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Doing Interviews - Does it Help Kids Improve English in Japan this way?

I very recently came across this video on twitter of two Japanese elementary school kids approaching a visibly foreign white man (I'm being specific because I will come back to this point), asking this man politely if they can be interviewed.

In case it gets deleted, I will briefly summarize what happens in the video a bit further: A white man was just chilling at Nara Park with the deers, when two elementary kids walk up to him and politely asked him if they can interview him. The kids had 3 questions and the man tried to ask some follow up questions, though they go unanswered or answered incorrectly. Another gentleman (Japanese, I assume it's their school teacher) steps in to answer one of the follow-up questions the kids couldn't answer. And the video ends shortly after.

At first glance, it's a very innocuous video. And really, it is. It's a feel-good video of kids in Japan trying their best to speak English.

However, having taught in Japan for so many years - English at that - I sorted of reflected on this video. No shades to the kids (they really tried their best!), but I think it speaks volumes to how English is (not) being taught in Japan. There's also a lot of assumptions and presumptions of what an "English speaker" looks like in Japan, and it really reminds me of all the struggles I had trying to teach English in Japan.

So let's just try to break down my thought process here.

What's Going On Here

So let's give this situation a little context here with my experience here. Why are the kids here? What's the assignment? What are they up to? I can probably guess.

The kids are holding these clipboards in their hands that are specifically used for school when we do anything outside of the classroom that may involve writing. Sometimes they bring it to gym class to record running times, etc. Other times we use it for Science field observations. Bring them on school excursions is another big one, which is what this probably is.

It's not unusual at this age for teachers to plan out every hour of the day for the kids on their excursions, so my guess is that the teachers at this school planned an hour or two of the day specifically for these English interviews. Another thing that teachers need to do when planning excursions is to plan according to a normal school day, and the school subject it aligns with. A typical elementary school day consists of 6-period days. Factoring in travel time, usually a full day trip is about 4 or 5 period days? So before or after we go on their trips, we need to think about what the activities we do on these excursions fit what subject.

So now you're probably thinking - well, they can all just be "Japanese classes" or "Gym classes" and call it a day.

Yes, that's true. But each semester, we need to balance out all the subjects we teach. We cannot have too many Japanese classes, or well, any of one subject for that matter. It's not uncommon that during the week, we alter our schedule to finish a certain topic faster. I'm sure that's happened when you were at school too - instead of having Math & Science, you suddenly find that the teacher changed it to Math & Math for period 5 and 6. This of course means certain subjects aren't balanced.

And while I don't have the real statistics on which subjects usually get the cut, it's usually the "least important subjects" that the homeroom teachers are teaching like Social Studies or...... well, English.

I believe in public school, higher elementary school grades gets 2 English (or "Foreign Languages class") classes a week. One is led by the Japanese homeroom teacher himself, the other is usually a foreign teacher and a Japanese teacher. When the foreign teachers are here, English goes on, but in my experience - it's not uncommon for me to hear the Japanese teachers I teach with tell me that they didn't do the second English class that week and replaced it with Japanese/Math/Science.

Anyway, this is just a long way of me saying that they probably put English in their to balance their subject books for the year. Which is very smart.

It could also be some kids at a nearby school doing an English class outside, but I doubt it (doing things outside of the school ground often means a lot of paperwork before it even happens).

Real Life Practice Is Great But...

Let's say my assumptions are right, we'll continue on with my make-belief scenario of these kids on a school excursion to Nara. It's great practice for kids to use English, they have exposure to real life English and kids can talk with foreigners. Yay!

A month before this excursion, they probably consulted with the in-house ALT (foreign teacher) to help them prepare for this interview.

This is where I think it all falls apart, as you can see in the video...

Repetition and Scripts

Now, there's nothing wrong with repetition to learn something. We all do it to memory vocabulary or facts for a test. But the problem with Japanese education is that the entire curriculum encourages students to only MEMORIZE things. And good memory is reflected as a reward on their grades, since most if not all evaluation pieces in the education system in Japan are... tests.

