Jun 13, 2008

The Other Side of the Classroom

For the past month I've been attending Japanese lessons at a community center here in Narita. They're free, open to all foreigners living here, and have become one of the highlights of my week. When I first got there, I was a bit surprised to find that I was the only Westerner in the class- I sort of assumed that there would be some other English teachers, or people involved in international trade who work either at or near the airport. No such thing. The class is mostly Chinese, Fillipinos and Koreans, with a few other students from South America. As an American, I'm a curiosity.

Being there has been immensely good for my teaching. When I was taking private lessons in Okayama, helped me immensely to see things from the student's perspective, to suddenly see the format of an EFL lesson turned back at me. But, I was all alone there, with a teacher who could explain the finer points of grammar in perfect English. Now, I'm in a large group lesson entirely in Japanese and I'm quite impressed with how the main teacher organizes the class and is able to communicate to a variety of students in a second language. I see her using a lot of methods that I've learned- she uses pictures, speaks at a reasonable pace, uses a variety of examples, and puts grammar and even uses stupid jokes as a way of keeping things interesting. Fun times. She's great- every time I leave one of her classes I feel very, very good about learning Japanese, and I want to crack open one of my books and study more.

However, that's only the main teacher. There are a few others there, and they suck horribly. Really, really horribly.

The first time I was there, one of the backup teachers, this middle-aged woman, decided to hover over me and perpetually ask if I understood what was going on. For the most part, I was getting things fine, but I told her honestly a few times that I didn't quite understand something. That was a bad idea.

While the main lesson was going on, she leaned over my shoulder and started talking to me at a rapid-fire pace. I can only assume she was giving me some impromptu lecture about the finer points of Japanese grammar, and I didn't understand a word of it. I really, really wanted her to shut up so I could just listen to the lesson and figure out stuff on my own from context. I eventually told her that I understood just to make her go away, and I know sort of cringe when she starts talking in class. I doubt any of the other students understand her, either.

Two weeks ago, though, the main teacher, the good one, was gone. The class was wholly in the hands of the woman who I couldn't understand at all, and this old guy who, rather annoyingly, spoke a bit of English. I say annoyingly, because he translated just about everything he wrote on the board into English, and looked directly at me whenever he said anything. I was a bit uncomfortable with this- there was a whole room of Asian gaijin, and he was giving special attention to the lone white guy. I might have been imagining it, but I found it sort of squirmy in a racially weird way.

So, without the main teacher, class sucked. It was disorganized, the two backup instructors got almost nothing from blank looks from the class. They didn't contextualize anything- no pictures, not much in the way of hand gestures, no props, and not even very many simple explanations. Instead, it was very lecture-like and when they did ask for class participation all they got was uncomfortable and uncomprehending nonreaction. So, we broke into a bunch of side conversations.

I didn't pay any real attention to the backup teachers, and instead had an absolutely hilarious conversation with these two Chinese girls. I told them about traveling to China, and one of them happened to be from Shanghai, which was cool. They asked me about America, aboutbeing a teacher, and explained to me how they had to go back and forth from China to Japan fairly often for visa reasons (I don't think it's all that easy for Chinese to travel abroad) and all was going swimmingly until I asked one of them what she did for work.

She said that she worked at a minsetsu no tokoro.

I had no idea what the hell that was. Some kind of place, as that's what tokoro means, but I didn't know what minsetsu meant. I asked her and she said that "minsetsu is talking." Rather unfeministly of me, I assumed that she worked at a hostess bar, one of those places where business men pay stupid amounts of money to have hot chicks pour their drinks and chat with them. She was definitely cute enough to do something like that, and I began a line of questioning asking whether or not she was a hostess, whereupon he and her friend laughed, tried to correct me, and then called over this Fillipino woman, who kinda/sorta speaks English, to translate.

"How do you say minsetsu in English," they asked her. The Fillipino woman thought for a few moments and said to me.


What the fuck did you just say? "Doris?" I asked.

"Hai. Doris."


