Problems for Learners in japan
In 2009, I enrolled in my first japanese language course. Over the next year I fell in love with the language, and became an english-language conversation partner with a few of the japanese students in the department. While I was teaching my American students about World History in the mornings, I was learning about a world I had never visited in the afternoons. We taught each other a great number of things, but some stood out more than others, particularly when it came to japanese culture. My students, who swiftly became good friends, were named Natsumi and Masanobu. Masa had been in the united states
for over two years and was a fellow Master's student, so his grasp of english and American customs was hardly troubling at all. Masa could be a little rambunctious and enjoyed telling jokes; he liked being the life of the party, and his english was so good that when I first met him I thought that he had been here for years.
Natsumi, however, was only in the united states for the year, and nearly had a mental breakdown when she arrived in the town of Carbondale, Illinois upon seeing its' size. She had expected New York City-sized skyscrapers, only to find that one of the perks of Carbondale was a Wal-Mart. Natsumi very formally shook my hand upon our first meeting and introduced herself with the solemnity of an older, distant relative. She was ready to learn from me, and took notes constantly when we spoke.
Natsumi's expectations but also her very real japanese culture became clearer when I went to visit her in Japan. Before arriving at Narita Airport, Natsumi told me that she lived in a 'small town' called Gifu. When I arrived in Gifu, I discovered it was roughly the same size as Los Angeles, which of course is one of the biggest cities in the united states. She welcomed me with a bow and shook my hand; I could tell she was excited, but remained reserved and polite (personal trip, June 2010, Gifu, Japan).
This odd little tale grew to encapsulate my understanding of japanese culture and how japanese students 'traditionally' are. Masanobu had become an Americanized student in that he allowed himself to 'open up', but as I had known for some time, the japanese people usually are not so excitable or loud. My own friend, Allison, has taught in Japan for over four years now, and has often remarked about how the first day of class is always the hardest. "The students are so used to being reserved and quiet that it's hard to even get them to act up!" she wrote to me on June 22, 2012. "The japanese are a hard-working people, and they take their education very seriously, unlike many Americans. Getting them to have fun and enjoy the course is often difficult, but, to me, necessary" (e-mail, June 22, 2012, Allison Barlows, teacher in Samani-gun, Hokkaido, Japan).
The japanese are a reserved and quiet people, and it is no secret that the American education system has been on the decline for years. The japanese take their education seriously whereas we are ranked well below them in math, reading, and science. Understanding not only this viewpoint but also a culture that demands professionalism in education is crucial to how a TEFL course should be taught, particularly by a foreign (and especially American) teacher. In this same point, however, class should be injected with fun activities that allow the students to speak. It has often been a point, in Japan, that students of english simply do not speak the language enough. As my japanese teacher, Professor Martin Holman writes, "The japanese bottle themselves up and work mainly on grammar. When it comes to speaking, they freeze up! This is why it's important for us to go abroad and teach them how to speak. There just aren't enough spoken-word teachers over there" (e-mail, June 22, 2012, Professor Martin Holman, professor of japanese and japanese literature at the University of Missouri-Columbia).
In teaching japanese students, then, it is important to convey an 'American' approach in that the students should feel more open about speaking. They should want to speak, and teachers should work toward developing their conversational confidence while of course continuing their work on grammar. Americans are known for being loud and a little too stupid; the japanese are known for their reservation and their passion for learning. I believe it would be to everyone's benefit if we learned from each other.