Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why English Teachers Should Study Japanese

 This article is an entry in the April 2011 Japan Blog Maturi, hosted this month by Nihongoup. Thanks to our hosts! For more information, visit the Japan Blog Matsuri FAQ page.

If you're working as an English teacher in Japan, you should probably study Japanese. I know, crazy stuff. Sounds like a reasonable assertion, but I've known people who come to Japan to work and have zero or little effort to learn. I'm not writing this as a finger-wagging at them, though I definitely think it's a good idea to learn the language of the country you're living in. I'm writing this because it will make you a better teacher.

According to the US Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn. This is because on many levels they are very different. Knowing more about these differences will help you better understand the difficulties and challenges that your students may face.

Augmenting your lessons

Japanese doesn't use articles, like "a," "an," and "the." Similarly, there are few ways to distinguish between singular and plural nouns, aside from context. But you don't need to study Japanese to know that. Let's go a little further.

The Japanese language lacks certain sounds, so English pronunciation (both speaking and listening) can be very difficult. The combination of "l" and "r" is pretty widely known. Japanese also lacks a "th" sound. In Japanese "f" and "h" are blended. There is a "wa" sound, but no "wo," "wi," "we," or "wu." And since Japanese characters (with one exception) always end in a vowel, one of the biggest challenges is getting students to drop that extra letter. We call this "katakana-izing" a word. For example, "what" becomes "what-oh." "Name" becomes "Name-oo."

Japanese uses many loan-words from other languages, including English. But upon adoption, many of these words undergo a change in meaning. ジュース (juice) doesn't mean "juice." It means "soft drink," which includes juice but also soda and other beverages. パンツ (pants) generally doesn't mean "pants."* It mean "underwear." And you don't チャレンジ (challenge) yourself to do something; you challenge a thing.

例:   難問にチャレンジする。

While a native English speaker might look at this and think "Challenge the difficult problem," it means "Tackle a difficult problem." チャレンジ doesn't exactly mean "challenge."

* (Update) Good and Bad Japan points out that in the UK "pants" is underwear. I guess the 3 days I spent in England didn't teach me that one! So when in doubt about an English loanword, the meaning may be from a different form of English than you're used to (American English in my case). For example I recently found out that the Japanese OB (stands for Old Boy) is used in Australia.

The more you know about the differences between English and Japanese, the more you can tailor your lessons to avoid these pitfalls and potholes along the road. If there's a particular vocabulary word or grammatical expression that is very dissimilar in the two languages, you can be prepared to explain a certain way or spend more time on that point.

Easing communication

When I was a kid, sometimes when I asked my dad what a particular word meant he would tell me to look in the dictionary. As much of a hassle as that was at the time, I see the value of that now, especially when studying a foreign language. Be that as it may, dictionaries have their place. Writing an essay, doing homework, research - all great times to use an aid.

But when you're trying to speak, it can take too much time and interrupt the flow of conversation. For this reason, I think it's nice when a student can ask a teacher "What is ____ in English?" Of course even if you're studying Japanese you may not know the answer, but there's a much better chance you help the student continue with their flow of thought and save them from getting bogged down for one or two minutes looking through a dictionary while you (and maybe the rest of the class) wait.

Students wait while little Takeshi searches for "pants" in the dictionary. This could have been avoided!

Setting and example

Studying Japanese is an important way that you can show your students that (a) you're interested in them and their culture and (b) you're not just all talk. To them, it shows that you're not only good at making them do challenging classwork and homework, and speak in a language they'll never use; you can walk the walk, too, and learning actually has real, tangible application.

In conclusion

Do you need to study Japanese to be a good English teacher in Japan? Certainly not. In fact, not studying Japanese also has its benefits. You can honestly claim ignorance when students try to speak to you in Japanese, for one. If they don't get frustrated and give up, they'll be more motivated to study English so they can communicate with you.

And if you do decide to study, I'm not saying you have to plunge in and aim to pass the JLPT level 2 within a year. Even learning the basics of hiragana and katakana at a leisurely pace has its benefits.

