Time for Change


When I first arrived in Japan, I thought it was humorous to see funny and strange “Engrish” almost at every turn. It was a clear example of how I was truly living in another culture and there were many stories and experiences to be comically shared with my teaching colleagues.
These days, as Japan is struggling on how to exist in the globalized world, and with the clock tick-tick-ticking on the arrival of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it seems as though dramatic change is needed to foster updated English skills for Japan in the current century.

In my opinion, it is no longer a laughing matter that, according to many academic surveys, the only other country to have worse overall English-language skills in Asia is North Korea. What once brought chuckles and tales of silly stories is now a source of embarrassment and perplexity to this writer.
There have been major influences at work for quite some time in Japan that have contributed to this situation and housecleaning should be the order of the day if this country wants to effectively communicate with the rest of the world using the global language – English.

Let us start by making the first point perfectly clear: Japanese English is simply not on the same level as global English used by native speakers and should no longer be tolerated or labeled as acceptable in public displays.
As a corporate trainer, there have been countless times when I have appealed to the clients and managers in my classes to utilize the services of trained, experienced and knowledgeable native English trainers. It boggles the mind to think that many Japanese companies are insisting on global standards with regards to Sales, Quality, ISO, Production, Research and other areas but few have little concern with regards to upgrading and demonstrating their global English usage in their business practices.

How many times can we see products on a daily basis that exhibit strange “catch phrases”, incorrect spelling, inappropriate grammatical patterns and the like only to be dismissed as “acceptable applications of English” by company representatives. True corporate competitiveness should include all areas of business practice for ultimate success on the global playing field.
The next area that needs a major overhaul is the training and teaching methodologies of English in the Japanese schools.
English is different from other subjects of study as language practice requires activity, participation and reality applications for efficient and confident competence of its learners. Students sitting at a desk passively listening all day to a teacher of often questionable teaching and language skills, students being endlessly drilled and many times having to memorize obscure and unnecessary vocabulary and phrases, students not being taught Western-style communication strategies and also not having the opportunities to use those strategies in discussions or active role-playing situations – need I say more?

Schools need to train teachers on up-to-date English teaching methods, students need to have increased and regular contact with native instructors and English, as I see it, should be an optional form of study in the upper grades where teachers can spend more quality time with globally-minded students who are sincerely interested in actively developing their English skills and also have the capabilities for developing their global English skills.

The last and surely not the least area of change that needs to take place, and this is a delicate and tricky matter, is the attitude of Japanese learners with regards to the fear of not only communicating with foreign speakers of English but also being preoccupied with the number of mistakes being made during those communication opportunities. In this case, there are two situations to be looked at.

Learning sessions, to begin with, are the times when the emphasis on four-skill language development should be the focus. And of course, mistakes are going to be made, possibly time and time again. The learner needs to realize that mistakes are opportunities for skill development and growth. Hundreds and hundreds of mistakes can be made and should be expected as a result of active talk-time and participation.

Silence and passivity in the classroom do nothing for language skill growth and confidence awareness; if someone wants to learn a language, they must jump completely into the pool of language practice and realize that English is difficult and any learning is always a work in progress that needs time and nurturing.

The second situation that needs to be addressed is that classroom learning must have outlets for reality practice where understanding, not perfect skills, should be the benchmark of learner satisfaction.

Opportunities outside of the classroom are a necessity where learners can put into practice the skills they have been working on. Using English social media, watching English television and movies, reading English materials from newspapers or the Internet, singing English songs at karaoke, and of course, having contact with native English speakers are all ways that learners can change their mindset from a person of passivity and low esteem to a confident and proficient user of English in the world.

Too many excuses have been made for far too long. Let us realize the value of having global English skill levels, let us change our educational methods to develop the next generation of English speakers who not only effectively use English but enjoy using English and let us, once and for all, realize that the true reason we use a language is as a communication tool for addressing people from other walks of life.

Mistakes take a back seat when it comes to establishing understanding and trust with foreign individuals. Make the time and use the time whenever possible to increase the mind and endless opportunities for using English.




17 years and Counting


I recently celebrated my 17th anniversary of living and working in Japan. To say, “my, how time flies” would truly be an understatement. And yet, I have often been asked to summarize my experience of teaching ESL in Japan during the course of my challenging and always surprising years. The best way would be to illustrate two highlights and comment on the significance of those events from a teaching perspective.

To begin with, I would like to mention how challenging it is to get Japanese learners to understand the importance of “decreasing formality” when it comes to being successful communicating with native English speakers. Let me illustrate by sharing the following experience.

