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Teaching English in Japan

Hi there, it's me again. In this blog post I want to just give a brief description of some of my experiences teaching in Japan and my thoughts on it and some little tips if you decide to come and teach here.


I realise it's Spanish in the picture, but I couldn't find anything else...

If you come to Japan you will quickly notice that a great deal of the English speaking foreigners that come here teach English. This shouldn't come as a shock to anyone but it can be a little strange to go to a gathering in a bar and speaking with around 20 or so English teachers. The reason for this is essentially that it's significantly easier to come here as an English teacher, since a number of English schools helping their teachers with their visas and apartments. Not only that, it can be extremely difficult to enter the workforce here without having a strong grasp of Japanese. Some people really see themselves living in Japan in the long run and they sign up to a Japanese language school where they can study and after a few months try to enter the workforce in some way. The benefit of the Japanese language schools is, of course, that they help you with visas etc but also with finding work. I have never been to one, so I can't vouch for their effectiveness but I did seriously consider going to a language school before coming, mainly because I wanted to learn the language. Who knows what my life would be like now if I had! Although, I would say that I would definitely be a lot poorer because they aren't free!


So what is the level of English of the Japanese population at large? Well, that really depends on the person. I have met some people with excellent English who could talk about basically anything with no problem. Generally in Osaka, the people understand some very basic English in shops and so on, so you could probably get by with very simple English. If you are looking for deep philosophical conversations about renaissance art then you might be a little disappointed.


I get the distinct impression that English can become the bane of people's lives, given the amount of pressure to learn the language. The sheer ubiquity of adverts for English language schools is astonishing. All of them tout their superior teaching capabilities by showing people with improved IELTS scores (IELTS is the English one of the English proficiency exams in Japan). With all this external pressure I get the impression that a number of Japanese people feel that their "poor" English skills are a point of shame, and some people seem to be under the impression that everyone else in the world can speak English really well. I can categorically say that this is not true, having met a number of English people whose English was a little ropey.

From my own impressions, I couldn't say that the English here is terrible and I would say that a number of people do seem to understand (especially when it's written down) but there does seem to be an element of fear when it comes to talking to foreigners. The number of people whose faces dropped at the sight of a tall, ungainly English man (this is me by the way, if that wasn't clear) walking towards them is amazing. Unless, of course, there is something inherently frightening about me...maybe it's because I'm nearly 2 metres tall.

Based on my own conversations with my students, this fear of speaking seems to stem from their school days where they didn't really have the opportunity to talk in class. This probably reflects a similar style of teaching in the UK in the past, where the teacher did most of the talking. I would also say that the Japanese tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves when they talk to foreigners. As far I'm concerned, I'm a foreigner living in Japan, so the pressure should be all on me. If they don't understand me, then that's my fault!

For any prospective teachers I would say that it's the role of the teacher to build up the student's confidence, so that they can keep speaking and want to try to say more and more in the future. The teacher should also be able to guide the student patiently through the minefield that is English grammar.


Speaking of grammar, over the course of these two years I have noticed number of things that my students seem to struggle with on a regular basis. I have made a short list for you here. This is non-exhaustive, but it will hopefully give you an idea of some difficulties that they can have.


Verbs/Nouns

Japanese has the particularity of forming many verbs by using the noun followed by the verb する (to do). With this being the case, it is not uncommon to hear a Japanese person use a noun as a verb. For example: "I choice this film, because it's good" or "He decision this" or something similar to this. If you notice your student doing this it's a good idea to write the verb form and the noun form of the word they are using and get the student used to the idea that there are two forms and when to use them. It's also useful to point out the endings of some nouns in English so they can also spot them.


The endless path of grammar

Word order

This can be a big problem for some students because of the way Japanese is constructed. Frequently the student may need some time to really think about what they want to say. So, if your student stares off into the middle distance for a short while don't be alarmed. Just give them a moment to think about what they want to say. Japanese is has SOV (subject object verb) sentence order, meaning the verbs come at the end of the sentence. In English the verb comes towards the beginning of the sentence, meaning that the student really has to know what they want to say before they begin. I find that I have the same problem when I speak Japanese! I always have to use my full concentration to put the words in what I think is a coherent order (unfortunately it does only seem to be me who thinks it's coherent) while the person at the till stares at me, wondering if they should call an ambulance.


How I feel when I forget all my japanese

As a subsection to "Word Order" there is also the dreaded relative clause. As an example: "The man who lives here went to work". In this sentence we have "who lives here" which is our relative clause. This can be removed and the sentence still makes sense, but we can add it if we need to give more information. In Japanese, these relative clauses don't work like this. They appear to work much like adjectives, appearing before the noun they qualify: "ここに住んでいる男性は仕事に行きました". This translates literally to "here living man to work went". Notice that the word "who" doesn't appear in the sentence. The words "who", "what", "where", "which" and "that" pose serious problems because they aren't used like they are in English. Japanese does away with those pesky words and so, consequently, the student has to decide which word fits the sentence they are trying to say. This takes a fair bit of thought and practice for beginners and even more advanced students! So be patient when teaching this, and also be careful when giving explanations in class. Having too many relative clauses in a sentence can make your sentences confusing:

"The lesson last week that we did in the classroom which is on the second floor was very good, right?"

If you say something like this to a beginner class, be prepared for a lot of blank, frightened faces staring back at you.


This is the reaction you'll get if you're not careful

Adjectives

Let's take the words "bored" and "boring". These two words obviously have very different meanings, but it is not uncommon to hear students proclaim "I was very boring" , to which I'm always tempted to tell them that they aren't boring before remembering that they mean: "I was bored". While this can be an amusing mistake at times, this underlines a particular misunderstanding of active and passive (this problem does also extend to verbs sometimes to). To explain the difference in meaning I usually explain that "bored" is a feeling we have, while "boring" is used for other things (this explanation is a little loose but it does get the point across). We usually refer to books, movies etc as boring. The same confusion can be noted with "scared" and "scary" and "interested" and "interesting". This is a widespread point of confusion, so you will almost definitely encounter it if you decide to come to teach in Japan.


Cultural differences

While there are some very big grammatical differences in grammar and vocabulary etc there are also a number of cultural differences which heavily influence the language. On many occasions students have asked me for the English translation of a particular aspect of Japanese culture, only to be very disappointed that there is no such ritual or ceremony or item in the UK or the US. If this happens is can be useful to try to get the student to explain around it, using different words if possible. I would also say that it's very helpful if you as the teacher also have some understanding of the various aspects of Japanese culture. It can also be a nice conversation topic. I have learnt so much from listening to my students that I would recommend that you take the opportunity, too.


Conclusion

For any prospective teachers out there I would say that it has been a wonderful experience working in schools here in Japan. I think I got very lucky with my schools and I was able to meet a lot of interesting and very kind people. However, before you start teaching I would recommend looking at the Japanese language and culture before you begin, even if you have no intention of staying in the long term. Learning a little about the culture and the language can really help you to understand your students and give them the help they need.

Happy teaching!

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