Category Archives: Japan

In my high school…

I teach a discussion class. One of the most recent topics for discussion was comparing the English classes my students had in their many different (are they..?) high schools across the country and discussion classes at university, i.e. our classes. As the 13 groups of students I teach were having their discussions, I was making notes.

The aim of this post is to share students’ views that probably build some picture of what an English learning environment in many high schools around Japan is. If the words of 110 kids are anything to trust and go by. While one might not like the picture, it may or may not be representative of many, many classrooms in other countries. Or is it? Your comments are very welcome.

In my high school…

… I only hear the teacher talking.

… textbooks are too difficult.

… I didn’t have to think in class!

… no group work

… my teacher says, “Be quiet!”

… we sit all the time.

… purpose is grammar.

… students are quiet.

… silent class (teacher talks)

… “Repeat after me”

… we have paper test.

… we are only taught by teacher, passive.

… teacher is the main person.

… teacher teaches me one way, we can’t interact, no communication.

… teacher uses Japanese all the time.

… I speak only textbook! I don’t say my ideas.

… teacher says, “Don’t mistake grammar.”

… teacher always speaking, students always listening. This is not fun.

… I see target every day – memorize new words!

… teacher and students are far, students are not interested in teacher.

… we studied English.

… perfect English is important.

… we don’t have opportunity to listen to other people’s opinion.

… students face front.

… makes me sleepy.

… I only write English.

… teacher doesn’t talk to students, sometimes “Do you know…?”

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I wonder if what strikes me as powerful does the same for you. It’s obvious from these notes that the picture is far from happy. Yet… I don’t want to make this post a triumph show of a speaking class so I won’t be sharing my notes from the other side of their discussions talking about our class. In fact, it’s not even fair to be comparing classes that have dramatically different goals. What’s important, students seem well aware of these goals, so that is a good sign. I will, however, share the disadvantages of Discussion Class that I heard pronounced by the same students. And then I’ll leave you to decide if there’s something to it or not.

The disadvantages of Discussion Class…

I forget grammar and difficult words (I learnt many words in high school but couldn’t use them).

Morning is difficult to wake up, and think and speak English.

I can’t memorize new phrases.

When I make a mistake, nobody tells me.

We can communicate only by words, so grammar is broken.

We are all Japanese people, so we can’t hear native English, it is fast and difficult to understand.

I’m worried that I can’t speak to foreigners.

I can’t tell my opinion completely.

I don’t “study” English!

A little hard, after class I’m tired.

I am very tired because I talk more compared to daily life and other class.

I get very sad when I can’t convey my idea.

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Listening to students is always so much fun. I don’t share the opinion that we can’t learn from teenagers or kids who we teach because they don’t have anything to offer to us. I believe if you listen, you will hear.

Here are some random gems, fun or funny or smart or interesting, that I picked from those same discussions. Someting there made me smile and/or put it down to paper.

  1. I want to eat another country. 
  2. Foreigners are cool, tall, face is cool, blond hair, long nose.
  3. In the world, speaking skill is most important. Even if I forget grammar, I can still speak.
  4. Most of Japanese teachers think that grammar is most important, but when you speak it’s not. I can communicate without correct grammar. Important is our thinking, our ideas, our feelings.
  5. Is it good to speak only English in class?

 

Really, is it?…

Thank you for reading.

 

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And now, my turn. In my high school (Moscow, 2001-2003) my English classes were very boring. The teacher always sat down at her desk, called our names from the register, and then we checked our homework. We read and translated boring texts, we translated boring sentences from Russian into English, we probably did some grammar exercises but I can’t be sure. It’s all a blur. I barely learnt any English at school. And the teacher… well, she looked so bored and tired and miserable all the time. I feel sorry for her now, I don’t think she wanted to be there in the first place.

 

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Breaking: English in Japan is pretty useless.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for 10 months. There are 20+ other blog posts I should have commited to finishing writing about this time, but here’s what’s coming and some background story is likely needed.