A few years after my arrival in Japan, I secured a contract through one of my business English employers to teach basic business ESL skills at a well-known chemical company in Osaka. Upon arriving at the classroom, one of the employees, who I had met the week before at the orientation meeting, walked in and I greeted him. “Good afternoon, Mr. Shimizu. How are you today?” He looked at me and replied, “I am fine. And you?” It was a nice formal and yet personal exchange for our first class together.

Over the course of time, Mr. Shimizu continued to study English with me from one term to the next. As we began our third year together, I started to gradually loosen up and hoped our relationship would do the same. One day, as Mr. Shimizu entered class, I said, “Hi, Takafumi. Do you have any good news today?” He looked at me and replied, “I am fine. And you?” Suddenly, I thought how interesting his response was after three years of continuous, twice-a-week practice.

Nevertheless, Mr. Shimizu continued to enroll in the company-sponsored ESL course. We now fast forward to the fifth year of our class, when one day, Mr. Shimizu entered my class, as usual, before any of the other participants. Surely, after five years in the same class, with the same employees and in the same company environment as well as practicing with the same trainer, you would think that formality would be the least of my worries at this point in time. Right?

Confidently and naturally, I addressed Mr. Shimizu in what I thought would be a relaxed form of greeting after five years, by saying, “Hey, Tak. What is going on today?” And of course, you probably guessed, he looked at me and replied, “I am fine. And you?”

Let it be said loud and clear, that extreme patience is needed to try and establish natural and relaxed relationships in such a formal and ritual-oriented culture. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” However, also remember, “Rome was not built in one day, either.”

My next experience took place a few years later, at a prestigious language school also in Osaka. By this time, I thought I had seen it all and was truly a seasoned veteran that could not be surprised by anything I might encounter in an ESL classroom in Japan.

In the language school, I was one of many foreign teachers who was assigned a daily schedule of eight, 50-minute classes, held in portable cubicle-style classrooms, each containing three students per period.

One day, as I entered my designated practice room, I greeted the three somewhat eager but low-level students who were trying to make eye contact with me and took my seat across from a cute but reserved female learner who I had not previously taught.

As I looked at her, I noticed she had body language that seemingly indicated a feeling of being rather cold. This made perfect sense to me because I had also noticed she was sitting directly under the air-conditioning unit that was attached to the ceiling above her seat.

Being the kind and considerate teacher I thought I was, I asked her before starting the class, “Are you OK?” She replied, “I am fine.” That response indicated to me that it was time to begin our, what I hoped to be, exciting class.

As the drills progressed, the other two male individuals in our group, who were about the same age, were much more active and responsive than the female learner. On top of that, her seemingly cold-natured body language remained unchained. Trying to do what I could to promote an equal-opportunity learning environment, I once again asked her, “Are you OK? You are rather quiet.” Seemingly on cue, she looked at me and stated, “I am fine.” By the way, if you are keeping count, that was strike two for me!

As the ending time of our class approached, I did my summary and wrap-up to get ready to finish our session for the day. And before I dismissed the group, one more time, I asked the female participant who looked like she was about to be frozen solid, “Are you sure you are OK?” Lo and behold, never changing her expression, she looked at me and stated once more for the record, “I am fine.” Yes, that was strike three for me!

Even so, I could not resist, so I stated, “You sure were quiet today. I think you are very cold, yes?” She responded, as if to help me understand what I seemingly did not, “I am fine.” I thereby said goodbye to everyone and left the cubicle for the break room to write my comments regarding the performance of each student.

As I was about to finish writing my observations and return the files to the shelf, I was summoned to the office to see the school manager. When I got there, the manager was standing next to the female student and they were both looking at me with extremely disapproving looks on their faces.

“What is the problem?” I asked innocently. The manager scowled at me and asked, “Why did you tell this student she had a cold personality?” “What?” I shrieked. “I simply said that this student looked like she was feeling cold because she had been sitting under the air-conditioning unit the entire class. I was worried because she seemed so uncomfortable and could not actively participate in our class activities.”

As I finished defending myself, I noticed that the female student had become very red-faced and began to profusely apologize over and over again before quickly leaving the office. She had obviously confused the meaning of “cold feeling” with “cold personality.”

After my manager did her share of appropriately apologizing to me, it dawned on me that one can never take for granted the words and mannerisms of communication. What is commonly known and understood by one individual can be totally misunderstood by another. From that moment on, I vowed to be on my toes and take more care with my words and expressions with future Japanese learners.

Needless to say, my cultural and professional experiences are constantly changing on a daily basis even after 17 years on the job. Whoever said that teaching ESL in Japan would be easy? Someday you might be able to read more about my escapades in Japan in a book I am thinking about writing.




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