How to Teach English

One of the things I like best about English class in Japan is how much Japanese I learn. Like the other day, I was in Nakamura Sensei’s class. He’s the English teacher in my middle school, and his English is arguably better than mine, since he actually knows stuff like what “a pronoun” is. I thought it was just a really excellent noun, like maybe when you take cat and turn it into meerkat, or popcorn into poop corn. Those are great improvements, so pronouns I figured, right? Well, apparently that was the wrong answer to give in front of forty students. Whatever. I still think they’re nice pronouns.

Anyway, after putting me on the spot regarding grammar, Nakamura Sensei went to the blackboard, picked up a stub of white chalk, and with a roomful of kids all looking up at him like Please no more English just let me die, wrote


Then he took a ruler, and carefully drew a red box around the phrase, and finally we all said it in Japanese. Then Nakamura Sensei distributed a stack of handouts, and drew the following diagram on the board.

Teach English 1

At which point I felt obliged to mention to Nakamura Sensei that I, in fact, hadn’t brought a bag that day, a detail that seemed only to annoy him. He then launched into an excruciating Japanese explanation about how to construct the sentences, and everybody took notes in Japanese and dutifully filled in their handouts accordingly. This continued for some time, until the blackboard was full of Japanese. I briefly thought of mentioning to Nakamura Sensei that the students had already learned this simple point four years ago in elementary school, but somehow that didn’t seem the sort of info he’d appreciate, so I let it go.

Afterward, we did an exercise where the students rearranged their desks into groups and practiced saying the phrases to each other. Now, that may sound simple enough, but apparently Japanese students require extensive Japanese explanations with lots of diagrams and arrows showing how each person should query the other, so Nakamura Sensei spent ten minutes illustrating this on the chalkboard. Though to be fair, he confused himself halfway through his own explanation and had to start over, so that took some time too.

Teach English 2Finally, we did the exercise and the students got about a minute to speak some English, in between bouts of negotiating in Japanese who was supposed to be conversing with whom, but finally we got it done and then everybody rearranged their desks again and finally Nakamura Sensei did the daily recap in Japanese. I’d long ago tuned out, along with everybody else, and was calculating that we’d spent about 3 minutes of class time on English, which was awesome, because my Japanese was now 47 minutes better than ever.

The Thing about Being a Teacher

Now here’s the thing about being a teacher. You get to stand up in front of class, and everybody’s basically supposed to listen to you. And because you know words like “pronoun” and “the possessive form,” it’s real fun to explain that stuff. You can go on for hours, months, years really, and it feels like teaching. All that imparting wisdom to the ignorant masses. All that ‘splaining things. Then you can test people on all the stuff you said, and provide students the wonderful reinforcement that Nope, you’re still not doing it right.

The Thing about Learning a Language

But here’s the thing about learning a language. There’s a lot of freaking words. I mean, really, just a whole bunch. And lots of different ways of putting words together. Those are called “collocations.” Nakamura Sensei taught me that. For example, you can say, “I’m going to the store. Care for anything?” Or you might say, “I’m heading to the store. Pick ya up anything?” Or probably if you’re me, it would sound more like, “I’ma bust on down to 7-11. Lend me a fiver so I can grabba coupla malt liquors, why don’t ya.”

But in Japan, language learning is approached like you’d approach an equation. You fill in the blanks, add everything up, apply the Pythagorean theorem, and arrive at the right answer. The only problem is that, to put it simply, it focuses on quality, while completely ignoring all the quantity.

This creates the paradox of Japanese English, which is: How can students spend years memorizing vocabulary and practicing conjugation and at the end, still be unable to say one darn thing?

An interesting side note is that they learned at least something along the way—-a valuable lesson from their English teachers, which is:

There’s a right way to do English, and that thing you’re doing, buddy, that ain’t it.

You’re Still not Doing it Right

So really, all this focus on proper form has two impacts:

1. It’s slow and boring
2. It kills students’ confidence

If that sounds like a language class you took, then I think you’re not alone.

Now, I don’t mean to imply we shouldn’t teach proper English. I absolutely believe we should. But we can’t lose sight of the scope of the task. There’s just too much to be learned to get bogged down with every small point. The approach currently being taken in Japan is,

We teach you ten things.
You write those ten things a hundred times, until you can do them perfectly.
Then we teach you ten more things.

And at the end of six years of this, students have several hundred words that they can spell more or less perfectly, and a list of verbs that they can conjugate with close to 100% accuracy. They’ll take tests on their “English” ability, and be able to fill in the blanks correctly. But they’re miles from being able to understand or speak the thousands of words in the myriad of ways necessary to actually use the language, plus they’re petrified of making mistakes. After all, they’ve been taught for years that making mistakes is wrong. And the moment they graduate, the vast majority of them will forget what they were forced to learn, and gladly so.

A Different Approach to Teaching English

So what if we approached language learning differently? Let’s assume that, in order to be functional in a language, you need somewhere around three thousand words of vocabulary, and a few dozen grammatical constructs. I don’t really know what the magic numbers are, but they’re probably somewhere in that ballpark. Let’s also assume that, to communicate, you can be a pretty big brickhead and still get your point across. I thank God for that every day, really. Finally, let’s assume that, in order to really use the language, you need plenty of practice listening, speaking, and feeling the words.

If that’s the case, and I believe it is, then a better approach might be,

Gain exposure to a hundred things.
Play around with those hundred things a few different ways, and hopefully remember about twenty.
Gain exposure to another hundred things.

Because the truth is, if a language learner comes into contact with a hundred things, they’re going to remember some, be able to use some, while the remainder will be forgotten or slightly off. And that’s okay. Let it go. There are thousands and thousands of other things to learn, and you don’t know what will be remembered by any one person, and what won’t. But throw enough spaghetti at a wall and some of it’s bound to stick. So rather than beating people to death over doing a small subset perfectly, the goal should really be to gain exposure to a good 10,000 things, and out of that, be able to utilize any three thousand in some fashion.

The Problem with Practice Makes Perfect

Know how hard it is for a Japanese person to say “broccoli”? Freaking pretty hard. Don’t ask me why, since they seem to do just fine with “daikon.” I think it’s a chlorophyl thing, but I’m not really sure since I slept through Biology class. Anyway, what I see a lot of foreign instructors doing is hammering students on their pronunciation. “No, it’s not ‘blockali,’” they say, “it’s ‘broccoli.’” And they go on and on. Practice makes perfect. Just like the Japanese English teachers hammer students on grammar. And the message everyone’s taking away is,

There’s a proper way to do English.
You’re doing it wrong.
You need to practice the same thing more.

The other approach, and what I’d suggest is, practice a few times, and then let it go. Because there are bazillions of other things waiting to be learned. Move on. Even if you say “broccoli” wrong, well, who cares? Order something else from the menu. How about cauliflower? It’s like the same thing, only in white, plus it’s easier to say. And I mean, how many times in your life do you need to order fucking broccoli anyway? Seriously.

And moreover, people correct themselves naturally over time if they reach the point where they can use the language. Because once learners actually start to have real conversations in the language, understand some of the television, and read printed materials, then that’s the point at which true learning begins. Then through normal usage, they begin to self-correct, if you can get them to the point of being functional in the language.

So what we really should be doing, is helping people to overcome that horizon, where they have enough basic vocabulary and grammar to start communicating, at which point they’ll begin to learn through natural exposure.

Teaching English in Japan

After spending decades and piles of yen teaching its entire population of 127 million people “English,” Japan now boasts about five folks who can actually use the language. Congratulations. So really, it’s hard to imagine how a nation could do much worse. And they’re seriously trying, too; that’s the amazing thing.

But in fact, by focusing so much on proper spelling, sentence structure, and conjugation, the net impact is that many Japanese people are less likely to use English, rather than more, because they realize the chances of screwing up are sky high. To remedy this, what instructors should be doing is encouraging students to try, to make mistakes, and to stop correcting them so much. Just keep introducing them to large volumes of information, and stop focusing on minutia. Or is that minutiae? I really gotta look that up. Eh, anyway, small stuff.

