Japan Teacher Project: Day 2: Away from the classroom



Today is not a teaching day. It is Sunday in Japan, the sun is shining and families and their children are together briefly. Fathers here often work 6 days a week and have little holiday to spend with their families. When I ask my students about their fathers often they do not know their job and say they feel very uncomfortable with their father, as if he is a stranger. I have had reports of very strict fathers who, not surprisingly,  are clearly stressed and take it out on their children and wife. Mother then usually over-protects her children and is solely responsible for them.

I have had cases here of seeming gross neglect, allowing for character and eccentric tendencies: they are often children who have been brought up by their grandparents and rarely see their parents. Grandparents are perhaps too old to look after them properly or maybe very strict and controlling. Parents are working so hard in their company or their own business, that they cannot look after their children properly. For many of my students, giving my attention individually to them comes as a shock at first! They are not used to having such attention and particularly from a teacher. They cannot understand that I want every student in my class to communicate with me so that I can assess their English and so guide them to improving it.

Communicating directly in English with students often brings about a strange phenomena which I have never observed in any other nationality.  I ask a question in slow clear English always based on what we are studying, and the student concerned immediately turns to a neighbor requiring a translation of what I have said in Japanese. This response betrays their High School background – when observing English classes in High Schools in Japan there are hardly any occasions when English is not translated either by the teacher, or by the adroit fingers of students on their electronic dictionaries. So, for some, perhaps it is truly the first time they have ever been expected to reply to a question, and to reply to a question in English.

The translation method used by most Japanese colleagues of English as a Foreign Language is unfortunate but perhaps necessary given their own lack of confidence in the language, combined with the particular difficulties in making meaning here.  Full eye contact is also overwhelming for many students, so they are compelled to turn away, especially from large blue eyes! The third factor is what is expected of them. I am expecting that they can use the English they have studied for 6 or 7 years, perhaps longer, to communicate with me. It is true that I have high expectations of them because social language is a skill which anyone can acquire with practice. The subject of tomorrow’s entry will be this baffling notion of ‘practice’ which I have been working hard to get across to students here. They view language as something almost entirely cerebral, plus they shy away from standing out as individuals in any way. There are many reasons for their unexpected resistance to communicating which i hope to explore in coming days.

Let me leave you with a final image. A simple question is asked of a young woman. She doesn’t look away but answers in rapid Japanese. I ask the question again and plead with her to answer in English. She remonstrates in Japanese. I ask her once again, and she looks away to get help or translation from a nearby friend. I ask her again not to translate but to take her time and answer me in English. She becomes silent, looking down, closing down. I give her time, and then slowly she answers me quite well and then smiles in triumph!  Obviously her first successful speech act in English. This is very moving and exciting to be part of as a teacher, and with care it can be built on.




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