But I will say that I believe, without a doubt, that studying Japanese will make you a better teacher to Japanese students.

What do you think? For all you English teachers out there, do you study Japanese? If not, do you wish you had or plan to start in the future? Why or why not? I want to pick your brains!


  1. "To (students), it shows that you're not only good at making them do challenging classwork and homework, and speak in a language they'll never use; you can walk the walk, too, and learning actually has real, tangible application."

    I totally agree with this. I take Japanese lessons at my local international center and often my students study there as well. I think they get a kick out of seeing me trying to speak Japanese. That's good though since it shows that I'm not here to simply get them to become more internationally-minded. I'm doing the same.

  2. Thanks, Joe!

    Yes, I think in a sense it builds a kind of camaraderie with your students. (Especially having learned that Japanese is really hard for foreigners) They understand that you feel their pain.

    And yes, good point about internationalization.

  3. Most people who study Japanese intently are crappy English teachers because they resort to translating when the student shows the first sign of not understanding or being unable to come up with a word. Those who are immersed in their own studies operate from a completely different perspective, one in which they get to put their Japanese to use and advance or demonstrate their ability rather than one in which students grow their ability to communicate in English.

    Being a good teacher in Japan is about facilitating the student's learning, and there are unique hurdles for Japanese people. Understanding this is far more important than what the teacher studies. It's not about you. It's about them.

    I've never had a student give a toss about what I study or how much I study (in regards to any topic). Their motivation comes from the factors in their lives which drive them to learn, not from my personal experiences. I always empathize with my students and their difficulties, but that has nothing to do with Japanese study. There's a reason the Berlitz method has a high success rate in cultivating foreign language skills, and it doesn't allow for one syllable of a foreign language in the classroom nor any personal anecdotes from teachers in order to inspire students.

    Certainly it is a good idea to study Japanese *for your own purposes*, but it has zero to do with being a good teacher (which is the premise of this post). Of course, most foreign people are terrible teachers anyway because they are too insecure to let people take the time they need to express themselves (they jump in when long silences occur, not giving people time to come up with their own expressions), too lazy to prepare for the lessons, or so self-centered that they think it's about entertaining the students and being the center of attention.

    As far as what Joe said about their "speaking a language they'll never use", that couldn't be further from the truth in the current age of outsourcing, internationalization, and e-mail. Communication with China and India requires English. All of my students write e-mail in English. With Japan's economy falling behind, their shrinking population, and their labor shortages, the Japanese language will become increasingly marginalized (not that it already isn't) and the onus will be on them to speak English as the common language. It's already happening and will continue to happen. Saying they're studying a language they'll never use assumes they'll grow up to be shop clerks or cab drivers rather than work at companies like Honda, Sony, or Japanese branches of foreign companies. Japan's future isn't what it looked like in the 80's. They are no longer in a position to demand people deal with them on their terms and in their language. As the economy sinks, the need to speak English soars. It may not seem that way in the high school teaching world, but it certainly is like that for the people who are working already (which is the type of people I teach). Don't mistake test taking teenagers and their priorities and attitudes for real life. That's a handful of years, and the rest in decades of adult working life in which skills matter.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Orchid.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that many if not most of our students will need to use English in the future (Joe was quoting me). What I was referring to was the belief on their part. I believe you teach adults, so many of them are probably closer to using English, but for many high school (or below) students it's just not a part of their daily life outside of class, and won't be for years. For those of us teaching children, I think it helps for them to see us studying as well.

    I believe your other comments are based upon a somewhat skewed interpretation of my article. Like I said, I don't think English teachers need to study Japanese to be good teachers. I flat out said that. What I do sincerely believe is that studying Japanese will make an English teacher a better teacher.

    What you presented in your comment is the example of the foreigner who comes to Japan to teach English as a means to learning Japanese. Perhaps I should have clarified - I'm not talking about those people. There are foreigners who prioritize their own studies and that is an impediment to being a good teacher, but that's not what I'm talking about.

