There are many things that I enjoy immensely about teaching in Japan, and one of those is the plethora of public holidays they have here. Since I arrived we have been privy to Respect For The Aged Day, Autumnal Equinox Day, Health And Sports Day, Culture Day and Labour Thanksgiving Day. This, coupled with the JET Programme’s penchant for business trips and Japan’s for exams, means that a full week of lessons is a strangely irregular occurrence. In the 12 weeks I have been teaching, only 8 have been full, uninterrupted weeks of lessons and that’s not counting all the time off in August. Well, I say “off” but when I wasn’t at English Camp and orientations I was sitting in my office on Facebook all day. Err, I mean planning lessons. Anyway, though it is lovely having all these random days pop up on my calendar it does tend to wreak havoc with my lesson plans and as a result, I have some classes with 3 lessons left until the end of term and some with only 2. Cue conversation with JTE:
“It looks like we have an extra lesson here. Is there anything specific you want me to do?”
“No not really. I mean, if you don’t want to do the lesson I can take it myself.”
Now wouldn’t it be nice just to say “oh ok, thanks,” and leave it at that? God knows I’d like not to have to plan another lesson specifically for just 2 classes; but we all know you’re not allowed to do that. You have to say “Oh, no, no, that’s not what I meant. No, I was just seeing if you had any ideas.”
“Not really. Anything’s fine.”
“Right, so something fun then?”
“Yeah sounds good.”
…and that’s pretty much the level of control the school likes to have over the syllabus that I, an unqualified teacher with the Japanese language ability of a mountain goat, bestows upon the youth and future of its country. I like to believe that it’s because I’ve proved I can do a good job, but there’s always a part of my conscience telling me that I’m not doing enough, that my lesson plans are all rubbish and that there is a very real risk that I will be torn limb from limb, skinned and hung out of the window to dry when the students find out I’m not a real teacher. Until that day I’m treading water, and for this particular lesson I decided there would be no writing at all; only speaking.
You may or may not know that the Japanese have great difficulty differentiating between SH & S, TH & Z, V & B and L & R sounds. River becomes liver, sea becomes she, these becomes a rather Germanesque, zeese and very becomes berry. This is because they simply don’t have these sounds in their language. Now considering English is compulsory from the age of 11 you’d think that by the time they reach senior-high they would have this down pat, but often the teachers have the same difficulties and the class sizes are so large (40/41 usually) that it just tends to just propagate in a never-ending cycle of bad pronunciation. Unless you nip it in the bud at the start then it’s going to be difficult to change the way they speak when they’ve developed otherwise good proficiency in the language.
This is what I endeavoured to do, but how the hell do you centre a lesson around speaking when you have as many as 41 students and only 50 minutes? If you were teaching a class of 15, you could probably mouse around and work with each one individually, have group discussions and constantly have them saying stuff. With a class of 41 you have to perform; you have to be on the ‘stage’ prancing around like a monkey fighting for a banana, playing charades with every word you say, making stupid noises and singing, because if you don’t your students will fall asleep. Some of them will fall asleep regardless.
“Do this,” I yell as I grab my tongue with my fingers and put them between my teeth “and blow.” Showers of spit fly across the room as the students learn their TH’s, and the whole room resonates with the sound of a giant doing a silent fart.
“Now go rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” and I’m the only one doing it. I feel like a pillock. One kid, lips tightly closed, glares at me like I’m clinically insane. I begin to believe it but then it dawns on me… How is making a sound that they can’t make going to help them to make it themselves? Time for a drawing, I think to myself.
I draw a (very bad) diagram of a mouth, teeth and tongue and the class laughs at my drawing skills. I argue that it’s contemporary; they have no idea what I’m on about. When I explain to them that they need to keep their tongues in the middle of their mouths and start going “rrrrrrr” again, suddenly I’m no longer the only one doing it. Success! Eat your heart out, Picasso.
After a game designed to have them differentiate between the sounds in each pair we moved onto shortened English; wanna, gotta, gonna, dunno, gimme, etc. I started by getting them to draw lines between these words and what they thought were the correct ‘proper’ English equivalents. Using the phrase “I have got to go” as an example I then had them repeat after me, getting faster and faster each time until we were on “‘ve go’a go”. I did the same for the other words. Though some students revelled in the chance to do this, some of them clearly hated it. I can completely understand this since it was only last week that I was asked to attempt a Japanese tongue-twister and, after failing miserably 5 or 6 times, I simply deemed it stupid, unworthy of my time and ultimately impossible. The Japanese must just be more talented with that particular sound. Genes innit.
Try it yourself if you think you’re hard enough:
Tokyo tokkyo kyoka-kyoku kyou kyuukyo kyoka kyakka.
What’s that? You can’t even read it? Yeah me neither; let alone say it at a hundred kyo’s a second.
Anyway, if they learned nothing else from this lesson, they learned first-hand the importance of being able to differentiate between light and right, and I sincerely hope they had a good time doing it. I’ve adjusted my will to make sure that my skinned, dried remains are deported if they didn’t.