Konnichiwa and Hello! Learning English in Japan

May 26, 2007 at 3:46 pm 1 comment

When my husband and I visited temples or other historical places in Japan, we often saw lines of Japanese school kids on field trips. Each group sported different colored uniforms, and inevitably, one or two students would dart over to us and say, “Hello!” in a loud, cheerful voice. They thought it was absolutely hilarious if we said “Hello!” back.


At first we were confused by this reaction. What about us was so funny? Of course, there was the possibility they were laughing at our clothes or our hair (in our defense, however, we never, ever wore fanny packs), but it seemed the giggles stemmed directly from our little chat.

As in the U.S., most school kids in Japan don’t start learning a foreign language until they’re 11 or 12 years old. In some private elementary schools, Japanese kids can start earlier, but this isn’t terribly common. Also, according to web-japan.org, “Even after learning English for six years, many students graduating from high school still can’t speak the language very freely, though they may be able to read and write in English.”

In other words, their grammar, reading skills and writing skills may be top notch, but they rarely have the opportunity to speak English, either in class or with a native westerner.


This accounts for the popularity of “Eikaiwa” or Conversation Schools in Japan. From one-on-one at the local Excelsior Caffe to classes of 20 people or more, lessons with native speakers are a must if one really wants to master English. Programs like Nova, Geos and Aeon recruit American, Canadian, Australian and British people to travel to Japan and teach. There is even a government program, JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching), dedicated to “increasing mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations.”

Books like “Make a Mil-Yen: Teaching English in Japan” by Don Best offer advice for westerners going it alone. Next time I’m in Japan and I’m approached by a school kid, I’ll say more than “Hello!”

Sarah S.

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Entry filed under: Japanese Business, Japanese Culture.

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  • […] the late 1990s. Starting in 1997, the brand was everywhere, and Nova became Japan’s biggest conversation school (or eikaiwa), responsible for the livelihood of 7,000 foreign teachers. Not all of them were English-speakers. […]

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