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EFL as an L3 in Japan

Cealia Wang


In contrast to the overall drop in the number of students entering universities in Japan each year, the number of international students is on the rise. There were 141,774 foreign students at Japanese universities as of May 1, 2010, an increase of 6.8% from the year before. The majority of these foreign students (106,375) came from China and Korea, and most applied to study in the fields of Social Science, Humanities, and Engineering (JASSO, 2010).

According to Cealia Wang, a graduate student of English Education, incoming students from China tend to specialize in degree programs offering courses in Japanese language, Japanese Culture, Economics, Social Welfare, Business, or Technology. They generally opt to supplement these majors with classes of English. In a survey she conducted with Chinese students she found that they want to retain the levels of English they achieved at high schools or universities in China. She also discovered that many of the students who majored in a Japanese language program in China want to learn English as a second foreign language. For these students and their instructors, EFL can be considered as an L3 in Japan. In this article for Outreach, Wang asks, “Do the teachers of international students need to change the way they are currently teaching English as a Foreign Language to Japanese students?”

EFL as an L3 in Japan

There were 86,173Chinese students studying in Japan when a census was taken on May 1, 2010(JASSO, 2010). Many of these Chinese students have come to study not only the Japanese language, but also EFL. English is their L3, their third language in Japan. Chinese international students are interested in learning or maintaining their English skills because of its usefulness in China and other countries where they might have an opportunity to travel or find employment.

In May, 2010, I conducted a surveywith 25 non-English majors at a university in Jiang Su Province in China. I wanted to collect data on how they acquire English reading skills in China and follow it up with observations on how similar Chinese students acquire English reading skills in Japan. The students in China are majoring in biologyand take English asa compulsory subject. I spoke with students in China who were non-English majors because my sample of Chinese students in Japan were majoring in Japanese or Economics.

The 25 college sophomores I surveyedtake four English classes for 15 weeks during two semesters, each class being 1.5 hours. Reading lessons are taught in an intensive way, with teachers using the grammar-translation method. They don’t haveextensive reading classes. The respondents reported that the textbook is difficult for them to read in English, but it contains Chinese translations. Most students admitted that they read the translated version first before reading the English text. There are only Chinese students in the class. Teachers use Chinese as the language of instruction to explain the textbook in class.

In October, 2010, I conducted asimilar survey in Japanwith 25 Chinese EFL university students and 43 Japanese students who study English. Of the 4,000 students at the Japanese university where the survey was conducted, 153 are from China. The Chinese students major in Japanese,Economics,and Intercultural Studies, and they consider English to be a foreign language. They do not need to study English; the subject is an elective. Those who choose to study an English course have one 90-minute class per week for a 15-week semester. There are Japanese and Chinese students in the class. In class, teachers speak in Japanese to teach students and use the grammar-translation teaching method to analyze sentences. The textbook is similar to the one used by the students in China. It also has translations, not between Chinese and English, but from English to Japanese. The Chinese students in Japan reported that they usually speak Japanese in their English classes; in fact, the students reported that even when they attempt to speak in English they often say some words in Japanese. Without thinking, Japanese is spoken instead of English. There are few opportunities to speak in English on the university campus.

The motivationsfor reading in English were not the same for the two groups of students. The main reason reported by the 25 students in China was: “I want to pass English tests.” The second most common reason was “I want to learn English by reading,” followed by, “I like reading in English,” and finally, “I want to get a job using English.” In follow-up interviews, a few students added that they also studied English because of social and family influence, for example, “My father recommended I study English because more Chinese people are traveling around the world.”

In order of importance, thereasons given bythe Chinese international studentsstudyingEnglish in Japan were: “I want to learn English through reading,” followed by, “I want to get a job using English,” and finally “I like reading in English.” In a follow-up interview agraduate student reasoned, “I studied English for five years at university in Dalian, China, so I don’t want to lose those skills while I study Japanese in Japan.”

The Chinese international students reported thatthey wantedto learn practicalEnglish:vocabulary andgrammarthat they could immediately use, as well aswritingskills.Inthe class,these students reported thatteachers usually control thesyllabus and uselessonplans followingsetgoalsthat usually do not match with the students’ reported goals. In some English classes, Japanese professors conduct the lessons inJapanese.

Asan EFL major at a university in China, I attended English classes for 20 hours per week. At that time I also studiedJapaneseas an additionalforeign languagefor three hoursper week. In China, beforeEFL students can graduate from university, they have to pass the College English Test(CET), which is administered at the national level. When the students look for a job, the CET certificate is necessary to get a good job, even for positions that don’t seem to require English. Therefore, the number one motivation of students in China is to do well on their CETs.

Now I am studying English Education as a graduate student in Japan. In my spare time I coach students in how to read and speak English at the university English Speaking Society. Our ESS club has 12members, including some Chinese students. I believe that it is not veryeffectiveto use Japanese as the language of instruction with theseChinese students who arelearningEnglish.Student feedback concerning the use of Japanese in the English classroom contradicts my hypothesis, however, as one student reported, “The reason I came to Japan was because I want to study Japanese as my third language. When the instructor uses Japanese, or asks the class to translate English passages into Japanese, I feel that it will help me to learn two languages in one class. I want to be a translator. If I can translate between three languages I will have a better chance at landing a job.”

Most university students in China do not have part-time jobs, so they have sufficient time to study English. University tuition is paid by their parents. This contrasts with the situation of most Chinese students studying in Japan. To pay for the expensive tuition and living expenses, the Chinese international students I interviewed work at part-time jobs. There also seems to be fewer social reasons and less family pressure to study English in Japan. For example, Chinese students seeking jobs in Japan need to have a command of the Japanese language. When I asked a store manager, “Won’t you take into considerationhigh English scores and certificateswhen recruitingnew staff?” the answer was, “We do not care about your English or your academic study results. What we care about is whether you are energetic and likely to do well on the job.” During working hours, the Chinese students must speak in Japanese and they are trained in Japanese. With fewer opportunities to speak English, the students lose their English fluency and the transfer of Japanese words into their conversations increases at the ESS club and in the EFL classroom.Because Japanese companies do not require English, the prime motivation the Chinese students once had─“I want to get a job in English”─becomes moot.

The debate on whether teachers of international students need to change the way they are currently teaching EFL to Japanese students is a new issue. Under the current conditions it is not surprising to find that when Chinese EFL students attempt to speak English as an L3 in Japan, there is much interference from their L2.


Japan Student Services Organization, JASSO. (2010). Statistics on International Students in Japan 2010. Retrieved from <>


The first reference listed on page 59 of the January/February 2011 issue of the Outreach column should have identified The Language Teacher rather than JALT Journal as follows:

Birch. G. (2010). Behind the scenes: An examination of student L1 use. The Language Teacher, 34(3), 19-24.

UPDATE: GiggleIT Project Embraces Haiku

The May, 2009 issue of the Outreach column announced the launch of GiggleIT, an online book written by children and hosted by the International Association of School Librarianship (Manck, 2009). Katy Manck, a librarian based in Texas who assists the GiggleIT project, contacted Outreach to report that “student writing is going strong, with schools from many regions registered and contributing their creative works to the online book. Haiku is among the 2011 GiggleIT competitions, thanks to your suggestion in 2009.”

The lesson plans, registration, web hosting of student works, and competition entry are all free. Students of English in Japan are invited to contribute their impressions of the theme “Through Our Window─The Colours of Our World” for an international audience to read. The competitions run until November, 2011. For more information refer to: <>


Manck, K. (2009). Sharing humorous stories and giggles with children around the world. In Outreach (ed. D. McMurray). The Language Teacher, 33(5), 29-30.

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