Spotlight on English Learning Experience — Japan

For most students, learning English as a second language can be intimidating. In most cases, it means repeatedly trying to find the right word to express yourself and taking chances with new words you might not full understand.

You’re not alone — this is true for all English learners. In this interview, I sat down with a Japanese English learner to ask about his experience learning English and what it’s like as an adult to learn English as a second language.

Marike: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you find yourself in the United States?

Taka: I am from a small city of about 100,000 people in Japan. When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to get out of my hometown, and my home country, after graduating, to study psychology. I thought it may be nice to learn English while I do so (I was a horrible student and didn't have good grades in English classes). My parents were against it (having 4 children and letting their oldest son go off so far away was something difficult to bare, especially for my father), but I was very stubborn and managed to convince them. I arrived in the United States in 2004.

I had a help from a private company that assists Japanese students attend universities in the US. Students with better grades and bigger budget had more options. My family had never been well off, and my grades barely qualified me to be in the program, so I had very few choices. I started at the University of Central Oklahoma, a small state university in Edmond, Oklahoma, a small college town north of Oklahoma City, in the middle of the Bible Belt.

I later transferred to and graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2009, with a Bachelor Degree in Social Work. I moved on to a master's program in the School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. I came to Washington D.C. on the New Year’s Day 2011 as an intern for an advocacy group while I was working on my master's degree. I stayed after graduating in May. The grace period from my student visa was to expire before the end of the year, but I was lucky to find a job before then. I’ve stayed with the job since 2016, and I have been remotely working from Japan.

Given this background, when I say “English”, please assume that I am speaking of American English, if not specified otherwise.

Marike: How did you learn English? What were the most difficult challenges both linguistically and culturally?

Taka: All Japanese students (in public schools) are required to take 6 years of English classes in middle- and high-school, though many do not learn to the level of practicality — just think of it as something similar to French or Spanish classes in U.S. public schools.

For my case, there were some helpful factors. First, I was able to dedicate the senior year of high-school to study mostly English, while my peers were prepping for college entrance exams. Since the Japanese school year starts and ends in March/April, I came to the U.S. in May 2004. So, I had three months till I started my college classes in August and I attended an ESL school that was on the university campus.

But language learning never ends and it should be through your everyday life, right?

Retrospectively, I'd say what helped most is listening to and repeating in my head what people are talking in everyday situations (e.g. at cafeteria, bus stops, before classes, and on TV/movies, etc.). Then, I tried the expressions myself and figured out what works and what doesn't.

Trust me, I made a lot of mistakes along the way.

The most difficulty came with making real connections with people, especially in the first year. Before coming to the states, I heard Americans are stereotypically extra friendly, but I quickly learned that the friendliness (or people calling you "my friend") doesn't really translate to what it means to be true friends. It was until briefly after the school year started, 4 months after my arrival, that I met an American person whom I can call a real friend.

Marike: Can you describe what it is like to speak in English versus Japanese for you?

Taka: In one word: Liberating.

I think English is a simple, yet flexible language with so much potential for creativity. It is also very clear with logic.

This is not to say that the Japanese language does not have all that, but you need to be very skilled to use it well.

Marike: Do you feel different? What impact do cultural differences have? Also, what impact do they have on perceptions of language, behavior, time, tone and so on?

Taka: Absolutely, yes.

Often, my acquaintances who are bilingual in Japanese and English tell me that I have different personalities when I speak English and Japanese. In English, I am very assertive, sometimes to the point that it is a bit rude, making sure the other person gets my point. In Japanese, I have more nuanced way of getting my point across — too polite and often the other person does not get my point. I am very convinced that, with English language, I also learned the American way of communication.

Interestingly enough, my boss, who also worked in the U.S. and returned to Japan, recommended me to try merging the two a bit, especially when I interact with our Japanese clients. According to her, I should speak up more and tell them my opinions more clearly. I suppose I am being too polite, just like a high-school kid speaking to his seniors as I used to when I left my country 12 years ago.

Marike: What are the most striking cultural differences linguistically and otherwise?

Taka: It is considered a virtue not to say the whole thing and still to be able to communicate in Japan and Japanese language. When communicating with those who mastered this art, there is so much said between lines.

English has some of that but puts more emphasis on the both parties being on the same page. I think especially in America, where people come from various backgrounds, it is very important to speak one’s mind clearly and precisely.

I personally prefer the latter. But because of that, many people, both in my business and personal life, often complained my communication style is too wordy. I am still learning how to communicate with less words.

Marike: Can you give me some examples for situations where you experienced some culture clash? And how has that changed over time?

Taka: While in the U.S., I quickly noticed that the vague “read between lines” kind of communication does not work well with Americans. It did not work well when I wanted to get my point across.

Over time, I understood that the United States is a country where you need to speak up for your needs. I think the Japanese can learn from that — I think we do not speak up enough!

Now that I am back in Japan, I am re-learning to understand what other people are trying to say without saying it. Funny thing is, my French girl friend who has been working here for the past 2 years has been a great teacher.

Marike: Can you outline some of the most striking linguistic and cultural differences?

Taka: Japanese people do not like to say “no”. Instead, we’d give very vague answers (like, “I’d think about it” or “that’ll be fun”). I believe this is something we learned over the history to avoid conflict.

Some non-Japanese people who are not familiar with the culture may take this as being flaky or even lying. Say, a person invites a Japanese for an outing. S/he would say, “I will think about it” or “maybe”, leading on the inviter to think that the Japanese person is participating. In reality, the person does not even think about coming and the person who invited them will likely get disappointed.

As another example, my girlfriend invited me to participate in “New Year’s Dive” in Hague, Netherland. I said “tanoshisou”, which literary translate to “that sounds fun”. She got all excited, booked the ticket and told me about it, only to find me shocked and expressing my hesitation to participate. I was still not saying “no” at this point.

Since she was familiar with Japanese culture, she, at this point, realized what I meant. After some convincing, we did travel to Netherland and participated in the event, which I am very happy that we did. J

Marike: What would you tell Japanese learners of English who are still in the process of learning English and navigating cultural differences?

Taka: It will get better and once you become better at the American way of communication and English, you will be good at speaking up and arguing for your position with logic that Americans more easily understand.

Marike: What advice do you have for them?

Taka: Never be afraid of mistakes. Steal expressions from everyone around you, friends and strangers alike. Speak up for yourself and use your Japanese politeness & compassion for your advantage, not for holding you back.

Marike: What advice do you have for English teachers and intercultural communication coaches working with Japanese students? What, in terms of English teaching and learning techniques, worked best for you?

Taka: Please be patient. It can be frustrating if your student isn’t speaking enough. Trust me, the frustration is mutual. In our hearts, we want to express ourselves and know how in our own language and culture. We are just trying to learn how in whole new ones.

Please also know that we appreciate people like you, and your work will be rewarded with so much gratitude and changes made in our lives.

In terms of learning techniques, I think we are all accustomed to the way we are taught in English classes in schools back home (e.g. studying for written exams, learning heavily focused on grammatical rules, memorizing vocabulary everyday…). It works for some people and I know all of these are important to build the basis to learn the language, but it isn’t for everyone.

I, for one, preferred the more interactive way of American ESL courses focused on expression — conversation, discussion, and writing.

In general, I think Japanese people do not like to be embarrassed and having teachers and conversation partners who were patient, did not treat me like a kid, and did not make fun of me was very helpful.

It was also very helpful, if the person told me when s/he did not understand what I was saying. That silent smile with confusion in one’s eyes were most embarrassing thing ever and I did encounter that quite often!

Marike Korn