Category Archives: Teaching Abroad

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?

Advertisements

Twitch Teaches English

Japan is capable of incredible change, at an unbelievable pace. But the thing about speed, about power, strength and ability, you still need to know what you’re doing with it.

Right now, as the Japanese nation limbers up for the Olympics, getting itself into fine shape to once again introduce itself on the global stage through sport, industry, and Cool Japan culture, it’s been working on what every person in Japan knows to be important.

Aisatsu

And as demanded by the world, it’ll be doing them predominantly in the world’s lingua franca; English.

They’re taking it seriously too. In fact, Japanese industry has been taking it very seriously for a while now. Gone are the lackadaisical studies of the boom years. Engineers and Salarymen alike are hitting the books again in order to compete on even footing with the rest of the world. A rest of the world many an industry turned its back on in order to focus on the domestic market.

A few years ago, to much fanfare, Rakuten and Uniqlo both made bold moves in regards to English usage within the companies. Rakuten correctly noting at the time that if you want to expand globally you’re going to need English. Many Politicians and commentators bemoaned this fact suggesting that someone of greater ability in their job would be overlooked for a less able individual with better English skills.

That’s a fair point I suppose, especially when language skills often have more to do with exposure, experience and circumstance than academic ability.

However, it’s worth noting that more of these jobs would end up going to native speakers within the area these companies expand to should Japanese workers be uninterested in improving their language skills.

It’s a simple fact really; you speak the language of whatever nation you’re trying to sell to. And when you export, it tends to not be your own native tongue at play on foreign shores. Funny that…

Fortunately, most companies aren’t as daft as the average politician or pundit and realize that if that expansion is going to be Japanese in nature then its Japanese staff will have to be the ones doing both the walking and the talking.

So, there it is. A clear target. English for exporting the fruits of Japanese business prowess and English to greet the world when it arrives in Japan for the Olympics.

So what’s the problem?

Well, though the average person might suggest that we have a clear path ahead, the reality of how Japan is attempting to make its way there is rather more fuzzy.

It’s somewhat difficult to describe the overall approach to English study in Japan.

But let’s have a go.

And let’s do so using an analogy with a Japanese twist.

Twitch plays Pokémon. Yeah that’s it. That’ll do nicely.

Twitch plays Pokémon was, and still is, essentially an enormous crowd of people attempting to control one character and guide him along the correct path, past the obstacles of the game and on to victory. Almost everyone, bar the odd troll, is working towards the same goal and yet…

An Irish bar that specialises in Juice... I feel conflicted.

An Irish bar that specialises in Juice… I feel conflicted. How to reach my goal of feeling jolly and Irish? Juice or Porter?

And yet it’s like watching a drunk salaryman navigate his way home. He’ll get there eventually but in the meantime he’s going to trip over everything in sight, lose his bearings, spin in a circle before he finally arrives, a disheveled mess who has taken, not so much the scenic route as the one his sober brain and the eight glasses of beer and three highballs agreed on together; a real team effort.

And that’s what Japan’s national approach to English looks like.

Ok, not so much the drunk salaryman. That’s a mite unfair.

But crowd sourcing the controls of Pokémon. That works a treat.

A thousand people shout, this way, TOEIC tests and a one-hour weekly speaking class will lead us to our goal.

And another thousand… shout nothing at all actually. They’re busy reaching mastery of the English language through grammar, overly direct translation and the bare minimum of speaking.

Because, that’s how you pass the university entrance exam. Which is how you get into a good university so that when you graduate you can work for a big company that… wants you to speak English.

Oh my Twitch.

Personally Privileged

A ball flies at over eighty miles an hour makes contact with hewn wood no more than 2.75 inches in diameter and promptly disappears into the distance. A crowd leaps to its feet and roars. I stand up too; a smile on my lips as I get a first hand impression of what from a distance seems to be a singularly simple action. Man throws ball, man hits ball. How hard can this all be really?

