Teaching English to the Japanese When You Don’t Know Japanese

geishaYou’ve made a terrible decision. To successfully avoid the drudgery of a “real” job, you’ve gone off on the adventure of a lifetime, teaching English to students overseas in Japan. How hard can it be? You’ve been speaking English since birth! You can speak it quickly, in the dark, in a car, on a train, while eating green eggs and ham, and even in your sleep. There’s only one problem, really – you didn’t learn a single word of Japanese.

Before you resign yourself to eight weeks of playing Dora the Explorer videos and doing terrible mime in front of a group of bewildered Japanese students, take some time to familiarize yourself with some techniques for getting past the language barrier.

Start with introductions. Introducing yourself is a universal piece of language that your students will quickly pick up on, as there are no known cultures on earth that enjoy floundering around without knowing each other’s names. The Japanese word for “Nice to meet you” is “hajimemashite” (pronounced Ha-gee-may-maw-she-te), and saying that once will indicate to your students that you’re about to introduce yourself. Keep things simple. Start with “My name is _______”. Point to yourself, for good measure. When doing so, don’t point to your chest like your cultureless Western upbringing has conditioned you to do. When indicating themselves, the Japanese point to their noses; jabbing your finger into your chest repeatedly is only going to make your students think that they should perhaps be calling you a cardiologist. Point to your students expectantly, and ask “What is your name?” Continue to do this until your students pick up on what you’re trying to do, and fire their eighteen-syllable names at you in response.

Since you were heinously unprepared for this job by neglecting to learn the language, try to make up for that by at least having the foresight to bring some flashcards. Don’t bother with nouns like “tiger” and “rhinoceros” – the odds of an escaped African herbivore barreling down the streets of Tokyo are very slim at best. Instead, focus on the basics – colors, letters, numbers, common foods and body parts are all very good places to start. As punishment for not bothering with the effortless Japanese verb system, you will be acting out verbs for your student’s amusement. Japanese speakers frequently rely on the all-purpose “shimasu” (she-muss) verb that means “to do”, and the even more generic “desu” (dess) verb that translates to several variations of “is” and “am”, so the sooner you impart on your students that English likes to have lots and lots of different verbs for everything, the better off everyone will be.

A lot of time in your early lessons can be spent on proper pronunciation alone. Japanese does not have the letters “V” or “L” or many of the other consonant sounds we enjoy, so getting students to even recognize, let alone say, those sounds is a challenge. Japanese is a very flat, toneless language – by comparison, English is the mouth-breathing, nasally nerd of the language world, and teaching students to speak through their noses and place stress on their words is another skill that needs to be worked on. If your students are failing in their Fran Drescher impressions, start by getting them to hum and work the sound up into their noses. If they’re not finding it immensely uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right.

Sentence structure will be something to be worked on gradually. While we English speakers like our sentences to go “subject-verb-object”, the Japanese are very much insistent upon having it go “subject-object-verb”. Start with simple sentences, and use the flash cards and ridiculous actions to illustrate your point. The dog is brown. The cat is running. Be patient, and correct mistakes as you hear them; soon enough, your students will be much more bilingual than you are.

Following TEFL Certification, what are the next steps?

After completion of your certification to teach abroad (whether that TEFL, TESL, or TESOL course), what do you do next? If you’ve got aspirations to teach abroad, which you should considering you just shelled out a few hundred bucks to receive certification, you have to first decide a general timeline for when you want to teach. If you aren’t in a hurry to get into a different country to begin your international teaching career or if you’re eager to get out of North America as soon as possible and embark upon your next adventure, the steps getting there are identical.

Where do you want to teach?

Depending on your interests, goals, and desires, there are many different opportunities to teach abroad. For me, national histories and cultures were the main draw. For others it may be the geographical location, weather, landmarks/tourist sites, surrounding countries, language spoken, and a bevy of other items that may grab the attention of the aspiring teacher. Would you like to experience the nightlife of Rio de Janeiro, or would you care to experience the Chinese New Year, or feature the Kremlin in your backyard. While the last may have been an exaggeration, the point remains that the world is your playground to pick and choose where you desire to study.

Crafting your Resume

Tailor your resume to fit the position, like any other job you would apply for. Emphasize that you hold an international teaching certification along with any and all teaching experience in the United States. Even by substituting a few times at the local high school shows potential employers that you are not alien to the teaching process. And while the school system will certainly not be identical wherever you choose to teach, at least you have experienced standing in the front of a class and presenting a lesson plan.

Interview Prep

As with any interview, you’ll want to dress for success. Suit and tie, dress, and slacks should be fashioned regardless of the interview type. Some schools may be able to meet with you in person, talk to you on the phone, or conduct the interview via Skype. Speak clearly and concisely while demonstrating your desire to teach abroad and why you are qualified for the position over any possible competition. Be aware that your interviewer may be ESL themselves.

Passport/Visa

Dealing with legal issues that may arise from improper documentation can be an absolute damper on an otherwise wonderful adventure. Filing claims at an embassy, away from home, and out of your comfort zone is nerve-wracking and an absolute mess. Any and all of your plans can be put on hold for several weeks at a time until the matter is settled.

