Category Archives: ESL

Exacting Expectations

Expectations can be a terrible thing, especially as a foreigner in a strange and distant land. Particularly when that land, though certainly distant, isn’t all that strange. It’s simply different. Excitingly so from time to time. Yet, crushingly mundane at others.

The people I meet out here, those who have stayed for far longer than I’ve been here, seemed to arrive with the bare minimum of hopes and dreams burdening their carry-on luggage. It’s an approach I would advocate to anyone planning a life abroad; expect little, enjoy what you can and don’t be too disappointed when you find out the dirt beneath your feet isn’t all that different from the variety of mud you’re used to.

In our case it just shakes a little more often than we might like.

They are a complex thing though expectations. The power of teacher expectations are a common theme in both sociological and educational circles. How a teacher sees a student can effect how a student sees themselves and in turn what they perceive their abilities and limits to be. We can shackle a kid to failure with a misplaced frown if we aren’t careful.

One of the biggest issues in Japan when it comes to language learning are false expectations, false assumptions and seemingly a fear of questioning these ideas.

English is too difficult for Japanese to learn.

Japanese is too difficult for foreigners to learn.

Both heavily embedded ideas and both utter nonsense.

Learning a language that shares no historical connection to your language obviously takes a longer time, but the idea that at their core English and Japanese are harder to learn for specific nationalities?

I don’t buy it.

And not because I have reams of documentation to prove it. Though they do exit.

Rather because if you go into a task believing it will ultimately be fruitless you’re asking to fail. We talk about the power of confidence in sport all the time. Where is it in education? In English language education in Japan it’s long gone by junior high school. Worse, we expect it to be.

The Japanese system expects kids to learn roughly five grammar points per fifty minute lesson. It hardly expects them to mutter a word.

On top of that it expects the teacher to somehow perform this intense instruction in the English language itself, in a room of kids that is expecting to be lectured to in Japanese.

You would be correct in assuming that Japanese teachers by and large hardly use English in their classrooms. What you might not realise is that it’s an arrangement everyone in the room is ok with.

Why? Because parents, students and faculty alike expect, and of course work incredibly hard, to pass their university entrance exams.

And what do I expect? I expect that someday, enough people might notice that learning English, or Japanese for that matter, isn’t some strange and distant land always tantalisingly out of reach.

But we’ve talked about false expectations already, haven’t we?


They Don’t Speak English in Narnia

How would I sum up the feeling of Japan when contemplating English education?

It’s like crawling into a wardrobe and then complaining that you find yourself confronted by a lion and a witch when you were hoping to smoke a pipe with Ian McKellan.

It really does seem to operate in that world of fantasy and unrealistic expectations. Because, while good teachers are hitting their targets, the general public continues to bemoan the fact that Japan remains notoriously poor at English conversation.

This is nothing new. Japan has been collectively wringing its hands for decades about its poor performance in English, and it’s unlikely to quit wringing them anytime soon. Indeed with the Olympics approaching they may be in danger of breaking a figurative finger or two.

So what exactly is the issue?

Well the issue is that even though Japan knows what the myriad reasons for its difficulties are its been reluctant to acknowledge them, much less tackle them.

Indeed, rather than look at systemic reasons why the nation remains poor in its conversational skills students often seem keen to blame themselves or the English language itself, often going so far as to claim that for a Japanese person it is simply too far from their native tongue to get a handle on it. I’ll grant that compared to a native speaker of a European language they have a tougher challenge ahead of them, but the performance of other nations with equally distant or non-existent relations with English would suggest that it is far from the impossible task some would have you believe it is.

The real answer, and it is ridiculously simple, is schools aren’t teaching kids how to speak English.

That’s it.

By and large, with the exception of private and international schools, Japanese schools don’t teach speaking. If the kids come out of the general system able to speak it’s thanks to the efforts of those within the system, the teachers who go the extra mile, the parents who encourage it at home and of course, the students themselves who somehow find the time in their packed schedule to learn something which currently benefits them to the tune of…zero.

