One of the reasons I chose to come to Japan was to have a personal experience what it would be like to be an ELL student in the classroom. I know that ELL students are increasing in number in the classroom, and we must be able to accommodate and differentiate for them in classes. I thought that choosing a country where I had just started learning the language could be a possible way to experience what these students have been experiencing.
To be honest, it usually sat on the back of my mind most of the time. I didn’t really feel like it was a problem at all at the start. During the first month here, we were taking Japanese lessons all together in Sapporo. We mostly hung out together and spoke in English. I had some feeling of isolation, but it wasn’t the worst. If anything, I feel as if it was taking the easy way out, hanging out with only people who spoke the same language.
During the first half of the second week, most of the group had left to other parts of Japan, while one other group member and I stayed in Sapporo and did volunteer teaching. During this phase, I still wasn’t feeling much in terms of being a foreign language learner. Since I was teaching in elementary schools, I think there was power difference and an existing expectation that we were foreigners. The students would start off talking how it was impossible for them to talk in English, but were amazed and warmed up quickly if they knew you could speak even the slightest bit of Japanese. I felt proud of knowing the Japanese that I did! Even if you didn’t speak any Japanese, the kids would flock around you if you pulled out Google Translate on your phone. I think in some part it’s because kids know that it’s a phone, but they are also interested in translating what they say into English. The feelings of isolation did grow a little bit during this phase, only having one other person to talk with.
I think the real feelings of understanding that I was looking for have just started setting in during these last two weeks. During this last phase of TAB, I have been sitting in university classes as a student. It’s in this environment, sitting in with peers of equal status that I have begun to feel the frustration. During the lecture, I can only understand maybe 5% of the language being used. It’s hard to pay attention to lectures only understanding such a little amount and having to infer the meaning from contextual clues. In one such lecture, I was given an English textbook for the course. I spent most of the class reading the textbook.
When we are given time to introduce ourselves and talk to classmates, it’s frustrating for different reasons. I really want to be friends with them, and I have a lot I want to add to their discussions, but I don’t have enough vocabulary to converse properly at this level. The language used at an elementary level is much simpler to understand, and you can lead them on conversations with simple prompts. It’s so frustrating having concepts and ideas fully formed in your head, but not having the vocabulary to get it out to other people.
At the same time, wanting to continue my Japanese language learning outside of the classroom is tough and a little scary. Sometimes it feels a little embarrassing asking someone to repeat themselves when you don’t understand just one word in a sentence. I have gone from staring blankly while I think, to asking them to repeat the sentence, to asking about the specific word I don’t understand. I think it’s important not to be shy and be specific about what part you don’t understand. Another point is that it can be difficult to find people who want to talk to you in Japanese in a way that will help you learn. I would say that it’s not a matter of people being nice, but something more of a talent. They need patience to try again when you don’t understand a sentence, understanding how to relate it to the vocabulary you know, and a talent for alternate word choice. I think this is the kind of attention I would need to show someone learning English.
While it may seem like a frustrating experience, I think it is a really good experience to bring into my teaching practice. Being in that frustrating position helps me understand how I would want to be treated and bring the patience and kindness that those experiencing this will need. As well, I feel like my experience is separate from being an English speaker in Japan overall. Since I was looking for the experience, it’s different than others. I have seen people not bother to learn any Japanese but still get around without any problems. Most of the transit has English signs and ordering food by pointing works just fine. As well, there are plenty of people who will do their best to accommodate you in English, especially the host families!
However, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice by not taking the time of learning the language of whatever country you go to. It’s an incredible experience whenever you see words you recognize and when you manage to express your thoughts in another language properly! I think that it’s a little condescending to take advantage of your host families efforts to communicate to you in English without trying to learn and communicate as much as you can in Japanese as well. Anyways, it’s been an amazing time on the TAB program! I’ve learned so much that I would’ve never expected. If you’re reading this and are considering going on the program, I wish you the best of luck!