Preparation

Teaching English abroad can be a wonderful experience, but I’ve known many unprepared individuals going overseas to teach or travel who have not had such a positive experience. First and foremost, make sure your all travel documentation, visa, and passport are up-to-date and in proper order. After getting all the kinks ironed out in regards to deciding where you want to teach and completing your interview process, leave ample time to prepare your mind for traveling abroad. While teaching English in another country can be great, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. It isn’t easy – the students you will be in control of pose a unique challenge for the simple fact that they do not speak the language you are most comfortable with. Oftentimes you could feel lost and sometimes alone out there, so try to make some contacts before heading over. Other than these minor qualms, enjoy your stay teaching abroad and be sure to share your experiences with others interested in the program!

ESL – Subject or Communication Tool?

What happens in a math class? There were so many rules, but only one answer. You sit there and listen. Maybe the teacher asks you to come up and work out some problems on the board. But, honestly, if you find math boring, then you probably just copy the homework off your friend. Exams are an exercise in guesswork.

And, you know what? You were right, and your teacher was wrong – this stuff really isn’t useful after high school.

Of course math is absolutely necessary for certain professions, and some people really love it. I have engineer friends who use it all the time. But for your average high school screw-up, math isn’t nearly as useful as, say, a foreign language.

I teach university in Mexico. I see the looks on my students’ faces on the first day of class – the dull glaze to their eyes, the fear of losing so many hours of their young lives in stuffy classrooms at the mercy of some bore droning on and on.

This learning method – teacher speaks, students listen, students do exercises, repeat – has been beaten into them. It sure was beaten into me back in my university days when I was forced to study Spanish.

How ironic. Back then Spanish was one of my most boring classes, right up there with math. And now I live in Mexico and study Spanish as much as I can. What happened?

While in university I zoned out in class and barely learned a thing. Now, here in Mexico, studying Spanish is a means to an end. That end is communication.

My Spanish teachers taught Spanish like how my math teachers taught math. Learn the rules and formulas. Listen to some explanation and then do exercises from the book. Sure, to her credit, one of my Spanish teachers put us in pairs to get us to practice, but it just didn’t work. We all had a common language, English – too easy to fall back on.

My point is, why teach a language the way math (or history, or science) is taught? Languages have much more in common with music or sports, and they should be taught that way. Practice is vital. Mistakes are normal, even to be encouraged.

You don’t learn piano or hockey by opening up a book and answering questions. You learn by doing it. Your students should spend the majority of their time in class practicing, usually by speaking. Explain the grammar, give some examples, and then give them plenty of time to speak, with corrections of course.

Have you studied the P-P-P teaching method: presentation, practice, and production? It really does work. The presentation part, where the teacher explains the grammar topic, should be as brief as possible, maybe only five minutes in a one-hour class. The other two parts, practice and production, are when the students use the language. Maybe they make a survey, give a presentation, or have a conversation. Remember, it’s not only practice, but practice with correction. Strive to correct every mistake. Make notes if you have to.

That’s the benefit of learning in a classroom, which is why ESL teachers still have a job in this Internet age. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, which isn’t the same as, say, studying to be a doctor.

Circle Time

“Good morning!” I say, just loud enough to turn heads, silencing all other conversations.

“Good morning,” answers the class. There are eleven students, from teenagers to 50-year-old retirees.

I look to my right and ask Carlos, “How was your weekend?”

Carlos sticks to just a few short sentences. “It was great. I went to Mexico City and saw a concert.”

I look around the class, silently inviting the other students to ask Carlos, “Who played?” “How did you get there?” “Was it crowded?”

Carlos then turns to his right and asks Cynthia, “How was your weekend?” She answers, and the class has a few follow-up questions for her too. “How was it?” “Why did you go there?”

The question goes around the circle. Every student asks and answers. Later I will ask them questions more related to the grammar theme of the day, such as “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

My next class is for total beginners. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Do you like X?” “Do you have X?” We repeat questions every day, adding or changing a few at the whim of the students. Many of them make mistakes, which I correct immediately. If they have trouble understanding I’ll write the correct answer on the board, and then cold call the same question around the room.

When I first taught children in Korea we called this technique “circle time.” We sat on the floor in a circle and asked the same questions every day. Since then I’ve found it works in nearly every class – only advanced students don’t need it.

Students can study many parts of English at home – reading the newspaper, listening to podcasts, cracking open the textbook and doing grammar exercises. There’s no reason to spend a lot of time on these in class. Students want to talk and they need correction.

Though they don’t just want to talk, but talk freely with no rush and no interruption. Learn to relax during silences. After you ask a question – “Have you ever seen a ghost?” – allow that silence to hang there unpressured.

We’ve all been in a class (or a work meeting) where someone asks a boring question, then immediately rephrases or simply repeats it, and maybe eventually answers it himself. Don’t be that teacher!