Now, I’m a language teacher, I’m not about to claim that learning a foreign language has no benefit. Economically speaking it’s obviously worth it. A recent episode of Freakonomics Radio placed the ROI on learning English at as high as a 20% increase in potential earnings. Culturally it’s an enormous boon. In terms of your health, bilingualism is routinely cited as something that potentially reduces the risk of mental difficulties in old age.

There are benefits everywhere you look.

Yet, for the average high school kid in Japan.


Because it won’t help them get into university.

And from the moment kids are old enough to be dropped off in a cram school or get fitted for their junior high school uniform that’s the only game in town. So until the target of that game changes let’s just be content with Narnia.

Not every destination is what you expect it to be.

Nyaaaa-go: a Tale of Mice and Capital Punishment

“Nyaaa-go!” Screamed the slightly portly, middle-aged man dressed as a cat, his brightly coloured t-shirt somewhat detracting from his fearsome countenance. “Nyaa-go,” repeated the three women dressed as mice in a slightly higher pitched tone who then promptly collapsed into well-rehearsed giggles.

This was the opening act in the auditorium at the local International Friendship Fair.

The moral of said story, at first glance, appeared to be quite simple; if you’re a mouse and you meet a cat that says, “Nyaaa-go,” start running as fast as your wee little mouse legs can carry you.

Evidently, having missed this advice from the mouse teacher earlier in the play this performance wasn’t about to be about the savage mauling and devouring of three little mice as a hundred or so children looked on in terror as prop blood squirted from the stage, tiny mice bodies twitching in the spotlight.

No this was much lighter Japanese fare. The motto essentially being, if you overload your unknown foe with kindness, in this case more fruit than he can possible carry, you will have successfully prevented them through your excess of gift giving from snapping your tiny mouse bones. Saved from your ignorance by sweetness. I took it to mean, if a stranger offers you sweeties, offer them a whole advent calendar and there’s no way they’ll do anything untoward to you, that’d just be rude.

As the tale of the practical, moral-phobic mice drew to a close it was time for the high school debate teams to take the stage. Obviously, with this being the International Friendship Fair, one cute event would just roll into the next.

So the ‘The Death Penalty in Japan’ it was.

Actually, this was why I was in the audience. Specifically the front row, feeling probably about half as nervous as the eight teenagers on stage who were about to take to their feet one by one to debate for and against a moral quandary that would no doubt send there heads spinning in circles. Not because of the ethical aspect but rather the fact that it was all to be delivered in English. Hence my presence as a judge. Not an especially well titled one mind you.

“We have ______ san, the Principal of _________ school, then ___________ a undergrad at___________ studying English and finally… Matt!’

My nerves and embarrassment of that particularly stunning introduction aside, I should relay something to you just to give a sense of how nerve-wrackingly difficult this event would be for the kids.

One day, having spent the past three hours studying Japanese in a coffee shop in town I strode into my local bar feeling far too pleased with myself for the short lived burst of effort and energy in a more studious direction. Immediately I was met by the following sentence from a non-English speaking Japanese friend, “Masshu, Masshu, according to this Russian newspaper aliens are coming to Japan next year!”

Awww bollocks.

I hadn’t the faintest idea how to even begin discuss a subject like this in Japanese. I know the words for Alien, UFO and space but I certainly can’t discuss the finer points of alien abduction or conspiracy theories in Japanese.

So now think about these kids. Yes, if they are taking part in a National English Debate Competition it’s fair to say they’ve been born into a certain amount of privilege. Yet that doesn’t lessen my sympathy for the task they faced. Some of these kids were still clearly streets ahead of their fellow teammates; due to time spent abroad or international parents some kids could run linguistic rings around the others. Though inevitably it would all boil down to their own hard work, as our judgement was to be based largely on the strength of their arguments, not linguistic merit.

Now even if one or two teenagers particularly stood out due to their linguistic prowess I was thoroughly impressed with them all. The argument alone is hard enough but finding the words to express oneself eloquently in another language is incredibly tough. To do so in front of a crowd is brave and admirable.

