Teaching Japanese Students: The Best and Worst Parts

  • CULTURE
  • When I was studying for my teaching qualification, the instructor gave examples of how different students need to be taught in different ways. For example, a class of typically quiet and timid Japanese learners would need cajoling in a way very different from the way that boisterous, talkative Latin American learners would need a bit of controlling. If you’ve taught in places other than Japan, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Having taught English Language learners from a dozen different countries, what would I consider to be the best and worst parts particular to teaching Japanese Students?

    The Best Parts

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    1. Polite

    Japanese people of all ages are usually formal and respectful, especially with regards to foreigners. Children in the street will often give a stern bow to a Western passer-by, and adult language learners always make an effort to be respectful to their tutors. Japanese language students (even the teenagers) are unlikely to be outspoken or give you ‘back-chat’ as is typical with teens in other cultures.

    2. Well-behaved

    One of the major concerns for first-time teachers is how to control unruly children in class, but with Japanese children this is less of a problem than with other cultures. Japanese children are often fairly quiet and don’t tend to fight with each other. Bullying is a big problem in Japan but physical violence in the classroom is very rare, even with competitive students.

    3. Studious and Attentive

    It’s well known that Japanese students grow up under a lot of pressure – from their school, parents, society, and even self-inflicted pressure to succeed. One outcome of this is that Japanese students are often hard-working and generally try their best in class, particularly when they are young. Of course, you get the occasional lackluster teen who just wants to snooze in the corner, but at the other end of the scale, it’s not rare to find a studious 6-year-old who assigns herself extra homework (literally… no joke.)

    The Worst Parts

    Children sit inside a classroom on their first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in Fukushima

    1. Lack of Imagination

    In a culture where young children are under much pressure to strive for perfection, language learners are overly concerned with making mistakes, and will simply copy given examples rather than trying to give something new. If you ask language learners to do something creative, they will struggle unless there is an example for them to copy – which, of course, they will copy with little to no alteration. Even children find it hard to make independent decisions about things, and will copy their peers and the teacher rather than risk making an error with a new answer.

    2. Lack of Speaking Fluency

    Part of the not-wanting-to-make-mistakes culture, Japanese language learners are known for being poor at speaking. It’s not uncommon for Japanese students to study English for years and years, and yet not be able to say a single word. They may be able to read and write well, but when it comes to speaking they find it very hard indeed – one of the reasons why communicative language teaching is so important.

    3. The Fear

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    I’m sure you’ve seen it – it’s that look that appears on a young child’s face when they’ve had a bathroom-related accident, that moment when they’ve just realised what has happened and that they are… *gulp* …going to have to tell an adult about it. That look – that frozen, deer-in-the-headlights, oh-my-gosh kind of terror. This is a look that appears not just in the classroom, but also when speaking to shop assistants and the like.

    It goes something like this – you see your student and, like you do at the start of every class you say “Hello! How are you?” and rather than responding as they usually do with a “I’m fine thanks, and you?” they instead, out of the blue, don this look of complete incomprehension like you’ve just spoken to them in Klingon and you also so happen to be wearing a Santa Claus outfit in June… Oh students of ‘The Fear’… calm down! It’s just English! It won’t bite; just take a big breath and we’ll get through this together.

    Summary

    So there we have it – as with students from all over the world, there are pros and cons of teaching the Japanese. Some teachers will find their meek modesty and quiet natures just too much of a challenge, whereas others will relish the chance to shake up the set-in-stone expectations of their learners and help them achieve their goals. It all depends on where you work and which students you are lucky enough to be blessed with!

    Related Articles:

    What it really is like being an English teacher in Japan
    Where to Teach Kids in Japan
    How is English Taught in Elementary Schools in Japan?