How being able to speak Japanese has changed my life in Japan

KanjiI’ve been wanting to write this little post for some time. It’s not aimed at people who are perfectly happy not using Japanese whilst living in Japan (which I think is perfectly OK). It’s aimed at those considering studying Japanese. My hope is that it provides at least one person with a little inspiration.


It’s perfectly possible to live a very happy life in Tokyo without using Japanese. Our dear friend John John managed it for 30 odd years, and never seemed to have a problem (although he did have a lot of bilingual friends willing to help out when his VCR went kaput !). I also lived in Tokyo for about a year with a very limited Japanese vocabulary. Those were happy times, and I don’t recall feeling frustrated at not being able to speak Japanese.

My Japan-related History 2003-2008 in 6 short paragraphs

Prompted by the expiration of my visa (with no hope of a renewal) and a huge amount of debt, in 2003 I left Japan and returned to the UK.

I had a simple goal: to be back to Japan within five years with a university degree that would allow me to obtain a work visa (I’d previously bought a degree off the internet for US$300 but was laughed out of Otaru Immigration office).

Once back in the UK I applied to do a foundation course – with virtually no qualifications to my name and having been out of education for 7 years I needed to learn how to learn again. One year later that was complete, and I received an offer from the University of Sheffield to study Japanese at the highly respected School of East Asian Studies.

Graduation 2008There then followed 4 really tough years of study. We started off with about 50 people in our class – 16 of us made it though to the end (above, with Nagai sensei and Kitaka sensei. Note my appallingly cheesy grin). Though though it was, it was bloomin’ marvellous, and I would recommend the course to anyone.

Last July I graduated on a Tuesday, got married to my daringu *Twinkle* on a Friday, and returned to Japan shortly after that upon receiving my spouse visa.

It took me a while to settle back in. Having rejected a job offer from GABA that I’d secured over the phone from the UK I was unsure as to what I would do for a while. Also, I’d not used my Japanese for a while and seemed to have forgotten an awful lot. It was an uncomfortable yet exciting time.

Graduation, July 2008

Being able to speak Japanese and the impact it has upon my life

It’s now just over 6 months since my return. For reasons given in my previous mumble I’m now feeling very much at home. But there’s another reason I feel a lot more at home now that I didn’t go into in that post, and that’s my ability to speak Japanese.

Why? Simply put, it gives me more choices in how I live my life.

As I sat in the meeting room above the local gym, I had a little out-of-body moment. There I was, sitting in a room of local Japanese grannies and grandads, participating in a meeting to discuss how our local park should be run.

Wow! This is pretty cool! I thought. Six years ago when I used almost nothing but English in Japan I wouldn’t have been able to participate at all. I wouldn’t even have had the choice.

At work too I’m now using more and more Japanese. As my English telephone conversation classes peter out (it’s the end of the season) so I’m doing more work on creating marketing materials. This means working with the sales team, none of whom speak much English. In meetings with my (Japanese) boss I now find it far more natural to use Japanese – wow, I’m doing business in Japanese! OK, so I make a tonne of mistakes and my keigo is going through one of those non-existent phases – but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is I can communicate (and I’m continuing to study before work to help fill the 3 billion cubic metres of room for improvement).

Yesterday, I decided that I wanted to spend some time with a friend of ours who was made homeless a couple of years back and now sells the Big Issue outside Shibuya Station (East Exit, Ogura-san). He’d not been there for months, but yesterday, in accordance with what some call coincidence, he was there as we dashed to change to the subway. I quickly arranged to meet him after work, and last night, I did. I’ll talk more about what happened on the podcast, but just to say it was an enlightening experience – and something that could never had happened had I not learnt to speak Japanese.

I can sort stuff out at the bank by myself, I can run errands for *Twinkle* (where previously I would have had to get her to run errands for me). I can volunteer to help at the local city hall, I can speak with non-English speakers at parties and bars… I can do anything that I couldn’t do before due to the language barrier.

Speaking of *Twinkle*, it gives her greater freedom too. I don’t want there to be a language barrier between us – statistics show that intercultural couples are far more likely to divorce than others, language difficulties being one of the causes. I want her to be free to choose to use the language that most suits her feelings. I want to be friends with her friends, to communicate with them on the same level as she does. I want to be able to do stuff with her that requires Japanese language skills. I don’t want to be a husband who needs constant translations and explanations, or whose input needs to be translated back for others.

(I’ll repeat here that I’m not having a go at people who don’t speak Japanese. I don’t see Japanese speakers as being in any way ‘superior’ to those who don’t. We’ve all made our own choices and we all have our own priorities, and the way we lead our lives is entirely up to us)

Life is hard enough as it is without an optional language barrier making things more challenging.

