Monthly Archives: November 2011

Eikaiwa: The Art of Teaching off the Menu aka Fast Food English

Mine is a funny old business. I am and have been for the last two years an English teacher in Japan. Specifically a teacher in the permanently gaffe filled, artfully mismanaged land of English Conversation schools otherwise known in Japan as Eikaiwa. It can be and often is a wonderful job yet inevitably as all jobs do, it has its downside.

That downside is a problem that the industry as a whole has struggled to solve. Coincidently it’s also a problem that Japan as a whole has struggled to solve. You see, while Japan is filled with people with a passion for travel, foreign cuisine and all things Lady Gaga; not that many people actually want to speak English.

Well it’s not that they don’t want to speak the language, it’s that they don’t want to study it. You see, the Japanese system of teaching English in schools is so utterly old fashioned and in many cases remarkably dull (the approach, not the teachers themselves. Like anywhere there’s inspirational ones and ones that ought to have been wheeled into retirement long ago) that the sight of anything that looks vaguely challenging on a whiteboard elicits whines of, “muzukashii” (difficult) or, “muri” (impossible, can’t do it, argggh!). More often than not this terror is followed by understanding all of two minutes later.

However, the initial fear is what most students tend to remember. Not the success that followed but the thought of failure that preceded it. Years of endless grammar study, direct translations and filling in the gaps has led to generation after generation of Japanese who believe that anything that might resemble a classroom approach is simply beyond them and certainly not enjoyable nor necessarily effective.

Japanese schools most notably achieve this utter lack of confidence by focusing the bare minimum on conversation. Which in turn leads many people in Japan to the English Conversation School, where we do our best to pick up the pieces.

The problem however then becomes something different altogether. Simply put, we’re not an academic institution or a school in any normal sense of the word. In fact when one considers the ubiquitous nature of Eikaiwas in Japan our business probably has more in common with a mismanaged fast food chain than anything else.  This is because while we all promise the same product, we go about preparing it in a variety of ways.

The reason for this isn’t entirely the fault of the industry itself (admittedly a fair chunk is), but rather the demands which students place upon it. For example, particularly older students wish to study in the same class as their friends regardless of the vast differences in the English ability. Much the same happens with children and while in some cases that age difference or ability gap makes not one jot of difference, if you’re using a text book of any kind then you’re going to be spending your time flitting from student to student trying to help them with their individual problems as opposed to teaching a whole class together.

To make use of the fast food analogy again, it’s like people walking into a McDonalds only to order a family chicken bucket, a flame grilled whopper and a side of hors d’oeuvres. We’re continually demanded to teach off the menu.

Everyone is making different demands of the industry and requiring it to cater to their particular needs, but continue to treat learning English as if it is a passive act, one in which they themselves will place all the work on the teacher’s shoulders to individually prepare.

Now most of us are happy to do that. I’m not saying that we’re perfect, like any industry we have our stars and our not so shining examples. But by and large we’ll do our best to cater to the students’ various (and they are various) whims, wishes, desires and dreams.

Yet, the one thing that makes all the difference is rarely addressed; the ingredients we work with. One visit a week to an English conversation school is never going to bring you to fluency unless you put in the hours and hours of self-study required.  We don’t care how you do it, watch movies, listen to the abundant free lessons provided by NHK, pick up a dirt cheap copy of any number of text books, use the internet, watch TV shows (my fastest progressing student is a twelve year old Hannah Montana fan) make twitter friends or listen to music, just show up having done something. Because if you bring us something, anything at all, we can teach you relevant, interesting English, the grammar and language you need to express yourself.

However, if you put all the effort of buying a Big Mac into your study of the English language, don’t be surprised when all you get is indigestion.

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Gokiburi: On Madness and Mushi

If only my first sightings of the little buggers had been the last. But alas, the first sighting was to be a sign of things to come. Two of the little blighters in short order. One scurrying across the top of my sink, in broad daylight no less! No sooner do I open the cupboard under said sink that I spot his fifth cousin twice removed, next to the can of bug spray designed to kill him. Impudent little git. Yes, yes, your kind may be able to survive a nuclear apocalypse but to set up camp next to the one thing that can kill you, aside from the bottom of my shoe that is, screams of an audacity that must soon be corrected. You may not long lay in the cracks and corners of my home, amidst the damp and the dark, sipping Kirin and smoking Peace or Hope brand cigarettes like some long fermented salary man propping up the snack bar near my house (I bet you’re friends with the guy who sings Enka every Thursday!). No, this can mean only one thing… a trip to the supermarket… oh yes, the horror!

