains in that the Japanese system still relies on teaching to tests, still has low quality English textbooks, and still has teachers who teach English without speaking English. There remains a deep respect for teachers and the words from a teacher to their student makes a lasting impact. This includes positive as well as negative impacts. As a foreigner, I did not have a “face to lose”. Japanese were always fearful of “losing face”. In the male dominated society, the males in Japan have more difficulty with English than the females as they are more fearful of failure. In the classroom I used, I would work with students individually or in classes of 5 - 10 students. Here I kept only positives. Feedback was always positive as were the lessons. Unlike their typical classes, the students were expected to ask questions. By staying within these guidelines and remaining culturally sensitive, I saw many students do very well and improve. To this day, after 30 years, I still maintain a continuing relationship with these students. It was the positive environment which they indicate they enjoyed. As I continued to teach, there were and continue to be areas which have problems such as verb tense or missing indefinite articles or active/passive voice, but to a lesser extent for most of my students. The grammar of Japanese and English is quite different. For me, the difference made it easier to learn Japanese rather than French. Many problems with grammatical mistakes are attributable to poor quality textbooks and the translation of English into Japanese or Japanese into English. There are many concepts and words without a direct translation. Humor, for example, is difficult to change or to be translated. Many of the Japanese punchlines deal with wordplay. In English the specific wordplay does not exist. Even in Japan, the humor can be related to the dialect or region where the person originated. Osaka has many more comedians and jokes than one can find in Tokyo. A simple Western cartoon like the American “The Far Side” or “Peanuts “ can be a struggle. I helped one student translating a “Far Side” cartoon where the criminal gang was being handcuffed in a raid. One character turns to the other and said “See, I told you ‘shave and a haircut was a bad knock’.” I laughed at it and then, rather then translating, I had her listen to the knock. She understood immediately what was so funny, but she had to agree that it was nearly impossible to translate and still be funny. I have noted the most often encountered problems with my Japanese students and to most of Japanese society. Individually, each student has their own issues, their own strengths and weaknesses. Pronunciation issues have been and continue to be the most often encountered problem. I continue to use my same linguistic experience to counter the problem. Pronunciation difficulty extend from the beginner to the corporate world. It is or can be a cause of misunderstandings both simple and severe. —————————————————————————————————— While not part of the summative task, Having a process whether Straight Arrow or Patchwork will certainly help me in my classroom setting here locally and with my current roster of Japanese students. I also found that the teaching of the productive skills and receptive skills to be enlightening. It is an area I have been striving to better incorporate for my upper level Japanese students who want to learn, but want me to choose what to teach them. Lastly, but not the least, the differentiation between accuracy and fluency. I have already incorporated this into some of my students and their fluency time has improved nicely. I believe that the latter was missing or lacking. It has also reduced my talk time and allowed the students to greatly increase their communication flow.