Eigo wa Muzukashii….. This is a term that I've heard countless times in Japan. It translates to: "English is bloody hard (to learn)". Being the 3rd most popular second language in the world, and the first when it comes to business, English has seen a steady growth as the de facto language if you want to travel, communicate on the internet, or even find a new job.
While the importance of learning english as a second or even third language can not be underestimated, it still is a difficult language to learn for many - notoriously so for Japanese people. There's a pervasive idea in Japan that English is difficult to learn, thus most people prefer not to speak it - even though they receive at least 6 years of English education throughout their school days. You would think that after six years of education, most people would be at a level comfortable enough to hold a basic conversation, but as people who have spent a considerable amount of time in Japan can attest to, that is not always the case here. At one point or another, every English-speaker and/or teacher in Japan has asked or at least wondered why that is. Is it because of old, outdated learning methods? Is it due to the overemphasis of grammar over fluency in schools? Is it because Japanese people don't like making mistakes and thus are more shy when speaking? Is it simply because for them, learning English is kind of like learning…. well….. Japanese for non-native Japanese speakers? In other words, one of the most difficult undertakings in your life!
Not all is lost, however. There are some good samaritans out there who really want to help Japanese people get over their reluctance to learn English and at the same time help them not to sound like a dusty old textbook when they have a conversation in English.
One of these people recently went from obscurity to YouTube stardom using a unique teaching methodology to innovatively teach the finer points of English. So I sat down with her to talk about the how's and why's of her newfound success and the trials and tribulations of teaching/learning English in Japan. Her name: Chika. Her style: as unique as her character. Her YouTube Channel: cyoshida1231. This is her story….
Achim: Please tell me a little background information about you.
Chika: I was born in Japan, but then my father was transferred to the U.S. when I was very young. I grew up in/near Seattle, where (at the time), I was one of the only Japanese people there. I was very young then, so I picked up the language very quickly.
Achim: I can imagine that. Kids are like sponges at that age. They can absorb languages very quickly. So how did this experience living near Seattle shape your character?
Chika: (laughs) Oh, in lots of ways. Because of the experience of having lived in the States for 16 years, my character is not like that of a typical Japanese. I stand out in Japan… Being outgoing, taking initiative, not being afraid of taking chances and challenging myself, having strong confidence. That's one of the reasons, actually, why I wanted to start the channel: To give Japanese people more confidence when speaking English. I think the lack of confidence in English for Japanese comes from education. Students in (traditional) schools are not encouraged to really use the language effectively, to express their opinions with it.
Achim: I agree. Students should be encouraged more to actually use the language they've learned in a creative way. Is that why you started the YouTube channel?
Chika: Actually it kind of happened by accident. After I graduated from the University of Washington, my dad suggested I should go back to Japan for a while to get in touch with my roots. I never planned to stay here that long, or to get a job (consultant).
Then, about one year ago, smart-phones became very popular and I saw the potential. More people watched videos on their phones, downloaded all kinds of apps for them, etc. I became interested in YouTube because I wanted to help and have my own thing. I wanted to have something that required my own unique skills…. I thought I should teach English on YouTube to help others acquire the language because I wanted to put myself in their shoes. Through my channel I try to simulate what it's like for a Japanese person to learn. Being bilingual certainly helps with that.
I was very very surprised about the impact of my channel. Right now I have about 3,300 active subscribers. I started getting messages from people saying how much they enjoy the channel and how its helping them.
Achim: That's great! I'm sure for many people who think English is difficult, your easy to understand, short lessons really make a difference. What was the most difficult thing for you when you learned English?
Chika: (mhmmmm) Difficult question. I was in first grade when we moved to the States, so everything was pretty easy for me. I spent the first summer with a friend (american) and all of a sudden I could speak. But I still had a little limited vocabulary. I picked up the language very quickly though and by 3rd grade I was basically native.
Achim: I see. So now you're completely bilingual. Do you have a preference for one or the other language?
Chika: Not really…. Either is fine for me. I use both (almost) equally at work.
Achim: One of the most difficult things for most people is the pronunciation. Throughout our conversation so far, and through your videos, I noticed that your pronunciation is excellent and accent free. What advice can you give people trying to learn English?
Chika: It's important to learn correctly, because that leads to confidence, which leads to (wanting to) speaking more. Use active (not passive) listening when you learn and pay attention to the individual sounds.
On the other hand, don't be too focused on just the pronunciation though. Some people emphasize it too much. The important thing is to just start speaking. Confidence is a major thing. Try to relate (new words) to Japanese words to make a mental connection. Also learn to move your mouth in the right way to make the sound. English sounds are not generated the same way as Japanese sounds. Pay attention to the muscles in your mouth and how the sound is produced by changing shapes with your mouth. Another thing is don't be afraid to make mistakes. I always tell people it's Ok to make mistakes.
Achim: Exactly! It's so important to just speak, and not be afraid to make mistakes. As a matter of fact, if you don't make mistakes… how can you learn?
Achim: What do you think about the state of (English) Education in Japan?
Chika: Well I always went to school for one month when I came back to Japan for the summers. We learned draemon likes duriaki in English class. That's not really useful, especially since two of those words are Japanese. Many people complain about English education in Japan. Now I even have some Japanese English teachers who watch my videos to learn. It's quite interesting. There's definitely room for improvement in (English) Education in Japan. It's going to be a slow change though, so if you're serious about learning, look online. There's so much content nowadays, so try to understand how you learn and find the right tools for you.
Achim: Couldn't agree more. So if you could change one thing about the Japanese Educational Institution (particularly English instruction), what would you change?
Chika: I think having non-native speakers (Japanese English Speakers) is a bit of a problem. They usually only focus on reading and writing, and neglect to teach the finer points of the language, such as intonation, rhythm, etc. Also I don't think there's enough time allocated to learning English. It's still hard for people to understand the immediate need for learning English in today's world. There are so many opportunities out there when you learn English.
Achim: Exactly! Many doors can open for you if you speak English. Anything from better job opportunities, to travel opportunities, to making new connections….
So what's the best thing about teaching for you?
Chika: To know that what I'm teaching is helping someone else. I never planned on teaching. It's not just about speaking the language properly. There's an additional skill to teaching. Working in a consulting firm, you learn to think about everything, so that influenced the way I teach. To get feedback from everyone, and getting messages that someone decided to learn English again since finding my blog is a great feeling for me. I feel there's a social need and the fact that I can provide a little help in the right direction and enriching someone's life with new opportunities…is pretty rewarding. I'd like to start focusing more on the teaching…
Achim: I totally agree! Well, thank you very much for your time and keep doing what you're doing. You're really providing a great service for people out there. Actually I started watching your videos to learn some more Japanese…
Achim: Thanks and have a great night!
So for those of you out there who want to learn English, don't pass up Chika's channel, as her videos are very informative, fun, and engaging. On the other hand, if you're learning Japanese, her videos can also help you, albeit more indirectly, as well. Don't pass up the opportunities you have on the internet, especially if they come in such fun, and easy to absorb packages. Ganbatte!!!