Many Japanese people lament their inability to carry out a proper conversation in English despite studying it for 10 years in junior high, high school and university.

Some people blame the education system, some people blame the lack of transparency between Japanese and other languages; but there just seems to be something about Japanese people that makes them terrible with foreign languages.

Continuing from yesterday’s post, we’d like to share the last part of Japanese columnist Ryuuji Haneishi’s discussion of why he believes they are.

2. Japanese people are scared of making mistakes

The Japanese are probably the most reserved and modest people in the world. They hate offending and troubling others and do whatever they can to avoid doing so.

The same goes for when speaking in a foreign language: Japanese people worry that making a mistake may offend the other party and so, unless they are confident they can express themselves perfectly, they refrain from speaking at all. And thus begins a vicious cycle: if you never practice speaking, your spoken English never improves – but if your spoken English never improves, you’re never able to build up enough confidence to speak…

This is exactly why Japanese tourists abroad are seen as “easy targets” by local businesses: you can rip them off and they’ll never complain. Native German instructor Ruro-chan (see previous article) explains that many Japanese people working in Germany go years without ever seeing a pay raise because they don’t have the confidence to demand one from their employer.

3. Japanese learn words using furigana (pronunciation written in Japanese above the foreign words)

Translator’s note: Ever encountered a Japanese tourist at a foreign restaurant trying to order a “cheezu baagaa” or “coohee”? That’s a symptom of furigana syndrome.

Many Japanese people are under the impression that once you’ve mastered your ABCs in English or any other language that uses the roman alphabet, you’re good to go for pronunciation. What they don’t realize is that individual letters are often pronounced completely different in the context of words (can you think of a word in English starting with “w” that is actually pronounced “double u?”).

The answer to this problem is to study pronunciation by practicing complete sentences, without the use of furigana.

■ Anecdote 1: Confusing German and French

When I was in Germany, I saw a television program called “Ich hasse Montage”. I knew that “Ich hasse” meant “I hate” in German, but for some reason when I saw the word “Montage” I thought of the French meaning of the word, as in a collection of images. But why would the Germans hate montages so much?

Then I recalled the German pronunciation of the word as I had learned from furigana and immediately realized that it was “Monday.” The Germans hate Monday! Why didn’t I read the whole thing in German from the beginning…

■ Anecdote 2: Kuramu Chaudaa

When using Japanese furigana as a model for pronunciation, the English word “clam” becomes “kuramu.” I once saw a Japanese woman desperately try to order a bowl of “kuramu chaudaa” from a restaurant in San Francisco, but her Engrish was completely lost on the staff. Seeing this, I cut in with a bit of English slang, saying: “She’d like to eat a clam chowder, buddy.” This got through to the staff and the woman got her bowl of “chaudaa.”

4. Japanese don’t start studying early enough

According to Roru-chan, Europeans are extremely surprised when they hear Japanese people don’t start studying English until they’re 12.

Many elementary schools in Germany have started teaching basic English in first grade and a second foreign language, such as French or Spanish, once students reach fifth or sixth grade.

Many Japanese parents enroll their 5 or 6-year-old children in piano lessons as they know this is the best age for them to start learning the instrument. Learning a foreign language is no different.

On one of his YouTube videos, Roru-chan received a comment from a Japanese user arguing: “Children need to learn how to speak proper Japanese before they start studying a foreign language.

“If this is representative of Japan’s stance on foreign language learning, Japan’s status as a global economic power is going to take a huge hit,” responds Roru-chan. “Japan should learn from China. They’re way of studying is flawless. There are over 400 syllables in the Chinese language, compared to the mere 46 syllables in Japanese. This makes it even more crucial for Japan to introduce foreign language to children from an early age so they become familiar with sounds that are not present in Japanese.”

The Japanese government has recently taken steps toward promoting English language learning from an early age, implementing a mandatory English curriculum of 35 hours per year for fifth and sixth grades in April 2011.

But will this be enough to make the Japanese more adept at learning foreign languages, or will restaurant staff forever grimace when a crowd of Japanese tourists come in seeking “kuramu chaudaa”?

Source: Excite Bit