Teaching Japanese learners

“Do not try to light the fire when drinking rum”

Japanese learners.

This blog post looks at difficulties Japanese learners tend to have — and are perceived to have — when learning English, what this difficulty might be a result of, and ways of helping Japanese learners overcome these problems. It draws on my experience teaching Japanese learners, working in Japan, learning and speaking Japanese and of course on courses I’ve undertaken and on books I’ve read. We’ll be looking at thirteen different statements based on common perceptions of Japanese learners, and I’ll be giving my thoughts on whether I believe these statements to be true, false, or something in between.


1)     Japanese individual phonemes – vowels and consonants – are articulated in much the same way as in English.

This is true to a degree. Barring a few individual phonemes which we’ll touch on later, the majority of individual phonemes in Japanese are generally thought of as being fairly similar. But how similar are they? Let’s take a look at our rather unusual sentence back from the start of the article:

Do not try to light the fire when drinking rum.”

If you try saying the first part of this sentence naturally in English, paying attention to what happens with your mouth and tongue, you may notice that you used the very tip of your tongue to make the phonemes /t/ /d/ and /n/. If you were to do this in Japanese, however, these phonemes would actually be articulated slightly further back on the tongue – on what we call the blade.

(To find “the blade” of the tongue easily, I find that it’s helpful to try saying the English /l/ — which we use the blade to articulate.)


This actually happens because the “resting position” of the mouth – or “articulatory settings” — in English and Japanese are quite different. The “resting position” is essentially the position your mouth and tongue comes back to between phonemes. You can also think of it as the position we hold our mouth in to easily articulate the various sounds in a language.

In English… In Japanese…
  • The tongue is held further back.
  • The tongue is spread.
  • The sides of the tongue touch the back teeth.
  •  The tongue is tethered, but floats freely in the mouth.
  • The tongue is further forwards.
  • The tongue is not relaxed, but tenser.
  • The tongue’s resting position is actually on the bottom teeth.
  • The tongue comes back to the bottom teeth and doesn’t float in the mouth.

(Adapted from Messum, 2017).


The white represents the teeth, the red the tongue, and the green represents the different places of tension in the mouth. Photos taken by us, but all credit for the idea goes to Messum (2017).

In Japanese, holding the tongue further forward in the mouth means that /t/ /d/ and /n/ must be articulated with a slightly different part.

This otherwise arguably esoteric point becomes extremely relevant when considering a fairly famous aspect of Japanese pronunciation difficulties – the /l/ and /r/ distinction. Light and rum!

If you’ve ever tried to get a Japanese learner to pronounce – much less hear – these phonemes, you will no doubt have been met with difficulties. This is because it is impossible to pronounce an English /r/ using the Japanese articulatory settings – the mouth is in entirely the wrong position. To make an English /r/, your tongue is further back, spread, and doesn’t make contact with the roof of the mouth at all. Japanese learners will often try and pronounce both /r/ and /l/ like “the Japanese /r/” – this is essentially similar to an English /l/, but actually made very quickly with the tip of the tongue, resulting in a sharper edge.

To help Japanese learners, I believe it best to raise awareness of these issues, and to explicitly tell them how to make the sounds. Treating pronunciation as more of a motor skill in this way means that learners don’t actually need to be able to hear the difference between /r/ and /l/ in order to pronounce it – they just need to move their mouth in the right way. (Messum 2017). In the same vein, you could also assign learners “performance pieces” to practise these physical movements with their mouth until they get used to it. (A performance piece is any text which learners find interesting, which they can practise to get used to and perfect aspects of their pronunciation.) (Messum 2017).

2)     Apart from /l/ and /r/, most English phonemes are relatively easy for Japanese learners to pronounce.

This is partially true. “Th” sounds such as /θ/ and /ð/ are fairly well known problems, but our sentence shows some less well-known difficulties which are worth mentioning:

The fire: To make /f/ in English, you put your bottom lip against your top teeth and suddenly release air. In Japanese, however, it’s actually made with both lips coming together and gradually letting air through.

When: In English, to make /w/ we put both lips together, and suddenly release air. In Japanese, however, the lips don’t actually touch each other – and make the sound when they are much further apart.

3)     Reduction – weak forms – pose problems for Japanese learners.

