There are a lot of things you can do to prepare for your move to Japan, from brushing up on the language to practicing with your chopsticks – but what will prepare you for teaching?
You’re probably quite aware that Japanese culture is different from your own, but knowing how to apply your knowledge to the classroom is a different matter.
Whether you are teaching small children or adults, there are a few things that nobody might have told you. These are some of the pointers that I wouldn’t have minded knowing before bounding into my first Japanese class-room, and they’ll hopefully be of help to you, too.
What You Should Know Before Entering a Classroom in Japan
You might have to teach American English
You might have to teach American English - it’s the preferred style of English in most of Asia, and the textbooks in schools almost exclusively use American vocabulary and spelling. If you’re British (or from another English-speaking country), you’ll notice this the first time you have to read “I like soccer!” out loud. If you work alongside a Japanese teacher of English, you might even find them asking you to use American pronunciation (to-MAY-do instead of to-MAH-to).
This can be a bit irritating to proud non-Americans, but – while some teachers will let you tell the kids what you say back home – it can be a bit confusing for kids to hear about differences between types of English. However, if you’re teaching more advanced students, adults or teenagers, comparing words between British and American English can make for an interesting lesson!
Japanese people generally have very little knowledge about other countriesThey are familiar with very mainstream Western things – namely Disney, Johnny Depp and The Beatles – but if you’re going to talk about anything from celebrities to recent news events, it’s best not to assume any common knowledge, or stick to Japan-based references.
Japanese people generally have very little knowledge about other countries, so your cultural references are likely to flop. They are familiar with very mainstream Western things – namely Disney, Johnny Depp and The Beatles – but if you’re going to talk about anything from celebrities to recent news events, it’s best not to assume any common knowledge, or stick to Japan-based references.
Of course, you will find a few people who have travelled and have much greater knowledge about other countries, but the majority seem to see the world in terms of Japan and Other Countries. Expect sweeping generalisations like “Oh, you’re American – you like hamburgers!” and surprise that you could possibly like Japanese food, understand any of the language or do something as complex as learning to use chopsticks.
For a foreigner trying to integrate into Japanese society, it can be frustrating to be praised for something as small as saying “konnichiwa” – just remember that people are trying to be friendly. Unless they go looking for it, people generally aren’t offered much information on other countries, other than one or two images to go with each one (France – Eiffel Tower and croissants!) and warnings about their dangers.
Your students might be much shyer than you expected.
English lessons with a Japanese teacher tend to focus on reading, writing and perfecting grammar, meaning that students get very nervous when it comes to speaking at all –let alone with a native speaker. Small children are usually not as shy, but as people get older they become more and more afraid of making a mistake, meaning that your questions might often be met with a wall of awkward silence.
Of course, there are a number of reasons why you might find your students saying nothing. You could be talking too quickly, using a lot of slang and phrasal verbs (e.g. give up, take out, work out) or a strong accent that they’re not used to. Perhaps all your students have heard of English until now is the CD. Speak slowly and clearly, and use gestures and pictures to help you out. Or, it could be down to a couple of other reasons…
It’s not “cool” to be good at English.
This means that students who are actually really good will remain deadly quiet in class, even when you ask them a question and they know the answer. Of course, this mainly applies in settings with teenagers – junior high or high school. Some students will even purposefully mess up an answer, because answering properly might make their classmates think badly of them.
Perhaps you had a similar situation when you were in school – that mandatory French class that nobody liked, and the one kid who put on a perfect French accent and answered fluently. Most kids probably thought he was a dork, and didn’t like his arrogant attitude. It’s similar in Japan, but this is a culture where individualism is far less valued than in the West. Standing out as an individual is not something to be respected – it’s a sure way to be excluded from the group, which is unthinkable to most Japanese teenagers.
People don’t like to give direct opinions.
Your culture might value an assertive person, who isn’t afraid to say what they think, but Japan has different ideas. Even the most diplomatic confrontation is seen as unpleasant and highly undesirable. This makes classroom activities like debates pretty hard; asking any direct question – from “What do you think the government should do about this?” to “Who’s the best singer in Japan?” can cause a student to close up.
Some say it comes from Buddhism, but confrontation is not valued in Japan. A Japanese person will typically say “I’m not completely sure, but maybe…” when they mean “no”, and if a co-worker has a problem with you, you’ll hear it fifth-hand a few weeks after they made the complaint. To Westerners, this can seem two-faced and frustrating, but it’s better to go with it – demanding a straight answer will only cause people to close up more.
When teaching, you can get around the opinion problem a little by incorporating a role-play – give each student a card telling them what their opinion is (and ideally, their new name and job). That way, they are not giving an opinion as themselves, but as a character. It’s better to avoid any topic that asks for an opinion, unless your students show a preference for it.
This doesn’t mean that they won’t ask you awfully direct questions, though – expect anything from “Are you married?” and “How much do you weight?” to “What do you think of Japanese men?”
How you answer those questions is up to you… just smile a lot, and perhaps do as they do and give vague, indirect answers!
Have you ever taught English in Japan? Would you like to? Please let us know in the comments below!