This isn't an argument of which education system is better, but we can see that using rote memory and repetition for learning a language like Japanese works very well. After all, kids are already exposed to communicative parts of the language via everyday life and while at school, they need the repetition in order to memorize Chinese characters.

It's not to say all Japanese classes in Japanese schools are kanji character memorization, but a very good chunk of mid-term and end-of-term tests are just that - asking kids if they remember the characters.

English also requires repetition and rote memory for vocabulary and grammar rules, but when schools try to incorporate communicative activities into lessons, there's also a huge reliance on repetition and memorize set phrases. I would need another essay to get into the reasons why and how systematic this is, but ultimately, students at this age do not have the vocabulary nor the ability to produce English in any communicative way. Let alone getting off script. Their only exposure to English isn't through daily life - it's through that foreigner that comes in once a week to teach them English. (And maybe that other time when the Japanese teacher actually tries to teach English by themselves)

So of course, try as any gung-ho fresh-off-the-boat foreigner may, if they were tasked with getting kids to produce interviews in English (heck, this poor foreigner probably just got his students to remember how to answer "How are you?" yet), he/she has no choice but to produce a script and hopes all the students know how to remember how to say it.

(Reading the alphabet can still be tough for some kids at this level)

This is why in the video above, the kids are completely unresponsive to the foreigner asking them what we think are simple follow up questions. They aren't simple. They probably already struggled to remember "We are going to ask you 3 questions", let alone remember what it actually means.

And of course, as you probably noticed watching the video, the kids followed to the T a script.

Is that good English practice?

Maybe, I think the kids have to start somewhere. But in my experience, the fact that these elementary school kids can even pronounce these words correctly without making a mistake is considered to be "high level". So kudos to the foreigner that was able to make their kids to produce the language.

I can tell you more junior high school and high school kids regress right back to being not able to answer "How are you?" after this. So......

Who Speaks English?

I'm East Asian. I often walk into a new school introducing myself to teachers in Japanese. Now, my Japanese isn't great, but I've done the intros enough that I think I've perfected it to the T (repetition hell ya!). One time, at these introductions in the principal's office, a principal had to stop the conversation and ask me in Japanese, "Um, sorry do you speak English?" (aka why the fuck is an Asian-speaking Japanese here, we asked for an ENGLISH teacher)

Of course when I impressed them with my pronunciation of aboot and my love for maple syrup, you can almost hear the sigh of relief in the room. This Asian SPEAKS ENGLISH. Thank god.

I don't get into these situations a lot, but they happen enough.

There is a huge stereotype in Japan (and Asia in general) that only people who are "foreign-looking" speaks English. So, you know... this white man would be the perfect archetype and specimen.

It's a two-fold problem.

More and more returnees (Japanese) also speak English, and many immigrant East Asians grew up in western countries and speak fluent English. But Japanese people don't tend to associate us with the language unless I speak English first.

Secondly, there's a HUGE assumption that all foreigners speak English. A lot of people who look like this gentleman in the video maybe only speak French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. Rare, yes but still possible. In fact, there was a woman I met while solo travelling who spoke Japanese and French - not a lick of English.

It's very possible that these kids approached all sorts of foreigners before & after the video (which kudos to them!), but from my own experiences, the two problems I layed out is quite common even amongst adults and other Japanese educators. So even if this didn't happen with these kids, I just want to point out that in general, something definitely needs to change in this regard. And certainly, real life exposure like this can be helpful if they're guided correctly.

Overall, I think these experiences can be the way forward especially now that tourists are plentiful in Japan. But I think more needs to be done to elevate the quality of the experience the kids are getting, and allow for students and their Japanese educators valuable teaching moments. Whoever thought of this idea is already moving in the right direction, and I think current and newer ALTs can easily guide them to make these experiences more enriching.

Anyway, that's all the rambling from me.

Until next time!

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