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  • Francis Fung | Career Coach

What’s the best way to learn English?

In Japan, I am often asked “I want to learn more real English, what is the best way?”. In this blog we will look at some of the many options, and why some may be better than others. However, the most important thing is to choose a method and get started. Which methods work best for you?



“I want to learn real English. I want to learn more English. What's the best way to learn?” - popular question in Japan

I've been in Japan for 10 years now and have known and worked with a lot of Japanese people. Everyone has very different English levels, but the story is mainly the same. They have learnt English at high school, they studied English to get into university, they've taken TOEIC or Eiken. Some have also lived and worked abroad and have come back to Japan.

But these friends and acquaintances still ask the same question. “I want to learn more English. I want to learn real English for business for work. What's the best way to learn?”

The real answer is, there's no one correct way.

The following is just from my own experience and personal opinion.

Firstly I will start with what I would not recommend for most people. I do not recommend paying lots of money and go to after work Eikaiwa (英会話) schools. From experience and from the people I know, it's not that useful for them. You may go to an Eikaiwa lesson maybe twice a week for an hour, or maybe 90 minutes. At the time, you study, you say some phrases and have some homework assigned. However, after that you probably do not do the homework or think about English for the whole week. Then, just before your next lesson you complete the homework and that's when you start thinking about last week’s lesson. That is not enough.

It's not enough to help you remember, to help you practice, or to help you during the week.

That is a quick summary of why I don't feel Eikaiwa is the best.

If that's at the bottom of the recommendations, then what is the most recommended way?

Something which you can practice every day is best. I personally believe online lessons (Skype, video call lessons) for maybe 15 - 30 minutes a day, with someone who speaks English natively or fluently is best. Depending on the price that you want to pay it may be with native English speakers, or southeast Asian English speakers. Having 15-30 minutes of conversation a day is great practice.

Having conversations daily will help you listen, it helps you understand, and practice chatting freely. It's not as structured as a class you can just talk about anything, without worrying about being correct or not. That is the best way I would recommend. So, if we say Eikaiwa is at the bottom and if we say online video calls 15 minutes a day is at the top, then what are the options in between?

Starting from the bottom of recommendations and going up. If you are not that comfortable with listening and speaking, then reading would be a good place to start. Most people commute, and read on their smartphones, tablet, Kindle or even on your laptops at work.

Reading is something anyone can do, anytime, anywhere. There are plenty of English websites and articles out there. You can just go to any news website e.g. BBC News or even Japanese English websites like NHK English news or Daily Yomiuri. You can find a level to suit you. Any reading that you do daily, is better than no reading.

Next I would say listening to English is very important.

At home, I would recommend having English audio in the background like background music (BGM). Have English playing in the background so that you can get used to it. English audio can be anything from English TV programs, English dramas, English radio, English songs or English YouTube; anything. You can listen to anything you want as long as it's English. This helps you get used to listening to English, how it's spoken by different people, all the different accents, speeds and vocabularies. Just like Speaking, I would highly recommend listening to English daily.

A popular method is listening to English podcasts. Of course I also have an English podcast “Global Thinking Japan” and if you listen, then that’s great, but there are other podcasts you can also listen to for example BBC podcasts on how to learn English. I'm sure NHK also has podcasts on how to learn English. There's Amazon Audible. You can listen to English books.

Listening is very important and it's a good way to practice without you having to put in much effort, it's just listening.

Next, something which would be even more useful for practicing listening and speaking, and communication in general would be meeting some non-Japanese people and taking those chances to speak. There are a lot of gaikokujin (foreigners) in Japan. There is always a chance to speak to someone who is non-Japanese.

Why I recommend that is because that's the “most real” way to learn. I know it might seem quite scary or you might feel nervous; but it is the best way to improve communication skills; by speaking with someone who is a native English speaker. There are too many ways to suggest how to meet and speak with gaikokujin and I'm sure you already know. However, just as some suggestions, you can speak to people in your workplace who are non-native Japanese. And if you don't have anyone who is non-native Japanese, or any native English speakers at your workplace, you can always go to an English speaking cafe where you can speak to native English speakers. Or you can go online, for example, like meetup.com where you can meet in groups. You can meet non-Japanese and hang out, talk and have a cultural exchange. There are numerous (many) ways and I'm sure you probably know many ways that I don't know.

But the suggestion is still, speak to people who speak English, and it's the best way to learn. If you're afraid and you don't want to go and meet someone alone of course you don't have to. As mentioned above, there are many groups you can join. For example, join a group to volunteer to help English speakers learn Japanese or join a group that meets up in Shibuya or Yoyogi koen or somewhere that just walks around and speaks English.

There are too many ways and there's very few reasons not to speak to someone who speaks English in Japan.

