I can tell when my JTE wants to speak to me because her hands shake. She sits next to me. I can see her, out of the corner of my eye. Rubbing one hand, then rubbing the other.

Sometimes it takes her a long time to actually say something. She strokes her hands. She smiles nervously. She laughs nervously. Sometimes it takes a few minutes. Sometimes more. Sometimes she gives up and doesn’t say anything at all.

She’s a nice enough lady, but I hate this little ritual of hers. When I see her hands shaking, I get nervous too.

I feel like one wrong word from me, one word that she misunderstands or doesn’t understand at all, and she and her shaking would become she and her breaking down into tears.

How did she get like this?



“Why can’t the Japanese speak English?”

Everybody, has a pet answer to this question. There are many good answers that you can easily find with a quick search online. However, it turns out that the most successful language learners are those who are most motivated to study the language (Elted.net, pdf). In other words, the simplest, plainest reason Japanese people ‘can’t speak English’ is that most people simply aren’t motivated to do what it takes to learn English.

If you think about it, this isn’t so hard to understand. I had a student who was quietly more conversant than her English teacher. For what reason I’ll never know, but when she was a child she decided she wanted to be a translator. And she was serious about it: I sat down to talk with her once, and like it shows in a big bicep that you’ve been putting in time at the gym, it showed in her ability to follow and participate in a conversation that she was putting in the time with English outside of school. Learning a foreign language requires time and energy, perseverance and dedication. Japanese people can speak English, but only if they have the drive to keep studying through the difficult parts.

Most people just don’t want it bad enough. Most Japanese people simply have no need, nothing to motivate them to speak English (which should have obvious implications on their motivation to study it). But there are people who truly do want to learn English, yet an issue outside of simple laziness prevents them from putting in the time and energy.

The JTE who strokes her hands is one example. The music teacher is another. The first day we met, she had just started working at the school. This very beautiful woman headed for me like a dart and started speaking a mixture of Japanese and basic English.

Without thinking about why she’d be so interested in me, I allowed myself to be spellbound. And like young men tend to do, even if just subconsciously, I wanted to impress her. Later I was alone with the music teacher in the staff room. The office lady walked in and asked me about this or that, in Japanese. I answered, in Japanese. And when I turned my head back to the nurse, she smiled a perfect, placid smile. But she wouldn’t speak English anymore.

Weeks pass.

Still thinking I had a shot with her (I didn’t), I invited her to the yearly welcome dinner for new ALTs and CIRs. She has completely avoided speaking English to me from the time she first heard me speak Japanese, and until the moment she arrived at the restaurant, sat down at our table, and put a beer mug to her lips.

Beer went in. English came out.

What Is Language Anxiety?

When the music teacher drinks beer, she no longer worried about making mistakes. She no longer worried about people’s opinions of her or her English. She no longer felt the pressure that Japanese people seem to put on each other of not making any mistakes when speaking English. She freed herself to simply try her best to communicate, to understand, to make mistakes.

Beer obviously isn’t a cure. It let her speak, but her English didn’t get any better, and her motivation didn’t improve. Once the beer was gone, the spell was over. She stopped speaking English. The fear came back.

This fear is a part of language anxiety, and outside of a lack motivation, I think it is the biggest reason why Japanese people who want to speak English can’t speak English.

Language anxiety encompasses a variety of nervous behaviors and affects (a classy word for ‘feeling’ or ’emotion’, accent on the ‘a’). There is a test for these, called the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (Perdue.edu, pdf), and it tests for the three main factors of this problem: communication apprehension, fear of negative evaluation, and test anxiety.

Communication apprehension is a general fear of speaking to people. Unfortunately, Japanese social norms seem to exacerbate the factors of communication apprehension:

The degree of evaluation, that is, what the subject perceives to be at stake, whether the subject feels subordinate to their audience, how conspicuous the subject feels, the degree of unpredictability in the situation, the degree of dissimilarity between the speaker and the audience; memories of prior failures or successes, and the presence or lack of communication skills are all factors impacting the degree of communication anxiety suffered in a given situation. (Wikipedia)

1) A person with a strong Japanese identity might feel very conspicuous and uncomfortable making the strange, alien sounds of a foreign language come out of their mouth. “I’m Japanese, why am I making a fool of myself babbling these silly sounds?” This also creates a very strong sense of dissimilarity between a Japanese person and someone from another country, meaning some Japanese people will experience anxiety when they are speaking to someone from another country.

