When you start teaching English in Japan, you’ll soon find that even students with perfect spelling and reading abilities struggle to make conversation.
There are a few reasons for this; one is that speaking isn’t given nearly enough emphasis during their education, meaning that many Japanese people are hesitant when it comes to actually conversing in English. Place a native speaker in front of them and the pressure is really on – they worry that everything they say has to be grammatically correct.
If you teach at an eikaiwa or pick up private lessons, you could find yourself in charge of a “conversation class”, which can be pretty daunting when you realise how unwilling some students are to speak. You might also find that the topics people generally discuss are pretty different in Japan than back in your home country. It’s good to know which topics students will open up about, and which topics are best to avoid. Here are some suggestions for opening up your students – and remember, encourage them not to worry about mistakes and just to speak!
Topics to Discuss:
You might not believe how many things there are to say about food, but you’ll be surprised. You can discuss their favourite and least favourite food (for lower level classes), what they have and haven’t tried, the strangest thing they’ve tried, and what they can cook. Each region of Japan has its own speciality, and students interested in travelling can tell you about things they’ve tried abroad (for higher levels). Most students will be curious to know what you think of Japanese food, and whether you “can” eat things like natto or octopus.
For younger learners, you can ask about their school afternoon clubs or other things they do in their free time. Openly asking what your students do in their free time and what they’re interested in will give you cues about what to discuss – some might be really interested in history, while others like designing cute lunchboxes. Even if their hobby isn’t that interesting to you, ask a lot of questions about it and use it to lead into other topics.
Bringing out your phone from back home might be enough to spark a conversation about phones, apps, games etc, perhaps comparing features in your phones or other pieces of technology. Ask students what music, sports, TV shows or films they like – this can work with everyone, from small children to older adults. Getting them to explain the storyline of a movie can be a fun challenge for more advanced students.
If your students are slow to start talking, inspire them with some of your own photos – of back home, or places you have travelled to. Challenge their English by getting them to describe what they see in the pictures, and let them guess where it is. Some students will warm up by asking you questions about your travels, and in turn you can ask about where they have travelled to, or where they’d like to go. Some students learning English are very passionate about travelling, and can regale you with their stories.
Most students love talking to foreigners about Japan – whether it’s asking where you’ve been and what food you’ve tried, to telling you about its history and sights. Ask where they’ve been to in Japan, what special food they’ve tried in different places, what some Japanese traditions are, or how different one region of Japan is from another. You can even feign ignorance over certain topics to get them talking, comparing aspects of life with your home country, e.g. “Can you tell me about the Japanese school system?”
Some Topics to Avoid:
Although you will find students who want to discuss their opinions – many find the Western openness to debate refreshing and seek it out – nothing will bring uncomfortable silence like pushing a student for their opinion (especially in a group). Individualism and strong opinions are not valued in Japan like they are in, say, the U.S., and most students will feel embarrassed at being asked to express an opinion. Of course, you could make giving opinions the focus of a class, teaching phrases like “In my opinion” and “Yes, but on the other hand…”
Too Much About Your Country
Meaning anything that compares Japan to your country and seems like you are extolling the superiority of your own country, e.g. “Well, in Britain people aren’t afraid to express their opinions…” Some students will be very interested in your country and will ask you questions about it; by all means, talk about it then, but remember that people can get pretty defensive if you suggest that your country is somehow better than Japan in any way!
Their Personal Lives
Many of your students will ask you questions that seem pretty rude, by Western standards – “How old are you?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” or even “How much do you weigh?” However, if you try to delve too much into your students’ personal lives, they might close up and feel uncomfortable. This completely depends on the students – some told me all about their marital problems, while others didn’t want to discuss a thing. Don’t push it, but if it comes up naturally, that’s fine!
It’s probably quite obvious, but discussing salaries and how much things cost can seem a little crude, and make some students feel uncomfortable. Complaining about how expensive Japan is probably won’t win you any favours, either. If your students happen to be economists of some kind, it’s different – you can happily chat about banking and economics for hours.
There’s a lot of corruption going on in Japan, and there are many issues that people prefer to turn a blind eye to – racism, discrimination, sexism and various human rights abuses, to name a few. Some people are aware of this, but the Japanese media is so good at spinning everything - from ancient history to current affairs - to keep Japan in a good light that some students will be dumbfounded if you bring it up. Anything you say could seem as if you are criticising Japan, which many students might take personally.
Of course, every student will have different topics that they like and dislike, but the general rule for starting out is – keep it trivial and light!
English lessons should be light-hearted and fun, not heavy and serious. As you get to know your students, you’ll get a better idea of how to get them to talk - but if you’re really stuck, try games where they answer set questions, and bring other speaking activities to class with you.
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