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Are the ESL Programs in Japan Doing More Harm than Good?

When you see the same mistakes being made over and over by different people – which you will inevitably see in the English education system in Japan – then the problem is clear. It’s not an individual thing; it’s a systematic issue. Students are all somehow being taught the same mistakes, and/or not enough people are fixing them. There are hundreds if not thousands of small businesses and little organizations (especially in Tokyo) that are trying to beat the bad habits out of students, but you will be surprised at how far these mistakes reach. I didn’t have to look hard to find examples of this in the newspaper.

I understand how the Japanese language is not set up to integrate English words particularly well – they are very different languages. For example, the word “almost” is essentially the same in Japanese as the word “almost all,” which is why you always hear odd English sentences like “almost people will come” (as in, zombies?) or “almost food is delicious” (is it not real food?). But even though it may be confusing, practically every other ESL-educated country in the world is better at English (when controlled for time), so we cannot accept such an excuse. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the English education in Japan is bad, or just wrong.

Everyday English ad

Fixing these mistakes was probably the intention of “Everyday English,” (EE) a company that has been putting large advertisements in the Asahi Shimbun (Asahi newspaper) for quite a while (I first noticed them a few months ago, but they may have been there longer). Considering the Asahi newspaper’s morning edition alone has a circulation of around 8 million, this ad is seen by a huge amount of people. Every week or so, a new headline includes a seemingly normal sentence (for Japanese people) and then explains how foreigners in fact never use them.

For example, the image below is a close-up of the headline saying “I’m exciting,” followed by the very true statement that no foreigners say this (unless they’re awkwardly conceited), and that you should be careful of any textbook that concludes this. This is indeed an extremely common mistake for Japanese students, who struggle to grasp transitive vs. intransitive verbs in English. But it’s worth noting that there are probably no textbooks in Japan which say this – they’re learning it from somewhere else.

“I’m exciting” – Should be “I’m excited” (an extremely common mistake)

The confusion is the same for words like “interesting” vs. “interested.” So if you’re a foreigner in Japan, don’t be surprised to hear “I’m sorry you’re boring.” It’s been said.

Or there’s this obvious mistake (sounds like an order off a twisted menu) from an ad that was printed two days ago.

“I like cat”

Though the layout of the EE ads are always different (sometimes using a different picture of the spokespeople, such as Thane Camus, an American who all Japanese people know), the content is always the exact same. The product basically focuses on 1) speaking real English that foreigners actually use, and 2) listening to English via mp3 players and online media. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but I do like how they say clear up some of the misconceptions that students in Japan misleadingly learn.

For example, Japanese students all learn that after saying “Thank you,” the correct response is “You’re welcome.” This isn’t a bad lesson, but the EE ads point out that native English speakers often say alternatives like “That’s OK” or “No problem” instead. This is certainly a good lesson to give Japanese students, because Japan is full of catch-all (or “all-purpose”) words that essentially make the language come off as a very scripted one, when it comes to formalities. For example, the Japanese phrase “otsukare-sama-deshita” can be translated at least twenty different ways because there’s no single equivalent in English.

So many Japanese people believe that English has these kinds of phrases too (English does, but not very many). So if you ask a Japanese student “How are you?” you are guaranteed 99% of the time to hear the same script, which is “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” But only rarely can they understand any alternative, such as “not bad.”

So why am I endorsing EE anyways?

…I’m not.

I know very little about EE. I don’t like the idea of emphasizing listening – because I’m a firm believer in emphasizing live conversation for language learning – but I can’t judge on what I don’t know. Instead, I’ll judge on what I do know. That brings me to my next visual.

“She’s naïve” – The word “naïve” means something totally different in Japanese

In this ad, which came out almost a month ago, the same warning of “No foreigners say this; if your textbook has this, beware,” but it followed the words “She’s naïve.” Just to be perfectly clear, in Japanese the word naïve basically means “sensitive/innocent,” which is obviously totally different from the English meaning. So if EE were to say that the two words cannot be used interchangeably because they have entirely different meanings, they would be right. But they said “No foreigners say this,” which is completely wrong. In fact saying “he’s naïve” or “she’s naïve” is practically the only way English speakers use the word, along with “don’t be naïve.”

What this means is that even the companies that print giant ads in massive newspapers also can’t seem to be trusted as authorities on English education. This is particularly troubling because they correct various mistakes while they make others. Here’s another of their ads, from two weeks ago.

“Good bye” – When you’re going to meet someone later

I can understand that they want to express the fact that English speakers like to say things like “see you soon,” or “I’ll catch you later;” but again, saying that “No foreigners say this” is just totally wrong. It’s not as common as Japanese people tend to think, but saying that absolutely no one says it is very strong language that’s meant to get attention – and it fails miserably to the bilingual observer.

Screen shot 2013-01-08 at 6.17.51 PM

“What time is it now?”

[January 8, 2013 update: In the paragraph above, maybe they were trying to say that good bye should actually be one word (goodbye), but I’m not sure because they say “no foreigners SAY this,” not write. Anyways… more questionable ads came out since I published this article in June 2012, but today’s particularly got to me, because I’ve said and heard it countless times; so I felt I had to update this.]

Like I said above, I didn’t have to look hard for examples of shoddy English lessons. Last week, I saw this gem in the most widely circulated newspaper in the country (with around 14 million prints), the Yomiuri shimbun. The lesson is for an English expression, and they’re attempting to get children to fill in the blank to complete the sentence.

“Don’t halloo till you are out of the wood.”


It’s hard to know where to start with this. I’ll just mention the less obvious things. Teaching kids totally useless expressions is a huge waste of… everything. Why would a student need to know something so random? And if you’re going to teach students something this random, at least do it right – good syntax and good diction. I would venture to guess that if you asked any native English speakers if they have ever said that, they would say no. Furthermore, I’m doubtful whether or not they would even understand the statement if they heard a Japanese person say it.

As you can see, Japan has created its own pseudo-language, complete with words meaning the wrong thing (e.g., naïve) and English expressions that make no sense. It’s no wonder that their English is so bad.

So how should Japanese students know whether or not they should trust a company, piece of advice, or some other English program? Obviously getting a second opinion would be nice, but this obviously isn’t practical; students should be afforded the luxury of not having to second-guess everything they learn – which is the reality of English education in Japan today. It’s a shame, but it’s true that even the people who you’d expect to have plenty of foreigners on staff – such the top newspaper in a major country, or an actual English-learning company – may be part of the problem, not the solution, of Japan’s lack of English mastery.

Ultimately, the best correlate of a good English program (though obviously not always a reliable one) is if it has been vetted by native English speakers. Otherwise, you get nonsense like this every single week, not to mention the embarrassing signs that litter the tourist destinations (and, let’s face it, everywhere else) with their perverted or comical English errors.

Perfect grammar

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