English Class in One Simple Chart

And lastly, let’s circle back to Nakamura Sensei’s class, which could be easily, vastly improved, thusly:

Teach English 3

In other words,

1. Make the class about the students, not the teacher. Much good comes from the teacher speaking less.
2. Use simple English in place of complicated Japanese.
3. Don’t explain activities. Model them, and then do them.

Sometimes, it all seems so simple, as if in a couple of short years, the entire nation of Japan could be speaking English. Not perfectly, but they’d be communicating. Just picture 127 million Japanese people, all speaking English. Terrifying, right? Well, you know, progress and the future and all that, so whatever, I guess bring it on. Ken Seeroi for Minister of Education, 2016. Now get out and rock that vote.

90 Replies to “How to Teach English”

  1. Hey there, Ken!
    First time poster, long time lurker, as they say. Or is it the other way around?
    The thing is, I am doing a part-time course in the Trinity Cert-TESOL (the “other” CELTA) in Tokyo and all the things you said in your article are spot-on. Reduce the Teacher Talking Time as much as possible so your students have a chance to practice the language. And avoid using the students’ L1 (in this case Japanese) at all costs. Of course this is not set in stone; sometimes it is easier and more productive to do so. But if you see a very experienced instructor teach a language to true beginners without using a single word in their L1, you would be amazed. I know I have because during the course we were taught Welsh in our Unknown Language and the instructor was very effective. It was a nightmare; the pronunciation was almost impossible to replicate; I would always have a hard time remembering the new words and structures. BUT, in hindsight, it was an eye opener. It was also fun because the teacher sure catered to all learning styles (visual, auditory and kinesthetic).
    OK, enough of that. Thank you for your very interesting and funny piece. Keep the good work!

    1. Thanks very much. Yeah, I find that in terms of L1-L2 usage, the biggest variable is the age of the learners. Younger children need more support in their native language. It helps them to understand what’s happening, and helps keep them focused. Even still, I probably use no more than half a dozen Japanese phrases during the entire class time, and when I do, I’ll immediately preface or follow them with English, so they can understand the meaning in both languages. For older learners, I generally use no Japanese, since they can typically derive meaning from context.

      I’ve also found that if you need to speak a lot, in either language, you’ve probably made an exercise more complicated than it needs to be. If an activity is obvious enough, then the language becomes merely supplementary, which is great, since it doesn’t demand perfect comprehension.

  2. So you’ve taught elementary too? One of the things my (former) BoE was concerned about is the huge shift between elem. and jhs. In elementary it’s all communication and fun. If the kids say “I like dog” you say “awesome, me too, high five!” Then the next year they start JHS and if the same student says “I like dog” they get smacked in the face with a textbook and and scolded until they cry and no one in the class ever opens their mouths again.

    1. Ha! That’s perfect! High five! And so true.

      Yes, I’ve literally taught every age, from 6 months old all the way to over 70. Kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, and university. It seems like the problem really intensifies in the middle- and high-school years. Namely, that over-focusing on the details, and penalizing students for mistakes.

      I’ve never seen a nation work so hard at something and accomplish so little.

  3. As a poor shmuck trying to learn Japanese, I can see this how could be the case in Japan with English. Ever used the Japanese for Busy People book? Every time I’ve had a teacher, they’re always flogging this book which I feel is all about structure and memorization. And it’s NOT normal! At least the first book, perhaps there’s more ingenuity coming once I get through book one. But book one is a killer for me because it becomes so frustratingly obtuse that I quit and look for something else. Thankfully my new teacher, compliments the book with worksheets and she’s constantly bouncing all over keeping me on my toes and thinking. Sort of like the memrise app.

    But I digress. When I taught English in China, umpteen years ago, I saw similar behavior regarding teaching. I walked to talk, have dialog as these were highschool students. They wanted to memorize. My one goal was to get one person to not use the text book response “I’m fine thank you and you?” and say like “I’m great” or “awesome” or “I am sleepy and don’t want to be here”. No such luck but I think something has changed as the English level seems to be increasing.

    If I hear another person say “I’m fine thank you and you”….although, I desperately need to learn some great Japanese greetings so I’m not the pot calling the kettle black with genki deska, hai genki desu.

    1. I used the Genki textbook back in the day, and it was a little more palatable. Textbooks that are too dense with information scare me off. By the way, I wouldn’t worry too much about the whole “genki desuka” greeting, since I probably only hear that about twice a month anyway.

      I partly settled upon this “quantity over quality” notion based upon my own experiences learning Japanese, after realizing I was spending way too long trying to get things “right.” Once I grasped the enormity of the task I’d undertaken, I understood that I’d never be fully fluent if I got stuck on the details.

      At that point, I decided to increase my exposure to native materials and not worry about whether I remembered things or not. Ultimately, it’s better to be able to talk about all subjects, even imperfectly, than to be able to discuss one topic perfectly and be completely clueless on another.

      1. I used the Japanese for Busy People (I, II, III) textbook as part of an evening class working as an executive of a Japanese corporation (hoo boy! that’s another story.)

        I still think it’s a pretty decent book.

        One of the great pluses of the “executive class” was that overwhelming emphasis was on speaking and listening so, you know, you can go order food and drinks in a New York izakaya, get totally hammered, and not embarrass yourself (except in the obvious way.)

        However, the book is not so great because it fails to understand how adults learn v/s how children learn. Adults do better with structure. You are better just stating the funny grammatical rules upfront but the rules don’t tell you what the relative frequencies of usage are.

        Who on earth uses the “passive causative”? I can think of exactly one example – 休ませていただきます.

        The English equivalent would be “If I would have been eating, I would …” When was the last time you heard an English speaker stack up the verbs “would have been X-ing”. Really, dude?

        I listen to the clerks in the Japanese stores interact. The egregious breaking of grammatical rules, “Wassup?”, “Dude!”, etc. I’ve also personally witnessed an entire conversation between two grandmas at an art gallery with them repeating 16 times in varying and shocking tones of intonation (and yes! I counted), 大変ですね — actually, they said 大変ですな (because they were old grammy’s – quite a lot of trouble, no?)

        Someday I’ll write a blog on this. I’m still struggling with reading although I can help Japanese grandmas on the NYC subway just fine. The grandma’s just want to get to MoMA, or more likely, Century 21 so just jump in there and talk.

        Here’s my advice as a NYC person – just do it. Forget the grammatical details. That’s all scaffolding.

        The goal is to communicate. At the worst, you’ll come off as an amateur or someone slightly ignorant (like if you didn’t use the right counter or something.) Who cares?

        It’s not like I’ll pass off as Japanese – I’m brown. So what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll make a fool of yourself? DONE. Not a big deal.

  4. And of course, this is also how Japanese people teach Japanese to foreigners. I had a year long exchange way back in the day with FOUR HOURS A DAY of this kind of thing. I still have the mental scars. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they were at least organized, but that is too much to ask of a Japanese university program, so what we got instead was mind-numbing boredom + reams of print-outs.

    “So really, it’s hard to imagine how a nation could do much worse. And they’re seriously trying, too; that’s the amazing thing.”

    Hehe, yeah this is such a window into the Japanese psyche. When Chinese people try hard, they get that shit done. Plus in Japan’s case, you can add in the extra problem of social stigma attached to standing out. Speaking English means being different. Being different is not good. If you are Chinese and can speak English, people will actually think you are pretty cool.

    1. There are two or three fundamental differences between Japanese and most Indo-European languages, and it would just be helpful if they were stated upfront.

      They are shockingly simple to the point that you could explain them to a 10-year old.

      [1] Japanese has no pronouns so it’s context-dependent.

      You state the context and you don’t have to keep referring back to the context using pronouns which you do all the time in English. It’s such a waste once you grasp the fact.