One of the courses I have been teaching these 10 months in Clark High School is Culture Course. We have watched videos, took part in an online exchange project with teenagers from South Korea, Russia and Canada, learnt to explain Japanese phenomena to non-Japanese people, read about what constitutes cultural differences in general (the boring part they didn’t really care about all that much). All that has hopefully been coming under the big important umbrella of learning to speak and think of cultures beyond stereotypes. One activity that we all enjoyed was reacting to common generalizations of Japan, its culture and people (the concept was borrowed from an activity I witnessed in Mike Griffin’s class over a year ago). All students without exception were highly responsive and keen on discussing the many common images of the Japanese that are shared in the world. (Sidenote: when compiling that list, I did some research online but also relied on my own friends’ and family’ s ideas, that are probably exactly exemplary stereotypes. In fact, I might have said “My granny/ parents think this and that” n number of times in class… Every time meaning well.)

The part coming below is responses of third-year students to a task in their final test on the course. The task was to give a clear comment on three statements, which happen to be stereotypical ideas about the Japanese. As I was grading the tests, I couldn’t help it but be moved to blog their thoughts, accompanied by my own comments. I wish I could spend more time in class with these students. I wish we could talk about these things, among all others. Instead, I am offering the typed version of the conversations that never happened. Enjoy.

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Statement:

English in Japan is pretty useless. A lot of people, even young people, don’t speak English. Even if they can, they will be too shy to speak when the chance comes.

get along

Student —> Anna

Yes! Yes! Yes! Actually, Japanese study English since they are junior high school students, but many people can’t speak English. Even if we can, we tend to not speak. I think Japanese hate to make mistakes. So they are afraid of making mistakes. We should be confident. We should adapt to globalizing society.

Me: As hard as I might try in my class to help students feel more at ease about making mistakes, I know what you mean. There might be additional, contextually Japanese reasons intensifying the fear but maybe most learners are prone to that sort of reaction? Well, I myself certainly am. One of the many excuses reasons for my profound lack of Japanese speaking after a year living “immersed” in the environment is the fear of being misinterepreted, misunderstood, the fear of using a wrong phrase, sounding too casual, too incoherent. It’s little of a consolation, I know, but it is my way of offering empathy as a fellow language learner.

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I agree with this. Many people think so, including me. In my opinion, people think that Japanese English pronunciation is so bad to speak. English is still a “foreign” language for us, because we don’t use it much.

Me: This comment made me cringe on the inside, feeling so sad and yet grateful to this student for spelling it out. Who are those people thinking so, saying so, instilling such thoughts in learners? Is Russian English pronunciation any “better”? When I was in Thailand, I took pains to understand Thai English, but not because it’s “bad” – it is just so different. It offered variations of sounds that my ear was not accustomed to.

I wouldn’t want it for any of my students, Russian or Japanese, or wherever else I might go to teach, to feel ashamed of the way they speak English.

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I agree with these statements because I am shy to speak. Also, at first we learn English grammar. It causes us to feel “we have to speak English with correct grammar”. It also causes us to feel nervous and tense when speaking English.

Me: Again, I just want to reassure you that both nervousness and tension while speaking any foreign language is such a natural, human reaction… The way I see it. It is a teacher’s job, to a great part, to make that stressful experience less so. I’m truly sorry we don’t always manage, or explicitly show that we care to manage.

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I agree with this stereotype. Japanese people usually start studying English when they are 11 years old. That’s why Japanese people are not good at English and speaking.

Me: Russian people usually start studying English when they are 6-8 years old. Many of them still don’t find themselves to be good at speaking English when they grow up, even after 20 years of learning. I’m not sure what it proves.

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I don’t think that English in Japan is pretty useless because over 80% companies in Japan use English and in 2020 we’ll hold Olympics in Tokyo. At that time, many foreigners will come to Japan. So English will be considered to be an important skill. I do agree with the second sentence, because I do become shy when I speak English. In Japan people don’t use English in daily life so people tend not to speak English, even if they can.

Me: I am with you and thanks for pointing out that good reason to keep motivation up for learning to speak English. As for the last sentence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people in most countries around the world don’t use English in daily life! What I am saying is that we’re all in the same boat here, and it’s good, and there shouldn’t be pressure to necessarily speak the language!