And for me personally, I have another big reason for learning Japanese: for our (as yet not-conceived) children. I feel it is very important for me that I be able to communicate with them in their native language (which is likely to be Japanese). Yes, I’ll probably be using English with them a lot of the time as well, but I never want to be in a situation (probably later on in their lives) where I can’t understand what they are trying to tell me, or where I can’t respond in Japanese if the situation suggests that that would be best.

Take away all the benefits I feel on a daily basis, and that alone is enough.

So, no matter what the time and financial costs, if you are considering learning Japanese, I’d say go for it! The pay-back is potentially so enormous that it will dwarf the initial investment.

And of course the good news is, if an idiot like me can learn Japanese, anyone can!

頑張りましょう!

How much does a university education cost these days?

I can tell you, because today I got a statement from the student loans company.

This is the total of four years of loans that have to be repaid – it excludes all the (non-repayable) grants that paid my tuition fees.

That’s this much in a few other currencies:

It is increasing on a monthly basis – even with a low interest rate it’s not an insignificant amount.

But the university experience and degree were worth every penny.

Opening of Steiner Academy Hereford

(the narration starts about half way through the video. More videos here)

Just a quick note to say how happy I am that. following years of negotiations with the government, on Monday, the Hereford Waldorf School became the Steiner Academy Hereford – the first Steiner school in the UK to be funded by the government.

I went to the Steiner school (also known as the Hereford Waldorf School) from the age of 7 to 16, as did my sister. Dad taught there for a few years but had to leave due to financial difficulties – with no state funding teachers could only be paid in peanuts (as my older sister knows only too well – she’s just completed 8 years as a teacher at the Bristol school).

Steiner schools are becoming increasingly popular in Japan – a very good thing if one considers the pressures that students are under in the state system.

To learn more about Steiner education visit the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship.

Another CELTAesque weekend

Yesterday, being a Saturday, I went to uni.

The previous day we’d been given the option of either watching a teaching practice video on the Friday, or of going in on the Saturday morning and watching it then. Four of us chose the latter option, as we felt that it would be a good way of making sure we got started on with the pile of work that we had to do for the course over the weekend.

It was a good choice (although I did feel for one of my coursemates who was a little the worse for wear, having only got to bed at 4.30am that morning!); once we’d watched the video we were able to spend some time working on our lesson plans and getting a little feedback.

Following that, it was off to the Information Commons. The previous day had seen us finally granted our full PG student ID cards, which in addition to entitling us to some great discounts at cinemas, restaurants and at online stores such as Adobe.com (85% off Photoshop CS3 extended) and Apple (free 3 year warranty + 11% discount), also give us access to the uni’s wireless network, allow remote access via VPN, and access to all library resources. It’s a real blessing (one tends to take it for granted until all your privileges are removed upon graduation!).

Once inside the (very quiet) IC, we set to work re-writing our first assignments (language analysis), penning our second assignments (a piece of reflective writing) and planning next week’s lessons. It was good. I enjoyed working with my new friends, just getting on with it. and checking facebook.

Today’s been pretty relaxed. I’ve done a little lesson planning, but also had time to do my own stuff. It’s been good.

I’d say that the first week was definitely the hardest. It’s not that the pace has slackened off all that much, but rather, we have a better idea of what’s expected of us now.

This afternoon I was thinking about what I like about the course, what would make me recommend it to others over say, a cheaper distance learning course. It’s something I wondered about before signing up, and I would have liked to have had some guidance to help me make the choice. CELTA is not cheap – there’s TEFL courses out there that cost a quarter of the fee that we’ve paid.

I think if there is one thing that really sets it apart it’s the opportunities that we have to observe qualified teaches, and then teach ourselves. We learn the theory, we apply it when writing our lesson plans, and we can then try it out on real students. That’s followed by evaluation, which allows us to reflect and adjust our technique appropriately for following sessions.

The theory and instruction are of course vitally important, but without real live students to try it all out on, well, how could we really judge our progress or get feedback on where more work is required? I’m thinking now of distance learning courses, which strike me as being far less useful. I liken them to taking a course of driving lessons without ever getting in a car.

Of course I might be way off the mark – I’ve never done a distance learning TEFL course. But I know there’s a lot of them about, and they’re not necessarily all that cheap.

The other thing is the quality of instruction we’re receiving. Our tutors have decades of TEFL experience between them, and they all have to be licensed by Cambridge in order to teach the course. They frequently monitor one another – and in a few days we’ll have a Cambridge examiner coming up to visit us to ensure that the course meets their requirements.

Tomorrow, we’ll be embracing a whole new bunch of students. The course requires that we teach at least two levels of students – our group has been teaching upper-intermediate until now, but as of tomorrow we’ll be with a group of students who are far less proficient.

…I guess that means even less of my stunning sense of humour in the class, shame!

Anyway, best be off to bed. There’s a long 3rd week ahead of us!

