Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Japanese in the English classroom

After three ESL sessions, I'm pretty sure I've learned more than I've taught. I've learned how to jive and flow with the Master's idiosyncratic teaching style. I've learned what he means when he writes “4 Q's (each/all)” on the lesson plan. I've learned that I need to work on classroom management, and that little kids can be a tough crowd. And I've learned that teaching them, much of the time, is like using a Mac: You don't so much command them as try to trick them into doing what you want. They aren't sock puppets, they're marionettes.

In my first attempt, I decided that English and English only was the way to go. That's how I learned, after all! My most effective Japanese learning experience by far came when I was in high school, attending native-level lectures all day, every day, for five months. No translation, no explanation. Didn't matter that I couldn't actually do the work, the progress you'll see in yourself in a situation like that will floor you. So comprehension wasn't exactly the point. I'd be osmotically familiarizing them with the phonemes and rhythm of the language. Besides, if so many bloggers confirm that you can teach an English class entirely in English, surely I could refrain from Japanese with an actual Japanese teacher sitting right across from me.

Yeah, about that. As I learned almost immediately, keeping silent during the class's Japanese discourse meant keeping silent for almost the entire lesson. Whether the Master is demonstrating subtlety or really is just a terrible teacher, I haven't yet figured out, but it seems to me that very little of English class is spent on English. And it makes sense in a way; for the most part, these kids aren't the rich elite whose future depends on their TOEFL scores, they're the ones who struggle with their English classes in school and and need the extra help. So, just once, I tried it out.

Just a few words, and the transformation that came over them was startling. Suddenly I had everybody's eyes; a few sat up straighter. And, like always, the room was swept by a wave of murmurs about how zomfg, this foreigner seems to be speaking Japanese, what fell sorcery could have conferred such power? In that moment, they found me standing on the same shore. Responses quickened, and they even started screwing together the courage to ask me questions. It seemed to have humanized myself. Plus, at least now I was doing something, even if our mutual tangents almost never have anything to do with the material. And I was actually finding this system concretely better for teaching.

It turns out that attempting all-English English teaching is like adopting an existentialist lifestyle: It works only as well as your commitment is full. The invisible hand may not solve all of society's ills, but it barely works at all when there are visible hands trying to direct it. In other words, I could try full-bore English all I wanted, but as long as the Master carried on and on in Japanese, I wasn't getting anywhere. Just as they responded positively to my Japanese, I got only thinly concealed scorn when I tried speaking English at literally any time that it was not an absolutely necessity. Maybe because, you know, they're elementary school students forced to leave their homes and go study a subject they hate on a Saturday morning.

The key, I've discovered, is to use English at just the right times, in just the right way, filling all other gaps with a hearty Japanese mortar. I have to lay down just enough pressure to find their engagement point in order to drive off without popping the clutch; too little and we'll stall, but too much and I'm just running my engine. What's my purpose here – to teach English, right? So if they'll learn English better when it's backed by Japanese, well, I best be busting out a little Japanese then.  

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