"Hai. Doris." Either she'd studied from one of the worst EFL dictionaries ever, or she was messing with me. I really hope she was just messing with me. I told her that "Doris" was a woman's name and didn't make any sense. She looked at me incredulously, and knit her brow.

Eventually I figured out that minsetsu is a word for "interview" and that the Chinese woman called her work an "interview place" because she didn't know the word for "employment agency." As it turns out, she's not a hostess at all, but works at a place where Chinese people can look for jobs in Japan.

All of this confusion and chatting was far better than the lesson that the backup teachers were painfully rattling out, and ended up having a great time. It put eikaiwa (Japan's privately owned English conversation schools) into perspective for me, and I could understand why even if the teachers are utterly incompetent and the lesson makes no sense, people would still come for the simple pleasure of speaking a foreign language. In a foreign language, almost anything seems awesome. I recently did a rather negative sounding post about how my students always talk about the weather in English.

But, the truth is that, at least at the low levels, every bit of communication in an acquired tongue seems like you've unlocked something, like you've decrypted a secret code or learned a new talent. In way, you have. For example, we did it. Me and the Chinese woman successfully communicated in a foreign language, successfully cracked the code and conveyed the information "employment agency." We climbed up and over our own misunderstandings, and reached clarity and understanding.

At the end of the two hours, I leave Japanese lessons with a sort of high, a satisfaction of efficacy and ability. Even though there is still so much that I don't understand, I feel that the Japanese language is something doable and understandable, something that yeild to effort and reason.

When my students leave my own classes, I hope to put a similar feeling into their minds about English.


Kori the tomorrow lady said...

ummm sorry to nitpick but for your own studying you should know that the word is mensetsu めんせつ 面接 the "men" part is often used to describe how many faces or sides something has. I'm not familiar with the other kanji.

Anyway, I remember when I first called my cellphone company and successfully changed my address. I was (as the Brits say) well pleased with myself for days. I think one reason that I enjoy lower level classes is because it's so easy to see improvement in one day and everything is like "WOW"

on another note, 5 out of 5 students in one of my adult classes all think they are the weakest link (i.e. lowest level). I'm not sure how that's possible. but they say they like it. my goal is for them to say my class is like a party (but not in their pants, for christs sake) those days are over.

I'm feverish and going back to bed now.

Sydney said...

I think the nice thing about living in the country whose language you're studying is that you get those Wow!- or Ah Ha!-moments outside the classroom as well. Like going to a hardware store with zero vocabulary except for "thingy," "metal," "to turn" and "broken" and manage to get someone to take you to both the wrenches AND screwdrivers in short order.

I had an Italian teacher who would try very very hard to give visual demonstrations while speaking nothing but Italian to help us beginners get it. But he often went to fast and some of the visuals were just confusing because they assumed a basic level of understanding about grammar that first-time romance language-learners just wouldn't have. He'd end each sentence with, "Non e vero? Non e vero?" (isn't that true? isn't that true?) and everyone knew to nod so he'd move on, but they always did so in a totally glazed "what the hell is going on here?" kind of way. And he'd pause and poke the drawing on the board with a piece of chalk sadly repeating, "Non e vero...?" before sighing and trying to start over with a new explanation. Which never worked because the students were waiting for him to repeat the first explanation. I was in a weird position because even though I didn't understand what he was saying in Italian necessarily, I did get what he was trying to explain because it was grammatically similar to French. It is an interesting exercise to try and explain something complicated and sometimes subtle like the difference between the imperfect past and the composite past with a 101 vocabulary.

"This one - imperfect - he is for the... all the times. In the past, if you do the thing and maybe he is complete, maybe he is not complete, you don't know: he is imperfect. Also, for "to be", he is usually imperfect. But this one - composite past - he is for the complete times. In the past, if you do the thing and he is complete - stopped, finished - he is composite past." I think doing that sometimes reminded out poor Italian teacher exactly how limited our language skills were, and exactly how foreign certain grammatical concepts might be.

Rip Tatermen said...

Oh man, I blew my Doris last week.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

true the pictures have to better than, say, some of our kids props. stupid dumbass company.