If I had been similarly confronted by this situation as a teenager or even now I think my response would be the same.

Just shout, “Nyaaa-go” and make a dash for stage left.

Murdering the Art of Conversation: a silent death

I’ve been contemplating a list of banned phrases lately for my classroom walls. That may seem rather counterintuitive for a person whose profession largely involves the expansion of vocabularies, but I promise there is a benign intent here.

You see Japanese and English are frankly about as disparate as two languages could ever hope to be. It may not be a particularly positive position to take but inevitably when encountering things that can limit or impede your progress in acquiring a new tongue, a language barrier that has more in common with a chasm than a wall is going to be rather hard to miss as you plunge gormlessly into it, your shoelaces artfully tied together in knots of misused grammar.

So yes, it’s hard work, no one ever said learning something as powerful, beautiful and profound as a language would be easy. But the reality is that these natural obstacles can seem like little more than a speed bump when you consider some of the monuments to frustration that students themselves construct to block their way.

In adult classes students are generally interested in improving their conversational skills so I begin every lesson with something open ended to allow them to flex their linguistic muscles, to let them make use of all their years of hard work. So how do many of them choose to answer? By slashing the throat of the conversation, by stamping on the budding tête-à-tête and blowing out the candles early on any possible discussion with a, “So-so” or, “Nothing special.”

It’s usually at this point that I remember that not only does my job involve teaching English but for some people the basic tenets of a conversation. However, if these are self-constructed walls then the foundations they rest on are of a more professional variety. You’d have to go to school for this kind of solid bedrock.

When I asked my sixteen-year-old student last week what he’d done that week I was expecting a list of exams, such is the life of the average high school kid.  So when he mentioned he’d had an English test I inquired further, what exactly had he done?

“Did you have to speak in the test?”


“Any listening?”


“So just writing?”


“So what was the subject of the test?”

“Oral communication.”

Teacher’s brain explodes in blind fury within the confines of his cranium.

Of course it was.


Barbershop Barriers: Tales of tiny men and sharp blades

I was sat in an armchair, a very sharp blade pressed to my face. Wielding the blade in question was a tiny Japanese man. Between us we had little means of communication (this being very early in my time in Japan… during my rather less studious period) and I was not entirely sure what he was asking me. He was polite enough to ask it with a smile. Though when coupled with a tiny razor blade… it was, well, more ominous than reassuring.

This was my first trip to the barber in Japan.

Specifically, the barber, not the hairdressers. Japanese men take their coif rather seriously indeed, whereas the sole instructions I have offered at a hair dresser’s or barber’s, whether English or Japanese, for many years now has been nothing more than a, ‘little trim, please.’ Fortunately it was all I needed the first time I visited my local barber in Nagano-Ken. More recent trips have required, “wait, have we met before?” “How do you know my name?” and, “ohhh, I teach your kid.”

A language barrier can be many things, frustrating, funny, confusing and occasionally, well a bit scary. In most day-to-day situations you can rely on folks being patient and understanding of a faltering grasp of their language. The adult population of Japan being generally quite embarrassed by their standard of spoken English (not entirely their fault… but that’s another blog), and being a phenomenally polite people, will generally praise any effort one makes (deserving or otherwise).

However, when talking to children that gap can seem like a chasm. Think of the meandering sentence path of the average five to seven year old and then remove your ability to understand a good chunk of the vocabulary and you’ll be a smidge closer to my position.  The subject of a conversation can burst from absolutely nowhere, they can be incredibly convoluted and just as often as not utterly identical to the conversation you would have in your own native tongue.

In the case of two high school girls this might mean approximately five minutes of back and forth as to how beautiful each other’s hair is, “You think my hair is cute? No not at all, your new haircut is so much cuter…really? No… really, really? No…” Frankly, now that I think about it, this could be two high school boys.

Kindergarten kids can be a joy for this kind of conversation. They will have just learned a new mildly insulting word and simply spend the next ten minutes calling it each other then promptly collapsing in a fit of giggles.

