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K.B. - Japan said:
Problems for learners in JapanIn Japan, there are some issues students face regarding learning english. Teaching here since 2000, I have seen many of these problems in the classroom, not to mention in my everyday interactions in english outside the classroom here in Japan. One problem that would become apparent to an EFL teacher in Japan is pronunciation. The japanese language consists of only five vowel sounds, a (“ah” as in “father”), i (“ee” as in “meet”), u (“oo” as in “do”), e (“eh” as in “bay”) and o (“oh” as in “okay”). Additionally, students have difficulty with stringing together groups of consonants, as the language has a simple syllable structure, where the vowel sound is “preceded by one of approximately 15 consonant sounds. There are few complex consonant sound combinations such as in the english words strength or Christmas. Because of these differences japanese ESL students find english hard to pronounce, often insert short vowels between the consonants (ste-rength)” (Shoebottom). Some particular sounds in english themselves may also pose some difficulty to japanese english language learners. Many students have trouble differentiating between “l” and “r”, “v” and “b” and the two “th” sounds, “th” as in “think” and the “th” as in “this” (Bradford). A common example of what might confuse an english teacher here is whether a student meant, “I was taking a bath” or “I was taking a bus”, when responding to the question, “What were you doing last night at nine o’clock?” The confusion is that many students cannot clearly differentiate between not only the “a” in “bath” and the “u” in “bus”, but also the “s” in “bus” and the “th” in “bath”. Another area of difficulty is grammar. Students struggle with concepts such as singular and plural nouns and countable and uncountable nouns. Concerning singular and plural nouns, often students are puzzled as to why we consider a “shirt” to be a singular noun, while “pants” are considered plural. A japanese speaker would not consider the concept of singular versus plural when talking about one shirt and one pair of pants. The concept of “countable” and “uncountable” nouns is also a challenge for learners. There is no distinction between countable and uncountable nouns in japanese. So, a student will often be confused as to why the word “money” is uncountable, “dollar” is countable and “yen” is uncountable. Further confusion arises with words such as “fish”, where we use the uncountable noun “fish” to refer to fish as a source of food, such as in the sentence “I bought some fish at the supermarket”. However, students are then confronted with the occasional use of “fishes”, which refers to different kinds of fish, such as in “The list of endangered species includes nearly 600 fishes” (“Fish”). Cultural differences also play a factor. japanese itself considers factors such as status, age and gender, while it has a tendency towards being indirect and vague. japanese speakers are keen to avoid assertive statements that may lead to conflict or embarrassment on either side (Shoebottom). japanese people are raised in a society where they are acutely aware of how they are perceived by their peers. Some students feel they must “speak english perfectly without mistakes”, as making a mistake in front of the class would lead to a loss of face (Gethin). This can definitely be inhibiting. One final point regarding how japanese culture inhibits the learning of english is the approach many students take toward learning a new language. As stated in Amorey Gethin’s article, there is a lack of “practical intuition as to how one should go about learning a foreign language.” Gethin continues that in place of this intuition, students in Japan take a particularly analytical approach towards language learning that cripples the development of their skills. These problems with pronunciation, grammar and cultural differences can be obstacles for any teacher of english in Japan. It is important to be aware of these factors, as well as others, when teaching here. This awareness may mean the difference between these problems becoming a challenge that can be dealt with in each teacher’s own way and these problems becoming an insurmountable barrier that will frustrate not only the teacher but also his or her students.