    And I agree with that method (didn't know it Berlitz coined it). I don't use Japanese in the classroom unless there are special circumstances (i.e. we're really pressed for time and the students aren't getting a key point and we need to move on).

    My premise wasn't that you need to study Japanese to be a good English teacher. I think you equated a lot of behaviors that sometimes go hand-in-hand but aren't always the case. I like to believe I'm a decent teacher as I don't commit the faux pas that you mentioned above, yet I know that studying Japanese has helped me a great deal to understand my students better - how they naturally think and communicate and some of the challenges they face in learning English.

  5. There are so many obvious things that impede good English learning in my school that I don't think that my learning Japanese is worth trying to make up for them. Studying Japanese, for me, has NOTHING to do with teaching. If it helps, that's nice, but that's not why I put in the hours.

  6. Thanks, Anon. Yes, unfortunately circumstances vary a lot by school and some teachers (especially ALTs) will be limited either way.

    I think for a lot of people who teach in Japan, studying Japanese is separate. And that's fine. I think whether or not they realize it, the insights they gain will help them with students.

    In my mind it's kind of like a teacher taking a special course or getting certification in something like ESL or cross cultural studies or the like. It's not necessary to being a good teacher, but it is an asset.

  7. "I'm writing this because it will make you a better teacher."

    For readers out there I will be clear that you DO NOT need Japanese language skills to be a good Conversation/Eikaiwa teacher.

    I don't speak Japanese and my students are peerless.

    Teaching in a classroom with 20-40 students....different situation that needs different tools from the toolbox.

    That picture you posted would not happen in my School for several reasons.

    I would toss them the phone and tell them to call their mothers....they have just "quit".

    It would never happen because of the Trial lesson screening process.

    I do have respect for those with the monster sized classrooms. It can eat you up and chew you up if your not strong of mind and will.

  8. Thanks, Chris.

    You strike me as a good teacher, and actually I thought of you while writing this.

    I think you're right about different tools - the degree to which knowing Japanese helps can depend on the setting. I think Orchid and you probably teach in similar settings (i.e. small class sizes and the ability to select your students).

    I respect the difference of opinion, but I believe that knowing Japanese would make you a better teacher, too. Even if that means upgrading you from super awesome to super awesome+. I think the assumption that studying/knowing Japanese = using Japanese in the classroom and with your students is maybe where some of us on different pages.

    I'm of the belief that knowledge is power and education is never wasted. Knowing a language gives you a great deal of insight into the thought processes of a native speaker. I'll say it once more, I don't think a lack of knowledge about Japanese means you can't be a good teacher. The harm of Japanese study comes in when English teachers start using it with students and become more concerned about their own study efforts than about their students.

  9. Well, I just wrote a very long and AWESOME reply that would have made everyone who disagreed with me completely change their minds. But Blogger is awful so now it's gone. Here's the abridged version that, while still kind of awesome and has amazing points, might not completely sway you. Try to imagine this but x100.

    I'm surprised at all the angry hoopla Paul's article got since I thought he was pretty fair to each side.

    I believe that studying Japanese has helped me help my students learn English but in a different way than Paul wrote. I know from experience what didn't work for me: memorizing every grammar point and plugging in separately memorized vocab. And I know what did work: reading comic books, watching Japanese movies with Japanese subtitles, and using flash card programs to help me study. I admit this insight does not directly make me a better teacher. I've never seriously studied a language in a classroom so my experience there is nonexistent. But by knowing what works for me I can help my students teach themselves when I'm not around. This is good since I only see a student (in a class of 40) for 50 minutes a week. That means the time I'm specifically teaching them drops to statistically zero.

    Time out for an anecdote: when I was in high school my parents tried to teach me how to drive a manual transmission car. They had been driving manual for 40 years and were of course masters. After a week of their instruction I still couldn't get it. My friend who had just learned in the previous year took me out and taught me in an hour.

    Most of us reading this blog are masters of English but I'm betting none of us can remember what it was like to learn it. Studying a second language can help you understand the learning process and better equip you to help your students. This is especially good for those of us, like me, who lack a teaching degree have no idea how to teach beyond what the textbook says.

