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.
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.
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.
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!