Teaching adults in Japan is an interesting and worthwhile life experience. It’s relatively easy compared to other countries, but don’t be mistaken that this will adequately prepare you for other Asian scenarios, such as Korea or China. Japan and its people are very unique in many ways that you have yet to imagine on your TEFL journey. It is said that to know is to understand and being culturally aware is vital to your teaching in Japan. It may come as an initial shock that your students can read and write in English albeit with superficial comprehension of the meaning, but are virtually inept in the other two skills of listening and most importantly in our communicative age – speaking. The archaic grammar translation method still dominates Japanese education and this concentration on form is unlikely to change until they encounter you. Your students will have experienced Japanese teacher-focused techniques, but their mentors will have been inadequately trained in TEFL and lacked the confidence themselves to speak in English. They did not aim to motivate their learners to communicate and this English language incompetence is inherent throughout all levels of Japanese society.
How To Proceed
As a Japanese teacher’s role is very important, your students will be respectful, obedient and disciplined. If you give homework assignments they will normally be done as instructed, but before you start to celebrate remember that their reserved nature and politeness generally means stifled interactivity. They are reluctant to question the teacher or even participate in class at times. As you are teaching adults you may feel it safe to assume that as they are studying of their own volition there are no extrinsic factors compelling them to attend and that they want to ‘learn.’ This is compounded by the fact that they are paying their own ‘educational budget’ in prolonged deflationary times. However a simple questioning will soon reveal that their motives are far from scholarly - English is their ‘hobby.’ Faced with this sudden realization that all your training in syllabus design and years of effort to craft carefully honed classes may no longer be of relevance you should not become demoralized or lose your enthusiasm. You have to be a teaching chameleon and respond accordingly.
Be positive in your approach.
Many people pursue hobbies very successfully and are willing and studious. So why should your situation be otherwise? Then you learn that our stereotyped Mrs. Tanaka likes to study English on Wednesday because it’s before her Tai Chi class. She is also ‘learning’ Korean due to the current popularity of their dramas on television and takes Chinese classes twice a month too. You have to commend her linguistic aspirations, but you are beginning to appreciate that the level of foreign language input may certainly be a factor in her confused English output in your class. She also likes to practice calligraphy, do ikebana and play the Japanese shamisen in her free time when she is not hiking, doing yoga or going on foreign trips. The ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ may spring to mind. Your students will have a lot of latent vocabulary. Unfortunately it was devised and memorized purely for testing purposes at High School and tertiary educational levels and has little relevance in useful life skills. You will have to wean them off rote learning and assuage their constant concerns for accuracy rather than fluency.
As diligent teachers we all like to be punctual. You want to be fully prepared and create a good relationship and rapport with your students, so you get to class early to arrange seating, write up lesson outlines, have pre-lesson conversations etc. This is worthy practice but you need to be very careful in your timing. If you get there too early you will soon find that Mrs. Tanaka suddenly appears there too and if not quickly addressed this will soon become ‘her free one to one lesson time.’ You will witness the classic ‘English bandit’ style, when she insidiously steals your well- intentioned efforts from the rest of her classmates. She will also hover and linger at the end of class for your personal attention, bringing little food gifts to attract your favouritism. Mrs. Tanaka will happily sit and watch you eat your lunchbox and accidentally appear in your local coffee shop to impinge upon your life further, so be warned from the start. We all like Mrs. Tanaka – if only there were LESS like her!
Use the board a lot
Adult Japanese students like to have something tangible to evidence their learning i.e. a textbook, a handout, something written on the board that can be copied. If you are talking to the students, practicing ad-lib conversations, drilling or doing correction techniques, you are teaching on your terms, but perhaps not to the satisfaction of all your students. They can’t visibly see or ‘show’ such learning to friends or family and there is a tendency for them to believe that this is wasted or idle time. It lacks relevance on their part, and surely cannot be important as otherwise the teacher would make them copy it down. Never forget that that old practices die hard.
Do more in-class practice
Will your students practice or revise what they have learned? Unfortunately in the vast majority of cases the answer is a resounding NO. They are unlikely to speak English from the moment they set foot outside the classroom, until they step in it again on the next occasion. Usually their English file sits in a designated spot at home and is retrieved on class day only. Their families, friends and neighbours will certainly not speak English and they have virtually no opportunity to practice a second language in a mono-lingual homogenous society. When they travel overseas they invariably travel in groups with a Japanese tour operator and experience a very sheltered and protected holiday without exposure to the targeted language. You tell them of the array of services available on the Internet, the free children’s materials they can obtain in their local libraries, the English sections in bookshops, how to listen to CDs and watch videos and DVDs to enhance the lessons studied, the bi-lingual news on TV etc. But it will generally fall on deaf ears.
But in this English Pandora’s box, there remains HOPE. Some students really do try to improve their English ability. They surprise you with their activities and make your job feel worthwhile. It may be a diary page they wrote, a report they want you to check, a thank you message etc. and even if it’s a baby step into the world of English we must be proud of their achievements and make them feel truly valued. We can’t always fathom why they come to class, but we know why we are here and even if students don’t try today, we must always dream that they will tomorrow.