Bringing the concept of 'real life' English into the classroom

By Liam Carrigan

When you come to Japan to work as an assistant language teacher (ALT), whether it be through the JET Programme, a dispatch company or — if you’re very lucky — a direct hire position, you’ll probably hear a similar spiel as part of your orientation:

“Remember, you’re not just there to teach English. You’re also an ambassador for your country and for foreigners in general. As well as helping the students communicate in English, you also need to introduce them to foreign culture and foreign customs.”

Typically, the way I have seen most ALTs interpret this is to show the students loads of photos, realia and movies from their home countries. Now, anything that broadens a student’s mind and introduces them to something new is — in my opinion — never a bad thing, but without context the essence of the lesson becomes lost.

Today, I want to introduce you to a different approach. It’s one that I adopted several years ago and it has served me well. Ready?

Ask yourself: What would a Japanese child or teenager really be interested in knowing that only I could teach them?

From my own experience, and a certain degree of trial and error over many years, I have come to the conclusion that it is often your experiences here in Japan — rather than anything you bring from your home country — that make for more engaging discussion in the classroom.

Think about it. How do you adapt to living here? How is it different from your own country? What challenges have you faced or do you continue to face here and how do you confront them?

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You have a good opinion but the sign of a good teacher who really wants to help is his ability to listen to what his students want and ask himself "how could their opinion be valid?" It might make you a more dynamic teacher and make them better listeners and speakers. If you look into it, you might find that they are not half wrong. Try not to fall into the old "teacher knows best" trap.

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Japanese are absolutely in last place when in comes to asian countires learning English. You have more English schools, English cafes, learn English businesses here than any place on Earth, and still Japanese are terrible with pronunciation, usage, etc. The experiment should be ended. It's not meant to be. Let Japan and Japanese people stick to what they are good at, Japanese.

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@Sam Whitte

Let Japan and Japanese people stick to what they are good at, Japanese.

Japan's lack of proper English education is the reason Japanese corporations are falling behind international competition against its Korean and Chinese rivals.

Given that tourism is Japan's only new growth industry, English education is critical in Japan's national survival and the effort should be doubled, not decreased.

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Good article and food for thought for the many boring English teachers out there.

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Several of the comments make negative assumptions about the teachers.

When I taught in Laos, it was abundantly clear that most Lao would not have the opportunity to travel overseas.

Mickey Mouse, the latest Smartphones and movies were way removed from their daily lives.

What could they possibly talk about?

Exactly that! Their daily lives: families, friends, homes, parents' livelihoods, events and ceremonies, travels within the country, their futures... Plenty! The great propagandist "ambassadorial" nonsense is irrelevant.

Similarly, in Japan, many quite prosperous young men and women have no ambition to live or work overseas. They travel to exciting places in gaggles of Japanese together, shielded from anything close to being a real experience of the country by a bossy, Hitlerian tour guide.

So... there are a myriad CONTEXTS that can be explored for language development. A few photos that FIT the contexts might be fine, but they should not appear as the toys of arrogant foreigners, blasting off about the joys of life in the United States.

Teaching English is not an ego-trip for some slighty-more-than-backpacking young people from other countries, nor is it an attempt at brainwashing, expounding the phantom lories of other places.

It is about bringing people together to share ideas and experiences. It is about being able to motivate and excite learners to communicate with people anywhere in the world.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

glories, NOT "lories"

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Don't get too carried away -- it is just 1 of several academic subjects.

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Nothing you or any ALT does is of much consequence, other than perhaps leaving a positive emotion.

We know how students master a foreign language:

-- they start early, mid elementary school

-- they are exposed to a lot of english a lot of time. A lot of english is talking, reading and writing. A lot of time is at least 3 hours a week class time with a fluent teacher.

-- speaking, reading and writing are necessary for advancement.

Japan has been talking about doing these things for literally 40 years. If anything, Japan is doing worse now than ever before. Its all grammar/translation all the time. ALT are brought in for window dressing for over 85% of students experience.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I taught on a university campus in China and found that both our music and movies are great teaching tools. In China, students are reluctant to ask or answer questions in class...a cultural thing that can be frustrating to a teacher. One day I showed the romantic Julia Roberts' (they love her there!) movie "Nottingham Hill" and would stop in the middle of a scene and ask questions about it and have them comment on it, which helped motivate them to speak up. And at times I would ask for volunteers to act out the same little scene in their own words, and again they were motivated.

  I also showed "My Fair Lady," the story of a vagrant English woman learning to speak like the queen. I had them memorize and speak the famous line "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain" with the same queenly accent as Audrey Hepburn did. That motivated them as we applauded their efforts...more confidence building.

  I also had my students sing along with some famous recorded music that I talk about in my new worldwide book/ebook "What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” Endorsed by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it has chapters on English grammar and speech that identify the key problems common to foreigners (and Americans!) and how they can polish their communication skills. Love of music is universal, especially with students, so tying in learning English with music is a GREAT motivator.

  Here are several quotes from the book. "Hint: I use recorded music by American singer Nat King Cole in my classes for students to sing along with him. His diction is distinct and the songs are slow. I have seen his CDs in shops overseas, so I know they are available. If not, listen on the Internet or purchase an audio CD or MP3 download from at"

  This excerpt relates to elongating one's vowels, a common problem around the world: "☺Here’s another assignment. Search the Internet for “Sinatra – All My Tomorrows.” Listen to how this famous American singer elongated his words—especially vowel sounds—to give added importance, rhythm, and clarity. Sing or speak along with him to practice the same effect. Nice, huh? He mined for gold in his words. In music circles, Sinatra was known for what they call his “phrasing,” which is really what we’ve been talking about in this section."

   Good luck to all who want to learn one of the world's most difficult languages.

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Just my opinion but I think katakana plays a large part in actually crippling Japanese peoples ability to speak English clearly, especially pronunciation, it just makes a dogs dinner of it.

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On my first trip to Japan i stopped in Youth hostels, and I found it the best way to get to grips and embrace my self in Japan, although I was a tourist, stopping with Japanese students and working people, I felt that I was miles away from the tourist trap type holidays, I completely enjoyed teaching the Japanese students English and spending time with them trying to get them to pronounce English words with "L" and "R" in them, to make it more fun we had bets that if they got a sentence wrong they would have to buy me a beer, I thought that it might help them focus on the correct pronunciation, it sort of did but I did have a few headaches in the morning that week! but I had personalised tours of Kyoto where most people don't go to and translations into English! ( Fond memories) what I am trying to say is you can't beet a native speaker from the country that your trying to learn the language from.

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