(I suspect some Japanese people have a fear of being misunderstood by a non-Japanese person whether speaking in English or in Japanese. I think this explains why, in Japan, some foreigners have the experience of speaking in Japanese to a Japanese person who fails to hear it as Japanese. The presumption that they won’t understand or can’t understand/be understood by a foreigner sends them into avoidant behaviors before ever taking the time to think about what was said to them.)

2) Like most countries, Japan feels a great desire to have a favorable image on the world stage. But Japanese people seem to feel a great sense of personal responsibility for representing Japan that people from other countries don’t. This obviously includes a feeling of responsibility to avoid embarassing Japan. Most beginners feel a fear of embarassing themselves or seeming stupid in foreign languages, but in terms of stakes, that fear is multiplied when the pride or shame of your country rests on how you speak English. It’s not surprising some Japanese choose to not even try.

3) The Japanese education system emphasizes memorization. Japan still adheres to the Grammar Translation Method (Wikipedia) of language learning, which is designed to promote literacy and grammatical understanding, but a method that most of the world has moved on from decades ago in favor of more communicative language learning methods which aim to give students the ability to actually speak a language. One big reason why Japanese people can’t speak English is because the education system is still rooted in a teaching method that was never intended to teach anyone how to speak. Instead of recognizing and rewarding effort, it punishes mistakes, which are an inevitable and normal part of learning a language. This can stunt student development and take a toll on student motivation as they have year after year of English classes but don’t see improvement in their ability to speak.

Fear of Negative Evaluation is an anxiety related to a feeling that other people will judge us poorly. This is why so many people fear public speaking more than they do death. (Not a big fan of it myself, honestly.)

Fear of negative evaluation (FNE) was first defined by Watson and Friend in 1969 as “apprehension about others’ evaluations, distress over negative evaluations by others, and the expectation that others would evaluate one negatively.” FNE is related to specific personality dimensions, such as anxiousness, submissiveness, and social avoidance. People who score high on the FNE scale are highly concerned with seeking social approval or avoiding disapproval by others, and may tend to avoid situations where they have to undergo evaluations. (Wikipedia)

1) FNE is something common to any student of a foreign language. However, this is again something that is exacerbated by Japanese social norms, which places a heavy emphasis on being aware how the self is seen by others, and avoiding personal embarassment (the actions of one person can have widespread impact on the reputations of the various groups they’re a part of, whether family, workplace, city, etc).

This much attention to what other people are thinking of you is disastrous for an ESL/EFL student. I myself have a fear of negative evaluation when speaking Japanese. My concentration gets split between what I want to say, what my partner is saying, and what my inner critic is saying. That inner critic of course is telling me that my Japanese is terrible, I haven’t studied enough, I’m too fat and ugly, etc, and while I’m busy listening to that, I’m not listening to my partner. As I feared, I end up being unable to understand what they said.

(While not FNE, you may notice Japanese people who have excellent English but downplay their ability in order to avoid making the other people in their group feel inadequate, or to avoid attracting resentment.)

2) Japanese society draws very clear lines between how politely to speak or behave with other people. Someone who has a higher relative status to you will use more casual language and, sometimes, behave in an all-around more dominant, superior fashion. Meanwhile, someone who has a relatively lower status than you will use much politer language and behave in a more submissive, passive way.

These behaviors play out in people with FNE in interesting ways. A passive, submissive response to this anxiety is to speak only in Japanese with foreigners, or to only seek out foreigners who can’t speak any Japanese at all. To protect status and avoid critique, a domineering response is to use one-way communication so that they can appear competent using the English they do understand and avoiding the English that they don’t. The domineering response also discourages speaking in Japanese because of a feeling that foreigners are here for their English practice (which they only ever superficially take advantage of).

