Japan as a country is rather isolated from the world, but it’s mostly self orchestrated. The same way some vegans isolate themselves from the rest of us, mostly by giving annoying speeches on healthy eating and morality (eating meat is a form of evil you see. That’s why it’s so tasty. Om nom nom). Japan however has had such a long history of isolation that even today, its effects are still culturally felt. In other words, there is limited general knowledge of the world as well as languages amongst the majority. There is Japan and then there is everything else. It is a condition which I like to call ‘the Engrish bubble’. A place where inaccurate language and general knowledge about the world exists undisturbed. Just look at any English translation in public and you’ll see all manner of unintelligible translations; from t-shirts, to signs to tourist centres. As an ALT teacher, it was my job to burst this bubble.
The first tricky thing is having to be aware that my predecessor wasn’t British. That unfortunately meant that students would probably be unfamiliar with not only my accent but also British English (which I’d like to argue is ‘real’ English. We invented it, ok! Believe it or not, English originally comes from a faraway land called England). The matter is complicated further by the fact that Japanese schools teach American English as their standard, so anything I say is at risk of being seen as false. But I do not give in so easily. I could explain how different English speaking countries have their own unique variations; the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa each with their own array of pronunciations, spelling and idioms. In practice however, explaining goes a little like this:
“Ok class. New Vocabulary! Repeat after me please. Spring. Summer. Autumn…”
“へえええ、なに？” (translation: “What in blazes did he just say?”)
“Autumn is 秋 in Japanese. In the UK we say ‘Autumn’. But in America they say ‘Fall’” I explain.
“おおお、そうですか” (translation: “By jove, so that’s what he meant all along!)
“Hmm for the purpose of this lesson please say ‘Fall’” the Japanese teacher murmurs to me.
“…Sure thing”. Within 10 minutes the word Autumn has all but vanished from their minds.
Occasionally I’ll slip back into my own natural English, where ‘football’ replaces that imposter soccer and I zees are overcome by zeds (Zed’s dead by the way. Just go ask Bruce Willis). But each time I do, I’m hit with a chorus of ‘わっかんねーよ’ (translation: “I do apologise but I really have no inkling what you’re trying to say”).
Nationality always factors into student’s perceptions and I’m encouraged to promote my own in order to help them distinguish the differences between foreign countries. The difficulty with that though, is that Japanese people often have very set images of nationalities but don’t ask me what those are because it’s a closely guarded set of stereotypes. These stereotypes extend as far as appearances and any deviation from this results in confusion. I introduced myself as being half British and half Spanish from the UK, and a week later I asked if they remembered. The most popular answer I got was Danish, followed by Swedish in close second. Third most popular answer was French (which is I suppose better. I mean, they were moving west across Europe closer to my home country). Interestingly none of which were English speaking countries and when the Japanese teacher pointed this out to them, their response was ‘oh he must be american then’.
But I strived on and hoped at least a few might remember. This is what makes accent so much difference. I’m often told by students how difficult it is to understand me (coincidentally the ones who sleep or ignore me when I’m talking find it difficult to understand. Who would have guessed). But through accent I can point out differences in British and American English at least. In practice it often goes a little like this:
“Ok. Past tense everyone. I eat tomatoes. I ate tomatoes”
“ええ、トマート？” (translation: “I say! What is this to-marr-to you speak of?)
“Tomato is pronounced slightly differently in the UK and America. The UK we say ‘to-mar-to’ but in America they often say ‘to-mei-to’” I explain.
“あああ なるほど。イギリス人は日本語の発音でトマトと言いますね” (translation: “Oh, I see where this chap is coming from! British people use the Japanese pronunciation of tomato”). Yeah, that’s right guys. British people borrowed the Japanese pronunciation for tomato. Because throughout history there’s been so many tomatoes in your country haven’t there.
But perhaps some geography can help. Having a map to point to makes it much easier to visually distinguish separate countries. So during one of my presentations I showed a map of the world, incorporating the lesson’s grammar into my questions:
“Ok. So where is Spain? Umm no that’s, umm, that’s Africa. Good try though. Any other guesses. Ah that’s close! That’s Russia. But at least it’s in Europe so still close! Spain is here” I tell them, pointing to the map.
