When people come to Japan, most have probably heard that English is a second language. Students will study English from elementary school on up through high school, so one might expect that Japanese people can speak English well. Unlike in Europe, the way teachers instruct students in English is still stuck in a lot of reading and writing based curriculum, not so much speaking. And thus, Japan’s English speakers can generally read and write just fine, but have very limited speaking capabilities.
Many teachers in Japan try to tell students it’s important to learn English, that it’s going to be important later. Japanese students, especially mine, tend to dig their heels in and start protesting the “need” for English.
“I live in Japan, so I should only speak Japanese!”
“Japanese people aren’t good at Japanese. English is too difficult!”
“I don’t understand it, so I don’t want to learn it.”
“Why should I speak English? It’s only good for tests!”
For us native teachers, we went to throw out the facts.
“Japan is the ONLY country that speaks Japanese, while so many countries speak English!”
“You need it for your future job. Without English, you’ll never get a pay raise.”
“You don’t understand math but you’ve got to learn it anyway. Same thing!”
“You can use English to travel abroad, get a good paying job, go to a good university. It’s so useful!”
While all these are true, I think we’re putting the focus in the wrong areas. Students, especially my high school students, they’re not really asking about how it’ll be useful for their future, they’re asking why it’s important right here and right now. Anyone who ever went to high school can remember teachers telling them every subject was important, that all of their knowledge would be necessary for this or that or the other.Teenagers aren’t generally far future thinkers, they live in the now.
My answers have changed from the typical responses to different things now.
“Don’t you want to talk with me? I want to talk with you. We need English to communicate.”
“I’m not good at Japanese, but I try really hard to study. I want to become better for myself. You should try too!”
“You can understand anything if you practice. Do you play (soccer)? Were you always good at (soccer). Right, you practiced until you were good. Same thing with English.”
“If you speak English, you can come ask me anything. I will always answer.”
English is a language, but you don’t generally love a language, you care about the people attached to it. Students can be told facts and figures over and over again, but it’s the relationships they form with English that they’ll remember better. If they think, “I should learn English so I can talk to (my native teacher).” they will be more motivated and they’ll try harder, at least in my experience.
When I lived in Ibaraki, I did lunch time chats with students. Some ALTs hated it, and sure sometimes I got caught in a silent group or two, but I also had moments where students learned something new and wanted to know more in English. Cultivating that kind of curiosity and bond is what makes working with Japanese students so rewarding. Hopefully, my method will keep them interested beyond the walls of the classroom, and they’ll try to make new connections with the English skills they’ve acquired.
Even if only one student goes out into the world and uses what I’ve taught them, I’ll consider it all worthwhile.
Tell me what you think! Do you agree? If not, why? Comment!