Having taught English back in the late 1970’s at Berlitz and in the early 1980’s in the evening to a large corporation’s employees destined to work for extended periods in the middle east and southeast Asia and having just returned this summer after a 20-year hiatus during which I worked in engineering and management in the United States, I am still trying to update my understanding of the latest situation for English Teaching in Japan.
On the surface it appears that little has changed when you see that MONBUSHO still does not require the achievement of any kind of conversational ability at the Junior and Senior high school level. However, there do appear to be more Japanese who have some level of conversational ability. Perhaps some are KIKOKUSHIJO and their mothers who lived for 3-5 years abroad in English speaking countries where the father worked for a Japanese transplant company, while the kids attended the public or private schools and were taught in English. Some have studied in Japan for hundreds of hours at one of the superfluous EIKAIWA schools and some have worked overseas on a working holiday visa or just traveled extensively for pleasure. In any case many more Japanese do speak English than did 20 years ago. I have heard that there is some kind of listening comprehension test (hearing test) that has been added to the entrance examinations for many universities. I still need to confirm this. This was something I proposed in two letters to KOE RAN (“The Voice” Column) of the Japanese edition of the Asahi newspaper back in the early 80’s, so, if it is true, then I am glad to hear that they have finally implemented one of my suggestions.
Of course the fact that MONBUSHO still has not implemented any kind of conversation course even at the high school level, has allowed the EIKAIWA industry to continue and to flourish. This is good for English conversation school teachers and school owners. As a result there is still a very big need for Japanese students to study English conversation in such private schools. The EIKAIWA industry churns on.
What are students looking for?
A wide range of students continue to seek out classes to improve their conversation ability. This ranges from those who have suddenly decided that they should get some help to try to actually speak English despite never really having made any effort during their Junior and Senior high school days to those who have a fair amount of fluency and vocabulary and just need an opportunity to practice on a regular basis. So a part of the challenge of teaching is to confirm the weaknesses of each student and work to strengthen that particular part of their English ability. Another challenge is to place them into groups that keep them interested, learning and satisfied. With the advent of 3000 Yen per hour café lessons, many students have come to think that they should be able to get a private lesson for that price in a fixed school. Unfortunately they fail to realize that private lessons taught at a mere 3000 Yen will not cover the costs of operating a school. Of course the school’s costs are the owner’s problem to deal with but the students, inevitably, get what they pay for. They are much better off, joining a school that has a well developed curriculum, teaching materials and a clean, comfortable and well equipped learning environment instead of having to compete with the other patrons speaking loud Japanese in the background in order to overcome the volume of the café’s music. They also, in some cases, may not receive a well planned lesson from the teacher and may spend the better part of their hour listening to the teacher talk about his own life experiences.
Many English students have chosen to work on improving their English ability to have an opportunity to find a better job than the one they have now. Speaking English well can help them to get better paying jobs with the airlines, or with international hotels that cater to foreign guests and to do translation and interpreting jobs. The ability to speak English can open up their career possibilities in a big way.
The value of being able to speak English well should have an effect on the average price of lessons, but there is quite a bit of competition. For schools that offer monthly tuition payment programs, the lessons may seem a little more expensive than the larger schools who require the students to pay up front for a large number of lesson tickets or 6 months to 1 year of lessons. However, being able to pay monthly is very good for the students.
My school; my methods
I currently own a Smith’s English School franchise and am enjoying all aspects of running this as a business and helping my students to hone their English skills. It is not easy to build up the student body of a school. You have to work very hard to promote your school and you have to do a good job of teaching to retain students. Your success if really dependent on your effort. If you work hard, you will succeed. I am convinced of this. Also, the rewards of teaching and owning a school go beyond the monetary aspect. When you look at the improvement your students make over a period of 6 months or a year, you know that you are providing a valuable service. The students really can make great strides toward mastery of English with your help.