In ESL there are concepts called Teacher Talk Time (TTT), Student Talk Time (STT), and Wait Time (WIT). Here are a few questions for you, the ESL teacher or aspiring ESL teacher:

What do you want more of in class, TTT or STT?

Do you want more or less WT?

Is there a maximum limit of WT, say a minute or more?

An awareness of how much you are speaking in class in comparison to the other students is a fundamental part of ESL. Please leave a comment with your answers and ideas. And thanks for reading!

A Language And Its Culture

S4C LogoA language cannot be separated from the culture in which it is embedded. Is this true? What implications does this have for the English language teacher?

There are strong links between the culture of a country and its language. Language is worn as a badge of ethnicity, a badge of cultural independence worldwide. The Welsh who were forced to wear “Welsh not” around their necks earlier last century for speaking Welsh in class were having not only their language suppressed but also the culture that came with it in the form of music, art, poetry and literature. The revised attitudes towards minority languages like Welsh have now improved and the introduction of S4C, the Welsh language television channel, is part of a wider process thanks to which the Welsh have the right to be more optimistic about their culture’s protection than they had any right to be a mere half century ago.
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Prescriptive Teaching in the ESL Classroom

Being prescriptivist means not only describing the system of language to the students but also insisting that the students conform to using only what the teacher uses or what is presented in a course book. Students would then have errors corrected which are not necessarily ungrammatical but may be considered “non-standard” by certain speakers even though a large number of native speakers may use the very same forms themselves.

The world of TEFL has changed a lot over the years. In days when English was taught as a fixed body of Latin-based rules (e.g. “never split the infinitive!”), there existed a prescriptivist attitude. The position of form-focussed teaching has changed as has, with equal importance, the position of English as a world language. It is not correct or even practical, with a constantly changing, living language, to draw a line in the sand and state “here and no further.”
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How To Do Listening in the ESL Classroom

Baby listeningWhat can be done at different stages of a listening activity to help our students?
It is helpful to divide a listening activity into three distinct stages: the pre-listening, the while-listening and the after-listening.

The pre-listening stage is vitally important if we want our students to get as much as possible out of the listening. Choice of listening is the first thing. We ourselves would not sit down and listen to a radio documentary on a subject we had no interest in and we should not expect our students to be any different. Teachers thus shouldn’t inflict on their students listenings they believe will be of little or no interest to their class as students are less likely to gain anything useful from it.

Once we have decided on a listening to use with our class, the next stage is to prepare them as much as possible. As in real life again, when we listen to something on TV, we are usually in the position where we know the subject area and can predict a lot of what is going to be said. In the class, we must try and prepare our students similarly.
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So How Do I Get The Perfect Job?

It is my opinion that many people seem to respect the idea of teaching overseas. Certainly where I am from there are numerous people who have been here in Korea or Japan, not to mention so many who have a friend of a friend who is currently teaching overseas.

So how does one go about getting a decent job?

The first thing I would suggest is to research your target area. Where do you want to go? What type of living conditions do you like, does it matter, etc. This is very important as I’m sure those of us who are here now can remember someone who came to Korea; didn’t like it and went home! Such a waste of potential adventure and talent.

So choose your destination, Middle East, Europe, Asia, South America. From there before you go any further you should do a check online (with government sites – not recruiter sites) as to what the requirements are to teach English in that particular region / country. If you do not qualify, best look somewhere else!
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The Recruiter

Jobs Pages

As a recruiter, agent, job placement supervisor…whatever….I have a few points I wish to post in hopes of getting responses from teachers who have used recruiters, who have not, like/ dislike us-them etc…

1. Do job seekers realize that not all recruiters are scam artists? Some actually try to do a decent job inspecting schools personally, walk teachers through the process, and even maintain contact with past clients regularly.

Some of us even consider this a real job, not a fly-by-night operation! Those of us legally allowed to work in Korea can sometimes even run our business like we would in our home country….with standards and ethics.

2. Yes we make money off placing teachers, that’s our job. Is it easy?

Yes it can be….but it can also mean holding hands with clients for 3-6 months to prepare them for their adventure. It means we are responsible for showing stacks of resume, and highlighting key points about a client even though we have never met most of you!
When the very real Korean bias comes out about hiring the proper ‘looking’ or ‘sounding’ teacher to please the mothers/investors/themselves…we have to tactfully try to deal with that issue in a way not to lose our placement contract, tempers etc….
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Curriculum Standards

The number of non-native English speaking students in the United States has increased drastically in the past years. According to the 1998/1999 Florida Department of Education ESOL report, there were limited English proficiency students (LEP) from 53 countries and 49 different languages in this writer’s county. Despite of the ever-growing ESOL population, national ESOL standards are still quite unclear for parents and some educators.

The NCTE – National Council of Teachers of English – Website clearly states the national standards for the English language arts. Nevertheless, standards for K-12 ESOL are not specifically addressed. Students whose first language is not English are mentioned in item number 10 of the standards’ list, which states that non-English speaking students make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum. The vision guiding these standards is that all students must have the opportunities and resources to develop the language skills they need to pursue life’s goals and to participate fully as informed, productive members of society.
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