Teaching English to Japanese Learners 2/2

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)

Shane Training Centre, Japan

Shane Training Centre, Japan

Cultural Considerations

Many difficulties Japanese learners have with English are not actually down to problems with the language itself but are more the result of cultural differences. Generally speaking in the Japanese education system learning is very passive. The classes are typically teacher centred and there is a preference for explicit instruction above interaction and classroom dynamics. This can cause problems for the ESL classes where the focus is reversed.

While having quiet learners can be nice for the teacher it is not necessarily good for the learners, as they tend not to ask questions they have for fear of disrupting the class. This leads to some learners checking information with their peers, relying on the textbook, dictionaries etc and can make it problematic for teachers to check they have understood concepts and language correctly. Some ways of dealing with this include: using the learners’ names; encouraging participation; giving learners some kind of leadership; giving them some responsibility in class and of course clear consistent checking of concepts

Communication in Japanese is heavily influenced by age, gender, relationship and relative status of the participants. Japanese is rife with abstraction which can be difficult for English speakers to relate to. Learners are often concerned with what is appropriate to say and how their response might affect the other person. This leads to learners struggling to find the best way to express themselves and can result in English that sounds too vague or tentative to a native English speaker.

This leads to learner struggling to find the best way to express themselves and can result in English that sounds too vague or tentative to a native English speaker.

Other cultural factors to consider are body language and physical contact. In some cultures demonstrative contact (i.e. touching someone’s arm while you are talking to them) is an important form of communication. However, this can make Japanese learners uncomfortable or result in them getting the wrong idea.

Japanese learners also tend to like something tangible to show what they have been learning i.e. a text, a handout, something that can be copied for the board. For many learners copying something from the board gives it importance and relevance, so a lesson without
any boardwork is often felt to be a waste of time.

In classroom speaking activities learners tend to respond well to topics such as sport, hobbies, interests etc. But are often stuck when asked why they like it. Analysis is often not a part of daily life or in schools, and can mean learners cannot give reasons for things in the English classroom. It can also be difficult for Japanese learners to express opinions or use their imagination. Most learners feel that it is their “job” in the class to memorise what the teacher says and that there is only one ‘correct’ answer for any given question.

Some ideas for helping learners with potential issues during speaking tasks include:
 Giving opinions - Give learners options / Be encouraging, never negative / Allow time to formulate ideas (e.g. prepare at home) / Use roles to give them opinions
 Being imaginative - Use situations/people you are sure they can identify with / Follow on from a reading/listening / Ask them to finish off sentences / Tell them exactly how many sentences/ideas you want
 Elicitation/Guessing - Use simple language & be clear / Learners write down ideas & compare with a partner / Create a secure atmosphere in the class so learners are comfortable & feel able to ask questions if they do not understand / Put them in pairs to think about answers before they tell the whole class / Practice!
 Being independent of the teacher - Clear instructions & do an example together / Do NOT participate / learners will expect you to take control - Stand well away from the activity / Make sure learners understand if the activity is spoken or written
 Pair/Group-work - As above / Set a time limit & stick to it / Teach useful language, e.g. Do you agree? /
 Monitor carefully / Start with a controlled activity before moving to a less controlled activity
 Mingling - Keep it short initially / Clear aim e.g. talk to everybody, record their answers, then report back / Give simple instructions & break down the activity into clear sections / Give them something to hold on to or fill in

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