Lunchtime English lessons

05Jun08

I’m a peripatetic EFL teacher. I work at six schools on a regular basis, with occasional visits to several more and a few kindergartens thrown in for good measure. At the junior highs I teach at, my role is well-defined and the teachers I work with, as well as the other staff members, know what to expect from me. At the elementary schools, the reactions of teachers to me vary widely.

Some teachers view me as an interruption to their schedules, and fortnightly English lessons as an annoyance foisted on them by the town Board of Education. Some treat my classes as a fun 45 minutes, but not really educational. Some just see my lessons as an excuse for them to escape to the staffroom for a class. And some think that English is both interesting, even if they can’t speak much of it themselves, and make every effort to see that even one lesson in two weeks benefits their pupils in some way.

One such teacher is the form teacher for a class of eight nine-year-old boys. The small class size is a reflection of a rural area with declining population, as well as regulations limiting the distance children can commute to school. There just aren’t that many nine-year olds in the area (and there is just one seven-year-old). She doesn’t speak much English – none of the teachers I work with this year do – but I think she wishes she did. And she wants her kids to speak some English too – to the extent that she teaches them English for two lessons a week, as well as my fortnightly visit. I don’t believe any of my other teachers do this.

Hers is the only class in which I speak no Japanese at all – she insists on it. Other teachers are happy for me to explain activities in Japanese, but not in this class. She makes the kids speak English too, as much as they can. Any comment in Japanese from them prompts a pause in the lesson while a suitably English phrase is found, and woe betide the child who tries the Japanese again.

Her enthusiasm for English extends outside of scheduled lessons, too. Her desk is beside the one I use, and before school, during breaks and at lunchtime, she asks me all kinds of questions. About everything she can think of, about the UK or about my travel plans or about what the English translation of specific Japanese words that come up in conversations in the classroom. Sometimes other teachers will take an interest too, but she is the driving force and the source of almost all the enquiries.

Today’s key word was ‘hotaru’ – firefly. There’s a song, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, called ‘Hotaru no hikari‘ – ‘The light of a firefly’, which is well known in Japan. As it is a song partly about hard work and devotion to one’s goals, it’s often sung at school graduations. But it was mentioned in today’s morning staff meeting, so my teacher’s question during our lunchtime informal English chat was “How do you say ‘hotaru’ in English?”

So, I told her, and pointed out that it was the same as the word ‘fire’. Ah, she said, but what does ‘fly’ mean? Well, insect, I suppose. Like in the word for ‘tonbo’, which is a dragonfly. Or ‘cho’, which is a butterfly.

The school nurse asked if all bugs were called ‘something-fly’. No, said my teacher – she pointed out ‘batta’, grasshopper, as an exception. Grass is the same word in Japanese, with slightly altered pronunciation. But what was the difference between ‘fly’ and ‘hop’, they wanted to know.

Where I ran out of explanation. My Japanese is functional at best, and detailed explanation requires words I simple don’t know. The word for ‘fly’ in Japanese is ‘tobu’ – but that can also mean to skip, or occasionally hop. I didn’t know a better word with which to explain. My only option, then, was to demonstrate.

Which is why, when the head teacher, the deputy head, and one of my supervisors from the Board of Education walked into the staffroom after the end of their lunchtime meeting, they found the visiting English teacher, the third grade teacher and the nurse hopping around the staffroom and flapping their arms like wings. And laughing, really rather hard.

Well, I suppose part of my job description is ‘internationalisation’, after all.

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3 Responses to “Lunchtime English lessons”

  1. 1 ieatmypigeon

    You’re allowed to talk to most of your kids in Japanese? I’m envious – my school has a strict English-only policy. I admire the idea – immersion really is an excellent way to learn a language – but I think for one hour a week, especially when dealing with grammatical structures, it isn’t very effective beyond vocabulary or simple phrases like, “My name is.” Our kids learn to parrot phrases like “What sports can you play?” without knowing what “what,” “can,” “you,” and “play,” mean. I cringe at times when I hear them “translating” for each other, completely misunderstanding the day’s grammar. Can I let them out of the classroom thinking I’ve been teaching them to say “Do you like sports?” Maybe I just take it too seriously.

    The pantomiming can really help, even when thrown in with some basic translation! You ought to see what we have to come up with; it’s ALL hopping. And flying. And neighing. And rowing. And swimming ….

  2. 2 Laura

    I try to use as much English as I can in class, and some of the brighter groups have picked up a few phrases that get repeated over and over again (“onemoretime!” being a favourite, for some reason).

    But most of the teachers I work with either don’t really participate in my class, meaning that if my demonstration is unclear I have to explain the activity in my broken Japanese, or they participate but translate everything directly into Japanese as soon as they understand what is going on, which is frustrating when I’m sure most of the students could probably figure it out given a little more time.

    I don’t mind the teachers helping the kids – especially the littlest ones, who pick up words really fast but forget them just as quickly. I especially don’t mind the kids helping each other. But when they intervene and stop the kids listening to any of the English, I do feel the urge to ask them to be quiet for a little while. But I don’t know how to explain that tactfully.

    Which age groups do you teach?

  3. I teach ages 2 to death, pretty much. For the teeny tiny ones, the parents are in the room and they translate everything I tell them. The older kids have to figure it out on their own. The brighter ones see it as a game – what’s this person saying? What are our clues? Then I have a full class of boys who just say “I don’t know” to everything I ask them, even if it’s simple, once they think it’s something that requires an ounce of concentration. Makes for a fun hour. And then I have other kids who just come up with their own combinations and really listen.

    One of my little guys last year surprised me by saying, “Here we go!” before we began a game, which is something I say a lot when I’m trying to quiet them down before an exercise. Just when you think they’re not getting anything out of class ….


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