Life in a Japanese School
By Maiko Covington

English Class
Date: Sun, 24 Mar 1991 10:08:04 GMT

Hello again, and hisasiburi ^_^. I am finally finished with my finals and have time to post again. I hope this post lives up to whatever expectations you may have, and I am truly sorry for keeping everyone waiting so long to get this out. Again I offer my standard disclaimer: I have had no training whatsoever in sociology or related fields - all comments offered here are strictly my own.

English Class
I am sure most of you have heard that all Japanese students take six years of English - three in junior high and three in high school. Most of you have probably also wondered at one time or another why these same people often cannot speak English well. The answer most likely lies in the way the English class is carried out. Read on, and you may discover something! I will center my discussion on high school English for now.

At my high school, there were three kinds of English class - Reading, 'I, II, or IIIB' (depending on what year you were), and Grammar. The Reading class and the 'B' class were just about the same as far as I could tell, except that we had different readers. Both the classes used a small paperback reader (all Japanese textbooks are small cheap paperbacks) with various stories in it. Most of the stories ranged from 5 to 6 pages, with fairly big print. The text is all in English, but on the bottom of each page the words that are new are defined in Japanese. Grammar patterns are also explained in the margin, in exceedingly small letters. Most of my friends, though, relied heavily on a dictionary when reading the text. At the end of each story was a half-page or so description of the story content. Oh yah - all of the new words introduced were accompanied by International Phonetic Symbol transliteration, so that you could tell how to pronounce the word. Those of you with English to Japanese dictionaries will note that this is the same system used to give the pronunciation of English words in the dictionary.

The class itself consisted of endless repetition of the sentences in the book. In my Reading class, the teacher (who was Japanese) would read out loud one sentence from the story, and then the class would repeat it. Then, the teacher would call on someone to read that same sentence and translate it into Japanese. In Japanese school, calling on students often isn't random - the teacher will proceed down the row, calling on each person in turn. So, everybody would count the people left ahead of him or her and prepare the one sentence he knew he would have to translate in front of the class. This led to frantic consultations with friends before class to make sure of the translation for that one sentence. Most people would therefore not know the translation for the rest of the story. Sometimes, though, the teacher would just read all the sentences and their Japanese translations to the class. In that case, everyone would hurriedly write down the exact words she said over the text as she read it. I always was amazed at her translating abilities, until I found out that in the teacher's edition the Japanese translation is printed above the text in red!

On a similar note, though, in Japan you can get the 'guide' to just about all textbooks. The guide has all the answers to the questions at the end of the story, the Japanese meaning, and drills in it. Most homework in Japan is not printed in the textbook. It comes instead on newsprint sheets xeroxed by the teacher, which are called "prints". That way, you cannot get the answers anywhere. Also, some classes use workbooks, which are ordered en masse from the publishing company. The publishing company will not sell the answer key to students. All of this helps keep the textbooks small.

Each Friday, we had a spelling test in the Reading class. The teacher would read a English word, and we would have to (1) spell it, and (2) write out the meaning in Japanese. The tests were printed on newsprint too. Exams (by this I mean tyuukan siken -midterms- and kimatukousa -finals-) consisted of fill in the blank type questions about the story, English passages which you had to answer questions about (this is the sort of thing that is on the college entrance exam) and verb conjugation drills. By verb conjugation drills, I mean problems like this: I ( ) some comic books, but I had no money. (buy) where you have to put the correct conjugation of the verb in the parentheses. In this case, it would be 'would have bought'. Japanese students spend lots of time memorizing the rules for this. We also have these 'word cards' which are mini 3x5 cards attached to a ring. On each you write a word you have to memorize. Similar to this are 'word books' which are tiny notebooks with paper printed so there is a place for the 'foreign word', 'pronunciation', and 'Japanese meaning'.

The grammar class was different. Instead of a reader, we had a grammar book (obviously) which had a different grammar problem explained on each page. The teacher would read the example sentences and their translations, and then call on people to do the questions in the book. These were standard type grammar drills, and verb conjugation problems like those I mentioned above. The entire book was devoted to the memorization of complicated rules for deciding what pattern to use when. For instance, there is a whole chapter devoted to different ways to say 'if'. I liked the reading classes better than grammar class. People would write down all these rules in notebooks. Most Japanese students take notes in these thin notebooks, with pictures on the front (of anime characters, etc). We use one for each class, and people organize their notes elaborately with colored pens and hilighting and the whole bit. I suppose this helped in grammar class. Basically, there was no emphasis on speaking at all. Our school did have an English club, though, where you could practice speaking drills and listening to tapes. Each Friday the English Club would show a video of an American movie without subtitles. I joined the club just so I could see these.