A football is booted over sixty yards across field and lands perfectly at the feet of an onrushing German gentleman of Turkish descent who recently relocated from Madrid to north London. He runs a little further before whipping the ball back across the pitch towards the feet of a six-foot-plus Frenchman who proceeds to, with his very first touch, volley the ball past the oncoming fifteen stone of goalkeeper heading his way and into the net. The crowd erupts, my jaw drops.

Technically my jaw dropped long before the ball reached the net. The exact time was when the ball made contact with said German’s left foot and the strip of Velcro he apparently keeps there.

I hand How to be an Alien by George Mikes, a guide to being a foreigner in Britain first published in 1946, at the page where the two lines on sex appear to my Japanese colleague. They read as follows:

Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles.

My colleague smiles, a little nonplussed by the sentence but well aware there’s a joke in there somewhere. I read it and chuckle a little bit still on the fifth reading.

A computer, given one hundred thousand examples can learn to read the number five when handwritten. A computer taught the characteristics of handwriting via the medium of Russian poetry is able read such manner of scrawls after exposure to a mere three hundred poems.

That last example came from the wonderful online magazine Nautilus. Specifically its issue entitled Secret Codes and the piece entitled Teaching Me Softly. The article centered around the notion of ‘privileged information’ or in other words, knowledge gleaned from experience.

This kind of knowledge is why I can appreciate the reaction of baseball fans to a home run without actually appreciating the act itself. I’ve attended about five baseball games in my entire life and I’ve never really, truly played baseball. However, I’ve been and continue to be a long suffering fan of Huddersfield Town so I know what it means to be a fan, to live and die with a score line. As such that moment of pure joy, I get it. I just don’t get the action that prompted it. I understand less of it. I don’t know how hard it is to hit a ball like that, to stand up to the challenge of a ball being thrown like that. I’ll never understand it the same way a kid steeped in baseball will feel that rush.

I do at least understand football. Perhaps I even feel a greater appreciation for it because I was so awful at it; I know that simply trapping a ball, killing it dead in its place takes incredible skill. First touch is a magic and often under appreciated gift. If you’ve never really watched or played football and you’re wondering why one guy on the pitch always seems to have a second longer to make a decision than everyone else, that is it.

That experience is probably the same reason I hardly ever get angry with goalkeepers’ mistakes. After all, I was one of that nut job ilk.  All four feet nothing of me stood shivering between metal poles eight feet high. An education for how unfair life is if ever there were one.

It’s also the same reason why I think foreign language teachers should always have a second language aside from their native tongue. Because, in some small way it puts you in the shoes of every student you’ll ever teach and hopefully in doing so will make you a better teacher; at the very least, a more understanding person in general.

Combine it with being a fan of English football however and it just makes you more impatient with monolingual (and I’m being generous there) fans that complain when a new player or manager has not learned our twisted, garbled and illogical tongue in less than six months.

But privileged information, for all its value, is something of a double-edged sword. Because, while I may know what kouyou (紅葉)and momijigari (紅葉狩り)mean (ok, so might you Japanese speaking reader) and smile when I think of them; anyone who has no clue about what they mean and has never set foot in Japan in the autumn when the leaves are changing and gone autumn leaf viewing, is lucky.

Because, you still get to see it in person for the first time. While I just hope that I never stop seeing it with fresh eyes.

But then again, I’m just privileged to have seen it at all.

            

Tokaido Trailing

Every Sunday since the end of January I’ve been dragging my sleep deprived self out of bed at six a.m. to crawl into the shower, quickly shave, wrap up warm for the twenty-five minute walk down the street to the local train station to hop on the early morning bullet train bound for Tokyo.

It really isn’t that far away, in reality I probably spend almost as much time walking to the station and changing to the Tozai subway line in Tokyo as I do on the bullet train to Tokyo itself.

But for Tokyoites?

Well I might as well live on another planet. The shock and awe that I come from a different prefecture is entirely at odds with just how pleased Japan is, and rightly so, with their wonderful bullet trains and remarkable local train services.