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I agree with this comment. As I wrote, Japan is an isolated country so we don’t have an opportunity to speak another language, not just English. We will be too shy when we try to speak other language.

Me: It’s a most interesting idea for the background behind that stereotype. I wonder what sort of isolation you have in mind…

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I have to say yes to this stereotype. To be honest, Japanese way of teaching English is horrible. They are looking at English as a tool to get a good grade on exam but not as one language. I think this is a reason why Japanese can’t speak English very well. This is one of the reasons why I didn’t go to a normal Japanese school.

Me: Now this is analysing the “problem” on a whole new level! I am constantly left speechless at the amounts of testing that is happening throughout the term, as well as at the worksheets for English classes that I catch sight of in the staff room. All I can do is sigh, and yet you’re saying this is not a “normal” Japanese school..!

*****

I agree with this sentence. Japanese feel shy to speak English in front of other people because they have a little opportunity to talk with other people in English. Moreover, Japanese character is passive so they hesitate to express themselves.

Me: This comment struck a cord with me. Is that so true? Is there something I could do in my class, in those few hours a week we spend together, to unlock the expressive side of that character (that I am certain exists in every teenager at the very least!)..? Or is that being too bold?

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I think Japanese people have no interest in foreign countries and if Japanese people spend their life in Japan, they think “I can live if I use only Japanese.” That’s why they don’t try to speak English so much. Even if they can, they try to be same with other Japanese people. Maybe they pretend to be shy.

Me: In my first months here I used to feel the very same way, that Japanese don’t care about travelling abroad. That was an opinion I heard a lot in class, that was the attitude that used to bother me so much. Now that I’ve grown to be more accepting, I think I see more than when I was overly focused on these opinions. As an example, this weekend during a party/informal meeting for the parents in the school, I was approached by a couple of parents. Both Japanese, very polite, their kid not being in the International Course (which is where I primarily teach), they used all English they had at their disposal to ask me…. about tips for arranging a visit to Saint-Petersburg! It turned out they are planning a vacation there, and they would like to visit the Hermitage museum, go to a concert of classical music, enjoy the architecture of the city. Needless to say how happy I was to share my ideas and recommendations with them, as well as finish our conversation by thanking them for their interest in the culture of my country. …On second thought, I wonder how far English is going to get them in Russia (I honestly don’t know). I hope they join a tourist group 😉

*****

I agree with this sentence. First, in Japan people don’t have a lesson in which they can communicate in English. School teaches us how to write perfect grammar. So, a few people can speak English and during speaking are too shy.

Me: There’s nothing I could add here… wait, no, I have a question. Don’t Japanese junior high schools have ALTs? I don’t have experience working as one or working in a school with one, so obviously my knowledge is limited to the stories I’ve heard… but it was my understanding that they were there in school to ideally produce some sort of English-speaking environment, or an impression of such. Just as a sidenote: Russian schools don’t have an equivalent of that position.

*****

I think so, too. These days a lot of foreigners visit Japan, so there are many chances to talk in English, but the way of studying English in Japan really focuses on writing too much <…> Japanese are shy to talk with strangers in English. I think it comes from the historical reason. Once upon a time, Japanese people used to keep distance from foreigners. I think that reason made people these days think they can’t get along with foreigners.

Me: I’d argue that focus on writing is not the cause of trouble in itself. It is the kind of writing that matters. Regarding the final thought, it was thought-provoking to read… Can it be ingrained that deep in the culture to transfer from generation to generation through the subconscious of a whole nation?…

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Finally, a ray of light in the grimly painted picture of English language education for the shyest nation of all:

That’s not true. I speak English every day no matter where I am. I partially agree with the idea that Japanese are shy though. It really depends on each person’s personality. If you are good at English, you can go to a good university, so it’s not useless at all.

 

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All of these students have successfully passed the test. Moreover, they sort of nailed it, making me really happy with their language improvement and clever reflections, well-put in what they say is still a foreign language to them. Thank you for inspiring me to face the blank “draft” page on this blog, too (and for effortlessly filling half of this page with your own writing!)