      [2] Most verbs in English deal with “sequencing in time”. This is considered “obvious” in Japanese because the sequence is obvious.

      “After work, when I will have eaten, I will go to the movie”.

      Note the stacking “when I will have eaten”. It’s in the future but a past perfect tense is being used. The verbs are just stacking up to no good use. What a waste of effort.


      “After work, when eaten, movie watch”.

      The sequence of events is perfectly clear. The meaning even more clear.

      [3] Kanji – on and kun.

      English is the same – there are four influences – Anglo-Saxon, French invasion (1066 A.D.), Latin and Greek.

      Look at the words for “water”

      Anglo-Saxon: water, waterfall, watermill
      French: eau-de-cologne
      Latin: aqua, aquarium, aquatic
      Greek: hydro, hydrology, hydropower

      A Japanese person would be mystified. Why is not “aqualogy”? But if you strip it down, it makes sense, right?

      It took me years to figure this out. What a waste! But this is the right way to teach adults.

      1. Those are important things to understand indeed.


        “After work, when I will have eaten, I will go to the movie”.

        I think this is not grammatically correct (and definitely not natural). So it’s a bit bad example to be used. If I’m not totally mistaken, it should be:

        After work, when I have eaten, I will go to the movie.

        So the redundancy comes mostly from the “excellent nouns”. Well… you could of course make similar assumptions that Japanese people make and say:

        After dinner, I’ll go to the movie.

        I think maybe only really non-economical part of English is the repetition of pronouns. With bad examples, one can of course construct horrible looking sentences… well… it’s naturally same thing in Japanese as well.

  5. Thank you for the good laugh, as always (oh and double thank you for exposing me to ‘brickhead’ and ‘ballpark’, which I hope will stick on the wall).

    1. Hey, I’m just glad I can expand your vocabulary with those very important terms. Be sure to use “brickhead” a lot when meeting people. It’s considered a high compliment among English speakers.

      1. Why do I not take your word for it, I wonder…?
        Maybe because it sound very similar to another affectionate surname given to people, also ending in ‘…ckhead’? I don’t know. See I just want to trust you but the little skeptic part of my brain is not having any of it.

  6. Definitely true… and I have to wonder how it is that either the Japanese education machine has not figured this out or refuses/fails to improve given the abysmal results. Of course, which one of those things it is (or if there’s some other option I’ve missed) or in what combination is also a relevant question.

    Despite that, getting the kind of immersion you’d want for this to be effective would be a bit difficult in Japan given the relatively few native/capable speakers in most places and the stigma you mentioned on being different.

    But then, getting immersion in any language outside of (one of) its native culture(s) is usually a challenge. Which is why I’m in the middle of applying for a Japanese language school in Tokyo, which seems likely to be one of the most interesting and educational mistakes I’ll ever make. After all, any culture that can produce a cover of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and somehow brainwash me into listening it — from thousands of miles away! — must have some profoundly amazing lessons to offer.

    1. In this case, I would say that “immersion” is beyond the scope of what I’m describing. Because I agree that creating an immersive environment would be difficult.

      What I’m talking about is simply upping the number of words, and not worrying about whether they’re remembered or not. We’re investing too much time and effort into trying to create perfect recall for a very limited vocabulary.

      In fact, I have serious doubts about how well “immersion” actually works. Of course, if you live in a place, it’s essentially free, but in terms of time efficiency, it’s amazing how little you learn in a year. I think that’s why there are Japanese language schools in Japan though.

  7. Another great article! I didn’t know anyone else in the world said fiver apart from Irish people like myself haha.

    The more I read your articles, the less I fancy becoming an English teacher in Japan, which to be fair was never the plan anyway.

    Over my one and a half years of learning Japanese and coming into a lot of contact with them, both in college here in Ireland and when I was in Japan during summer, is that it’s in the Japanese psyche (or something) that they love structure for everything and if it doesn’t work, they’re too proud/reluctant to change things, which can be pretty infuriating. One of my Japanese teachers during one class a week, gives us out brainstorm sheets relating to different areas of vocab like education or whatever, which we then fill them in with the little vocab we know. She then at the end of class proceeds to tell us the stuff we missed and hand us out a sheet containing most of the necessary vocab to learn. My argument would be, should we not be exposed to the all the vocab first, then use it with the grammar, speaking, writing etc. we’ve been learning, so we actually pick some up vocab naturally rather than having to rote learn it and the kanji later.
    I’ve been reading a lot of stuff online about learning languages and it seems the only way to do it, is to use it as much as possible and make the necessary mistakes, like you were saying, which in a college context is hard because it’s all about passing exams, rather than developing fluency.

    Thankfully I’m heading back to Japan in September to attend Takasaki’s University of Economics for my year abroad and can really focus on my oral Japanese.
    If I’m ever in your neighborhood I’ll buy you a beer or 6.

    1. The best Japanese teacher I had – sadly just for one semester – was the most radical.

      Context: I work in finance.

      Here were the exercises:

      [1] Give a sales pitch why I should hire you in Japanese.
      [2] Here’s a Bloomberg article – translate on the fly (she had annotated all the hard words.)
      [3] Translate this article in English into Japanese on the fly.

      Here were the lessons:

      [1] Here’s how you pick up chicks (for the straight guys)
      [2] Here’s how you pick up guys (for the straight women)
      [3] Here’s how you pick up guys (for the gay men)

      It was just unbelievable in a corporate context.

      She kept changing the rules so that each class was an adventure. It was like walking a tightrope with a safety net (the teacher). The rules just kept changing so that memorization was simply not going to work. You had to respond in real-time to whatever was being said.

      No wonder she left Japan! She was a total iconoclast. A total radical. Firebrand.

      I do believe I learnt more Japanese in those 10 weeks than before and after.

      1. That sounds like an amazing teacher. It’s funny how few teachers seem to want to actually have fun. It also sounds like the classes were student-centered, rather than her just standing at the board and lecturing to you. That alone, even aside from the subject matter, is guaranteed to make the class more engaging.

    2. Thanks man. Yeah, being an English teacher here is an exercise in frustration. It’s one of those things that “builds character,” so someday I suppose I’ll be a better person. Still waiting for that.

      You’re right to mention exams, since they’re at the heart of this problem. I’m convinced we’re using them all wrong. Testing is being used punitively, rather than as a gauge for how well the overall class is progressing.

      Exams are what’s causing the focus on memorization. If you can remember 9 out of 10 things, you get an A. 6 out of 10 and you get a D. But memorization doesn’t work well. It’s too hard, and it’s too slow.

      Exams also don’t test knowledge very robustly. They usually test it in only one way. What does 携 mean? I’d probably fail that. But when I see 携帯, I know it means “cell phone.” And if somebody were to say it, I’d understand it. I can also use the word in a grammatically correct sentence. But if I couldn’t come up with a specific definition for 携, I’d get a zero on that question, indicating that I don’t know it at all. Something’s not right there.

      Now, I don’t think we should dispense with exams. In fact, I think they’re great. But they’re being used entirely wrong, and present a very skewed picture of a person’s actual ability.

      I’ll give you another example. I have to grade tests once in a while. If a student misspells “giraffe” as “girafe,” they get a zero. No points for remembering that the freaking tall animal with little bitty horns is called that. No points for actually being able to discuss girafes in real life. You misspelled it; you get nothing. That’s a shitty thing to do to somebody. And you wonder why I drink.

      1. “If a student misspells ‘giraffe’ as ‘girafe,’ they get a zero. No points for remembering that the freaking tall animal with little bitty horns is called that. No points for actually being able to discuss girafes in real life. You misspelled it; you get nothing. That’s a shitty thing to do to somebody. And you wonder why I drink.”

        Learning from you about how English is taught in Japan is both sad and funny.

        I can’t believe that it’s a Friday night in Tokyo and I’m reading all of Ken’s articles and every comment. I just discovered this blog today and I’ve learned more from Ken and his smart readers than I have from any other source. Thank you for my rainy day reading.

