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The 5 Common Qualities of Proficient (Japanese) English Learners

Consider the following post to be wisdom based on almost 30 years’ teaching experience in Japan and not the product of an objective, in-depth research study (in other words, this has greater peer-to-peer reliability) 🙂


The question is this — Who among my Japanese students come to speak the best English?

The students most teachers note first are the returnees, the so-called kikoku shijo, those who have experienced and used English first hand previously. Naturally, many or most such students can manage daily conversations well — but it is also striking how, upon their return to Japan, their language level can often atrophy at the social level of a 13-14 year old, failing to upgrade to the intellectual or academic parlance that we expect from educated or professional adults. From this perspective, the abilities of the kikoku shijo aren’t so interesting to me. They didn’t come to be proficient at English, they were already made so by experience.


Rather, the ones who catch my attention are those who come to be highly proficient users of English despite having spent little time outside Japan. While the vast majority of students settle for a type of passive intermediate level of attainment, a few rise to the fore. Who are they and what do these students have in common? I’ve talked with many such students over the years, including informal interviews regarding their background and interests. I’ve come to know some of them very well indeed. Below are the five features that are consistently found among these proficient learners:


They are good at Japanese


Of course all my students speak Japanese fluently. What I am referring to here is being articulate; well-spoken in their mother tongue. People who can communicate in an orderly manner, readily able to choose the most appropriate word or expression whenever it is needed.


You probably know the following classroom scenario: A student asks for help. They try to explain their quandary in English to you but it’s a confused mess. So you ask them to say it in Japanese. And in Japanese it’s an equally confused mess. In short, if someone can’t render a thought or idea clearly in their first language there’s little chance of them doing so in a second.


I’ve often asked students who are struggling in English interviews to express the same content in Japanese. More often than not, their Japanese is also vague and incoherent. The proficient students, on the other hand, speak Japanese eloquently. This is connected to a second common denominator:


They are clear-minded and have something to say


If you are muddle-headed in L1 you will be muddle-headed in L2. In this way, proficiency in a first language is a prerequisite to L2 proficiency (this is not to be confused with the issue of the childhood order of learning languages). My proficient English speakers always have specific content or ideas that they want to actively express or engage others in.


This does not imply the dubious virtue of ‘giving your opinion’, which is often little more than an exercise in self-indulgence and can be equally mindless. It means, rather, the ability to actively respond, create, engage, and add to a conversation in a way that advances or stimulates the interactants. Also, it should not be conflated with  educational level or intelligence per se. There are numerous muddle-headed intellectuals who have trouble communicating as well as engaging and characterful conversationalists who have very little formal education.


They read in English


In almost all cases, my proficient students told me that they started to read English soon after they learned the basics of the language, either out of curiosity (another quality of the proficient) or in order to challenge themselves (ditto). This habit they kept up, with a particular focus on reading things that they liked, particularly literature that was originally penned in English (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter).


Almost unconsciously, such students were absorbing not only the usual grammar and vocabulary suspects, but also honing their sensibilities about modes of English expression — when and how certain turns of phrases were used — while they read. This regular exposure to real English kept their language muscles toned and pliable.


They have a wide range of interests


Generally speaking, if a student tells me that their hobbies are ‘listening to music and sleeping’ I can be pretty much assured that they would not be proficient at English, nor would they likely become so. Almost all the proficient crew had interests or were involved in activities that demanded energy and/or thought and paid off with an exponential increase in both qualities.


In short, if a student says that they are an avid reader of historical maps and are actively involved in a heritage group, their chances of being a proficient English speaker will be about ten times higher than your ‘I listen to music’ type (Nothing against music buffs of course. Someone who claims to really be interested in, say, modal jazz would also make the cut). Connected to this is my final quality:


They have active, curious minds


Foreign language proficiency demands that one be able to drop or shift categories, alter sensibilities, or organize thoughts in a variety of modes (as opposed to the popular and misguided, ‘you have to absorb the culture’ mantra). 


Learners who are actively engaged in ‘languaging’, articulating thoughts via the medium of language — even (especially) internally — will invariably be the active, curious type. One of my most proficient medical students told me that when driving home after school, she had a habit of mentally constructing hypothetical clinical cases in order establish a knowledge hierarchy of data. It helped her to absorb and understand what she had already learned, as well as offering her a calming effect. This led her to also investigate more about the parts that she couldn’t quite fit in. This is the essence of the active, curious mind.


So, what can we conclude about all this?


First, fostering active (more than ‘critical’) thinking in general produces better language users. This may be out of the control range of the average English teacher, but it does say something regarding the need for productive, stimulating, and cognitively specific activities in all classes. This does not imply more exciting games and the like — but more content. Meaningful, synapse-generating, content.


Second, if the learners are using English for any type of higher-order cognitive activity have them write, practice, or assemble it first in Japanese. Again, if they are not clear about content in their mother tongue they won’t be able to manage such discourse in English.


Finally, teachers should promote extended English reading practices. Pleasure reading.


Not all of our charges will eventually become proficient speakers of English, but we can do small things in order to establish the kind of learning community in which they are more likely to prosper.






Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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