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Teaching Kids in Japan: The young and the restless

By: Chris Wilson

Date Posted: 2001-05-10

I thought I was going to have everything under control. I had taught English to adults and older children for almost two years. How difficult could it be to teach a small group of Japanese kids? I had my crayons, pencils, glove puppets and a foolproof lesson plan. What could possibly go wrong? If only I had remembered the words of Robbie Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men…”

Not even waist high and sporting the latest fashions from the worlds of Hello Kitty and Pikachu my first class of three year olds were herded towards my classroom by their excited mothers. As they entered the room they didn’t even notice me, they were too busy clinging to their parents’ legs or seeing how far they could insert a finger up their nostrils. Eventually they began to look around kid’s classroom. It all seemed friendly enough, colorful pictures of the alphabet, soft toys and a box of blocks and balls. They were in fact quite happy right up until they tilted their heads back and saw me. The room fell silent as they stood and stared, four pairs of big brown eyes looking upwards.

Ooki hana!” (Big nose!) whispered one of the boys pointing up towards me. Not sure how to answer this I opted for the welcoming smile and did my best attempt at an amicable grin.

“Kowaii!” (Scary!) said one of the girls and that was all it took. Instantly all four pairs of eyes filled with tears and the wailing started. The fight or flight instinct in them seemed to take over, the children choosing the later option and in a matter of seconds all four had run out of the classroom into the arms of their mothers. I was left confused and stunned in an empty classroom. In less than a minute I had gone from calm and confident ready for anything to shell-shocked and studentless.

Admittedly it was a bad start, but fortunately not a premature end to my time teaching Japanese infants English.

It is becoming an accepted fact that English is becoming the international form of communication. When watching movies, using the Internet or conducting business there is a definite advantage for those who can speak and understand English. Although some Japanese have a very high standard of English the majority of leaving school have very little ability to actively use the English they have learned at school.

One option to improve this situation is to start teaching children earlier. Rather than starting at junior high school there is a growing trend by both the government and the private sector to get the children of Japan studying and experiencing English much earlier.

Although small children don’t pick up grammatical concepts as fast as an adult and don’t have the patience to learn lists of vocabulary by rote they do have many natural advantages when learning a language. The younger students are able to mimic speech naturally using the intonation and rhythm of the teacher. Older students tend to be more strongly affected by their native language’s speech patterns, which means that although the grammar and words may be correct it still sounds unnatural. Children also seem to be able to perceive sounds much better and in turn reproduce the sounds giving them better pronunciation.

Classes with the smallest children don’t tend to be based on reading and writing, as even coloring within the lines can be a challenge for many of the students. However the children learn to associate words and phrases with objects, commands or instructions and slowly begin to repeat them and later actively use them themselves.

The younger children see the lessons as more of a game than a chore and are therefore much more open to the learning process. The kids are not worried about making mistakes and often will try and talk as much as possible to keep the teachers attention on them. This is a big difference compared to the very shy junior high school students who are too worried about loosing face in front of their peers to risk trying to talk in English.

Hopefully by starting earlier these children will go on to study English at school thinking of it as something they enjoy and are good at rather than the painful experience so many adults remember their English classes as.

I would like to take you back to my class of three-year-olds. A month after my first lesson all four students were still coming to my lessons and were no longer phased by the strange looking “sensei.” Halfway through the class one of the boys started the dance I had learned to recognize as “I need to go to the toilet.” I opened the classroom door and he toddled off to the bathroom. A couple of minutes later there was a knock at the door. I opened the door to find the little boy back and finished but not wearing any clothes on the lower half of his body. He beamed up at me proudly.

“Did you forget something?” I asked him pointing to my head and making a thinking face. The boy looked puzzled for a moment not quite sure what I had asked him, then he looked at the door and up at me and finally seemed to understand what I wanted.

“Thank you,” said the boy with a big grin and then proceeded to walk into the classroom and join the others. It wasn’t exactly what I had wanted but we were getting there. My students were using English and all I had to do now was try and keep them dressed and stop them from drawing on the carpet.

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