One of the biggest challenges teaching English in Japan is communicating with students (and teachers) in class. Some of us choose to use the crutch of Japanese to help with classroom instructions and communication, while others are die-hard for the full immersion English only approach. But then it's very easy to start using Japanese-English rather than normal English. What is the difference? Which is better?

What is Japanese-English

What I'm talking about here are English words or phrases that you use only in the Japanese classroom.

It's English you have learnt to use to make communication with your students easier. But is the easier option the better one?

Some examples of Japanese-English in the classroom:

  • "What alphabet?" when asking what letter
  • Saying "Are you OK?" instead of "Are you ready?"
  • Accepting "OK" in response to "Are you ready?" instead of "Yes!"
  • and so many more...

English that isn't English

Sometimes, Japanese-English can slip into your passive vocabulary so smoothly that you don't even hear a difference. Ever been approached by a student with their open palm up in the air, a big grin, and a request for a high five?

Me neither.

It took me seven years to realize this was one of the many small things I could be teaching students - it's not a "high touch", it's a "high five"!

Teaching incorrect English

I have been guilty of using incorrect English during class explanations and other communication outside the lesson's grammar in the name of communication, but it's so easy to take the easier option that I am even guilty of teaching incorrect English. This one doesn't trouble me too much but to give an example, I have taught:

  • I don't like lemons.
  • Me too. (instead of me neither)

To defend myself, I have tried teaching "me neither" and the students got it. However, in their minds, it had taken the place of "me too" so when I next visited and asked the teacher "Do you like pineapple?" to which he replied "Yes, I do.", there was a chorus of "Me neither!" from the students.

Damage control!

Teaching English-English 

Teaching normal English is what we are here for. Japanese-English is Japanese. It's English that has been adopted into the Japanese language and the students know it already. We are here to teach them what they don't know - normal English!

It can be a lot of work. For you and your students. But anything worth learning (and English is worth learning) has its difficulties.

In terms of lessons, a good step by step lesson plan can make things much easier. Keep games and activities short and simple but real in terms of how students are using the English.

And personally, I'm not for full immersion. I speak Japanese in class when I have to and I chat with some students in Japanese. But whenever I can, I use normal English. And if it's something students don't know, I'll teach them, whenever possible.

Using Japanese-English is an easy shortcut but only to communication, not to teaching or learning English. It's easy to change yourself so the whole school can understand you but the job of a teacher is to change students. It's easy to accept high touches but with a little effort, you can have a whole school of students high fiving you.

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# AfroInJapan 2018-01-19 06:39
Gosh, I remember starting ES being rather confused by a student, arm erect, screaming "high touch, high touch". I was baffled, whats a high touch, i just stared blankly at him until another teacher rescued me from that situation.

Decided on Day 1 that no student would ever say "high-touch" again. Its just too strange. Few months later had the whole school high five-ing and thank gawd for that.
# 2018-01-19 07:36
Exactly, right! Because even though you eventually understand what high-touch means, and even though it sounds like English, it's Japanese. If you want to give your students the best English experience you can, go hi-fives all the way.
# GTR 2021-02-19 01:31
This is such an important point and nicely written too. I actually have a friend in his 17th year teaching in Japan now and he can't speak English anymore.

Simplifying can be fine but it is better to teach kids as you would your own 3 or 4 year old how to speak properly. Unlearning a weird short cut Japanese-English phrase is much more difficult than just learning the usual way from the beginning. Young children can remember and work out a lot more than most teachers think.
# 2021-02-19 02:59
Hi GTR, thanks for the praise. It's appreciated :)

Kids are amazingly capable. Every few years the elementary school textbooks get updated with ever more complicated English grammar, the teachers lament, and then the students step up!

And yes, I agree there are similarities between how kids learn their first language and how young students can learn their second. Some Japanese-English keeps coming up though and you have to keep on it.

It can be difficult reiterating the same thing day after day but eventually it sticks. A good trick is to go after the teachers - it's so much easier when it's not just you using the correct phrasing. An example (I mentioned in the article) is where Japanese teachers know the ABCs are called an alphabet but they mistakenly call letters alphabets too. So when pointing to "F", they look to the students and ask "What alphabet?". I've recently taken to the approach of, whenever I hear this, explaining to the class and the teacher at the same time, that all together it's an alphabet, individually it's a letter. The teacher usually registers the difference then might try using their new knowledge by asking the students a few more times "What letter (is this)?"

Regarding grammar, a pet peeve is when ALTs drop those little words like "is", "the", etc when addressing a class. That's totally unnecessary in my opinion. I'd rather hear correct grammar, perhaps with the keywords emphasized for students to focus on than see ALTs modelling incorrect English. Using full and normal English also lets students get used to hearing all the extra stuff and learning not to focus on it, or to sift it out as not necessarily germane to the basic idea being communicated.

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