English ability of this generation


How much confidence do you have in your own English ability? graph of japanese statisticsWith Japanese primary schools about to start compulsory English lessons, this survey from iShare took a look at people’s English ability and children’s English lessons. As it’s rather a long survey and lends itself into splitting into two, I’ll do just that.


Over the 17th and 18th of January 2011 1,722 members of the CLUB BBQ free email forwarding service in full-time employment completed a private internet-based survey. 579 people had children of primary school age or younger, 62.0% of the sample were male, 52.2% in their thirties, and 47.8% in their forties.

Q3 is a funny one to me – I don’t really associate primary school with studying, so I can’t say there is anything academic I should have put more effort into, although I do wish I’d persevered more with music-making as I wish I didn’t have such a tin ear.

My employer requires various levels of TOEIC scores before promotion to higher levels and there is also some indirect input of English skill into a system for rating skill level. Conversely, they have zero requirement for foreigners to speak Japanese, an issue that I regularly take up with personnel.

Research results

Q1: How much confidence do you have in your own English ability? (Sample size=1,722)

A little18.4%18.5%18.3%
None at all79.3%79.5%78.9%

Q2: Regardless of your own ability, do you think English ability is necessary in today’s society? (Sample size=1,722)

Definitely (to SQ)36.3%38.9%32.1%
A little (to SQ)44.3%40.2%51.0%
Not at all19.4%20.9%16.9%

Q2SQ: Are you something concrete to improve your English ability? For example, video or audio-based lessons, games machine or PC-based lessons, internet-based lessons, being taught by someone who speaks English, attending English classes, etc. (Sample size=1,388)


I don’t know why there wasn’t a break-down to see which methods people used.

Q3: Do you wish you’d put more effort into studying a subject when you were in elementary school? (Sample size=1,722)

Yes (to SQ)53.3%49.6%59.4%

Q3SQ: Which subjects do you wish you’d put more effort into studying when you were in elementary school? (Sample size=918, multiple answer)

Social studies26.0%20.8%33.2%
Physical education, sports19.2%20.6%17.2%
Arts and crafts13.9%13.0%15.2%
Home economics8.6%7.8%9.8%

Q4: Does your workplace have any company rules regarding improving your English ability? (Sample size=1,722)

Yes (to SQs)7.2%8.7%4.7%

Q4SQ1: What company rules are there regarding improving your English ability? (Sample size=124, multiple answer)

Regular English ability tests65.3%65.6%64.5%
Optional English classes outside of working hours43.5%47.3%32.3%
Salary increase for better English ability12.1%14.0%6.5%
Requirement for regular English study6.5%3.2%16.1%
Plan to adopt English as the company language at some point4.8%5.4%3.2%
Definite schedule to adopt English as the company language2.4%2.2%3.2%

Q4SQ2: How are the company rules regarding improving your English ability applied? (Sample size=124)

Very proactively12.9%11.8%16.1%
Somewhat proactively34.7%37.6%25.8%
Not at all proactively52.4%50.5%58.1%

Q5: Do you think it will be necessary for children now of elementary age to have English ability when they become adults? (Sample size=1,722)

Very much so (to SQs)52.2%53.9%49.5%
To some degree so (to SQ)37.9%35.7%41.4%
Not at all so9.9%10.4%9.2%

Q5SQ: Why do you most think that English ability will be needed? (Sample size=1,551)

In order to widen their sphere of communication39.3%38.2%41.0%
In order to increase their job opportunities31.5%32.9%29.1%
In order to have a global way of thinking12.3%12.0%12.6%
In order to get a job8.6%8.7%8.4%
In order to contribute to international society4.3%3.8%5.0%
Read more on: ,,,


  1. Janne said,
    February 3, 2011 @ 09:07

    “Conversely, they have zero requirement for foreigners to speak Japanese, an issue that I regularly take up with personnel.”

    Really? But pre-employment tests and interviews are presumably all in Japanese so anybody that gets a job does have a working level of Japanese without imposing any extra requirements.

    • Ken Y-N said,
      February 3, 2011 @ 09:41

      I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been! For direct hires, there is a requirement on entry of JLPT Level 2 or whatever, but for intra-company transfers to Japan, or for continued career development, there are no targets set, unlike Japanese who have minimum TOIEC levels for each promotion.

      • Janne said,
        February 3, 2011 @ 10:53

        OK. That’s a little odd, I agree. Though if the transferee is a domain expert then it’s natural for language skills to place a very distant second to their core skill set. That’s what you have in academia, where labs can hire people that don’t speak a word of the local language (and the local researchers can handle nary a word of spoken English) simply on the strength of their research skills.

        But for general employees in Japan I agree that Japanese ability should be a requirement (and, say, German for German office transfers, French for the Paris offices and so on). One problem with it is that the JLPT is a pretty blunt tool for assessing ability; writing or speaking ability is not tested for a start, making it rather incomplete. And as far as I know there is no other good alternative.