    Don't you dare pretend I'm saying you are an awful teacher for not studying a foreign language. Also, don't imagine I'm saying those who study foreign languages suddenly have Nostradamus-like insight into how people learn. I'm simply saying studying Japanese has helped me, and my students have told me my suggestions have helped them. Therefore do the best that you can at all times no matter what your experiences are and I'm sure you'll be an awesome teacher.

  10. I think having studied a foreign language yourself helps to make any teacher of a 2nd language a good teacher. We can understand the student's feelings a lot better, understand what could help, didn't help, or might help based on our own experiences. Personally my Japanese studies were never though of as something that I could use to help my students learn English better... but I have to agree that knowing how Japanese is different from English will help you help them understand a lot better. One of the biggest problems my students have is with plurals. A lot of their parents can't understand why this is hard for them because they don't really understand what plural necessarily means in the context of English and how Japanese doesn't have an equivalent in Japanese. Because I know this I've been able to explain to these confused parents who were then able to help their children even more outside of the classroom.

    I also think that because I understand Japanese grammar that it helps me to piece together what my students want to say. I never translate for them, but I help them put their words into the correct order based on having a clue as to what they were trying to say having already translated it from Japanese to English in their own heads.

    One of my students is baffled by loan words and he constantly brings them to me and asks if a word is English or Japanese. I think that if I hadn't studied Japanese and didn't speak Japanese that I'd be just as clueless as he is at times.

  11. Thanks for the comment, Caroline Josephine.

    Exactly. I think it's when we use our knowledge of Japanese to help us understand our students (as opposed to just speaking Japanese to them) that we can become better teachers.

  12. I hope many people learn Japanese because the job of Japanese teacher increase. :)

    By the way I can't do well the pronunciation "r" and "l" in English.
    Other Japanese seem to have same problems.

  13. I agree with your sentiments exactly. While actually speaking Japanese in the classroom is a bad thing, having the experience of learning a foreign language and understanding how English and Japanese differ are both very valuable.

    I've also found that studying Japanese has greatly improved my relationships with my Japanese coworkers, which I think makes a big difference. In a Team Teaching situation, having a good relationship with your partner is very helpful!

  14. My reason for studying Japanese is so that I can live and communicate with people in Japan. At work, I'm all English. I do not speak Japanese with students at all. They come to speak English, not Japanese. I think studying Japanese is useful as a teacher in some ways, though. It gave me an insight into why students say some things, as well as difficulties with pronunciation. But to actually use Japanese in my lessons? No way. Total immersion is very important.

  15. Cocomino - Yeah, it's a tough problem for Japanese, I think. I've met some people who are really good at English but still have trouble with "l" and "r."

    Alice - And in our line of work, relationship building is important. Thanks for that thought! =)

  16. ... not to mention the terrible Japanese teachers who teach in American schools.

    I mean really? humiliation is a good classroom methodology?

  17. Thanks for commenting, Pierre. Did you have a bad experience in America? Personally the teachers I had were great, but I'm sure there are a wide variety.

  18. What about the reason of studying Japanese because you live in Japan? Contrary to what most people think, Japan ISN'T an English speaking country, and we need Japanese to live our daily lives. I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't live in an English bubble where everything is automatically translated for me.

    I've had very bad Japanese teachers where all they wanted to do is practice their English instead of teaching me Japanese. I do teach at an eikaiwa and the only time I use Japanese is to give a hint to a student, then it's right back to English. I also don't allow katakana to be used for whatever phonetic spelling, but show them the proper way to phonetically spell an English word. One student had problems with radio until I spelled it out as ray dee oh.

    Until Japanese people can get over being embarrassed about making mistakes, they'll never learn English. I've met a lot of students who think they always need to be perfect. They won't even question why they made a mistake.

  19. Nicely said, Anon. Of course studying the native language of your host country is always a smart idea.

    It is possible to get by in Japan without understanding much Japanese, but it definitely makes life easier if you at least make an effort.