This is definitely true. In giving syllables prominence – also known as “sentence stress” – in English, we breathe out slightly more on stressed syllables. (Messum 2017). This means that those syllables are usually louder and longer – with unstressed parts being squashed. Creating prominence like this is actually quite unusual for a language, and is not true of Japanese. To create prominence in Japanese, you use pitch, and certainly don’t squash the words together. To see the difference, you might try pronouncing our “rum” sentence absolutely evenly, using a metronome to guide you. The difficulty of doing this may well resemble something similar to what Japanese learners encounter when trying to make reduction in English.

To help Japanese learners with weak forms, I like to cross out the weak syllables as a visual representation. (This activity was shown to me by a tutor on my DELTA course in Spain.) For example:




You could also try getting them to stutter – for example t-t-two, in order to make a sentence like “Quarter to two.” (Messum 2017).

4) Japanese has only a few consonant clusters. (Drinking…)

This is false. Actually, this was a trick question – there are no consonant clusters in Japanese. This obviously results on L1 transfer when trying to speak English.

A good way of practising consonant clusters is by slowly building them up. Turn “drink” into “Do rink.” Ask learners to say “do,” but stop them halfway through. After practising this for a while, add “rink.” You can start by pronouncing this transition very slowly, before gradually speeding up.


5) Japanese learners generally have high grammatical and lexical accuracy.

This is true. This can actually work in your favour – I often get Japanese learners to do writing activities with other learners. In mixed-nationality classes, many other students – especially those with better fluency and more confidence — can get the impression that the Japanese students are not as good, and are lower in ability than they are – when in fact the Japanese learners are often higher overall, and certainly much higher in some areas. Writing activities can thus really help to promote group cohesion by covertly helping the other students to notice how much access to a wide range of vocabulary and accurate grammar sets the Japanese learners often have.

Interestingly, I haven’t noticed significant collocation problems – this is something I occasionally notice with Chinese students, who I have found sometimes utilise their keen enthusiasm and work ethic in order to try and learn the dictionary, combine words together at random and expect it to work every time.

6) The Japanese language has few English loan words.

This is false. Japanese has a fair few – arguably weirdly utilised, frankly – loan words. Have a look at the following list – these are all English words, with slightly – or very – different meanings in Japanese.

Japanese English.  Japanese English. 


(To be fair, can also be used for a kind of cooking “pan.”)

Seal. Sticker.
(Do) cunning.

Cheat on a test.

(My personal favourite odd loan word.)

Talent. A TV personality.

Hot chips.

(Not the vegetable.)


On the house.

(A couple of other meanings, but this is the main one.)




Soft. Usually actual computer software – i.e. video games.

A flat. (Really.)

(Often used in Japanese and therefore in English by Japanese learners for a one bedroom studio flat, which can be confusing.)


A space heater.

(Not for cooking. This is the Japanese answer to a bar heater, in a way.)

“Sa-ra-da.” Salad. Pinch. A difficult situation.
(The station’s) home. The platform at a station. (Quite a cute one.) One piece.


(The most common transfer error, in my experience.)

Generally, Japanese people are not helped by L1 transfer in the same way as Latin languages. It’s worth remembering that Japanese and English didn’t develop alongside each other in the way that many European languages did, and most of the loanwords are comparatively very new.

7) Japanese learners often struggle with “chunks” of language such as phrasal verbs, discourse markers or functional language due to them not existing in Japanese.

This is partially true. I find that Japanese learners often don’t have an awareness of functional phrases, such as “Would you mind,” discourse markers such as “by the way,” and especially hesitation phrases, such as “let me see.” Even at advanced levels such as B2, some learners will still use hesitation phrases in Japanese when speaking English; thus, I make a point to explicitly teach this kind of language. A related problem I often see is that learners will often try to directly translate functional language from English into Japanese directly, which makes very little sense. For example:

Japanese learners directly translate functional phrases like:   
Would you mind me asking if… (you could open the window)
Could you possibly… (open the window)
Would it be too much trouble to…
Can I ask you to…

A way around this can be to ask learners to write an equivalent of these phrases in their language. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can get them to confer together – or even to write a “translation” in English. For example, the four functional phrases above could easily translate as “can you.”

However, I say partially true because I’m not convinced this is really specifically because of the nature of the Japanese language itself. Japanese certainly doesn’t lack chunks and patterns; for example, if you wanted to say in Japanese the phrase “I have to study,” you’d need something like: 勉強しなければならない. This literally means “If I don’t study, it’s no good/not acceptable.” So, I think this problem is more related to a lack of awareness of chunks and anything beyond the word level in education in general, including in Japan. Japanese grammar could, like many forms of English, essentially in fact be thought of as language chunks – and Japanese most certainly also has discourse markers and phrases for the same functions as in English, even if their literal meaning can be quite different.


