Category Archives: Teaching

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?

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.

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.

Zero.

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.

Fluently Worrying

In my daily life I think a lot about language. How to use the Japanese language correctly, my choice of vocabulary and grammar when addressing my students in English, my use of tone and expression, the physicality of my language, it all gets thrown together in a jumbled mess of simplified English and broken Japanese.

The thing is, this mess needs to convey an idea that doesn’t come naturally to most people and certainly not to Japanese teenagers.

The idea that in order to learn a language you have to not only be unafraid of making mistakes but care enough to want to fix those very same mistakes.

It’s a difficult balance.

One thing I don’t do is sugarcoat it. I don’t pretend that what they’re studying is easy, that it has a sense of logic that they ought to be able to grasp easily. Language doesn’t work like that and a language born of so many people and cultures as English is a hodgepodge.

More than that it’s a sadistic, cacophonous, beautiful, shambles of a language.

And I love it for it.

However, for teenagers this cluttered lingua franca is encountered in an environment where the wrong answer is to be feared because a wrong answer symbolizes more than, ‘I don’t know right now,’ it often feels like it means, like it displays to the entire room, ‘I will never know the right answer.’

I can remember that feeling well from High School French or Spanish classes where we were dragged through a textbook kicking and screaming, ticking boxes and attempting to build on linguistic steps when the foundations hadn’t fully dried yet.

If you take a quick ride on any train in Japan it would be abundantly clear that this kind of feeling continues to linger on long into adult life here. Dotted around every carriage are advertisements for an endless variety of English conversation schools promising to improve an obviously faltering and feeble grasp of the English language.

If I could change one thing about Japan it’d be these blasted adverts. I’d replace them with ones that say,

English is hard. It is not impossible. It takes at least three thousand hours of regular study for a native speaker of a non-European language to reach an advanced level. Please stop worrying and enjoy your day.

Better yet, what’s the Japanese for Keep Calm and Carry On?

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?

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?”

“No.”

“Any listening?”

“No.”

“So just writing?”

“Yes.”

“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.

 

Worse than a Clown: How to Metamorphose like Marcel Marceau

If you’re brave enough, or perhaps foolish enough, you might one day venture across the seas to a faraway land with little grasp of the native language and attempt to teach them your own peculiarly nuanced interpretation of your own native tongue.

Your first task, learning to simplify your natural language, to slow it down, to enunciate and avoid slang at all costs is something you expect to do. Thinking about how to describe things in the simplest terms possible will come soon after.

These developments you might consider only natural. After all you’ve experienced someone doing this for you first hand, though you don’t remember it. We all do it for young children, we break down our speech into smaller and smaller fragments, reducing an idea to its core meaning, into a single phrase to make it that much simpler to grasp. It feels only natural to do it for the incredibly young; it feels rather patronizing (though often entirely necessary) to do so for adults.

So you get used to this process, over time you begin to get more skillful at distilling ideas, getting to the bare bones of it all. But there will come a point when you realise it’s gone too far. You’ve begun to warp out of shape.

Specifically into the shape of random adjectives, verbs and abstract concepts galore. You’ve boiled beauty and ugly down into silly faces and you’ve taken moral grey areas and difficult definitions and dragged them kicking and screaming into the black and white.

On a side note: thank you to Tiger Woods for providing the distinction between, ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment.’ Alas the Japanese only have one word for the two concepts, but you’ve cleared it right up for them. 

You kinda thought you’d turn into a clown working with kids, but this is worse. You see, most of the time you’re not even an actor. That sordid career choice you could live with. No, this horror is different; it has crept up on you and encased you in an invisible box that no one else can see or appreciate (well maybe the French). You’re pawing at the walls, a desperate look painted on your pale face as you scream the words in silence…