 

Thank you, reader, for reading. Make what you will out of this post.

 

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37 days of my new life

It’s a fact tried and true that time can fly past fast. You can only experience once the anxiety, frustration, liberation and thrill of moving into a different country to start a new life of your own from scratch. While I am contemplating whether I’m through with this period or not quite yet, here are the 37 notes I’ve made in these 37 days of my new life. In no particular order they cover my observations, musings, questions, experiences, assumptions and whatnots. Enjoy.

 

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1. I enjoy my walk to work and part of it is through a narrow street along the train tracks. The little street is all bars on top of karaoke places squeezed between restaurants offering Japanese, American, Indian, Turkish, Burmese and other types of food. On Monday it is easy to say where a bar is as there’s vomit next to an entrance on the road.

2. On with the theme of parties, I am amazed at how abruptly the Japanese stop to have fun, be loud, clink glasses and laugh when hanging out. When it happened at the official school welcoming party, I was taken aback – a round of clapping following the Japanese tradition, and we suddenly, very responsibly were done with the fun and gone. What takes Russians literally hours and drags them into the early hours no matter what day next day is, is efficiently a matter of 5 minutes here.

3 The Japanese people are organized and disciplined, there’s a minute-to-minute instruction and guidance for any type of action. Any event is scheduled to the minute.

4. Patterns of social interaction here are amazing to me, in how radically behaviour changes depending on the situation and people involved in it.

5. I love train tracks up there with the view of the roofs. The feeling of space and sky is more tangible in Seoul if I were to compare, but even in Tokyo it is still true and still breathtaking for me.

6. I can’t brush off the feeling that the Japanese are easily thrown off their emotional balance (or easier than me?..). Examples are due here, in later posts.

7. From what I’ve seen so far, these people seem to be great at managing people, with announcements, directions and instructions.

8. It’s been over a month since the school year started and we haven’t yet begun proper classes. It was new and somewhat baffling to me at first, but now I see the point of spending the first month in activities, home rooms, meetings, events, school trips and such. Getting students interact outside their natural little groups, in and between grades seems like a wise thing to do for these teenagers. And, to be honest, for freshly recruited teachers.

9. I still don’t know why on out-of-school-campus events students are not allowed to go to convenience stores or buy water from vending machines.

10. Kids wave to (or almost at) you saying hello and goodbye. That could very well be from the modest distance of 1 meter away from you. By “you” I might actually mean foreign teachers…

11. This must be a silly thing to be excited about and devote a whole point in my culture notes to, but the fact that change at supermarket registers comes out of the machine automatically after the cashier drops your money into a hole was pretty fascinating to me.

12. Thank you for waiting. Please wait for a while. So said the announcement on the train from the airoport to my station last Wednesday, the last evening of the Golden Week. An unexpected problem… Cause: passenger injury. I hadn’t experienced it on my way yet and I didn’t know then that “a while” would take two hours. To my amazement, there was absolutely no, positively zero sighing, swearing or grumbling from my fellow travellers.

13. I must confess there’s no great love for cooking in me, expect for cases when I want to try out an interesting (and simple!) dish or treat my family and friends. Other than that, I never thought of myself as of the cooking type. However, this past month I did manage to learn and enjoy cooking udon soup, yakiudon, chicken curry, fried squid, omuraisu, mentaiko spaghetti and some dish with tofu and Japanese spinach that I don’t know the name of. I’m getting a fresh perspective on my culinary abilities (and thanking friends, Google and absence of my mother in this apartment).=)

14. I have experienced the Silent Classroom.

15. With a few prominent exceptions, the voices of my students when in a class and speaking are so quiet that I find it hard to make out what they are saying even when I’m bending over them or kneeling beside. That adds to my general embarrassment and confusion when adjusting to the Japanese pronunciation of English sounds.

16. Linguistic landscapes being the recent buzz and my personal long-time interest, here are a few of the images I’ve taken around Tokyo.

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17. Whether you are at work or in a shop or hanging out, cuteness is never too far. Kawaii is the word that applies (or, more accurately, is applied) to nearly any imaginable thing, person or action. This part of the world is cute.

