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.

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