Tutoring English in Japan: Private Lessons are Common
By Adrienne McPhail
When I arrived in Japan I soon discovered that there is a large market for native English speaking teachers who are willing to spend just one hour a week teaching conversational English to Japanese students. Most of the teachers
are either married to U.S. military personnel or are living in Japan by choice. Most teachers teach in their homes or in cafes in the cities of Yokosuka and Tokyo. They are a mixed group of men and women with only two things in common: they are American
and they have a college degree in some field.
Many of the teachers use a series of three workbooks called Interchange Level 1 Student's Book with Self-study DVD-ROM. They simply spend one hour a week with one or more students and are paid between 2,500-5,000 yen ($20-40+) for their efforts.
The Japanese network with each other or contact private agencies in order to find the teachers. The lesson plans, location, price, and schedule are set by the teachers. Students come from all walks of life, including housewives,
high school students preparing for university exams, and business professionals trying to improve their English language skills. I know one woman who teaches both a mother and her daughter.
Being an author and a journalist, I have a genuine love of the English language, so I decided to try and teach three students: Yoko Matsuyama, Noriko Chiba and Fumiko Fukuda. I was very surprised to find that they, like all Japanese,
had studied basic English in school and that they had been taking private lessons for six to eight years. Studying English language skills on the primary and secondary level in Japanese public schools had enabled them to learn numerous English words.
They could write and read the words but they could not speak, read or write English in complete and correct sentences. They could put the words together but they failed to complete either their sentences or their thoughts. It was as if the pieces were
all there but were not connected. Something was wrong. It was this thought process that inspired me to not only agree to teach these ladies but to design and implement a completely different process as well.
The reasoning that led me to my method of teaching was based upon the fact that the manuals were simply repeating the same error that the Japanese school system had experienced - the idea that repetition results in understanding.
Repetition results in repeating, not in comprehension. In order to learn to speak, read, write, and understand English, these students had to learn to think in English, speak in complete sentences and to comprehend what they had said, written, and
read. The challenge was to connect all the dots that already existed in their minds because of their earlier training.
I began to teach them to speak English in complete and correct sentences. I taught them to think first in Japanese and then to re-think in English. I changed the repetition pattern into a thought pattern. A large part of this
process was convincing them to begin to write in their journals. They began with writing just ten minutes a day, first just simple sentences in Japanese and than in English. They read each journal entry during our sessions and I corrected any errors.
By the fourth session they were writing complete sentences in English and starting to use some of the more difficult vocabulary words I had been teaching them. At my last session, Fumiko wrote a 2- page entry about a visit to her Buddhist temple. She
described the scene using sight, sound, and smell. It was truly creative writing and I was impressed.
One of the first things that I did was to tape record each of them reading from their journals. At the end of six months, I play the tapes back for them to listen to and they find that their verbal skills have greatly improved.
The Japanese language is a language of words and characters. It is spoken very much as it is written with each word standing alone with its own meaning. This is completely opposite of English. English is a language of groupings
of words and thoughts. It has a flow and a rhythm, like the Latin based languages. One of the most difficult things for the Japanese to learn is to think and to speak with that rhythm. However, they can learn to do this and, once they do, there is
a significant difference in their speech pattern.
I was recently asked by Fumiko if I would be willing to teach two of her friends. I agreed because it has been such a pleasurable experience for me to help these three women learn to speak my language properly. I find I look forward
to our weekly sessions. I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about them personally, including some of their family history. Together we read current affairs from local newspapers and it has been fascinating to listen to their ideas and
perspectives. They have opened a door into their country and their culture that I could not have experienced without this lesson in teaching English. It is a great compliment to the English language that these people are working so diligently to master
it's many complexities. Each time one of my students writes and then reads a difficult vocabulary word, she smiles with a sense of pride and accomplishment that cannot begin to be counted in yen.
Adrienne McPhail is an international journalist and author. She has lived and worked in Italy, Saudi Arabia and is currently based in Yokosuka, Japan.