Indeed, they knew you were coming. With the thick, viscous humidity descending on the town as summer approached you knew your time was at hand and so did the lowly shelf stacker at my local supermarket. He had already brought forth the munitions, placed them in an aisle by the door, handily signposted it and offered weapons for all tastes. There’s the roach hotels for those with patience and those who underestimate your wit. There’s air fresheners designed to lure you to your death and those to repel you. It is possible I bought both. Then finally there is the giant, whopping can of bug spray with a nozzle of death just for you dear Gokiburi-san. For you are no western cockroach dear foe. No, you live freely in these lands. One can keep a clean kitchen (as hard as that is in the land of endless recycling) and still you will crawl through the gaps of my ageing a-pa-to (apartment)!

Then you struck again, a different variety somehow. Not the small and brown kind that exist in their multitudes in the Izu Peninsula’s hazy August but a big, black beast; a true adversary. Yet, you were lazy in your hiding place, concealed beneath the plastic picture rail in my living room. Perhaps you were mocking me, letting a single long leg dangle into sight while at first unawares I continued to talk on the phone. But see you I did and speechifying like a deceased crocodile hunter I soon was, my grammar and syntax slowly evolving into something more green and alien from a galaxy far, far away. Confusing it was. So I chased you with phone still at my ear, a listener to our duel believing me suddenly (perhaps not so suddenly) mad, while in my left hand I held the can of aerosolized death.  You scurried down my wall after the initial strike. I caught you in my sights as you dashed beneath my desk. For a brief moment I feared I had lost you but soon enough I had you cornered… in the corner. One blast of spray was not enough, still you limped on weighed down by your impending doom. A second blast of poison proved insufficient still but with the third and final impact you were done for.

Still it was not enough for me, remaining in the throes of the hunt but lacking the taxidermy skills to stuff and mount your head to my wall I settled for the modern equivalent. Instagram.

You were a worthy opponent so I shall afford you due respect, you were here first after all. Yet, I am American born and British raised and I shall bring to bear all my worst colonial instincts upon your kind.

You have been warned.

And no amount of nineteen-eighties propaganda movies shall quell my wrath!

The fine artwork towards the top of this post was created by Max Joseph, he blogs here and tweets here. Check him out!

Also, for those who are curious, ‘mushi’ is Japanese for insect.

The Iberian Inaka

I’m supposed to be living in a bubble. A wee little inaka (Japanese for ‘countryside’) bubble. And by and large it conforms to that stereotype. People sometimes stare, not in some malicious way just mild curiosity really. Old people from time to time will not sit next to me on the train, though this isn’t necessarily a phenomenon that occurs only in rural Japan. Or just in Japan for that matter… There’s an agricultural high school down the street and I walk past enough rice fields daily to never really forget where I am. It’s a beautiful place but there is something about the countryside that does on occasion drive me mad. It never seeks to engage in the outside world.

Or, at least I thought it didn’t. When I taught in Nagano-ken I used to take in these letters for my advanced students, particularly the high school kids. I’d had friends who’d lived in cities around the world write a page of clear but natural English about the places they lived. I wanted to show these young people that with a bit of courage there was a huge world to explore, that their options extended beyond their hometown and the 9 to 5 (more like 8 to 9) of working life in Tokyo.

They lapped it up. There was enough romance in the language, enough genuine feeling that these kids couldn’t help but want to see these places first hand. But for most teenagers thoughts of escaping their comfort zone don’t come easy. That desire is often tinged with a reticence, an understandable difficulty at the thought of leaving families and a tight knit community. In fairness if you’d have suggested to me as a teenager that I might one day live in Japan of all places I’d have laughed in your face; simply thinking it better to hide how terrifying a thought I actually would have found the notion.

But here I am and while I may find frustration with the older generations of Japan for only venturing beyond this isle on group holidays in a tiny Japanese bubble I’d be a fool to think it isn’t changing. Because while there are signs of Japan becoming far more insular, the case of a continuous decline in Japanese students choosing to study abroad being a worrying trend, some places are doing some wonderful stuff.

This morning I taught English at a nursery school. While much of what I teach may be in one ear and out the other in the long run at least the kids are getting exposed to English at an early age, in a way that doesn’t simply involve the drilling of endless grammar points. It’s all fun, games and storybooks. But that pales in comparison to what I saw as I was leaving today. The four and five years in the class I’d taught a mere forty-five minutes earlier were dancing. Flamenco.

Maybe one day some of these kids will venture abroad to an English speaking nation, but I’d put good money on a couple of the kids in that class having been successfully nabbed by Iberia before I can extol to them in their later years the joys of a wet and windy British Isles.

A dance around the maypole just doesn’t compete does it?