        1. And thanks for reading, Nancy. The rainy season’s coming, so I guess I’ll have to crank out a few more. Well, any excuse not to leave the apartment.

      2. Haha Amen to that Ken. I like exams in college because they’re more about applying the knowledge rather than memorizing it, unfortunately when it comes to Japanese it’s like I’m back in highschool doing French or Irish, language ability isn’t necessarily important, but passing your exams are.

        Your point reminds me of our Summer exams in my freshman year. The exact opposite happened.
        Our professor put the Kanji for 自動販売機 in our our hiragana to kanji section. We all knew what it meant and how to use it in a sentence and it’s contained kanji are very important 自動 being “automatic” and everything, but I’ve never once seen the kanji written or have had to write it and the only time someone in Japan asked me where the nearest one was, he said ベンディングマシーン .
        So to this day I still haven’t learned to write it.
        Regardless, I really plan to improve my Japanese in all areas over the coming year, hoping to become somehow proficient. The struggle is real

  8. This article was definitely helpful, motivational, and as always, entertaining. Well done, I hope there can be more on the topic of language learning. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I hope so too. I never know what my brain’s gonna produce. It’s like my fridge. Like I open it up everyday hoping there’s something good in there, but usually, darn, nothing. Then every once in a while, hey bonus! half a cheese sandwich! I’d forgotten about that. Probably still good.

      And that’s how I write. It’s a scientific process; you wouldn’t understand. Anyway, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll keep it in mind.

  9. “How can students spend years memorizing vocabulary and practicing conjugation and at the end, still be unable to say one darn thing?” I feel like this is me and trying to learn Japanese. I’ve been trying to learn Japanese for a while now and I still cannot say very much. I honestly…even after years of classes…am not entirely certain how I’m supposed to study it. my teacher seems to just think we are going to magically memorise everything and be fluent but I find the sheer amount of stuff to memorise overwhelming. writing things out a million times has not done very much for me -and I cannot speak it well. I do think with actually conversing in a language its that fear that really holds one back – that fear of being embarassed if you get it wrong. and its really difficult to practice speaking – classes are the only time really.

    1. I feel ya. This is everybody trying to learn every language everywhere. Memorization is a hard and unnatural way to learn a language.

      If memorization worked well, it’d be awesome. If you could recall ten words a day, you’d have a massive vocabulary within a year. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you go to the store for five things, and by the time you get there, can only remember three. So that’s a bit disappointing.

      I’m sure there are a few individuals who can memorize things better than others, but most of the people I meet who are fluent in Japanese say they don’t have very good memories, and I believe them.

      Learning language is really about interacting with the words in a meaningful way. The trouble is, that’s hard to do, even if you live in Japan. You learn the words necessary for daily conversation—in my case, “convenience store,” “beer,” and “bathroom”—but how do you learn words for “global warming” and “rainforest depletion”? Because things like that are what you need to have normal adult conversations.

      The answer, I believe, is through television and reading. But in order to get to that point, you need a base of vocabulary and grammar, the roughly 3000 words I mentioned.

      So how do you get those? It’s obvious that rote memorization, or even spaced repetition, don’t work very well. My solution is to create meaningful, low-stress situations, massively increase exposure, and then just let whatever sticks, stick.

      I can be a little more specific on this point, so if you’re interested, let me know.

      Bottom line though, is that you and I had no trouble remembering Japanese words like sushi, tofu, and karate, so I don’t think it’s strictly a memorization problem. Just saying.

      1. Is it really so obvious that spaced repetition doesn’t work well? I think massively increasing exposure like you say is actually the whole point of spaced repetition when it is done well. Like with the SRS. People bring their text-book like attitudes to it and have a bad time, trying to “answer” their cards “correctly” etc. I think it is much smarter to use the SRS as a tool to just see/hear a word in context enough times so that it sticks. It’s still memorization at the end of the day, but each individual “try” is very low effort and relaxed. At the moment I’m adding fifty words a day to my Mandarin deck. Am I trying to memorize fifty new words a day by staring at them? No. But I see and hear them and try and get a feel for them. Then again. And again. And again over the following weeks. And at some point I move from not knowing, to knowing.

        1. Well, I feel what you’re saying. I like SRS, and have used it for many years. There are probably about ten people in the world who’ve stuck with it more than I have. At this point, I figure I’ve reviewed a quarter of a million flash cards. Ah, where does the time go?

          So it works . . . kind of. I mean, when you’re waiting for the bus, it gives you something to do other than staring at your feet. And yeah, I might now be able to remember how to say “the industrial revolution” in Japanese, but the memories are very fragile and context dependent. I can remember them in some situations, and other times, not at all.

          I contrast that to knowledge I’ve acquired through experience. All those cliche words like “凄い” and “格好いい” and “うまい.” They’re now as much a part of me as English. And I never wrote any of it down, and never consciously reviewed it, even once.

          So forced memorization works . . . better than nothing. But not as well as somebody yelling ダメ! at you one time. The first time you raise your camera in a museum and hear a guard say that, you never forget it. Once and done.

          I feel like the brain knows the difference between stuff it’s told to remember, and stuff it actually needs for real life, and the latter will always take precedence. It’s pretty hard to trick it. Stupid brain.

          1. Yo Ken, I think what you talked about in the last paragraph is what’s known in phycology as “RAS” or Reticular Activation System. (Google knows it’s true.)

            It’s basicly our brain’s way to focus and remember on what has emotional value or is a threat to the well being.

            For example, you are drunk on malt liqour while on a japanese festival and to your surprise, a model looking girl calls you “Kawaii”. You feel very happy and try to make your move, since you can tell she has a thing for white guys.

            Suddenly, a huge, knife-wielding Yakuza appears and calls you “aho!”, You figure she’s the dude’s girlfriend and since you like your head to stay on its place you run like hell from the spot.

            The next morning you wake up with a terrible hang over. You remember “Kawaii” and “Aho!” quite well, but can’t figure out why in hell those boring flash cards your phone is bugging you with just won’t stick…

            1. So if I can just find enough pretty girls and yakuza, then they can follow me around with my iPhone shouting “luggage rack!” and “industrial revolution!” until I’ve mastered thousands of words of new vocabulary? Because I think I can arrange that. Good to know about this Rastifari Activation System. That’s interesting.

      2. I agree. I do think its possible to memorize – but I find that sitting down working with a textbook isn’t quite it. I watch a lot of Japanese dramas and Japanese music and although I cannot say I’m learning from it, I definitely do remember roughly my favourite lines, or lines/words that stood out to me and you do get a feel for the sound of it at least. similiarly, when you are forced to think of things yourself- and indeed make mistakes – its easier to memorize – such as having to write short dialogues or essays yourself, or random discussions with friends. So I guess I agree – its not really the memorization thats the problem, its the context. The “meaningfullness” of what you are learning? Just like its hard to remember a scientfic method without a diagram or formulas (I’m an engineer haha) you need something to relate the memory to? I’d defintely be interested to see you expand on that point anyway!

        1. Well, let’s talk SRS for a second then.

          For those who don’t know, SRS or “spaced repetition” is flash card software that schedules when you’ll review the card next. You make a note of whatever you want to remember, and then the system presents it according to schedule.

          Using an SRS system, like Anki, you grade how well you remember each card.

          I used Anki for a few years fairly strictly. That is, if I couldn’t remember a card, I’d fail it, in which case it would be reset back to zero, and I’d start to review it again starting from the next day. In this way, I kept re-reviewing things that I was failing, and often found myself reviewing the same cards over and over. The same thing I see being done to Japanese students learning English.

          And this created the problem that I’m describing in this article. You end up spending time going over the same stuff, which takes time away from learning new things.

          So my solution is to pass everything. If I can’t remember a card, I “bury” it. In Anki parlance, this just means that I can see the card again one or two more times the same day. So I review the misremembered card again, but ultimately I pass it, so the card stays on the same schedule.