What always amazes me though is the speed at which some kids can ask me questions. One young kid, only five years old burst through the door of the classroom and immediately blurted out,


“Huh? (In Japanese) Say it again but more slowly please.”

Deep breath

“kujyakuwaeigodenandesuka” (twice as fast)

“Write it for me please”

I check the dictionary

“ah! Peacock!”


Proceeds to do a peacock dance that would have been more helpful at the start of the conversation.

However, from time to time, it’s not just a language barrier, rather a pronunciation issue. The double ‘oo’ sound we have in English can initially be quite difficult for kids on first hearing it. They have a tendency just to make a louder ‘o’ noise and as is natural for them add a vowel to the last letter of the word as 99% of Japanese characters have such an ending.

So, there I am teaching some very young kids different jobs/roles; teacher, student, firefighter…cook.

Me: Who’s this? You don’t know. He’s a cook.

Students: Kok!

Awww crap. 

In these situations it’s an easy fix (so long as I don’t laugh) and within a few attempts they pronounce it correctly and significantly less like a Premier League footballer. However, sometimes the situation is reversed.

Me: Who’s this? He’s a barber.

Students collapse in laughter

Students: BABA!

Me: Barber!

Students collapse again

Students: BABA!

I check my dictionary. Possible meanings, Grandmother…horse riding ground…shit.

Oh shit.

Small Town Star: or How to become a minor celebrity in small town Japan

There are certain things I expect when I go to the bakers in my town. One, that I’ll spend way too much money, two, that I’ll glance at the pizza menu with a covetous eye and finally, you know…bread. I wasn’t however, expecting to be told I’m handsome and on top of that famous by my fifty something year old baker. A charming man he may be and a purveyor of quite delicious baguettes most certainly, but previous conversations have tended to remain in the safer arena of weather-based small talk.

Perhaps I ought to offer some context.

The week before this peculiar incident my boss leaned in the window to our office and informed me that a journalist would be attending my next kindergarten class. This was not something I considered to be good news. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching that class. Kindergarten kids are the best students you could possibly hope for. At that age their brains are sponges and so long as new vocabulary is accompanied by a funny picture or a silly look plastered across my ugly mug they’re happy.  However, the content of these lessons is heavily based on my ability to be amusing to five and six year olds. This of course involves no small amount of silly faces, funny voices and general exaggeration of everything I do. In that context I’m not the least bit embarrassed, however add a video camera to the mix and I’ll be more than a bit self-conscious. It would be safe to say that I have little desire to see what my version of pantomime farce looks like on film.

Fortunately, it was a newspaper reporter, so the most embarrassing thing would be what he could potentially write about me and the inevitably bad photo he would, most certainly, get of me. I am quite un-photogenic indeed. Although in all honesty, my feelings towards the camera are more to do with it revealing the reality of my looks than distorting them in any real way. I simply consider ‘un-photogenic’ to be kinder to my fragile ego.

So the lesson rolled around and there sure enough, sat in the corner of the room was the journalist. He asked me no questions. Asked my boss only two i.e. what’s his name and what country is he from? Then appeared markedly uninterested for the remainder of the lesson. Fortunately for me I was teaching ‘like’ to the kids using food so they had far more fun than the yawning reporter. You’d be amazed at how much controversy and yelling of, ‘eeeeeeee?!’ can be elicited by just one child declaring that they don’t like fried chicken.

It’s probably worth noting that this wasn’t the first time I’ve been in the local paper. In small town Japan the possession of a non-Japanese face naturally affords one a certain amount of celebrity. If you are a teacher doubly so as there is little likelihood of privacy when you teach over a hundred people in a place where six degrees of separation is whittled down to two. Add to that a classroom of adorable kids and it becomes incredibly unlikely that one might ever avoid the spotlight in small town Japan.

In all honesty though, despite the minor intrusion and yawning reporters, it’s worth it.

You only have to look at the photo to see that.