I teach English. My coworkers are all Japanese. What to do?
This question first came up when I came to work on day one. My previous English teacher informed me that I should use Japanese with my coworkers and English with my students. It was said like an absolute. I accepted it as such.
Part of my acceptance was that I figured I could easily build a relationship with students in English while I could practice my Japanese with my coworkers. Best of both worlds.
Then came the students. The ones who wanted to talk were great. They’re always great. But they became relied on.
“Oh, no! Jōchō’s come in here with his English! Get Yuji (or any of the other great students).”
It made it very easy to build my relationships with those few star students. Everyone else was hiding away like I was some Nazi officer in 1940s Poland.
Admittedly, there’s more to interacting with people than just the words you use. There’s your body language, your mannerisms and habits, whether or not you carry a gun. Perhaps I was awkward with those students in a way that only the best students, who knew I was their only source of English practice, would feel comfortable braving my presence to extract English from a little conversation.
Going to the teachers, with my Japanese what it was and the middle school workplace what it is, I used a lot of formal Japanese and included little in the way of jokes. Not intentionally—I just didn’t have the command of Japanese to woo older fellas. We had a relationship forming, but it was business as usual.
Change Changing Places
In my constant search for English improvement, I came across a couple articles and revelations that sparked some development in how I interacted with everyone.
In regards to the students, as important as using English with the students who were comfortable in English was, it was equally important to build a relationship with the students who weren’t comfortable with English. That relationship might begin in Japanese, but ideally it would branch into English as they became more relaxed. Affective filter and all that. If I’m less like an unknown demon foreigner and more like a known demon foreigner, then maybe I can spring English onto them without them freezing up.
One article on raising bilingual kids points out that parents should essentially keep consistency with what language they’re using. Maybe the father speaks Mandarin and the mother speaks German and they live in the U.S. Presumably, if the father started understanding English, the child might not even bother with Mandarin. Everyone tries to get away with what they can, and if they only have to speak one language instead of two, most children will choose one. In addition, most relationships that begin in one language don’t switch to another halfway through. In spite of my aunt’s command of Japanese, we started speaking in English and it takes a lot of effort to speak to her in Japanese. As I become more confident in Japanese, I think it will be easier, but I can’t be sure.
The combined effect of these two pieces of information: it might seem like if I started speaking in Japanese, that would be hazardous for their English. In fact, however, either due to English’s coolness factor in Japan or simply that it’s a required school subject, students are fine speaking in hybrid English-Japanese with me. Perhaps it’s simply a conditioned response to the existence of a foreigner.
Kid: “Jōchō先生! What’s up?”
Me: “Nothin’ much. You seen Miyato?”
Me: “Ah, nothing. 大事じゃないっす。What are you up to?”
Kid: “掃除！えっと… cleaning! It’s boring. I’m tired.”
Me: “C’mon! 掃除 is fun! ♫ Cleaning, cleaning, I love cleaning! ♪”
Important Side Note: Cleaning Time (掃除・清掃)
It was a huge mistake occasionally passing up school cleaning time in the middle school. It’s probably the period of the day (since it’s right after classes finish and before club activities begin) where students are most relaxed. Before, I would sit in the teacher’s room and work on my computer, often losing such track of time that I forgot cleaning even happened. This was usually because I felt I was getting in the way since many of the cleaning groups didn’t have extra equipment. Didn’t want to be a 邪魔.
But actually, since I forced myself to go and join at least one classroom (they often expect to see me now), it’s been leagues better. I get to be my stupid self, singing and talking about my love for cleaning while also inserting English occasionally. The kids I do clean with are now much closer to me than before and they all seem to be working more intently on their English. At the least, they’re coming up and asking questions more often.
If you’re an ALT in Japan, make sure to clean! It’s as important as class time, I honestly believe.
In any case, it’s 10-15 minutes out of your day. C’mon. Clean a little.
Root Yourself To The Ground
So using Japanese with the students isn’t bad, in spite of the earlier absolute. Around the same time, I also learned that using English with the teachers wasn’t bad either.
It all happened when I went to my gym teacher’s house and found out that he could, in fact, dabble with the language. Not only him, but the other teacher I was with too. We all spent the last half of the night speaking stupid, broken, fun English. I told my English teacher about that, and, in a total switcheroo, he essentially told me to speak to them in English if I could. Cool.
Turns out that most of the teachers want to learn English. Some of them do it for fun. Some of them probably because they’ve had to deal with foreigners they can’t understand. Some of them might want English husbands and wives. Whatever the reason, turns out that using English has improved my relationship with my coworkers tenfold. Maybe even elevenfold. That good, I tell ya!
Now I’ll be sitting down in the middle of the day and a teacher will ask me if this or that sentence is correct, or how to say some word or phrase. That added conversation has boosted our friendship level out the window. Or through the roof. Whatever breaking metaphor you want. And while maybe the conversations we have no longer have much deeper meaning about educational philosophy or what-have-you, they do happen, and that matters more than anything else.
Teachers Speaking English
There is a bigger conversation to be had here, but let me just state something simple: more teachers speaking English is a good thing.
Maybe it’s simple expressions. “How are you?” “What did you eat for breakfast?” “Did you find any pedagogical flaws in the structure of today’s lesson?” Whatever the case, increased hearing and speaking English is good. Even if that English is broken, non-native, katakana-sounding, terrible-input-for-you English.
Because at the end of the day, students need to see the task of learning as possible. I can’t teach them that. I can spout all my theory, give them strategies, and speak to them all day in either English or my learned language of Japanese. But one of the biggest hurdles in learning anything is the belief in its do-ability. It’s that Henry Ford quote:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”
So much of learning is believing that it’s even possible to do. If students are surrounded by people speaking English, they might not only see it as possible, but something that’s necessary as an upstanding citizen of Japanese society. Compared with studying for a test, students might begin to study for reasons of personal growth. I can hope anyways.
At the end of the day, there’s been at least one thing that’s made it all worth it. When sitting at the lunch table the other day, I asked if any of the students had plans for Golden Week. All the students looked at each other with blank stares. I repeated myself. The science teacher was sitting across the table from me.
All the students:「へ！？」All the students at the table said in surprise. 「吉田先生が英語わかてんの？」
It’s nice to see kids surprised that everyone around them can speak English. Or understand English. Or even if it’s just understanding from context clues, I’ll take it.
A Little Summary
This is as much for me as it is for you:
- Speak English with the students who can.
- Speak Japanese with the students that can’t. Build their trust. Work English into your convos.
- Speak Japanese to the coworkers when it’s important business.
- Speak English to coworkers when you want to better your office social links.
- Participate in cleaning time!
Of course, every workplace is different. Feel it out. Experiment. And above all, do what’s best for the students!
Okay, off to the north to hang out with friends. Golden Week here I come!
Not that it’s really a week. I mean, it’s just Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday here. Four days and two of them are holidays!
What’s with that!?
Eh, good enough. Holidays are cool in any case.