8) Japanese learners are often poorer speakers than their testable passive knowledge would imply they should be.

This is definitely true in my experience – in fact at our school we often place Japanese learners one level lower than their grammar test reads as. This is for a few reasons – probably primarily because of the nature of the education system. In Japan, essentially, if you can memorise a lot of facts you tend to be, at least, greatly helped in tests – Japanese learners are aware of this, and understand that it has impacted their weaker speaking skills. (Interestingly, the most prominent Japanese proficiency test for foreign speakers doesn’t even test writing or speaking at all and sticks to grammar, kanji (Japanese “letters” if you will,) vocabulary, reading and listening.)

I tend to also think, however, that’s it’s due to a lack of foreigners in the country compared to many other countries – outside Tokyo it can be much more difficult for an enthusiastic Japanese learner to find someone to practise with. It’s worth remembering that English is essentially a lingua franca in Europe – especially with young people when travelling. This is not the case in Japan, meaning that Japanese learners have even fewer speaking opportunities to take advantage of.

In order to help Japanese learners speak, I’d suggest a few things:

  1. Allow scaffolding – even if it’s a simple speaking task lead-in, give learners a bit of time to write notes. Even words can help. (For example, ask learners to write five words before telling their partner about what they did at the weekend.)
  2. Give example scaffolding frames for prompts when doing speaking tasks: for example, if planning a party, you might give them a frame with “guests” “decoration” “music” etc. to give them a basis to work from.
  • I find roleplays quite useful also, as it allows learners to become another character rather than speak as themselves – therefore, they tend to get less nervous. For example, if you were practising language for opinions, you could give them a rolecard so that they can focus solely on the language without worrying about trying to express their own opinion – at least not at first.

9) Japanese learners take longer to speak due to shyness.

Some (including Japanese people) might consider this partially true due to cultural reasons; however, I think it’s more than that. Research has shown that Japanese speakers actually take longer turns when speaking, and go longer without interrupting other speakers compared to speakers in other languages (Wilde 2014). Thus, they actually take longer before speaking in Japanese. I can personally attest to research which has shown that other students and teachers often misinterpret this silence as “a sign of disinterest, boredom, or laziness” (Harumi 2011:267). Therefore, you could consider it a cultural phenomenon in a sense, though possibly not in the way most people of it.

This is one of the reasons I always explicitly teach discourse markers and turn-taking. You can do this with awareness-raising – i.e. looking at conversations between proficient speakers, noticing the features and writing conversations. With lower levels in particular, I often find it useful to give learners discourse markers on cards, and conduct speaking activities which encourage them to explicitly practise the turns in a controlled way. (For example, you might write some topics on the board, get learners to talk about one topic, and ask them to put down their cards and use their discourse marker if they wish to change topics.)

10) Due to growing up with a different writing system, Japanese learners are often poor at writing – particularly at spelling.

This is usually false.

Most Japanese learners actually know English/Latin letters, they are used in Japan quite a lot.  They are often used on signs to advertise things in somewhat questionable English, there is a trend for Japanese singers to suddenly break out into English lyrics whilst singing a Japanese song, and Japanese people do all learn English to some degree at school. This problem is thus not present in the way it often is for Arabic speakers, for example.

In fact, I very often have found Japanese learners’ written accuracy to be exceptional – I often get compositions with few, if any mistakes across all levels. Having said that, possibly for the reason of maintaining accuracy, I do often find it necessary to specifically teach complex sentence structures to students at higher levels – particularly to exam students.

Another point worth mentioning. Say you get the following sentence from a Japanese learner:

“The squirrel sat up. The squirrel walks to the shop.”

The tense mismatch here is not necessary an accuracy error exactly, so much as L1 transfer. In Japanese, it is acceptable to change the tense from past to present within a story, meaning that Japanese learners may simply not realise how strange this sounds in English.

11) Japanese learners generally read slower than learners from Indo-European languages.

This is true in my experience. Although Japanese learners are familiar with the Latin alphabet, they don’t generally have as much experience reading it at speed. French or Spanish speakers, for example, come to you with decades of experience in dealing with it – even if it is for use with their own language. I tend to think that Japanese learners have trouble “chunking” the language when reading and instead look at one word at a time– especially at first. To experience what this is like for yourself, take a piece of paper and cut a whole out which is big enough to see about one word. Then, try reading something through the hole in the piece of paper. Only being able to look at one word at a time, you can experience the frustrations of reading without chunking.