(That last one can be difficult to spot. If you’re an ALT and your JTE seems to speak English but they avoid you, think about whether or not they speak to you but not with you. Notice if they chat with you outside of class, ask you open-ended questions, encourage you to speak Japanese, or talk about things that aren’t in the textbook.)

Test Anxiety also plays a role in foreign language anxiety.

Test anxiety is a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure, and catastrophizing, that occur before or during test situations. It is a physiological condition in which people experience extreme stress, anxiety, and discomfort during and/or before taking a test. This anxiety creates significant barriers to learning and performance. (Wikipedia)

Test anxiety is similar to FNE in that there is a severe aversion to being evaluated, but it’s different in that it’s a type of performance anxiety. It can affect people no matter how much they’ve studied or practiced or how intelligent they are. Because it’s a sort of panic disorder, someone who has this condition can have physical reactions, including everything from tension to a panic attack (About.com).

I think Japan’s perfectionist society doesn’t do someone with test anxiety any favors. While it can be inspiring to see the attention and devotion Japanese people give to their professions and hobbies, people here are generally expected to either do something well or not do it at all. For someone with FNE, there’s a pressure to perform coming not just from the outside, but inside as well.

At school, it’s a given that with every batch of tests that is given to students, there are a few that will come back blank. I think the ‘test’ part of this anxiety, where a person’s anxiety robs them of their focus and ability to recall information, are more well known than the physical dimensions. I’ve met a handful of people in Japan who begin to stutter and laugh uncontrollably when they spoke to me in English. I’ve seen a number of students freeze up when called on in class, physically tremble, become completely unresponsive, or cry. Some students simply don’t come to English class at all.

You won’t often see adults crying, but you might notice panic when being spoken to in English or attempts to escape situations where they’d have to speak it. This includes regular joes walking down the street. This includes people who don’t sit next to you on the train. This includes JTEs who design lessons where there is no room for surprises or free expression in order to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing all the answers. And when communication with a foreigner cannot be avoided, this includes JTEs or bosses or older people who push their students or employees or youth in front of them to do what they are too afraid to do themselves.


How do we learn how to speak the first time?

Most people don’t understand how language learning works. We focus on textbooks and tests because that’s how we remember learning our native languages, when in reality we don’t remember our more humble beginnings: babbling and cooing.

As infants, we were not only motivated by the need to communicate our needs and desires, but without school or work to slow us down, we had the time to listen endlessly to and repeat the things we heard. This gave us our foundation. School, textbooks, tests, those all aim to refine and increase our foundation, but first we need a foundation and motivation. After that you start school, where your foundation is refined and expanded to include a basic ability to listen, speak, read, and write.

But language doesn’t start with textbooks. If you start with reading and writing from a textbook and ignore everything else, the only person you’ll be able to talk to is your textbook. If the only reason you study is to pass tests, you might never find the motivation to finish your tests, or if you do, you will still be uncomfortable speaking face to face. These are the foundations English in Japan is based on. And with a shaky foundation, anxiety is bound to appear.

Language anxiety and affect in language learning is a deep subject. There’s more to it than just what I’ve written about so far (such as tolerance for initial confusion or ambiguity, competitiveness, and unrealistic expectations or beliefs, and on and on). Research suggests the main problem is lack of motivation. However, I think the three basic anxieties listed above are a good starting point for understanding why so many Japanese people, including those who would be motivated to learn or speak English, are unable to succeed.

My JTE can’t speak English to me (or anyone else) without trembling. There are people in my life who have been studying English longer than I’ve been alive and still can’t satisfy their desire to speak. It breaks my heart. The Japanese seem to be content with just throwing up their hands and saying the situation is hopeless, but it’s not something I can so easily let go of.

In my next post, I will attempt to provide techniques for countering the above forms of language anxiety so that we might be able to help our Japanese students, friends, and coworkers escape the claws of language anxiety and become more confident, competent speakers of a second language.



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