Saturday, 1 October 2011

Turning Japanese [people into able English speakers]

A large chunk of my time is taken up by teaching; it’s a lucrative and interesting way of getting to know the Japanese but there are some issues I hadn’t anticipated.

I’ve already mentioned the micro-management I have to contend with.
I work for four different ladies who each operate some form of English school. Two of them in particular extremely hands-on in their management style, prescribing the lesson plan, what I wear, and the exact words I use to address my students in some cases. The trouble with this is that, and do excuse my immodesty, I am considerably more qualified to teach English than they are. One of them actually sits through all of my lessons and translates everything I say into Japanese: I can’t think of anything more object-defeating, but fine. Worse, sometimes these translations are inaccurate. Because she works as a translation machine and not as an assistant, she doesn’t wait for me to finish my train of thought before explaining what she has decided I’m trying to say. As such, “I” “taught” my four students that it’s fine to tell the time by saying “forty-six minutes until seven” for 6:15. Grand.

If I can say I speak French, it’s because I’ve spent so much time mangling and contorting the French language that the only words left are les mots justes. Language acquisition is a synonym for making a truck-load of mistakes. But my Japanese students are terrified of mistakes, and the older they are the worse it is. If they haven’t memorised a phrase to answer a question they’ve memorised, they freeze in the middle of the road and stare at you waiting for the Toyota to squish them. “Do you understand?” Hesitant nod. “What’s the answer then?” Squish! Mais bon, c’est le vie…

The worst thing is the received wisdom is that language learning is all about memorising set phrases and vocab. The first time I taught at one of my schools, I had a lesson with three boys, 7, 8 and 9, I think. We played a game where I showed them a series of cards and they had to describe for me what was on the card. “It is a blue horse”, “It is a yellow car” &c. Their vocab was impressive. Then I asked them to introduce themselves, but every time I asked for something more than “My name is…” they froze. One of them said to me “I went on vacation in France”. “Oh wow”, I said, “Where did you go?” He had not been to France; he’d just memorised a phrase and had no idea what he was saying.
We moved onto a page in their textbooks, and they were perfectly able to point at pictures and say what they were. It slowly dawned on me, though, that they were struggling to read new vocab. I wrote A…B…C…D… on the board and they happily rattled off the rest of the alphabet. Then I did what Ikehara-sensai has been doing with us to help us learn hiragana and katakana: pointing at random letters and making them say them. They didn’t have a bloody clue. Nor could they tell the difference between the sounds. They thought everything was a “b” sound, and found the “f” sound hilarious. Hilarious.

It all reminds me of the opening of ‘Hard Times’. And that book is not a good book. 

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