There are a few solutions for this. You need to train Japanese learners to learn how to guess words – or at least some words – from context. No matter what you do, many Japanese learners will try and translate every word – no matter how important it is or is not – before even finishing the text once. You also need to set time limits, so that learners don’t have time to do this. Depending on your learners’ interests, other ways of practising this could include:

  1. Reading subtitles from films or songs – this is because the subtitles chunk the language into sentences for you, and set a faster pace that doesn’t allow learners to dwell on every word.
  2. Video games are also good for this reason – especially those with a lot of story and dialogue – particularly if they don’t have much voice acting, and more reading.
  • If learners like reading manga (Japanese comics), they could try reading them in English also, as sentences are of course chunked here, as well.

12) Japanese learners’ comprehension and listening skills are relatively high compared to other, weaker skills.

This is partially true. Japanese learners certainly usually understand more than they can say – especially at lower levels. However, listening in English poses serious challenges in terms of connected speech. Connected speech simply doesn’t exist in Japanese in the same way as in English. Japanese has equivalents of things like “gonna” and “wanna,” but really nothing that you couldn’t write down — which they usually do in comics. Unless you were stylistically trying to mimic a dialect in text, I cannot think of a time when you would try and represent weak forms, assimilation, linking or intrusion in written text in English. (And honestly perhaps not even then.)

Now, a word on adept listeners. For these listeners, sentence stress – or prominence — can aid listening comprehension by providing a strong indication of what the most important parts of a speaker’s message are (Kelly 2000). Word stress is also likely a kind of “code” that allows listeners to quickly match the sounds which they hear with the meaning of the word (Field 2009). The fact that weak forms are closely associated with function words, also very likely helps learners decode — or “hear” — a sentence and therefore apply meaning much more rapidly (Field 2009). As we mentioned earlier, since the Japanese language does prominence completely differently – i.e. with pitch —  and lacks weak forms, Japanese learners are significantly less likely to have developed these helpful English listening aids unless they have been explicitly taught that they exist. I therefore strongly believe in teaching pronunciation and connected speech to Japanese learners for listening in order to deal with the blended mush that often emerges from native-like speakers. Unlike other languages, simply practising listening in English isn’t enough on its own.

13) Since Japanese learners have a high awareness of politeness in their own language, they are good at utilising polite language in English.

I usually find this to be false. Being polite (or not) in Japanese is quite obvious – much more so than English, which can be a bit more amorphous about it. Thus, Japanese learners will often get frustrated, as they often want to express something which is very clear to them in Japanese – you could definitely think of polite language in Japanese more as an extension of grammar, in a way. For an example, to say “eat” in the past in English, you can change the verb to “ate.” The Japanese word for eat – “taberu” — can also be changed in this way, but you could change it just to the plain past, or to a polite version.


I thus really recommend explicitly teaching politeness in English – particularly 2nd conditional for politeness and functional phrases. Rewriting activities are a great way to practise this.

Interestingly, swear words are not used terribly often, nor are there as many, in Japanese in comparison to English. (Outside of films and TV series, where they’re used a lot.) Even in professional contexts, it’s fairly acceptable to throw a swear word in when speaking English. I wonder whether this is because the politeness system in Japanese already lets you be extremely rude to someone without swearing at all, meaning there is less of a need for explicit swear words.

By Jessica D’Ambrosio, teacher at SGI.



  • Harumi, S. (2011). Classroom silence: voices from Japanese EFL learners. English Language Teaching Journal. 65/3, 260-269.
    Messum, P. (2017). Current thinking on how pronunciation is best taught. Presentation, IATEFL web conference.
  • (A special mention also to the related “EVO: Teaching pronunciation differently” online course, as attended in 2018.)
  • Wilde, J. (2014). Is it my turn yet? English teaching professional Issue 96 November 2014.
  • Kelly, G. (2000). How to teach pronunciation. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Field, J. (2009). Listening in the language classroom. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Functional language: Changing the topic by Lindsay Clandfield. (One Stop English.) (A free trial is available.)
  • Topic, echo, follow-up, how about you:Toss n/ Talk by Don R. Gibson. (EFL Press.)
  • A quick example of a scaffolding frame:



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