CELTA: nearly half-way there

A poster I created to help get students in the mood for learning the second conditional: “If I won a million pounds I’d…” (the building featured houses about 5 classrooms that we teach in).


Wah. Shatterficated. That’s what I be.

We’re now almost half way through CELTA. The pace hasn’t let up at all, really is intense.

I’ve found that I need to get in to uni for about 8am most days, after doing my Willyaki deliveries. Lunchtimes are pretty much taken up by lesson planning, so it’s basically non-stop input and output all day; we are finishing by about 6pm most days now though which is nice.

For the first week, we were basically spoon-fed our lesson material. We’d write our plans with our tutors. This week however, we’re just told what subject to teach, and pointed in the direction of what we might find useful. Next week it’ll all just be left to us.

Last night, after four hours planning for today’s one-hour lesson, I was thinking about how much longer it’s taking me to prepare for lessons here than it did in Japan. The main reason for this is that if we are not careful to meet all the criteria, our lessons (which are observed by three other trainees and our tutor) will be failed (and quite a few people have been failed. I had a near-miss in today’s grammar class teaching the second conditional, but thankfully just managed to pull it off). Fails can be made up for in future classes.

In class, I find it really challenging to maintain awareness of everything going on around me whilst at the same time focusing upon my lesson aims and objectives, and providing clear grammatical explanations (my weak area). I feel I need a clone.

This afternoon whilst explaining the difference between would and could to an individual student who was struggling to create example sentences, I noticed that two students on another table had finished and were looking around with bored expressions.. not good (and of course picked up by my assessor). I find in those situations my brain actually splits in half through necessity – one half continuing to deal with the student in need of an explanation, and the other figuring out what mini-activity to distract the advanced types with (should be on the plan though if I’ve done it properly).

Overall however, classes are going well. My strong point is rapport with the students (at the end of today’s lesson a student announced to the class, ‘You will make a great teacher Joseph!”). My weak points: board work, keeping the pace going, grammar explanations.

Back in the classroom where we are the students, there’s been a lot to take in. Today we were looking at lesson sequencing (devising a plan that covers a series of lessons), and then later, integrating the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing). That was a lot of fun as we were set a ‘running dictation’ – a competitive race done in pairs – with one person writing, and the other running back and forth to a text stuck on the wall at the end of the hallway remembering and dictating the passage sentence by sentence. Very funny 🙂 We also learned more about the problems that learners face with English verbs, notably when ‘present’ and ‘past’ tense verbs are put to other uses.

Yesterday, we studied phonemes and were taught the phonetic alphabet. That was absolutely fascinating (I’m not kidding!). We also looked at how we physically create these sounds (what parts of the vocal gear we employ) – you know I never realised that the sound ‘d’ is an unvoiced ‘t’, that ‘j’ is an unvoiced ‘sh’.

Time and time again I’m staggered by the amount of stuff we know without even knowing it! The way I move all those muscles in order to produce the word ‘hello’ – and I can do that at the same time as walking up a flight of stairs, skillfully (and unconsciously) maintaining my balance through thousands of computations telling my body to move this way or that in response to input from my balance sensors. Just incredible how it all work. 

Also yesterday, we looked at study spaces (our group offered the IC’s CILASS Collab 2 as a model study space, adapting it to suit a deprived African village), and the use of technology / realia (that’s real ‘things’).

Other sessions this week have included ‘teacher talk’, materials development. assessing, and questioning – with such a variety (and at such a pace) I don’t find myself tuning out at all, no matter how shattered I am.

Oh, we received our first (grammar focused) written assignments back today, the ones we were warned that we probably wouldn’t pass first time. They were right – out of 16 of us, 13 failed! That’s ok though, it’s written into the plan. We now have the weekend to go through the incredibly detailed feedback and submit them a second time next week.

Anyway , almost halfway through the intensive course, I’d have no hesitation in recommending CELTA to anyone thinking of teaching English as a foreign / second language. And whilst I haven’t done the one-year version, I feel that this intense course is possibly more effective (maybe? Maybe not. OK, so they are different things really. Perhaps). 

I dunno, it’s just that with teaching practice two to three times a week, and immediate feedback on virtually everything we do, we have a chance to rectify our mistakes and focus upon our shortcomings whilst they are still fresh in our minds. Rapid and effective change. Faults dealt with before they have a chance to become patterns.

I think it’s also a lot more fun – it’s like being locked in a submarine with a bunch of strangers for a month. Allows for friendship development to occur at ultra-high speed; such a pleasure to experience (especially with such a nice group of people).

Anyway, I need some shut-eye. Today’s Teaching Practice has left me pooped. Need to rest as much as possible in prep for the weekend which I think is scheduled to be filled with re-writing assignment 1, and writing assignment 2!