Some Japanese people think they have little linguistic talent to acquire the English language. Self-scorn is apparent in the opinion, but if they speak only minimal English after the six years of study in the mandatory education, pessimism may have a reason to exist. Some people will continue to study for two more years in university and the total duration of English study will reach eight years. Yet, if someone can only say, “Yes, a little,” to the question of, “Do you speak English?” the self-damaging claim of, “I don’t have a language talent because I don’t speak English after eight years of study,” is reasonable.
Good news is this pessimism has no proof. I have recently taught English to a group of Japanese men and women who worked for a marine transportation company. Four months prior to the class, they were college students. When they joined the company, they were sent to the ocean for oil-tanker navigation training. A side effect is that they have become fluent speakers of English, a result of talking to Pilipino crewmembers in English on a daily base. They impressed me with their language skills not only to do simple tasks but also to talk about the life of novice sailors, a level that usually requires three years for Japanese people to take. Let me add that the young sailors are intelligent people but not linguistic elites.
A simple but proven theory is that if you want to become a better speaker of English, speak more; if you want to become a better writer of English, write more; if you want to become a better reader of English, read more; and if you want to become a better listener of English, listen more. This speaking for speaking, writing for writing, reading for reading, and listening for listening principle is perhaps easy to accept. A harder part to understand is what is happening in the brain of English learners.
I would never claim I am an expert of cognitive science, but according to what I have learned in the class of cognitive psychology, the four skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking English have two separate cognitive meanings: reading and writing as visual information and listening and speaking as auditory information. The visual and auditory information is executed in different parts of the brain, which are not mutually exclusive events but somehow can affect with each other.
In sum, reading, writing, listening, speaking are processed in different parts of the brain but not in a mutually exclusive manner. So, if you read English, for instance, it will help you speak English. If you write English, it will help you speak English. This is why grammar and translation are effective for gaining speaking skills. However, speaking practices for speaking skills is a more effective method for higher speaking comprehension.
If I say, “If you want to learn how to swim, go to a swimming pool and swim,” Perhaps nobody will disagree. If I say, “If you want to speak English, go to a bookstore, buy a book titled “How to Swim,” go home, and practice swimming strokes,” I know you will disagree. Or, I should give the benefit of doubt and say, “If you do that for eight years, you will not drown,” which is what the grammar translation principle does.