If you a Westerner, when visiting big tourist attractions like the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto)
Nara’s wooden temple
or Himeji castle
you can be sure to see big groups of Japanese school children. The pupils are there because their schools want them to learn about the history of Japan, in the same way as, for example, Finnish school children visit historical sites in Finland, although, visiting a Russian tzar’s summer house from the 1880s in my home town (Kotka, Finland) as a primary school pupil may not have been quite as spectacular a setting as many of the school trips Japanese kids get to go on. In any case, when the Finnish kids go on school trips, the purpose of those trips is usually increased cultural/historical understanding, but Japanese school children often multi-task. Namely, their school excursions double as an English lesson. Thus, when spotting Westerners they will, usually in groups of 2-6, approach you in a shy manner and ask if they could have a conversation with you. If you agree, what’s coming is however not really a ‘conversation’. You see, their ‘conversation’ consists of a pre-written questionnaire which they will execute in a rehearsed interrogatory manner, asking you several questions one after another and expecting one-word answers. For example:
What’s you favourite sport? (expected answer e.g. Soccer)
What’s your favourite food? (expected answer e.g. Pizza)
What’s your blood type? (expected answer e.g. A) (note that pretty much all Japanese people know their blood type and many of them believe that blood type is one important factor determining your personality. You can read my earlier blog post on the topic here.)
These rather one-directional conversations in which each student in the group asks you one pen-pal type question are quite fun, and the students are very polite, sweet and giggle a lot but needless to say, with pre-written questions and an expectation of one word answers, they come completely unprepared for Western-style conversations. After all, in a naturalistic situation in Europe/North America, whether it is a pub or a school playground, someone walking over to you and firing a series of questions at you would (or should) never happen. Moreover, if you responded to those questions with single-word answers, you would be sending a pretty clear passive aggressive message that you wanted that person to bugger off, right? Thus, the question is: What do these strange ‘conversations’ teach Japanese students about the use of English in conversational settings? An answer might be: not much.
I think students going and chatting with foreigners is a great idea, but for them to be better prepared for oral communication with native English speakers, the manner in which the practise is done should better correspond to real life, non-staged situations.
So, here is an example of a conversation where I’ve tried to provide a more authentic Western-style conversation in which answers are rarely one word long and in which both parties ask questions/give answers.
Student 1: What’s your favourite sport?
Me: Do you mean to watch or to actually do it myself?
Student 1: (doesn’t understand my question)
Me: (decide to go with the sport I like doing most and say) Downhill skiing.
Student 1: (looks perplexed as they don’t understand what ‘downhill skiing’ means)
Me: (act as if I’m downhill skiing)
Student 1: Ahh!
Me: Do you do downhill skiing?
Student 1: (thought that their turn was already over and is looking at the person whose turn it is to talk to me, thus my question goes unanswered)
Me: (persisting, I point at the student and repeat my question) Do you do downhill skiing?
Student 1: No.
Student 2: What’s your favourite food?
Me: Hmm, there are so many… maybe pizza or tempura or pasta with wild mushroom sauce. I don’t know. What’s yours?
Student 2: (panics and turns to their friends for help. After a 20 second silence the student manages to utter) Udon.
Me: I love udon too.
Student 3: What’s your favourite Anime character?
Me: I don’t know any.
Student 3: (is confused presumably because they cannot understand that there are people who do not know anything about Anime)
I assume that at least one reason for Japanese school children preying on tourists for an English conversation is due to old-fashioned methods in language teaching. Namely, many Japanese schools use the grammar-translation method which focuses, well, on grammar and translation. In addition, English in/outputs are done solely or predominantly in writing with minimal spoken interaction (as a linguist whose research areas include first and second language acquisition, I am eager to see Japan adopt more modern approaches to language teaching). Due to the bulk of teaching being translations of texts, most students never really hear English in the classroom. Furthermore, in Japan, foreign TV/films are dubbed and many Japanese youths prefer Japanese and/or Korean music to English music. Thus, Japanese students get minimal exposure to spoken English also outside the classroom. The lack of exposure to English (combined with other factors) has resulted in widespread poor oral competence in English, even in people who have extremely good written skills of English, e.g. doctors, and even English teachers! I am not kidding. I have encountered several native-Japanese English language teachers in Japan who needed a translator to interact with me in English, and my understanding is that many (or most) Japanese students never hear their native-Japanese English teacher use English. I have also had appointments with Japanese doctors who advertised themselves as providing consultations in English, but when sitting opposite them in the consultation room, they’ve shown me a laminated card asking me to write my question(s) on a piece of paper, show the piece of paper to them, after which they would write a reply.
I will not go into any detail in relation to the language teaching in Japan or what pedagogical steps might be helpful for the Japanese educational system to improve their students’ oral communication skills in English. But what I would say is that if you are in Japan and encounter groups of pupils in tourist attractions, please have a chat with them, if not to provide the students with an opportunity to practice their English (whether you go along with the interrogatory style or make it more interactive is up to you) then maybe for the little gifts/messages they usually give you for your time. Below there are a couple of sweet hand-written messages that I have received for participating (regardless of the fact that the pupils got a slightly more Western chat than what they were after).