It’s a wonder, a marvel I say!

You traveled for more than thirty minutes?! Good lord man, was it entirely necessary?

This is not an accurate translation or reflection of the people speaking by the way. This is how I translate it in my head for my own amusement. If I’m particularly bored I might translate it directly into the Yorkshire dialect…

Tha came from over yonder that there hill? Ecky thump!

Anyway, I’m drifting off here, back to the case in point.

I’m on a teaching course over in Tokyo every Sunday for the next few months and so I’m spending an awful lot of time heading up and down the Tokaido line.

My journey along it could not be more unremarkable despite the protestations and shock of those who call Tokyo their home. As far back as 1700 it has been endlessly traversed and is now the most traveled route in Japan as it links Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

Unlike the original travelers along the Tokaido though I’m heading by train, shaving a nice twenty-two hours off the journey by foot in the process. In that context my 230km weekly round-trip journey seems both remarkably speedy and yet utterly ordinary in regards to my own effort.

But therein lies its charm to me.

My morning commute by shinkansen (Bullet Train) seem to flash by in a haze of coffee and mini-croissants purchased on my amble down to the station.

I take the time to tweet or facebook my sleep deprived state, because if I’m suffering, then well, I want you dear followers to know about it. Comedic suffering that is; I’m far too English to reveal actual suffering… not that I do have any of that… sod it, you get the point.

Then provided I’ve hooked up my IV drip of black coffee, mainlined straight from coffee can to my veins, I will quite jauntily bound through Tokyo station to transfer to the Tozai subway line. At nine-ish on a Sunday morning it would be fair to say that I bound somewhat out of step with the rest of the early morning populace, hardly aware they exist beyond some imagined bonus level of Tokyo 3D Frogger: Dodge the Commuter!

In contrast, my journey home by local train, if I’m not too tired, is a fine opportunity. I’ve chatted to families returning home from a visit to the grandparents’ place (the daughter doing her English homework on the way), observed all manner of sleeping positions, been slept on/against by an innumerable number of strangers, almost fallen asleep and face planted into the carriage floor while leaning forward to read my kindle (a rookie mistake a Japanese would never make), snickered too loudly at The Bugle podcast (much like the Tube in London, one should remain an emotionless zombie whilst riding on public transport here) and drawn undue attention to myself as a result.

While the journey may at times be productive, more often than not it seems to take an age. After close to two hours heading south I change at Atami for the next step of the journey and fifteen minutes later exit my local station. I begin my walk home, buy a nikuman (Chinese style steamed bun) from the Konbini (Convenience store) along with a couple cans of beer in all likelihood and shuffle in the front door at around nine o’clock having left the classroom around six. I make dinner, box up the next day’s bento for the day job and hopefully crawl onto my futon before midnight.

On a good day, I feel like I’m getting the hang of the commute, moving from amateur commuter to professional in no time at all.

The next day I arrive at work around eight fifteen (ok more like eight twenty…five…ish) and immediately see the P.E. teachers who’ve been at school since seven, who’ll be there until nine that night.

They’re smiling.

I don’t know how they do it.

Compared to these teachers, I’m just a rookie. I do that long day once a week, they do it every day and they do it while working their socks off.

Think I best keep my amateur status.

I’m not ready for the big leagues yet.

tokaido shinkansen

The Ojigi’s Up Part 2: Dogs and Monkeys

So where am I now?

How far gone am I?

Well evidently I’m at the stage of ojigi-ing to strangers on the tube, I also accidently said sumimasen (excuse me) to a group of people earlier that day as I made my way through a crowded corridor at Paddington station. Fortunately I rather mumbled it and beyond relaying my embarrassment to my friend who was with me at the time I doubt anyone else was the wiser.

But, Japanese is there now, firmly locked into my head for at least as long as I live here and that is beginning to have other side effects beyond excessive bilingual politeness.

Because not only is it locked in; it wants to get out.

It wants to show off. Or I do. Frankly I’m not sure where to draw the line.

