I have never lived or taught in China, so I can’t answer about China, but I have lived and taught in both S. Korea and Japan. You really don’ realize how difficult English is for the Koreans and the Japanese. First, I will talk about S. Korea, and then Japan.
The Korean parents are all about making sure their kids can learn English because they know to get a good job in S. Korea, their kids must pass a government English test call the TOEIC. Many Korean parents are scrambling trying to make sure their kids learn to speak English. English is taught in school from the elementary years on, but they really don’t learn much English in public schools.
I taught in a public elementary school for one year, and I know why. The Korean English teacher in the school was not confident in her English abilities, so she never spoke English with the students. All she did was put a video in and have the do a workbook where they circled things. When I came along, she saw me as her teaching tool. She posted me in the hallway. She would teach them one English phrase like a greeting, and then she let them all line up in the hallway and say it to me one at a time. She knew she couldn’t actually teach them to speak. When I asked for an after school program to teach English without me being her helper, I began that group speaking, and she told me I couldn’t have done it. She was sure they were all attending private schools called hogwans to learn English because surely I couldn’t have taught them. She asked the students, and none of them were going to hogwans, only to my after school program, and she was shocked. They don’t expect them to learn in public school even though they teach them.
I also taught in a Korean middle school in the country for about six months. Their English was a bit better than the elementary school students. However, until I got there, not a lot of English teaching was going on. The students were bigger than the teachers, and bigger than me too. The students had the Korean English teacher scared of them, and he was afraid to go into the classroom with them, so he just let them run wild. When I tried to teach, it was his job to keep them under control, but he refused. They were cutting themselves with razors, lighting fires, jumping out windows, etc. If I took a razor blade or a lighter away from them, I had to keep it in my pocket because if I put it on my desk, the sneaked it off, and at times, I cut my fingers on their razor blades. They wanted to just walk around the classroom as I taught ignoring me, but I was forced into spanking to keep them under control and begin trying to teach them. I left because I had to spank, but the spanking is what got them under control. After I spanked these big guys who were broad, young, and towered over me, and got them under control, then I played games with them and they found out learning English could be fun, but by that time my nerves were shot. I got an award from the governor of the state for getting them under control, and soon after that, they outlawed spanking. I hate to see what the kids are like now.
English is hard for them because it is so completely different from Korean. If you don’t have someone who knows what they are doing, the students will not learn. The Korean hogwans are very popular for teaching them to speak English. If they are the privileged ones who live in town and whose parents have a little money and can send them to a hogwan, they are more likely to speak a little English, but not all of them. As the children hit high school or college age, they begin calming down and don’t cause so much trouble.
As for Japan, their rowdiest group is the kindergarteners. When I was teaching in a language school in Japan, a Japanese Juku, I was sent once a week to a public school to teach English to the kindergarteners. They were so spoiled, they were a disaster, and they were extremely hard to teach. You see, Korea and Japan both have a philosophy about children that comes out of Tibet. The parents spoil them while they are small, and some of the little kids become complete brats. As they begin to get older, about middle school age, the teachers are expected to get them under control, but as with the ones in the country school in Korea, it had not been done. Many Korean middle schoolers skip out on school and spend their time smoking and playing video games at the PC room. I didn’t spend quite as much time in Japan as I did in Korea, but I can tell you about the students I had.
In Japan, they are taught English at school. However, most Japanese English teachers don’t know to make them speak English. They can do it on paper. The Japanese school system gets stricter and stricter as they get older. If they don’t do well, they are sent to the Juku, the language school, or what some call, the cram school. It is everyday after school like the Korean hogwans. The parents have to pay, so not every kid can do it. They learned a lot more than English in the Juku where I was. they also had a teacher who specialized in teaching kanji, the Japanese picture words. Every Japanese child has to take a kanji test every so often to be in the grade where they are. They have to study hard!
Discipline is paramount in Japanese schools. The Japanese and Korean students alike wear uniforms in the upper grades, but the Japanese also wear them in the lower grades. When a Japanese gets to high school, they have no social life whatsoever. They are expected to come home from school everyday and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening studying. If they don’t, they won’t make it into college. I haven’t checked lately, but at one time, the Japanese had an extremely high suicide rate, and it was of high school students who didn’t make it into college because they failed the college entrance exam. They are barely allowed to speak Japanese because they are so busy studying much less a foreign language. However, they do have English at school, and some have English at the Juku. If they study at the Juku, they will speak English just like the Koreans who study at the hogwans will speak English. However, if they don’t, they probably don’t speak English.
With as much English is being taught in S. Korea and Japan, you would think they would speak English better than they do. However, often times it is like the Spanish and French classes in America. Students study, but they really can’t do much with it. The difference is the Japanese do have Jukus, and the Koreans have hogwans. If you have students who have studied there, they can speak English, and if they have been going long enough, they do it well.