          In this way, I don’t keep going over the same things again and again.

          So two interesting things have happened as a result.

          1. I’ve freed up time for new material, and new material helps me to remember the cards that were problematic. For example if I had trouble with 食事, then later I learned 食堂, well, that helps me remember 食事 the next time I see it.

          2. The cards that I would have failed, when I see them again, sometimes I can remember them. In other words, if I couldn’t remember a card on Tuesday morning, sometimes for no reason at all, I can remember it on Friday night. That’s just how the brain works, I guess. So really, failing that card would not have been the best course of action.

          Is this making any sense? I know this sounds technical, but what I’m trying to describe really isn’t. It doesn’t even have anything to do with SRS specifically.

          The key point I’m trying to make is that we only have limited time, so if we review old material too much, it detracts from our time for learning new material.

          Also, it’s better to learn 100 things and forget 80, than to learn 10 perfectly.

          So bottom line is, I learn something, then review it a few times, and if it sticks, it sticks. Either way I keep moving on to new things, and don’t worry about the retention rate.

          1. “Also, it’s better to learn 100 things and forget 80, than to learn 10 perfectly.” This is really important, and I agree wholeheartedly. I remember Steve Kaufmann saying the same thing several times in his blog over the last few years. I just think that learning those 100 things is where an SRS can be invaluable, esp. when you are learning a language like Japanese or Chinese and you are in the pre-advanced stages.

            Actually, the largest Anki deck I ever had for Japanese was four thousand, which I made in 2010 while getting my AJATT on (this is danchan here in case you hadn’t figured it out). I added stuff after I saw it in a book or on TV, and felt that I wanted to know it. It was an excellent companion to immersion. Contrast that to 2005 when I was far, far more ignorant, and actually attempted to just write down any word I found on paper in a brute-force manner. I ended up spending a few hundred hours making boxes of cards that I then had to throw away because half of the words were too obscure and I hadn’t realized it yet.

            1. Yeah, paper is surely not the way to go. I ended up throwing out a few thousand flash cards, after spending a couple of years writing and reviewing them. It’s just too hard to organize, search, and schedule.

              I think SRS is a good solution, plus it gives you something to do while waiting in line at the supermarket.

              My only caveat is that I don’t fail cards repeatedly, because otherwise you just keep repeating the same information. It’s better to just pass them and keep moving forward.

          2. I was using Anki but have recently picked up the memrise app. It’s pretty similar but does a good job helping you move forward even if you’re missing translations. It’s not making you pass everything before it exposes you to more which is both frightening and exciting as the same time. I’ve found many times that learning a new word helps me break through on an older one. And totally agree and the convenience if just being able to fire it up and churn through a bunch of cards in-between other app addictions (curse you puzzledra!). The biggest downside is that the Japanese material is a little limited right now to JLPT stuff which is a little dated.

            And also taking to heart personally that it’s better to try and butcher a sentence versus waiting until your language skills are perfection.

            1. You know, you don’t usually hear of language learning being described as “frightening and exciting.” We need more of that. Apparently I’m going to need to check out Memrise once I finish my current batch of (several thousand) Anki words.

              And I couldn’t agree more about “learning a new word helps me break through on an older one.” Sometimes learning Japanese seems linear, but it’s really more akin to weaving a web.

  10. Yo Ken,

    A Very Interesting Piece! I once talked with a guy that spent 8 years in Japan right after the war and he told me that he went back to see Japan in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of WWII ending, he found that there were less Japanese speaking English than when he left the country in 1953. He also said that the Japanese were ruder to each other in 1995 than they were back 50 years before. Don’t know if that means anything to you, but he was a pretty sharp guy (a Major General). Maybe your Mr. Nakamura is symptomatic of what might be ailing Japan right now; in that they seem to have an inflated sense of self importance (sort of like most Americans have had over the last 100 years). We in the US found out that it made other people around the world sort of HATE us and our nation and I wonder if the Japanese are heading down that path again as they did in the 1930s and 1980s?!

    I taught chess in the schools for ten years (grades k-12) and was fairly successful and I found out that video games and picture puzzles worked the fastest and best in teaching chess while retaining children’s enthusiasm. The younger kids loved having TVs set up with Chess Master and Battle Chess while the older High School kids loved getting to play various video games if they could solve chess picture puzzles where you have to find the checkmate in so many moves. So I would bring in a Nintendo 64 and an Xbox and have my son’s games there for them to try out when they figured out the answer.

    BTW, I’m hoping to win the Publishers Clearing house lottery this year and IF I do, I’m going to visit Japan and treat you to the best meal money can buy, but don’t make any reservations just yet: the chances are 1 in 500 million … LOL).

    P.S. I had some good news the other day…. I’m going to be a grandfather come this November!! It came as quite a surprise since my son and his wife had already declared their intentions of not having children. I’m really looking forward to this (and hoping my knees will last thru it). My Dad had to replace both his knees, so it runs in the family. Continued best wishes on the book too Ken!!

    1. Congratulations on being promoted to grandfather, Bud. That seems like a pretty sweet gig, where you get to play with kids all you want, and then when you’re tired or there’s a problem, you just bounce them back to their parents. More of life should be like that.

      It doesn’t surprise me to hear that Japan hasn’t improved its English in 50 years, or that it’s gotten worse, since it seems like such a low priority, outside of a few companies that are trying to “globalize.”

      Personally, I’d be pleased as punch if everybody in this country would just speak Japanese. On the other hand, if you’re gonna go to the trouble of putting people through a decade of English classes, then you ought to get something out of it. For a country that has a reputation for efficiency and high levels of education, they sure missed the point of learning English.

      I agree with you completely about using games as teaching tools. That seems like a win all the way around.

      Good luck with the sweepstakes. Somebody’s gotta win, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

  11. I think you hit your head on the nail on this one.
    As you may or not may know we Swedes have English classes from the 3rd year (8 to 9 years old) up to until you are 18 years old. You can probably understand that i have had a lot of different English teachers and the main thing they have in common is how they taught.

    In the begging you learn some basic stuff like how to pronounce the alphabet, how to count from 1 to 10 and some basic words that are useful in daily life like how to say hello, goodbye, and so on.

    After a while they started to switch from speaking Swedish to speaking more and more English and every week you had 10 to 20 new English words to “learn” but it was no big deal if you weren’t able to learn them all, if i remember correct you had to have like 20% correct or something around that number. And after 10 years you have gone through a lot of words, I can´t say i remember them all but i do remember some of them.

    I would not call myself an expert but i do believe that i can at least make myself understood.
    And thank you for yet another interesting article to read 🙂

    1. Now that’s what I’m talking about. I like the idea of continually increasing the amount of exposure to the language, and also the idea of setting easily attainable goals that keep people progressing.

      Thanks for that comment.

  12. Heya Ken, you are one of the rare writers that can cause me to burst out laughing in a public place and not mind the odd looks I recieve from bystanders.Beyond the good doses of humor, your articles have been a great help to me. However I was hoping for your advice. I want to learn Japanese by attending a japanese language school, particularly ARC Osaka. I figure immersion and constant study are the best way to see results. The program is two years long, and after it is over I would like to stay in Japan and teach English. Would this be possible with just a tefl certification? Or would I be better off getting my bachelors degree in the US before coming to the language school? Would they even allow me to stay without a bachelors? It’s just that I feel like getting my bachelors in Japanese language and culture would be such a inefficient use of my time compared to attending a language school that I do not want to do so unless necessary.

    1. Thanks for reading my crazy stuff. Glad I could make you laugh.

      In terms of Japanese, I’d say you’re right on about attending a language school here. Although …

      I’d encourage you to get that bachelor’s degree. Your life will be infinitely better once you’ve got it under your belt. It’s massively important when it comes to getting jobs, both inside and outside of Japan. Can you legally teach English in Japan without one? Well, I’ve read that you need a bachelor’s degree in order to get an Instructor visa, but I’m sure if that’s actually a law. Certainly not everybody checks to see if you’ve got that piece of paper.