As for the method of teaching, there are many ways and all of them work. Role-playing, playing games which require the student to use English and even a project to cook, make or assemble something can be useful to bring the students to a point in which they are using English and not just studying it. They have to “live” the language in as many ways as possible to really assimilate it and make it their own. They have to work toward having an existence that they can describe and converse about in English. They must be able to do a self-introduction that covers their background, their family and their plans for the future. This must be one of their first goals to achieve. Next, they must be able describe ALL of the things in their environment in English and their physical characteristics and the relationships between them. It is surprising how many everyday words Japanese students still do not know after studying English for 6 to 8 years. They usually do not know the words “stapler” or “staples”. They do not know the names of parts of an automobile or a room such as “ceiling”, “floor”, “wall” or “corner”, “sink”, “cabinet” etc. They often do not know “shelf”, “thermometer”, “drawer”, “chest-of-drawers” or hundreds of other words. They are often busy trying to acquire much more difficult vocabulary and simply overlook these simple nouns and adjectives that they must know first. However, they can learn these things very easily but most likely never will without a good teacher making them aware of these “holes” in their “English selves”.
The next thing they need to do is to acquire an extensive “phrasal vocabulary”. That is, if they just think each time they say something in Japanese, “How do I say that in English?”, and start memorizing these phrases every day, they will have an extensive phrasal vocabulary within a few months.
They must understand the natural relationship between questions and answers. When someone asks a yes-no question beginning with “do”, they must naturally answer “Yes, I do” or No, I don’t” etc. The same can be said about yes-no questions beginning with “can”, “will”, “are”, “is”, “could” , “have” etc. They must learn that conversation consists of statements, questions and answers. Once they know and can discern the different types of questions and reply accordingly, they are well on their way to mastering English conversation. They must be able to ask and answer yes-no questions, alternative questions and “WH” or “key” questions and they must be able to summarize and describe a scene or activity.
Taking the next step
After this their further progress depends on their acquiring more and more vocabulary, mastering the use of two-word or phrasal verbs and just immersing themselves into as many situations where they must understand and use English. Nowadays, there are many more foreigners in Japan and Japanese who have worked abroad and can speak English than there were 28 years ago when I first came to Japan. So there are more and more opportunities for Japanese, who want to practice their English, to get that practice. They can watch TV programs now being sold on DVD’s and they can read books written in English. All of these activities will help them to perfect their English. Still they need a good coach to help them down their path to perfect their English.
A good English coach must always keep the student’s best interests in mind. That includes maintaining a normal student-coach relationship. It is OK to be friends but not to go beyond this if you want them to remain as your students. To keep your students it is essential to pay attention to their weaknesses and work to address these so that your student is always improving and is aware of this.
Another issue which can be a particular problem for teachers in Japan, is the tendency to just let the students pronounce things poorly with a strong Japanese accent since we as teachers of Japanese students become very accustomed to their pronunciation and can easily understand it. We short-change the students if we do not correct their pronunciation because they think that since we understand them, all other English speakers will understand them. They will have a rude awakening the next time they travel to an English speaking country and try to ask for help or a simple question of a native English speaker who has no experience to listen to Japanese English speakers. They will not be understood and may come back to complain that you did not correct their pronunciation of certain words during the lessons. Pronunciation is important and essential to assure understanding. There is also the possibility that the student who cannot pronounce a common word correctly will also not be able to comprehend it when they hear the correct pronunciation.
The teaching of English in elementary school is being discussed currently and it may become required at least from the 4th grade level in the near future. Pilot programs are going on now in some elementary schools. This reminds me of how difficult I have found it to teach English to young children. They really just want to play games and often are only coming to the class because their mother wants to expose them to a foreigner and English. Be that as it may, I really want them to pick up some living English. So I am now working to find the best ways to teach them. It is not hard to teach them the alphabet and some simple words but for them to speak I have a tendency to want them to be able to write down what I want them to be able to say. In other words, I tend to want them to be more like my adult Japanese students who have had the benefit of MONBUSHO-mandated instruction on English grammar and translation. Adult students do have a good foundation and basic understanding of English grammar and some vocabulary. However, children can master a correct English pronunciation much more easily. To keep them from resorting to the use of KATAKANA, it is important to work with them using phonics and only the actual English alphabet. Still I am a long way from perfecting a method to teach young children.
In summary to all of the above, I want to say that the challenge to teach English to Japanese of all ages is a very fun and rewarding one, that I would recommend it to anyone who is considering a second career as they move toward retirement, as in my case. To teach others you must continue to learn also. This fact helps to keep me young and focused on the journey of life.
Al Bartle Oct. 26, 2006