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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3 responses to “Eikaiwa: The Art of Teaching off the Menu aka Fast Food English

  1. The other baby elephant in the room: eikaiwa always, or almost always, pass students to the next level, regardless of whether they’ve mastered the previous one. Students’ progress depends not on real progress, but on simply being there. (As in big corporations.) So why study? That’s how they end up in an advanced class but still can’t tell you what they had for dinner last night. Drives me batty, but it’s all about volume and profit margins and signing ’em up for another 3 months. PS: Passive students? AAARGH!

    • That’s certainly an issue. A friend of mine teaches at an English school in London where he experiences that problem first hand as Japanese students repeatedly asked to be moved up a level when they are far from capable. The sad truth is also that not everyone really wants to learn English, they just want to tell their friends that they are. Actual progress is rather incidental.

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