      But still, I’d say that if you came here without a degree that you’d be at a tremendous handicap, and that down the road it’d cause you a lot of problems. On the other hand, if you got a degree in TEFL, or English, or even Japanese, you’d be set once you landed at Narita.

  13. You certainly explained the flaws of how Japanese teach (and learn) English very well. I can totally relate with how teachers draw triangles, squares and circles in every possible chalk color on sentences. They complicate simple lessons, give unnecessary explanations reducing student talking time. It’s sometimes frustrating for me to stand in the back and watch the teacher murder the students’ enthusiasm for English. Japanese English teachers should read this piece and should definitely vote for you as BOE Minister. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I think I’ll print it out and anonymously leave it on the doorstep of all the schools in my area.

      Thanks for your vote. Every vote counts!

  14. If there’s one thing Japan is doing right when it comes to English education, it’s ensuring that English speaking foreigners have a guaranteed job for years to come.

    1. You got that right. It’s like the automotive undercoating business. Let’s hope they never figure it out.

      1. It’s one of the rare occasions that I can say that I’m trying to put myself out of work by being Awesome at my job!

        1. Awesome? Agh! You start doing that and something might change! May I suggest . . . mediocrity? It’s worked so well for so long here.

  15. I agree with you. In Finland, we have exactly the same problem. We can type better than average native person, but talking is a completely different matter. Gladly the shows in our TV are not dubbed, so we have benefit of hearing English all our lives… Nevertheless, the speaking was extremely difficult at the beginning. I can understand the poor Japanese, when they try to speak to me English and nothing comes out from their mouths 🙂 I’ve been in the situation myself. It took me a whole business trip with a lady to finally get used to speak English at some level, and even after that I wasn’t so sure of my spoken English. After I needed to start to teach something in English, I finally learned the art of talking little by little.

    On the other hand, I took 3 semesters of German classes. I had a teacher who put us to do conversation between people in the beginning of each class… small talk about weekend activities etc. I felt that it was very effective. It also gave a bit pressure to concentrate on important words that you need in everyday conversation, because you noticed the words and sentence structures that you really needed.

    Unfortunately, I’ve been learning Japanese 4 years in Finland under a native Japanese teacher, and after getting to Japan, I can only speak Japanese when I’m drunk. I can also understand a native Japanese person better when they are also drunk… so it’s a lucky coincidence.

    1. Man, that sounds like no problem—just stay drunk all the time. Works for me. In fact, I’m not sure I can speak any language sober, and I have no intention of trying it out anytime soon. Anyway, yeah, speaking practice is a pretty solid idea. Funny how that detail seems to escape so many language classes.

  16. I can’t agree more for 3 points you mentioned for a great English class. And whoa.. what a serious and great discussion we have here. How unusual.. 🙂

    1. Yeah, those points seem like Teaching 101 to me, but it’s funny how many instructors do just the opposite. And yeah, I love a good discussion, especially if it has to do with Japan, education, women, or beer. Keep it coming!

  17. The situation that you described is a great example why I found living in Japan so stimulating and rewarding. As you show in your example, one can’t help but notice why the English lessons are so ineffective. It’s hiding in plain sight. So it’s easy to understand that specific instance. Then, after some time has passed and after some stimulation of the brain with some 飲み会 one suddenly realizes that what one has observed is not a mere isolated occurrence that applies only to silly Japan, but part of a grander scheme.

    I mean take a loot at how (western) universities usually works: You attend lectures (or actually you might also skip them) where in the best case you listen to the lecturer explaining his subject, but more often than not you are just waiting for it to be over. Then you might go to exercise classes and let the teaching assistant do all the work. Finally, if you are truly motivated, it might happen that you actually even read a book about the subject. But those activities are all passive, so it shouldn’t really be surprising if after all that you still don’t have a solid understanding of the subject. You’ve just fooled yourself. You looked as if you gave it your best, but in the end the result is mediocre at best. Which incidentally kind of brings us to Japanese work culture, but I digress.

    So it really doesn’t surprise me anymore that I have only a very sketchy understanding of quantum electrodynamics. I just pretended to study it without actually putting in the work. Or maybe the stuff is just too complicated to understand – who knows, right?

    1. I agree, this isn’t limited to Japan in any way. There’s no shortage of lecture-oriented, sit-and-try-not-to-be-bored classes in the world. There’s a lot of talk about “flipping the classroom” and making classes more student-oriented, but it’s clear that such environments are still in the minority.

      I’m actually going to write another post on this topic, since it’s something close to my heart and I’m already on the soapbox and all. Thanks for the inspiration.

      1. Bang the Drum! Book Book Book…LOL!

        Ya know the US almost had its first popular uprising since the Civil War the other day. Harry Reid, head of the US Senate and main sponsor of Obama had the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) come down hard on some poor rancher in the State of Nevada to evict him from lands claimed to be Federal (the farmers family had been living on them since before the Area was ever a part of the United States). Then they capturing his herd and started killing them for sale to a slaughter house when several thousand angry and armed people showed up and the call went out for private militias around the country to mobilize and they confronted the Feds and forced them to back down and leave.

        They found out later that Harry Reid’s son had a deal with some giant Chinese company to build a Solar farm in the US on that property (which would have made him a millions of dollars). Chalk one up for Freedom! ( ). I know several peeps in the militia’s around in my state (which is over 1200 miles away from Nevada) said that there was going to be twenty thousand militia members on the way to that farm from around the USA. The Feds showed up with Armored Cars, armed helicopters and machine guns and the militia people had assault rifles, 50 Cal. Sniper rifles, explosives and even had some WWII fighter planes getting ready. Most of that wasn’t in the news though because the US wants everyone else in the world to think that were all trained and obedient here in the US…….ROFL! So you probably should stay in Japan for a while before you visit again,.. cough cough.

        Bang the Drum…. Book Book Book Yahoo!

        1. Bud, I see through your psychological trick, where you’re just trying to make me feel better about living in Japan. I must say, though, it’s working. With stuff like that happening in the U.S., I feel pretty good being able to walk down the streets here without worrying about getting shot.

          1. Oh Snap, I’ve been discovered again, you wily fox you! Well, I just didn’t want you to worry since things are really starting to go weird all over the world! Now that you mention it, Japan is probably a safe place to ride it out! With War about to break out in the Ukraine with Russia, US ships in the Black sea getting buzzed by Russian jets (a new cold war on the horizon), Africa starting a Muslim versus Christian genocide competition, and Germany allowing public nudity (actually only in Munich)… it shouldn’t be long before all hell breaks out in the Middle East… right.

            Well, I heard that the cause for all this upheaval is due to the Lunar cycles believe it or not. Every so often a rare event occurs, called the four Tetrads – Blood Red Moons. Tetrads of four sequential lunar eclipses (called Blood Red Moons) with no intervening partial lunar eclipses occurs 6 times this century, but this is the only time it occurs on the Jewish holy days of Passover and Feast of Tabernacles (supposedly this is because there is some religious prophesy related to this).

            The last time that four Blood Red Moons occurred together was in 1967-1968, which was when there was a 6 day war in the middle east. The time that the tetrad occurred before that was in 1949-1950, when Israel was born. Before this time, the last occurrence was 1493-1494, which so happens to be when the Jews were expelled from Europe the first time. Since 1 AD (ya know when Jesus was born), this tetrad has occurred on these holy days a total of 7 times and all are associated with momentous events related to the Jews (and they have many momentous events “geh vays”). In 2014-2015, it will be the 8th time this Tetrad will have occurred. It won’t occur again for another 500 years. Some People (a famous christian preacher here in the US named John Hagee – ) believe it signals the beginning of the end of the world! Ya, I know another so called repeat of the 2012 end of the Mayan Calendar prediction and AGAIN…. when will they EVER get the end of the world right for god’s sake!!

