Why do Japanese learners of English lack confidence?

Why do Japanese learners of English lack confidence?

In this issue of Outreach, Barbara Haveron shares her experiences communicating with students on her university campus and in small shops in Kyushu. She identifies herself as a Western-looking foreigner studying Japanese as an exchange student for one year. Anecdotally, she believes this to be part of the reason that once she’s shown a reasonable grasp of Japanese, people are no longer afraid they will be expected to use English with her and become more accepting. She suggests there’s a generally shared image among the people she encounters —non-Japanese and Japanese alike—that Japanese people feel they cannot speak English well and she is looking for the reason.


Why do Japanese learners of English lack confidence?
Barbara Haveron

English is studied throughout junior high school and high school, yet regardless of ability, most of the people I meet would rather not use it. Why are Japanese adults whom I meet afraid to use English with me? To make some sense of this quandary, I conducted a survey with 67 people and thought about the kind of foreign language education that I received in the UK. I reviewed several studies on English education in Japan to help me understand my own experiences speaking English to Japanese university students at ESS club meetings and in classes meant to be conducted in the English language.
I found that, on average, the Japanese study English more than three times longer than we learn a foreign language in the UK, yet confidence levels are around the same. Somewhat counter to expectations, the mean confidence level was slightly higher in the 35 Japanese respondents than in the British (3.25 versus 3.61). However, this doesn’t take into account that the majority of the 18 British respondents had studied more than one language, though most are no longer studying a language. The majority of Japanese respondents were continuing to study English at the university level. Among the people whom I surveyed in the UK, the general feeling was that since English is the lingua franca of the world, it’s not really necessary to learn a foreign language, and it’s only required for the first three years of secondary school.
I also interviewed 14 Chinese students who have been studying English and Japanese for an average of 10 years. When asked to rate their confidence in communicating in English, the mean score was 3.85. When asked why foreign language education is important they replied using the following keywords: cool, common language, go anywhere, and worldwide.
Although one might expect that confidence would increase with the amount of time spent studying English, it would appear there is only a slight relation (Fig. 1). There is also no significant correlation between the level achieved in various proficiency tests and reported confidence. Approximately two thirds of the Japanese respondents had obtained at least an Eiken pre-level 2 certificate and yet this was not reflected in their answers regarding confidence.
However, it is interesting to note that the Japanese people I spoke to are most confident when reading and writing in English (Fig. 2). They were asked to rate their ability in speaking, listening, reading, and writing English on a Likert scale from 1 (strongest skill) to 5 (weakest skill). This is what my Japanese teacher in the UK refers to as a stationary “dead ball,” as opposed to speaking and listening which is a moving “live ball.” She used this football analogy to illustrate that people have different strengths in regards to language learning, in particular regarding the differences between interpreting and translation. That Japanese people feel more comfortable with a “dead ball” fits with the general image of English education in Japan relying mostly upon rote memorisation.
Confidence is a rather vague concept and because of modesty, it’s likely that the statistics I obtained are underestimated. Still, Japan recently ranked second to last among Asian countries in TOEFL scores (Amaki, 2008) so it is somewhat apparent that the English education methodology is in need of reform. McKenzie (2008) claims that because around 50 percent of high school students continue to study at university, high school English classes are more geared toward passing entrance exams, despite a recent push towards communication-focused learning. Furthermore, Japanese classes are large and students rarely receive individual attention (Kimura, Nakata and Okumura, 2001). Comparing that observation to my experiences in the UK with a Spanish A-level class which had six people, and my French class  which had eight, and it becomes clearer why Japanese people don’t feel confident speaking English. Furthermore, English teachers themselves feel they do not have the necessary proficiency to teach English, even at the elementary school level (Goto Butler, 2004). Amaki (2008) observed that students lose interest in learning English due to the lack of communication in the classroom and rigid structure of the lessons and suggests that increasing English teachers’ confidence, particularly in speaking, is the most important part of any future education reform.
The current way of learning English in Japan does not seem to encourage students to learn English as a communicative tool, but rather as one more subject to take an exam in. Because of this, many students neither learn how to express themselves nor develop confidence in the language.


  • Amaki, Y. (2008). Perspectives on English education in the Japanese public school system: The views of foreign assistant language teachers (ALTs). Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook 3, 53-63.
  • Goto Butler, Y. (2004). What level of English proficiency do elementary school teachers need to attain to teach EFL? Case studies from Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. TESOL Quarterly 38(2), 245-278.
  • Kimura, Y., Nakata, Y., & Okumura, T. (2001). Language learning motivation of EFL learners in Japan – A cross-sectional analysis of various learning milieus. JALT Journal 23(1), 47-68.
  • McKenzie, R. (2008). The complex and rapidly changing sociolinguistic position of the English language in Japan: A summary of English language contact and use. Japan Forum 20(2), 267-286.