  2. RMilner said,
    February 3, 2011 @ 16:08

    TOEIC gives a better granularity of English ability than the JLPT series. You can also take the test every two weeks, rather than twice a year — it used to be once a year for JLPT.

    Anyway, it should be left to the employer to decide how much language ability is required for an employee or intercompany transfer. If someone has a basic level in a language, they will speed up quickly once they are immersed in it daily.

    I know my own Japanese ability increases steadily while I am in the country. When I land at Narita I can order a coach ticket. By the time I leave one or two weeks later, my ear has tuned in, my rustiness has been polished off, and I am speaking much more.

    That said, the company I work for apparently takes no notice of language ability when sending people on short or longterm overseas jobs.

  3. Piglet said,
    February 3, 2011 @ 16:25

    “But for general employees in Japan I agree that Japanese ability should be a requirement (and, say, German for German office transfers, French for the Paris offices and so on).”

    I understand and agree but it seems that most international companies are switching to English as a working language. For example, my father works in France for an international French company. A few years ago, they switched everything to English for corporate matters. The company documentation is now in English (it used to be in French). They can use French for daily activity, but they have to use English for dealing with headquarters (based in France).

    Anyway, as usual, I have some concerns about the statistical validity of the surveys you present to us.

    For a sample size of 1000, the margin of error is 3.2%. For a sample size of 100 (question Q4SQ2), the margin of error is 10%.

    Furthermore, Club BBQ needs to publish for EACH survey the composition of the sample:
    – is it representative of the Japanese population? If not, how does the sample composition differ from the overall population? (social status, income, urban/suburban, political leanings, etc…
    – how did they correct the possible bias (persons having answered the survey vs club members, given answers vs real answers…)
    – which sampling method did they use (quota sampling, stratified sampling, convenience sampling, etc…). Was there any control to correct the bias in sample selection?

    I don’t think you can make any conclusion from this survey (and all the other surveys) because a lot of information is missing. I suspect these are just “random” internet surveys with no proper statistical analysis.

    I appreciate the work you’ve been doing translating these “surveys”, but is there a way you also translate real surveys, which would given us a better view of “what Japan thinks”.

    • Janne said,
      February 3, 2011 @ 17:23

      Any online survey like this has lots of methodological errors, beginning with the self-selected nature of the sample population. See them as entertainment; that’s what they’re for after all. Same goes for most published opinion polls. You can catch large, obvious trends, but that’s about it.

      “I understand and agree but it seems that most international companies are switching to English as a working language”

      Yes, absolutely. But that’s not the whole issue. Take academic research again, an area I know well. The research sphere has long switched to English as a world-wide working language. And yes, you can go abroad and not know a word of the local language – I did – and still be able to do your job.

      But a researcher without the local language is fairly handicapped and a loss less effective than they could be. There’s big things and small: You can’t order supplies, or pick them out from catalogs – or pick them from the supply room; you can’t interact with experimental subjects; you can’t read or write most forms related to your funding, progress reports or anything involving applying for permission (for hazardous substances, animal handling or whatever). You can’t be safety manager, or act as host for local visitors. You can’t rent your own place or ask the super to help if something breaks by yourself. You may have major problems buying groceries, and a dental appointment that would take you half an hour at home becomes half a day with somebody from your lab helping you find a place, then act as translator.

      In general, local people will have to help you with most of these things to a lesser or greater degree. You’re far less effective than you could be, and you’re dragging the productivity of people around you down as well – they’re no doubt happy to help, but that time is still time they could have spent on their own work.

      Foreign posts in private companies are no doubt different, but similar issues arise there too. English may be the company language, but that doesn’t mean everybody is equally fluent, and after-work social gatherings will have people happily using their own local language, with the foreign guy mostly shut out. Customers want to talk to people in their own language, and few people are “back office” enough never to actually have to interact with outsiders. Even if you’re a pure technical guy, you may well need to talk to your customers’ technical personnel, for instance.

      You don’t need perfect language skills for most of this; a little really goes a long way. But having some skill is vastly better than having none at all.

    • Ken Y-N said,
      February 3, 2011 @ 18:13

      First, yes, the margin of error is around 3% for 1,000 from 50 million according to this calculator. However, as the population of Q4SQ2 is a subset of the 1,722, it is incorrect to classify it as having a 10% margin of error, I believe.

      iShare does publish the full data regarding demographics, but for a price! They also only provide for free a very simplistic overview, and their panel in particular has significant bias towards geeks, I feel.

      None of the online companies try to correct for national demographics, and not even national newspaper political polls make adjustments; they just present the raw numbers, but of course “correcting” the data itself is not an exact science.

      The “real” surveys are the ones from Cabinet Office Japan, as they use random sampling from resident rolls, but they themselves bias towards retirees…

      Next is goo Research, who do do some correction as far as I am aware; they are the best of the internet surveyors.

      People like Macromill who concentrate on narrow demographics are reasonably accurate too, I think.

      iShare/CLUB BBQ is pretty much junk statistically speaking, but it’s entertaining junk, I hope!

      Anyway, thanks for the questions.

Leave a Comment