“Ok and here is my country, the UK! Anyone know any famous things from the UK?”
“London” they cry out to me.
“Yes London! What’s in London?”
“The Eiffel tower!”
“Ah, not quite. It’s in Paris. Do you know Paris?”
“Yes! The capital!”
“Great! Capital of what country?”
“Capital of Europe!”
Afterwards many students very cheerily told me in Japanese they wanted to visit Europe because it was such a big country. You have to be brave in these situations and resist the urge to toss yourself out the window to escape.
But when you get past all the accents, nationalities and misconceptions, you’re left with the hard gritty truth of teaching English. Battling against grammar mistakes and poor spelling so that these students might one day grow up being able to hold a semi accurate conversation. Or at least be painfully aware of their mistakes so that they might one day grow up to be tortured adults like myself. However I’ve found that it’s not just mistakes that need to be watched out for, but also tone. In one particular class, students were tasked with writing a short simple speech introducing a friend and I was asked to check all of their speeches and correct them.
One stood out:
Good afternoon class. (Standard opening. Good start)
This is Kaori. (So far so good)
She is my best friend. (Use of new vocabulary. All good)
Her lips are red. (Hmm…ok then)
She good at ballet. (Grammar almost there)
She is beautiful. (Ok, that’s nice I guess)
Her body is so soft. (Sorry, what!?)
I like touching her. (Oh good God)
I love her. (…should I be reading this?)
Thank you. (AwkwardSilence.com)
At no point in my training did anyone explain proper procedure when intercepting potential lesbian love letters between students so I brought it to the attention of the Japanese teacher. It was a speech after all; it might be cripplingly embarrassing for this girl to read this out loud to the rest of her class, let alone to Kaori. I felt some sort of intervention was needed. I handed it to the Japanese teacher and she skimmed over it quickly.
“Hmm. I….don’t see any mistakes”
“No no. Her English is fine. I’m just concerned about the tone”.
“Oh really. What’s wrong with it?”
“Umm. It sounds a little…intimate. It might be embarrassing?”. Maybe I’m the only one who sees this or is this just a common thing amongst Japanese students!?
“No, I think it’s fine. Besides she wrote it, so let her say what she wants. Oh and I’d like you to grade their speeches please. Fluency, intonation and so on”.
When the fateful day arrived I tried to sink into my seat as they all took turns to deliver their speeches, while I filled in their grades into a spreadsheet at the back. When she finally came up to do hers it was not quite as disastrous as I imagined. One girl, I imagine Kaori, went a little pink in the face and there were a few sniggers in the corner but mostly everyone remained silent. This was the only time I have ever been grateful that the majority of Japanese students either fall asleep in class or don’t listen at all.
But by far the most common text I have to deal with from reads reads a little like this: ‘I hate English. I can’t speak English. I can’t understand English. I will never use English’. In these instances I’m obligated to leave the comment ‘Excellent work. No spelling errors and perfect grammar. Well done on appropriate apostrophe use’. I always try to face things like this with positivity while in class (outside not so much. Contemplating misery can be cathartic you see. Oddly enough). So even though I know students really do not want to learn or try or even work, I pretend it’s because they’re struggling.
“Ok. Everyone please answer the questions on your sheets”
“日本語で書いてもいいよ” (translation: “I’m perfectly sure you mean in Japanese. I hardly expect this gentleman is asking us to write in English. In an English lesson! Oh my, what a lark that would be”)
“In English please. If you have trouble, please raise your hand”
“英語ができない！” (translation: “Is he suggesting we’re capable of performing such a task? What an absolute bounder!”).
Will the ‘Engrish Bubble’ ever be burst soon? It seems rather unlikely at this point. The best we can do is struggle on and avoid Pulp Fiction-like outbursts of frustration.
(All of the above translations are as accurate to what students meant, as my blogs are to the truth, so please feel rest assured).