Japan, Teaching English in Japan

No Japanese! English Only Please…

The mother’s of my students aren’t very friendly towards me. I don’t mean that in a negative “they hate me” way. It’s just a fact. Except for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ they don’t talk to me and I don’t blame them. Like most language schools in Japan, the company I work for has an ‘English Only’ policy (“No Japanese!”), which also applies to parent-teacher interactions. This means that as an English teacher I have to pretend that I don’t understand Japanese. The idea is that by creating this “English World” facade in the classroom, the students will be forced to use English to get their ideas across, instead of relying on Japanese. And it works for the most part.


But sometimes it can be a problem. Like when my students insult me in Japanese. They mostly do it to get a laugh from the other children, but I also think they do it in order to test me and it leaves me confused as to what to do. Do I feign ignorance and continue the lesson as they snicker at the ‘stupid teacher’? Or do I drop the facade and scold the student? What I do in most of my classes is assign points to all of the students and then if I hear Japanese spoken, regardless of the circumstance, I erase a point. My students are so competitive that this usually keeps the Japanese (insults and all) to a minimum.


I think where this “English Only’ rule creates most of the problems is in my interactions (or lack there of) with the parents. It’s taken me a while to figure this out. At first I didn’t know what to make of the parent’s cold behavior and awkward silences around me. I tried being friendly, smiling warmly and attempting small talk through hand gestures, but I think that just made them even more uncomfortable. Some of them looked downright frightened that I was talking to them at all. It made me uncomfortable to make them so uncomfortable, so I stopped trying to engage them. Now I just ignore them for the most part, which isn’t ideal but what else am I supposed to do?


Everyone says that the Japanese are “just shy”, but I don’t agree. Japanese people aren’t shy. They’re just reserved…and very, very polite. The more of the language I learn, the more I realize how true this is. In each social situation, there is a pre-established code of behavior firmly in place. There are set polite phrases that must be said when conversing with a teacher for example, and this takes all of the guess work out of the situation. People aren’t forced to think on the spot. There’s no pressure or anxiety. A conversation that’s been pre-written has no surprises.


But all of those rules, rituals and order go out the window when speaking with a foreigner who’s not familiar with them. Especially when speaking in English. It’s kind of like showing up to a chess tournament only to find the game’s been changed to Checkers. It’s nerve-wracking and unpredictable; two things that these Japanese parents seem to dread most.


At least, this is the conclusion that I’ve come to. Perhaps these mother’s would like to talk to me, only don’t know how. Even if they understand English, perhaps they’re just afraid I’ll say something they won’t know how to respond to. I think they find me and my foreign-ness intimidating. Why else would they scurry out of the classroom the minute my lesson’s over with only a mumbled goodbye?


I’d like to speak Japanese with them…but most of the time their children are standing nearby so I don’t get the opportunity to do so. The few times I have though, have yielded pleasant results. The mother’s were shocked that I could speak Japanese (even my limited, broken Japanese) and they happily chatted away with me. Although I didn’t understand much of what they said, it was like I’d broken down some sort of barrier that had been put up.


So I don’t really know what to do. I wish I understood the Japanese perspective a bit better or that they’d feel comfortable enough with me to explain it. It’s very difficult to put yourself on public display each day, standing in front of a room full of students and parents…and have no clue as to what they are thinking. They put up this mask and hide behind this wall of politeness which makes it impossible to discern whether they are happy with my lessons or secretly hate me. It’s unnerving.
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1 thought on “No Japanese! English Only Please…

  1. How about writing the parents you wish to speak to a letter? Explain that you speak Japanese and that you’d like to talk to them but don’t want to offend them or make them feel uncomfortable.

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