Tag Archives: learning english

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?


Just Because: The Eloquent Misuse

“How can I refuse, such an eloquent misuse of a phrase.” Idlewild

I always thought that it would creep up on me like a slightly balding panther, stealthily, sneaking, claws primed to strike and slash away a crop of young, thick hair from my growing brow. Growing brow, I prefer that phrase to gradually receding hairline. It proffers more of a sense of victory than the defeatist linguistic equivalents of retreat.

Yes, there was always going to be a point of no return when it came to turning into my father. I figured in my teenage years that it would be the day I finally received the sort of hairline that the Japanese playfully refer to as resembling Mt. Fuji. Inevitably the attack arrived, but as it turned out, my father’s influence on me has shorn through linguistically rather than in a follicle sense.

Well so far at least.

It is a phrase wielded with ease by parents everywhere when the exhaustion of offering yet another explanation is too much to bear. At other times it’s just the quickest way of stating that something ‘is’ and won’t be changing simply because your adolescent mind is unable to fathom that the logic at work isn’t about to shift at your request.


Children have daily experience with, “because,” adults; not so much. As such, explaining this concept to an adult requires a touch more finesse. Sometimes I can offer a reason for a way of phrasing something and other times the mind simply boggles and I have to um, ahh, well, etooo (Japanese for um) and anoooo (Japanese for ahh) my way through a thicket of hedging to reach my point.

That point being, that I’m afraid it’s just the way it is. We ride on a train, on a bus and in a car. I know how ridiculous it sounds to a foreign listener and I sympathize but even if I knew the etymology of every jumbled bit of English language I can’t always translate it into Japanese. Even if I could I probably can’t tell you why most of the time because even linguists haven’t the faintest.

Inevitably, the final roadblock is socialization. All those times that everyone is told “because” in his or her youth has only served to hardwire in a certain fashion of thinking. So when that hardwiring comes into contact with the ancient foundations of a language, itself a tangle of roots and branches long untouched by a gardener, well it has a little problem coping sometimes.

In practical terms there is such a thing as correct way to say something, yet the nebulous nature of language means that it may not always remain that way. The beauty of language is that it is alive, it evolves and adjusts to its surroundings, bends and flexes in delightful new ways that thrill the poet and leave the pedant aghast; often one and the same person.

Sadly, many of my students tend to fall into one category or the other when they are dealing with English. I have students of all levels who take great delight in the peculiar logic behind idioms. Others who question why they simply can’t lean on their stock phrases for every situation.

In these cases my decision to tell them “because” comes down to the degree to which their freedom with, or lack of interest in the nuance, of the English language is likely to lead them into trouble or embarrassment.

Now, English, unlike Japanese, is an international language. As much as it may pain me to say it, it does not belong to England. It left home long ago and has grown up perfectly fine without its parent leaning over its shoulder. So I try to tell my more advanced students not to worry, that their phrasing, so long as their meaning is clear is perfectly valid, it’s their English and they can use it generally speaking, however they like.

Then a different problem rears its head,

“But teacher, we want to say it like a native speaker!”



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.