First of all there are natural trigger points for the language. It has in some way become automatic as the incident with the inadvertent sumimasen-ing demonstrates. If I’m thanking someone at a shop 99% of the year I’m saying doumo (thanks) or arigatou (thanks) and if I happen to be in Kyoto well I’m saying okini (thanks for saying thanks). Ta very much is generally no longer on the menu. It’s on the specials board but only makes an appearance around Christmas time. It’s a seasonal specialty if you will and makes about as much sense to the Japanese as the idea that Yorkshire pudding is not a dessert.

Home sweet... wait I am in King's Cross, right? Great, like I wasn't confused enough.

Home sweet… wait I am in King’s Cross, right? Great, like I wasn’t confused enough.

Then there are the moments where a Japanese word would actually work far better than an English word.

Natsukashii which translates as nostalgia or ahh that takes me back works far better in Japanese and conveys a multitude of feelings in a tenth of the time it takes in English.

Genki which means how are you? Is not only the question, it’s the answer. The how are you? exchange boiled down to two words.

Also it can be used to describe a hyperactive kid, a naturally energetic person and a person surprisingly energetic for their age too.

Japanese; more in common with a swiss army knife than a katana.

Then there’s KY. It’s short for kuuki yomenai and directly translates as can’t read atmosphere. I’m sure you know these kinds of people; most of us at some point are one after all. But as short hand for your socially useless mate or relative it’s a real time saver and compares favourably to, “Him? Yeah, he’s lovely when you get to know him…no, I know he seems like a dick now but…”

So there you have just a sliver of what’s going through my head as I walk around my hometown. A constant but rather patchy subtitling system throwing up possible alternatives that fulfill the criteria of being better than the more common term but then rather falls down on the fact that you are the only person within god knows how many square miles who has any idea what you’re saying.

It’s like dogs and monkeys I suppose (cats and dogs, a bad relationship).

Maybe English and Japanese just isn’t supposed to share one cranium.

There’s only one thing for it.

Talk to the family dog.

Turns out he already knew suwatte (sit).

I might have taught him last year…

I may have taken the idiom the wrong way.

This may be chronic.

Marshmallow Sensei: Award Winner?!

So, rather unexpectedly I got an email the other day from the kind folks at teacherport to inform me that I’d been shortlisted for an award and that the winners would be announced the following day.

Naturally I spent a certain amount of the next day checking in on the website to see if wee lil’ Marshmallow Sensei had managed to sneak over the finish line… long story short; thank you teacherport!

I was absolutely thrilled to receive the award and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my rather infrequent posts. Hope I can do enough to be in the running again come next year!

Blog.Winner.2012

Earthquake Drills for the Tall

I realized something the other day for the first time. My height, in this country at least, puts me in a greater amount of danger than some other people. I don’t mean the usual, ‘mind your head’ warnings as I go through doorways (though they have certainly nearly knocked me on my arse a couple of times) it’s actually related to earthquakes.

I recently began working for a very large school and so just the other day, conveniently as the thermometer was climbing to a crisp, thirty-five degrees, my school decided it was about time we had that earthquake and fire drill we’d initially planned to hold last term that unfortunately had to be cancelled; due to a typhoon.

My kanji still being a work in progress the other English teachers explained to me that there would be an announcement fifteen minutes into the lesson and at that point I’d have to make sure that all the kids dived under their desks in readiness for an imaginary earthquake. Also, that in order to set a good example I too should clamber under my desk.

Here’s where my problem occurred. I have a standing desk. Said standing desk has a small shelf beneath it, designed presumably for storing a binder or something and as such there are certain height restrictions.

The manufacturer will no doubt be happy to know that said binder will no doubt be safe in the event of an earthquake. It may be a touch blood splattered but it’ll in good nick nonetheless.

However, as I’ll be in no condition to apologise for the Jackson Pollack effect due to my untimely demise  I really ought to do so now.

Sorry.

P.S. I’ve signed the folder, so it should at least triple in value after I’m gone, right?