Working in Japan


We live in a time where it is fundamental to develop your language skills from childhood to get a good curriculum and professional future. Although the methods of teaching English in the different educational stages

We live in a time where it is fundamental to develop your language skills from childhood to get a good curriculum and professional future. Although the methods of teaching English in the different educational stages have changed, grammar and the written part still prevail. However, being able to speak and understand a conversation is always very important when learning any language. In order to do this, teachers must have the necessary methods to make it possible. Let’s find out what are some of the keys that will make your conversation classes work well. Although the variety of languages and students is very diverse, in this case we will focus mainly on English conversation classes for Japanese students.

Create an environment of trust

Japanese people normally receive a type of education that may seem demanding to us. In Japanese schools, students are not generally educated to be participatory or to ask questions during the class. As a consequence, the Japanese are often very afraid of making mistakes and do not talk as much as they would like to. Therefore, usually, during conversation classes, the Japanese tend to be very shy and do not usually say anything when they have not understood something to avoid slowing down the rhythm of the class. Thus, it is fundamental that you try to build a climate of trust from the very beginning. Praise them a lot, let them time enough to think and speak, and let them know that it is not a bad thing to make mistakes. It is great when, during class, they feel that they are in a safe space where they can express themselves.

A good way to warm up is by doing an ice-breaker at the beginning of each class. If he/she is a student you are teaching for the first time, you can ask him/her to do a self-introduction. Then you can do a self-introduction yourself and ask if they know anything about your country. This allows you to start a little conversation and get an initial idea of the type of student you are dealing with.

Keep in mind that not all conversation topics are valid within a conversation class. You should try to avoid taboo topics and be culturally sensitive. Topics such as politics or religion may make students feel uncomfortable, depending on the person. Therefore, try to look for topics that are “suitable for all kinds of people”, unless it is the student who asks to speak about those kinds of sensitive topics. Anyway, always be prepared for any unexpected event.

Usually, one thing they also love is when the teachers are smiley. This seems to make them feel more confident and relaxed during classes. Thus, let your best smile be seen at all times. If you are wearing a mask, try to “smile” and be as expressive as possible with your eyes.

Be aware of the signs

This point is directly related to the previous one. Because of their culture and education, Japanese students tend not to express directly what they think or what they feel. Therefore, it is important that you know how to master the art of “reading the air.” Thus, during a conversation class, you should pay attention to their gestures, their expressions of fatigue, distraction or boredom. Study them, analyze them. Read between the lines. It is a relief for them when you understand what they want to say without putting it into words.

Another thing that you should be careful with are your own gestures. When we learn a language, we often associate unconsciously the words with the teacher’s gestures. This is very good because it helps the memorization of expressions by relating them to a movement, attitude or gesture. Thus, try to not to stay still while you talk. Make gestures, wave your hands, laugh or yell if necessary. Since Japanese people tend to gesticulate little or not at all, watching the teacher gesticulate is usually a lot of fun and is definitely a good way to help students loosen up. A good teacher also needs to know how to act.

Listen more and talk less

Due to the nature of these types of classes, it is very tempting to keep talking with the student and have a pleasant chat with him/her. Therefore, always keep in mind the situation in which you find yourself. You are teaching a conversation class whose objective is for the student to practice and improve their language level. Thus, the student is always the king, while you are his/her guide. Teachers are in charge of directing the class towards a conversation as fluent as possible and must provide the necessary tools so that the student can communicate naturally in a language other than the mother tongue. Therefore, the student should always speak more than the teacher during a conversation class.

Ideally, the talking time of a student should be around 70% while that of the teacher should be 30%. Obviously, this is not always possible and it will depend a lot on the student’s language level, as well as his/her personality (if he/she is more outgoing or shyer). In the case of conversation classes with Japanese students, as mentioned above, Japanese people tend to speak less than they would like during classes. Therefore, sometimes you are forced to be resourceful and have to constantly bring up topics of conversation.

In this case, being very well informed about the student helps a lot: hobbies, likings, routine, etc. If they are students you already know, you can recall previous conversations you have had with them. For example, if a student told you in a previous class that he/she was thinking of going on a trip, next time you can ask him if he/she went on a trip in the end. They usually like a lot when you try to empathize with them and you remember them. Another thing that can also be very useful is that being aware of the latest trends within Japanese popular culture: TV shows, movies or trendy entertainment venues. They love sharing their interests with you.

To correct or not to correct, that is the question

In a language class, the ideal is usually to correct each and every one of the mistakes that the student could make. However, everything depends, again, on the student.
Younger children generally care very little being corrected over and over again. Actually, it is pretty much how they learn. In the case of adolescents, since many of them attend conversation classes to improve their level of the language at school, they usually ask to be corrected as much as possible (or, rather, it is their parents who decide). As for adults, the situation will vary depending on the student, although, in general, they usually want the corrections to be more or less strict.

However, you also need to assess the situation at all times. There are students who ask you to correct every little mistake. If they are advanced students it is not a big problem, but when they are beginners or have not reached an advanced level yet, correcting each error can become a nightmare. Not only because it is really difficult to have a fluid conversation when it is constantly interrupted by corrections, but also because the student can end up feeling frustrated.

In any case, it is up to the student who has to choose to what extent he wants to be rectified. Initially, you can decide when and how to make the corrections yourself. You can also ask the student if he/she feels comfortable in that regard.

A single vehicular language if possible

In the case of English conversation classes with Japanese students, try as much as possible that the class is conducted only in English, even if you can speak Japanese. Otherwise, it would be meaningless.

However, you will soon realize that this is not always possible. Especially in the case of students with a lower level of the language, it will be more difficult to communicate all the time in English. There will be times where the student do not understand everything you say. In this case, try to speak more slowly, vocalize more, and use simple words and grammatical structures.

While many students prefer the class to be conducted only in English, there are also some Japanese students who do not mind that the teacher speaks in Japanese from time to time. If that happens to you, try use Japanese only when strictly necessary, that is, to make small clarifications and explain terms or grammar. Otherwise, the student might feel upset that the teacher used too much Japanese and therefore did not practice enough in English. Therefore, it is up to the teacher to find the balance in each class and to know when it is necessary to use Japanese during English conversation classes with Japanese people.

As you can see, being a conversation class teacher carries more responsibility than it may seem. The important thing is that you always maintain a relaxed atmosphere, encourage the student to speak as much as possible and keeping him/her motivated.

I was born in Malaga (Spain), and after spending a season in Paris and London, my great passion for comics and manga led me to move to Kyoto as a doctoral student in 2018. In my spare time I write short stories and, I am the author of the book Touching the Stars.

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