Teaching a Language and Learning How to Teach

I was supposed to turnover face to face with my predecessor, Phil, but the logistics of my arrival to Japan proved otherwise. While he was finalizing his plane ticket to leave Japan, I was squatting at a friend’s house in San Diego, ambivalent about my impending departure: my carefree days of laying around on the beach were also heavy with the knowledge that I would have to cross that ocean in a crowded, metal tube, watching second-rate movies.  In the end, I arrived in Japan the same day Phil and his family arrived in the United States. The flight wasn’t half-bad. I watched the movie “21 Jump Street,” twice: once, at the beginning of the flight, because I had never seen it before, and once at the end, because I was too tired to do anything else. It was surprisingly a very funny movie.  When our planes cross paths, I looked out my airplane window and gave Phil a thumps up, optimistic about filling his shoes.  Phil looked at me, perturbed at me telling a shoes joke on an airplane, which he mouthed was “too soon.”

I just recently finished teaching even though it was the last week of classes for most of my students.  I am teaching two classes: an English Conversation Class and a class bout the United States Navy.  The syllabus is up to me, though Phil, and those preceding him, have passed down various guidance regarding my role as a Personnel Exchange Officer, whether on my office computer, or stuffed at random in the file drawer adjacent to my desk.  The syllabus Phil created is a 12-page packet stapled together with the title, “English Conversation Class” on the front. I brought the packet to my first day of teaching, and immediately upon entering the class, even though I was 5 minute early, the students came to attention, and the class leader, in English, commanded his peers with the words “Bow,” to which they bowed in my direction. I returned the favor. “Seats, please,” I said in English. They stared at me. “You may sit,” I said in Japanese, to which they laughed and took their seats.

Most of the feedback I received that first day was my students staring at me. This is for the following reasons:

(1) I have never taught before.

(2) I don’t like the syllabus I was given.

(3) I don’t have an alternative syllabus.

Oh, and later I learned that silently staring at you is a common trait in Japanese students. It’s a sign of respect. Unfortunately, because I am speaking Japanese, and their proficiency ranges from fluent to nothing at all I don’t know if their silence is a sign of respect or of not understanding what I’m saying. I try to speak in slow and simple sentences, adding in Japanese words after key English words. Every now and then I’ll ask, in English, “Raise your hand if you know what I just said.” One hand sticks up out of the back. Five seconds later, through careful deliberation, another.

There has got to be a better way.

The syllabus isn’t bad that Phil made, but it’s also not interesting at all. Each lesson is situation-driven, with a script written for how to interact in these respective situations. So for the “Restaurant” lesson, the students would recite the script to each other, followed by practicing ordering a meal from menus, which I would hand to them.  They would follow a similar pattern for the “Hotel” lesson, and “Airport” lesson, and so on.  Situation based learning is necessary; it’s how my language training was driven, but it is only really beneficial for true beginners and for students who expect to find themselves in that situation. In my case, I moved to the country of my target language, so there is a direct correlation between the situations I learned in the United States and their application in Japan.  Also, because these situations are not controlled the way they are in a classroom, I am exposed to the grammar, speed, and vocabulary of a native speaker, all of which, on occasion, I can only guess as to what they were saying. Sometimes, I even happen to be right.  These opportunities are an entry point to immersion into the Japanese language, a dye in the water that spreads from a fine grain of classroom learning.

Although a lot of my students aren’t good with English, they have been studying it since Junior High School.  That they don’t understand me is not surprising. I studied French from 6th grade until Senior year of High School, but I never learned it. A good portion of this was my fault.  I was more interested in making my teacher laugh, or the girl I had a crush on that sat next to me, then actually learning the language.  My favorite part of French Class was watching “Dumb and Dumber”—which was dubbed in French—in particular the scene where French Jim Carrey asks the guy in the van if he wants to hear the most annoying sound in the world, proceeded by a 5 second banshee scream. That too was dubbed.  When I tried to recreate the original scream, the girl next to me cringed. After I graduated from college, I was alone in Paris, because of flight delays in America, trying to make my way to the French countryside to meet my friends. I walked up to a man, confident of my ability to ask him where the train station is. He stared at my dumb face while I stuttered, trying to find something to say.  A young Parisian couple, came to my rescue, speaking perfect English, guiding me to my final destination.  I thanked them in English, choosing not to tell them that after all those years of studying the only thing I remember how to say in French is “My name is the Big Cheese.” No, I didn’t learn French.

With the rather short time that I have my students, I am trying to determine the best way to teach them the most amount of English, and in a way that will intrigue them.  Most, if not every one of them, will never work in America. When they graduate, they will be stationed on a Naval base in Japan.  A lot may never step foot in America. That is not because they have an overt sense of Nationalism—not any more than Americans do—it’s because Japan is their home.  So situation based learning is useless in a country where they will never use English in these situations.  I need to reduce the scope. The goal is not America. The goal is the classroom.  There is not textbook. No syllabus—the syllabus is whatever I want.  The title of the class is “English Conversation,” so if they are not talking, I am not doing my job. And not just talking. Language is not just reciting and memorizing. Yes, that’s part of it. But these students true path to learning will be creating their own thoughts and ideas and expressing them in the English language.  In only 11 classes, doing so may not increase their proficiency a substantial amount (it might), but it may spark the motivation and desire to continue their learning once the syllabus is complete.

I am certainly not want for ideas on how to teach English as Second Language.  The internet is drowning in them. I’ve been spending the last week scouring different sites, picking and choosing the topics and ideas that I think might apply to my class. As of now, I have a rough idea of how I want to run the class.  I don’t know if it looks good on paper, but I don’t think that matters. The last class looked good on paper, and, sorry Phil, I don’t like what I see. It’s the typical pattern of subject matter backed up by power point. For this class, I don’t think that’s good enough.  Will what I create be good enough? I don’t know. I can’t control whether the students learn or not, but I can control the environment they learn in.

On that very first day of class, before anything else, I told the students to split into groups of four and write a few sentences about what they did for summer vacation.  A lot of their responses were crude, but I could see their personalities in the English they chose. One student said that he met he girlfriend’s dad, but the dad never looked at him. “Why?” I asked. “He is shy,” the student said. Another said that he broke up with his girlfriend, “But it’s ok. I surfed a lot after.” Another spoke in simple declarative sentences that could have been mistaken for poetry: “In my left hand there is a beer. In my right hand there is my girlfriend. Every day.” This same student is in the informal English Conversation group that is held every Wednesday. Last Wednesday was the first meeting. The students had to talk about three things that interest them. One of the words related to his girlfriend, but he was too embarrassed to say what it was to every one.  “It’s something I like to do with my girlfriend.  It’s my secret word,” smiling and putting his finger to his mouth. In that instance, maybe it was for the best he didn’t reveal his secret word.  But the question I should have asked, and to his friends I ask the same: what other words you got?

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