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  • Christina Theodorakis

What's Wrong with English Education in Japan?

"'Cool' Japanese Phrases and Words! 8 Occasions Where You Can Use a Single Phrase"

"36 'Cool' Japanese Phrases That You Should Say in the Spur of the Moment"

"Native Speakers Can Understand These! 40 Trendy Japanese Phrases You Can Use in Design"

"100 Super-trendy and Cool Japanese Phrases, Idioms, and Expressions"

"40 Totally Cool Japanese Phrases You Won't Find in a Textbook (Daily Life Ver.)"

These titles might seem like a joke or some bad listicles, but if you replace "Japanese" with "English," they're actually real titles of Japanese blogs for teaching English to Japanese people. And blogs aren't the only culprit; there are tons of books in Japanese bookstores for teaching English just like this with lists of what Japanese people consider to be "cool" phrases and expressions. A main flaw in the Japanese style of learning English is that they try to memorize phrases and words, and they don't actually learn how to use the words in other situations. Oftentimes, Japanese people will learn how a phrase is used in only one situation and one way of intonating, making their English pronunciation sound robotic, but I'll leave that for future blog.

While there's nothing explicitly wrong with learning phrases and expressions in a foreign language, have you ever heard of anyone finding lists of phrases helpful when the only sort of explanation of how and when to use them in context is a direct and unnatural translation in your native language? I would be surprised if you did.

Lists of phrases, expressions, and vocabulary words are a huge industry and money-maker in Japan because Japanese people believe that knowing more words and phrases is better than taking the time to know how and when to use them, and, often, there isn't much context or explanation about when words and phrases are actually used. Before I get into an example, it's worth mentioning here that the notion "quantity versus quality is best when it comes to English" most likely stems from the need to perform well on the English section of exams in school -- which are also entirely multiple choice. With most of the country being Japanese speakers and there being no need to be able to write and speak English for an exam, you should more or less be able to understand a Japanese person's idea of how they should "learn" (read: memorize) English: the same regurgitative way they did in school and with books that try to give you a lot of bang for your buck with lots of English phrases.

Let's look at an example from a blog called Peraperabu with the typical style we've also seen in the books I mentioned, with the added benefit of a native English speaker checking the accuracy of the English and giving their seal of approval (supposedly). One of the examples of a cool English phrase that Japanese people won't find in textbooks is "I like the way you think." In their example of how to use it, they say:

While I'll have to save the explanation of why this guy said what he did for another blog, the gist is that he wants an uncluttered desk and believes it'll lead to better work. In response, his coworker was impressed and attempted to pay him a compliment by saying, "I like the way you think" since the phrase has been explained in Japanese as a synonym for "nice" and "wonderful." Furthermore, the Japanese translation of "I like the way you think" literally became "I like the way you think," whereas the English meaning is actually: "That's a good idea, and I want to go along with it/I'm going to do it too" in response to an enlightened idea.

English in Japan is actually meant for Japanese people, according to many of the large companies that we've worked with in the past, which makes it not very useful to foreigners trying to read English. A lot of times Japanese companies and publishers will work with English natives to come up with English words and phrases to teach Japanese people, but the explanations are oversimplified or downright wrong and the Japanese people involved will have the last say in what phrases are used and what they mean. My point is that the Japanese people who have the last say will make decisions based on their knowledge of English which was acquired through the Japanese education system that I explained above. The way the education system in Japan teaches English is also based on what Japanese people think is right from what they learned about English decades ago and haven't learned about how English is used today, so the vicious cycle continues. One of the main reasons why many Japanese people will learn English is so that they can be viewed by their peers as worldly and cool, and that's why they'll try to learn phrases to impress people rather than focusing on their English communication skills.

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