On another note, in junior high the English class involved more speaking, although it was still centered largely around rote repitition of drills in the textbook. It was my bad fortune to go to a school with no native English speaking English teachers. I am very happy about programs they have in some schools now where a native speaker leads conversation practice and discussions. One of the main faults with the speaking programs they do have, though, is that when a student makes the slightest grammatical mistake while speaking the teacher (usually a non-native) will come down hard saying 'that's wrong, that's wrong!'. I think more emphasis needs to be put on communication and not grammar. But, that is just my humble opinion ^_^. At my school, we were taught that there is a difference between 'I am going to eat now' and 'I will eat now' but the students couldn't say what it was they had for lunch.

My Individual Experiences with English Class
(this section may be more interesting)

I am a native English speaker. As such, I had a few different experiences in the English class. First of all, having to learn the alphabet in 7th grade was humiliating at best. They made us all use that 'English paper' with the
- - - - - - -
pattern. Well, this was the kind of paper I had to use in kindergarten, so I hated having to use it. So, I would purposely write really messy to spite the teacher.

Secondly, whenever I would say something in a regular English voice, two things would happen. (1) my classmates would practically fall on the floor saying "Your English is SOOO good!!". The teacher would do this too. Sometimes the teacher would ask me to say something out loud just to hear my accent. I didn't like it too much, because nobody wants to stand out. But, I did rather like it that I could speak fluent English and others couldn't. (2) the upper classmen (tyuu 3) would complain that I made them look bad. They said I had to start speaking like them. As a result, I can speak perfect Japanese accented English ^_^. I would go around saying "Mai neemu izu maiko" like that. The funny thing is, though, people are so used to hearing that sort of thing that they didn't think I was speaking funny at all!

Most of my teachers were nice and willing to acknowledge the fact that my English was better than theirs. If they had a question, they would ask me, usually after or before class. These teachers would call on me just like they called on everyone else (although I would usually read my part in "Japanese English"), and if they made a mistake during lecture, they would respond positively to my correction. I had to be careful how I phrased the comments though - I had to be sure to say "....jya nai desyou ka" like that so they wouldn't get embarrassed. The teacher would then look up the word or pattern in the dictionary, correct HIMSELF, and all would be well. I have respect for these teachers.

I can think of one notable exception, though. My high school IIB teacher would never call on me. He'd call on the person in front of me, then on the person in back, skipping me altogether. This went on for months. After a while I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to be called on, and I started to read manga or novels under the desk, write notes, etc. (I had read the entire reader in 10 minutes on the first day). Well, one day I was reading a new Star Trek novel my friend had sent from Hawaii, when he came over to my desk, slammed the meterstick down (making a horrible slap! noise) and yelled, "what do you think you're doing??? This is English class" (but in Japanese) at me. Without thinking, I pointed to the book I was reading and said, "datte, eigo desyou? (but isn't this English?). BAD move. I got in so much trouble for that....

That guy also never would respond to constructive criticism outside of class, even before the above mentioned incident. And he talked differently from the other teachers. It was almost as if in order to show he knew how to say the 'r' sound, he would attach it to every word. My friends were constantly asking me how to say this or that in English. I would happily tell them - even colloquial stuff. The funny thing is, if I told them the English in a natural accent they wouldn't understand - I had to say the meaning in Japanese accented English to get my point across. This is because that is how the teachers speak, I guess.

I also had to endure the unending "we don't believe you speak English. Say something." requests. Well, they would ask all this in Japanese, and it is very hard for me to answer in English when people are speaking to me in Japanese. No matter what I try to say, it comes out in Japanese. Plus, I never knew what I should say. (I have the same problem now when people ask in English 'say something in Japanese!') So I would reply in Japanese, 'what do you want me to say' and they would invariably reply 'anything'. Finally I hit upon a solution - I would read part of the English reader out loud. That way they could hear my accent, and I didn't have to think up anything off the top of my head to say.

I used to get a big kick out of watching old 'Nightline' reruns with the English Club. I always thought it was neat because it showed pictures of the US. We also watched "little house on the prairie" and "Top Gun".

I shall continue this post later if there are readers - it is 2:30 or so AM and I am sleepy... Any comments may be posted to my e-mail. Thank you for reading this horribly long thing!

Maiko Covington
(oops, I meant edu)

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Additional Info:
Life in A Japanese School By Maiko Covington.
Her text has remained true to her original posting. The overall title of this section was chosen to best represent her articles rather than "My High School Days" as originally titled by Maiko-san. Her articles were originally posted and may be found here: My High School Days. You may reach her at the this email: as email in article is old and defunct.

She has been asked if she will write some more of these and her answer is, "The answer to that question is, not likely in the near future. The events in those posts occurred more than 10 years ago now, and I honestly don't think I could get myself into the same frame of mind."