Next what I would suggest is practicing English at home every day. We already mentioned that you can do Skype and online lessons daily at home. But if you really don't want to online lessons, the next best suggestion in my experience would be to watch English TV programs. English dramas, movies, anything you want as long as you do the following: Whatever you watch, you must watch it three times. Now why I say watch it three times is because I would suggest the first time you watch it, watch it with Japanese subtitles. Definitely have Nihongo jimaku in order for you to understand the story and what's happening. Also, in order for you to enjoy the program the first time around, I definitely would suggest having Japanese subtitles. So you've watched it the once, you understood it, then watch it again.

The second time you watch it make sure that this program has English subtitles. (I guess you should actually check before watching to see if there are both English and Japanese subtitles). So the second time watch it with English subtitles because you already know the story from the first time. You already understand and know what's going to happen. Watch it with English subtitles so that you can catch the words and what they are actually saying, and try to follow along.

This will improve your listening. You may even hear or learn a lot of new words that you don't know, in which case, I would suggest that you sit there with a notepad and write down words. Pause it and write down the words that you don't know, so you can check them later.

By now, you’ve already watched it with Japanese subtitles and you understand it. The second time you've watched it with English subtitles and you know exactly which words they are using. Now, the third time, watch it again with no subtitles.

This third and final time purely is to see how much you can understand. See how many words you can catch, how much of the meaning you can get. The third time watching is also purely for practice. Don't feel that you have to catch every single word. There is no pressure. You're just watching it. If you get it, great. If you don't get it, it doesn't matter. It's a TV program / movie. It's just for your practice. It's not an exam. There's no test. So watch as much as you want. The main point is you have to keep watching and you have to keep practicing. This is something I would definitely recommend.

There are too many ways and there's very few reasons not to speak to someone who speaks English in Japan.

A lot of these suggestions, as I have mentioned, I have already done before (but not for English of course). I did the same things above while trying to learn Japanese.

I'll explain a bit more about that in a moment but I'm just going to finish my suggestion for the best way to learn English. This would be Skype conversations or online lessons every day.

I don't necessarily mean 7 days a week. That would be great of course, but e.g. every weekday after work or before work or even two to three times a week, that's still great practice. As long as it's consistent and often, it's extremely helpful.

It obviously helps you get into the mode of speaking English with someone who is not Japanese. It helps you think quickly, helps you learn new words, and you get much more comfortable with speaking. I highly recommend this approach.

So all of above, I practiced when I tried to learn Japanese.

I've been to Japanese school in the evenings after work. It was a few months at a language school in Tokyo. However, it didn't work for me. I just couldn't concentrate. It was after work, I was tired, so it wasn’t the best fit for me.

Reading books, yes it's good practice but reading Japanese was very hard for me. I couldn't read the kanji. I tried to read books which had furigana next to the kanji, but because it's was so small to read, it always just made me sleepy.

What worked for me was watching Japanese movies and TV. It was great practice. I used to go to the DVD rental store near where I lived called Geo. I would go to Geo and every week I would borrow two to three Ghibli movies. I would watch that one Ghibli movie three times. First time with English subtitles. The second time with Japanese subtitles (even if I couldn't read all of the kanji, sometimes it helped). And the third time, no subtitles just to see how much I could understand.

Of course, I have Japanese friends, I would to speak to them in Japanese when I could.

I listened to Japanese music. I watched Japanese YouTube. I bought a mini radio when I first came to Japan just to have Japanese language on in the background, so I could listen to it all the time and just get used to the sounds and the words, even though I didn't understand anything. So everything I've said is useful but varies depending on the person.

So, what is the best for you? You have to choose. Everything I've said is just my personal opinion and that's how I would rank them for learning. For example, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't go to Eikaiwa or English lessons. If it works for you, great! You should go, but everything I've said is just how I feel. And they are just some ideas to get started with.

In conclusion, we have covered a lot of ways to practice and improve and get used to English. We've mentioned some reasons of why I feel you should or shouldn't do certain methods but ultimately you have to choose whichever works for you.

But whatever you choose from that list of suggestions, do choose one. And don't wait. There's no reason to wait.

You can pick anyone and start. Especially, if it's something that does not rely on others, such as listening. You can listen on the train, you can listen to English in the background when you're at home. You can listen during lunch. Alternatively, you can read during lunch. Just get used to connecting with English. Watch TV dramas on your smartphone, on your laptop. It doesn't matter which one you choose but whatever you choose. Just start, and just do it.

Next time, we will talk about the next question I get asked a lot in Japan, which is, "I’ve chosen a method of practice, now what contents should I study?".


Francis Fung


What about your ways of studying? What methods do you use that you feel, work for you and that you want to share?


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Thanks and have a good day.

There are too many ways and there's very few reasons not to speak to someone who speaks English in Japan.
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