            Well, you don’t need to worry because there are very few Jews in Japan and the middle East is on the other side of the world, so just remember not to go near a synagogue or you might get smitten or something!! Sorry I’m so “meshuggener”, but I like Blood Red Moons!!!

            BTW, Writing books can take your mind off of such trivial events too! Bang the Drum!!!

            1. Moons, apocalypse…Wait, Germany allows public nudity? That sounds great. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all.

      2. Oh, so that’s what’s hiding behind the term ‘flipping the classroom’. It doesn’t sound as exciting anymore now that I know that it is actually about teaching and learning rather than letting all hell loose in school. Way to ruin my rampant imagination!

        1. On that, I think the idea of flipping a classroom—making it student-centered rather than teacher -entered—sounds good in theory, but it can be hard to apply when you’ve got a class of 40 eight year-olds. I think that’s where the “all hell breaks loose” comes in.

          Also, in some applications of the “flipped classroom,” it comes across as “learn at home; practice at school.” That concerns me because it shifts responsibility onto the student and parent, and given that home environments vary greatly, it seems that many students are left without proper support and supervision.

          Sometimes the flipped classroom just sounds like you’re giving the kids a million times more homework.

          I like enabling them to work independently in a hands-on fashion, but I like to see that being done at school, rather than making them “work overtime.” They’ll get enough of that once they get older.

          So that’s my rant. Thanks for enabling me.

  18. I really love your writing style! And as a 9-year expat with no non-Japanese acquaintances, I find it somehow grounding to see your take on things here and how similar it is to mine.

    1. Thanks much. It’s funny, right?—living here for a long time. You feel like you fit in, and then once in a while somebody goes out of their way to make you feel different. Like a guy once came up to me in Shinjuku station, and out of the blue started helping me in English to find my train. I was like, Dude, I’m going to work. I take this train every day.

      At least that’s how it is for me. Meanwhile, all the stuff back home starts to feel really foreign, like Who are those strange people in the baggy clothes, and why do they talk so loud?

      So it’s weird, living here for a long time. I wonder how many people really know what that’s like? Now I’m feeling all philosophical.

      1. How about delivery men offering you a pen every time? These days when strangers ask me how long I’ve been in Japan I just ask them what they’re talking about and say I’ve never been overseas. And if they persist I just get indignant.

        1. “How about delivery men offering you a pen every time?”

          You mean like, What? A white man can’t own a hanko?

          I’ve never actually been indignant about that. So thanks, now I have one more thing to add to the list.

          Never been overseas … that’s pretty funny; maybe I’ll try that next time.

          1. The way I see it, I’m a grown damn shakaijin, so to assume I’m illiterate, I don’t have a stamp or I can’t use the most basic of eating utensils is insulting enough to get indignant about, even if those assumptions take the form of praise upon learning that they are in fact false.

            And I’m sure somewhere out there in the wild there must exist some non-Asians born and raised in Japan right? Or do they just jump off a building at a young age? Either way it’s just my new thing that I do for fun and as long as the conversation stays relatively short I’m pretty sure my accent is good enough that I can make it click in some of their heads.

            1. Yeah, this. Finding a way to deal with the constant “othering”—judging you to be different because of how you look—that’s a challenge. Most “foreigners” who can leave Japan, eventually do, which is sad. And I think this is one reason.

              I’ve met many, many children who were non-Asian Japanese, but very few adults. They’re all going somewhere, I guess. Underground railroad.

  19. Now, that’s good and all and I agree with pretty much everything, but do you actually say this to anyone in Japan, especially teachers? Sure, they may be afraid to do something very differently from the “working” system and probably will have very little overall impact would just annoy some people, but I also believe that some teachers might change their ways, even if it is little. Maybe someday a teacher will remember your words during a class and spend 5 minutes less on Japanese or something. Well of course, this would mean minus five minute of Japanese for Ken Seeroi too, but it can’t be helped.

    I just think it’s important to at least talk about with the Japanese English teachers you get to talk with, at least.

    1. Yeah, that’s the stuff that drives a brother insane. I don’t think there’s a “foreign” English teacher in this country who doesn’t want to change the system. And many of the Japanese English teachers do as well. So of course, we have this discussion. But it’s like wanting to change things anywhere, I guess. Like wanting Americans to lose weight or stop shooting each other. Like, everybody agrees those are good ideas, but somehow implementing changes is massively difficult. Same thing here. Okay, maybe it’s not the same, but you get my point. Maybe. Anyway, yeah, I think it is important to influence what change we can.

  20. How free are you when choosing your teaching methods? And not just by law, because the law can say many things, but what is socially acceptable is what is usually done. In the West if a teacher wants to he can make you sit on a pillow on the floor during class, but no one actually does that. He can use any textbook or ways of teaching something, as long as he is teaching what the program says he needs to teach today. But most people don’t even do something small differently.

    1. Well, it depends on the place. In middle and high school, I have almost no input. Generally, the students get English class every day, and I only see them maybe once a month. Sometimes I’m free to do what I want, in which case I do a student-centric class, often based around a game. But just as often I’m only there as “support,” meaning that I simply follow what the Japanese English teacher does. Their main goal is to get the students ready to pass written exams, which require students to be precise in their grammar and spellin. My role there is minor, and the teachers are determined to have their students pass the tests. They don’t have time to waste on actually using the language.

      In elementary school, I’m generally free to do what I want, and I typically do a fun, student-centric class. But again, I only see the kids maybe once every three weeks. And even if they came out of elementary school with great English, they’d still have to survive 6 mind-numbing years in middle and high school. Many kids like English until they reach that point.

      In college, I’m again free to do what I want, but generally the students don’t put forth much effort because, well, they’re college students. I’ve taught at four universities here, and you’d be lucky to have half the students even show up for class. I’ve had reports submitted in pencil scribbled on a wrinkled piece of paper. College in Japan isn’t very serious business, and the administration won’t allow anybody to fail. Jeez, don’t even get me started on this.

      In adult classes, I’m often free to do what I want, and that’s where somebody might actually learn some English. I’d say that out of 100 adult students that I meet, the number who can correctly respond to the question “How’s it going?” is zero. So that’s usually where we start.

      The problem, simply put, is systematic. As long as the government uses written tests based upon perfect grammar and spelling as a measure of “English ability,” this situation will persist. The amazing thing is that every single Japanese person acknowledges this, but it hasn’t been changed in decades, perhaps even centuries.

      But there is something very “Japanese” about this as well, this mathematical precision, this belief that there is a “right” way to use the language, and that if you use it wrongly, you should be penalized. After all, this is the country that carefully stacks tiny fish eggs on top of sushi, and would have a massive coronary if you wrote 漢字 with the wrong stroke order.

      1. Ooooh boy oh boy don’t get me started either. Even the good state schools with relatively serious students are very lax as far as what they require their students to do, unless you are talking about grad students in science/medicine/engineering etc. in which case its like being a salary man (living in the research room).

        Here’s a good article on the topic that I found quite insightful and aligns with my own experiences.

  21. Hello Mr Ken!
    I’m happy to discover you and your great articles.
    I’m learning English and also I like Japanese culture..
    I think reading your articles I could combine these two interests of mine in a pleasant way.
    Thank you!

    1. Hello, and welcome. I’m pretty sure that here, you’ll learn some English that you’ll never hear anywhere else. Just think how useful that’ll be. Thanks for reading!

        1. Indeed, maybe something like this:”got my ass handed to me” . Oh, I can’t translate but looking hard for it, here it is an explanation: “Getting completely, utterly and totally beaten, defeated and crushed at a game, challenge or debate.” I undestand it and easy to memorize.
          Extremely usefull!

