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Friday, April 12, 2013

Experience Makes a Difference

Having been an ALT for the past 18 months, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. Many of these lessons are unique to my situation. What situation are you talking about? I’m glad you asked. Well, I don’t speak Japanese. How in the world can you teach in Japan? That’s another good question. In an effort to encourage the teachers and students to communicate in English, the Yufu City B.O.E. (Board of Education) decided that having an “English only” ALT is a good idea. Many of the principals and teachers agreed with this idea. In fact, the level of English (communication) noticeably rose in the Shonai area (where I taught last year). I wish I could have taken all of the credit, but it was a joint effort of all of the Shonai schools. So, how did not being able to speak Japanese help in the effort to improve English conversation? Well, have a seat and let me shed some light on the subject.

Here’s what I’ve learned. If I don’t speak Japanese, everyone else tries to speak in English. This method works if you have the support of the BOE. The teachers needed to communicate with me in order to share the lesson plans. Yes, many of the teachers are doing the English lesson plans. I said “many”… not all (that’s another story). At first, the teachers were scared to approach me. English was terrifying to them. The trick here was to give lots of encouragement. It also helped to use exaggerated gestures and to take a humorous approach to the whole thing. Believe it or not, I would have the entire faculty laughing and having fun while they tried to communicate in English. Before long, the comfort level rose and English communication (however broken and choppy) was established.

How about the students? Oh, that was easy. Kids are naturally curious. If they wanted to know something about me, they had to ask me in English or at least use gestures. Gestures are a great way to communicate in any language. Occasionally, a student would ask the teacher to translate. If all else had failed, they used a dictionary or a smart phone. Smart phone translations are sometimes strange and often humorous. Erika and I don’t believe in these 21st century gadgets. It’s better to struggle through the communication barrier and to learn some things along the way. Did I mention that students are curious? If I had spoken Japanese to the kids, they would have easily found out what they wanted to know about me in a very short time. Quickly, I would have become another boring ALT to them. By speaking only English, the kids were able to take small bites to satisfy their hunger to learn more about me. I was able to keep the students curious which meant that they were interested in English and American culture for the entire year.

I was told that my contribution to the betterment of English conversation in the Shonai area was greatly appreciated. In recognition, I was transferred to the Yufuin area. Huh? I understand why (experience makes a difference), but I was just beginning to make some progress in Shonai. I guess that’s how things work in Japan. I have to start all over again. I hope my efforts in Shonai won’t be wasted and forgotten. Change is hard, but reverting back is easy.    George


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