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18. I have long stopped paying special attention to people wearing masks, but I still have an urge to ask my students, when and if the rapport is good, why exactly they would wear them in a language class. I have heard a view that many teenagers stick to their masks as they are embarrassed about their faces.

19. It’s the first time in my whole 9 years in this profession that I actually spend 8 hours a day 5 days a week with colleagues. The learning for me exceeds the teaching so far.

20. At the end of April I had a unique opportunity that my job offers – a full day of training with John Fanselow. I have just finished my third online course with him through iTDi (speak of addiction..), and that face-to-face time was truly special. There’s still a blog post to be put together from the many pages of my hand-written notes… Some day then.

21. I’ll never regret getting emotional on a beach in South Korea on a nice October day in 2014, which led me to writing this post. The beaches in Osaka and Kobe took my breath away in an almost similar way. They reminded me of where my heart wants me to be.

22. The little time spent with friends in Kansai area took my breath away just as much and reminded me that I am not alone, even if I often feel like I am.

23. I whined in my previous post about the language frustrations that brought me down in the first week here in Tokyo. Truth be told, I’m still affected by that undoubtedly exaggerated shock I got in a bank, and it manifests itself in that I resort to the simplest words and phrases I already know again and again. My learning has been sparse and unworthy of mention. I find comfort in making excuses of the first month being the hard adjustment period. Sad as it is, there is truth to the fact that language and culture immersion do not equal language learning. But I already knew that)

24. In November of this year I’ll be presenting for the third time at JALT conference in Shizuoka! This is exciting because JALT is more than just a regular conference for me, it is anything but regular. It is one of the reasons why I am here where I am. 

25. Ueno Zoo is a wonderful zoo and I’ll be visiting it over and over.

26. One Saturday I went grocery shopping in my neighbourhood. As I was on my way home, loaded with 5 heavy bags and leek sticking out happily from one of them, a few elderly Japanese ladies came up to me and asked (in Japanese) what I assumed to be “Where’s the bus stop here?”. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, they smiled,excused themselves and asked a Japanese lady standing at the traffic lights next to me. The moral of this story is that grocery shopping makes you look like a knowledgeable local, even if you’re so obviously a gaijin as I happen to be.

27. For the first time in my life I faced a classroom of 40 teenagers.

28. No public wifi is still depressing to me. A few times I’ve tried, in what I take to be a Russian way, to guess the password to a network at a place, but failed were my attempts.

29. I wish I could get myself a Snoopy credit card.

30. Working from 8.30 to 5 is, as I mentioned above, new and challenging. I know I can and will make it, as so many people around the world in this and other jobs do, but I admit it is hard.

31. One of the exciting things at work I’ve done so far is suggesting writing journals to some of the students. Three girls have already shown interest and handed in their *cute* notebooks with first letters to me! I’m going to spread this initiative around to other groups of students.

32. One of the two special courses that I’ll be teaching at my school is Culture Studies course. Originally designed to focus at the Russian and Japanese cultural phenomena, it now looks more appealing to me to open it up and include any cultures outside Japan. We’ll be looking for partners to do cultural exchange projects on the blog that is yet to be created, so if you teach teenagers and think this experience could be up your/ their alley – please let me know!

33. The other one is the Social Media course centered around privacy and safety issues, so critical in Japan. A short pre-course activity showed to me the startling truth that ALL students feel insecure in social networks (all being 99 out of 100), but all the same use them extensively. I only hope I’ll do a good job and by the end of the year the percentage will be different.

34. Messages that I regularly recieve from my family, friends and former students from back home are heart-warming. Thank you, it means a lot to me especially now.

35. Belorussian restaurant “Minsk” in Roppongi is run by lovely and friendly Belorussian ladies. I’m going to buy frozen (Belo)Russian food there (they promised pelmeni and cabbage rolls aka golubtsy soon!).

36. I like my new life and I’m working on adjusting to what’s new and unusual. I have found myself to be flexble enough.

37. I wish I had the energy back to write more often… It makes me happy to put my thought and heart in this post, finish it now and publish.

 

Thanks for reading.

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