  22. Just found your blog today! Thanks for being candid. 🙂

    I’m curious, not sure which programs you have taught with in Japan, but I’ve thought about teaching English in Japan to bulk up my Japanese (for my own enjoyment, and just to see what career opportunities–translation, etc.–might line up down the road). I’ll just briefly say that I spent a few months in Japan during college and loved every rosy minute of it, but have been hesitant to return because I don’t believe in perfection this side of Heaven haha. So, I’m asking one detailed question and one general question:

    1. The General: What are your best reasons for being in Japan? Like things you’ll never regret? As I get older I realize that it’s how comfortable you are with yourself that first determines your happiness in ANY place, and second to that is the friends you make. But what’s specific about Japan that keeps you there? Maybe it’ll help me make better decisions going forward. ^^

    2. The Detailed: This is a teaching question. From what I’ve gathered, I’m afraid the answer is no, but I would love to teach English in, um, a non-Japanese way. xD Like, not just parroting for the Japanese teacher. I started jotting down lesson ideas that I thought would be great for my students, but now I realize that those may not be optional. 🙁

    Regardless, thanks for reading this far!

    1. Hey, thanks for writing in. Let me address your questions.

      The first I’m going to roll into a general Why-is-Ken-Seeroi-Still-Here post that’ll probably take me a month to write. So check back then. Which is to say that it’ll take me 29 days of tossing back cans of beer and one day to remember Oh shit, I’ve got a blog.

      The second question is easier.

      I have literally taught every damn kind of English there is to teach. English for kindergarteners. English for doctors. English for airline pilots. English for college students, high school students, middle scho…well you get the idea. English for senior citizens. English for people from Korea. China. India. English for English teachers.

      Probably the bulk of the time, I made my own curricula, lessons, and material. Jeez, who wants to do that? I vastly prefer somebody to just hand me a book and a lesson sheet and say, “Here, do this.” You might call that “lazy,” but I’d call it “efficient.” And since I’m the English teacher, I’d be right.

      Seriously though, making your own stuff sounds great, but it’s reinventing the wheel. Do you know how many English-language textbooks are out there? Six million and twelve, that’s how many. I counted. So when you say you’re going to come up with your own lessons, what you’re essentially saying is that you’re going to write your own book, and it’s going to do something that none of the other books have ever done. And still, I’ve tried. Which, by the way, is not the same as saying I’ve succeeded.

      Let me digress momentarily and mention that I’ve interviewed and hired a number of English teachers over the years, and one of the deciding factors is how much Japanese that person speaks. Not because it’s helpful for teaching, although it is, but because it informs how that person will teach their own classes.

      If you’ve learned Japanese to a reasonably high level, then you know how freaking hard it is. And by extension, you know what your students are going through to learn English. You understand the reality of it—it’s nothing for a teacher to say “study at least an hour a day,” but when you’ve got to balance that with your own ironing of shirts or picking up the kids at daycare or cooking dinner, you realize how freaking hard an hour of studying really is.

      So that’s where I start in making materials. Think about what your students are going to need to do for the next 10-20 years. Because that’s how long it’s going to take. They’re going to have to keep studying through life changes—graduations, romances, break-ups, deaths, getting jobs, losing jobs. If you’re thinking in terms of a class or even a semester, you’re way off. You need to understand the scope of what you’re attempting. You’re going to the moon. Or at least launching your students there. See ya! Have a nice trip!

      As they say, begin with the goal in mind. That’d be my advice.

  23. Seeroi Sensei,

    The latest comment prompted me to re-read this post. I think it would be interesting to compare Japan’s English instruction to that in the Philippines. There you have an Asian country where almost everyone speaks English fluently. So much so that English has been declared one of the country’s official languages.

    So the approach to learning English must be entirely different. I think a lot of it is due to constant exposure to English and the USA’s long-term influence there. A lot of the media is in English and pretty much all of the signage includes English along with the local language.

    Another factor seems to be attitude. It appears that English is treated as a MEANS of COMMUNICATION, rather than just a required course of study.

    I recently stumbled across an English Teaching program on the web: This is where Philippine nationals, primarily graduates from the University of the Philippines, teach English online via Skype to Japanese. (For about $2.00 USD per hour). I don’t know how effective they are at teaching English to Japanese, but it does say something about how well the Filipinos themselves learn English. Well enough to communicate in English and teach it apparently.

    1. I’ve certainly met a number of English teachers in Japan who were Filipino. One of the things living here has opened my eyes to is the fact that there are many varieties of English, and they’re all correct. I came here somehow believing that my pronunciation and spelling were the valid ones—not like those people from Russia, India, or New Zealand—a thought that now seems only slightly imperialist.

      But to your other point, it’s true that what’s holding Japan back is its approach, or attitude. Actually, I’d say the Japanese culture is the problem.

      Japanese people are obsessed with details. Okay, “obsessed” doesn’t begin to describe it. OCD is a bit more like it. We revere a sushi chef because he spends hours arranging miniscule fish eggs just so atop a perfectly-cut sliver of fish. And that gets gently placed upon a handful of rice that took him years to learn how to make. We act like that’s a good thing.

      You can see this approach applied to language learning as well. Japanese folks spend years copying the same kanji, making sure it’s just right. If somehow you mistook 末 未 your sensei’d beat you to death with a stick. Everything is tested, graded, and criticized. Make sure you don’t screw up and spell “color” with a “u.”

      Couple that with the Japanese authoritarian culture and you have a recipe for classroom disaster. It becomes “teacher-first,” where the omniscient sensei stands at the board teaching students English, rather than encouraging them to learn. If students sit still, pay attention, and perfectly copy what the teacher writes, then they get an A and pass English class. Everybody’s happy.

      Unfortunately, English is far too dynamic for that approach. There’s a dozen darn ways to say the same stupid thing and it really doesn’t make a whole heap of difference whether you get it right or not.

      You can screw up English pretty bad and still get elected Leader of the Free World. But if Shinzo Abe mixed up 待 and 持 at lunchtime, he’d be impeached by sundown.

    2. My parents do say that they feel that the overall English level in the Philippines may be declining since there is more of a tendency to mix up both the English and the Filipino in everyday conversations…so maybe both end up declining as a result. I’ll say that when I talk to my cousins and they start pulling out the Taglish…I have no clue what they’re saying, maybe because my brain can’t switch languages mid-sentence.

      Though I did have a 後輩 at work who used the Skype English thing with Filipinos and it did seem to work on his English, or at least his shyness about using his English anyway.

  24. Hi Ken!

    I’m teaching at a middle school on Hokkaido, and your description of your Nakamura sensei sounds frighteningly similar to my Nakamura sensei.
    I am wondering if they are the same man.

    1. I’m quite certain the Nakamura clan has dispersed far and wide, ensuring English classes throughout the nation receive hours and hours of careful instruction in Japanese.

  25. Great advice. This dovetails with my general assumptions on how English should be taught – namely, that the emphasis should be on student participation and practice of the language. But the interviewers during my interview for JET did not seem too keen on this concept.

    They said that Japanese students are too shy and may refuse to participate. Or else, if I’m too lenient and create an overly student-centered classroom environment, then they may become unruly and uncontrollable. That said, I think I’d prefer a more raucous classroom to a sullen, taciturn one. But that all remains to be seen.

    Any tips for or basic activity suggestions on how to promote this kind of instruction? Or on how to maintain classroom discipline and keep the students from going crazy? Would I even have the freedom to cultivate such instruction as an ALT?

    1. To answer your last question: it depends on the other teacher, the school, the class, and the day. In a nutshell, that’s the biggest challenge in being an ALT. You have to be able to adapt to maximum variability and minimum standards.

      So are Japanese students shy…or are they unruly? Your own questions point to the answer—they’re basically responding to the environment they find themselves in (as are we all). But there’s only so much of that you can control (refer back to sentence #1).

      My general advice is:

      1. Have a lesson plan for every class. For example: 5 minute warm-up exercise, then 10 minute vocabulary game, then 10 minute partner practice, etc.

      and 2. Be ready to throw out the entire lesson plan at a moment’s notice. (Again, refer to sentence #1).

      1. Hm, versatility and spontaneity are two necessary skills that keep popping up. I guess that means I better write them down. Thanks for the tips!

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