Turning Japanese

December 2011


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Education Review asks Japanese teacher DEBRA ATKIN about her experience in Japan.

Q: What inspired you to apply for a Language Immersion Award?

A. My inspiration came after speaking with the then language advisor Noeline Grant at Victoria University, who spent some time working with my Japanese class. She suggested it would be a great opportunity for me to improve my own Japanese language learning. The other inspiration was this was a time when learning languages was the ‘hot topic’ in

The New Zealand Curriculum and I knew it was an area I wanted to help lead my school in. By winning the award I was ensuring that at least I would be better prepared to teach students a language.

Q: Where in Japan were you based?

A. I was based in Fukuoka, which is situated on the northern shore of the island of Kyushu, in the south of Japan.

Q: Did any family members accompany you?

A. No, my family did not attend, as I spent only one month there. They would liked to have joined me and I think if I had been going for longer, my mum may have come over to experience Japanese life with me.

Q: Did you attend a language school or similar while you were in Japan?

A. I attended a Japanese language school called GENKI JACS each day. I spent four hours each day learning Japanese and then one hour each day partaking in a cultural experience, such as flower arranging, tea ceremony, kimono dressing or sightseeing. This was the first time AFS and the Ministry of Education had incorporated language school into the LIA experience.

Q: Did you work at a school during your time in Fukuoka?

A. Unlike most other LIA recipients, I did not work in a school while I was there. I was intending to visit three schools located in the CBD area of Fukuoka in my final week but unfortunately due to swine flu, they pulled the plug at the last minute. GENKI JACS explained to me that I would find it hard to visit a school when this flu was circulating around the world, as the Japanese are extremely worried about sickness.

In 2006, however, I obtained a teacher scholarship through Asia:NZ to travel to Osaka with three other teachers. On this scholarship I spent two weeks in various classrooms in different schools and observed many differences. Teachers in Japan are still very much the only people who direct their students’ learning throughout the day. The whole class is taught at once rather than forming groups, which perhaps explains why students work quietly and don’t often ask questions. Teaching relies heavily on the curriculum and text books and classrooms are quite traditional environments, with blackboards and limited colour. Students in Japan will sit in single-file desks and are responsible for cleaning the school at break times, including sweeping, cleaning basins and toilets and cleaning up after eating lunch. Two students start the day in the class by greeting the other classmates, handing out notices and setting up the day, then the teacher takes over. Students attend school in their formal uniform and then change into their PE gear and stay in it until the end of the day. Playgrounds, if any, are small and instead of fields there are ‘baseball’ fields made of dry mud instead of grass. Lunch is served to each student at school, and usually consists of a hot noodle lunch with miso, fruit and fish.

Q: How did your time in Japan help to improve your Japanese?

A. From the minute I landed my Japanese was put into practice. I am by no means proficient; in fact I am closer to being a beginner than a proficient speaker. With each passing day in Japan my Japanese language improved. Attending language school each day obviously had a huge impact on that but also the conversations I held with other foreigners, new Japanese friends and others from GENKI JACS. The staff and teachers at GENKI JACS ensured that we only spoke Japanese to them and that they only asked us questions in Japanese. However, it was the ‘real everyday’ experiences that I really benefitted from – having a conversation with my hostel ‘mum’, buying food at the supermarket, talking to people at the train station. All these opportunities allowed me to practise my ‘conversational’ Japanese. I picked up lots of little colloquialisms that students really enjoy learning.

Q: Did you find the language barrier a challenge?

A. At times the language barrier was tricky, especially when travelling on your own and people assuming you are an ex-pat with excellent Japanese.

It was easy to get by in the early days, as Japanese people are so friendly, always stopping to help if you needed help. They also publish everything in English, including train timetables, train stops and instructions around the airport.

Q: Were any other aspects of your stay challenging?

A. Sometimes the pace of life is quite a challenge. It can be a very long day living in Japan, as you travel most places by train. While the trains are perfectly timed and run every seven minutes or so, you do tend to spend a lot of time getting to places. As eating out is relatively cheap, Japanese people tend to eat their breakfast, lunch and dinner at restaurants. They mostly tend to have small kitchens with no ovens, so tend to not cook in their apartments. The first time I visited Japan, I found the sleeping arrangements a little challenging, as they sleep on quite firm futon-style mattresses and pillows which are quite hard. Once my friends and I found a Briscoes-type store and bought ourselves soft pillows, we were fine!

Q: Overall, did you enjoy your time in Japan? What were the highlights?

A. My time in Japan was amazing! I loved every minute of it! I only wished I could have stayed longer. I love Japan: the culture, the food, the people and everything it has to offer. The cultural experiences were amazing. Their temples, shrines and churches are absolutely breathtaking, as are the castle ruins and parks.

One of the best highlights was being able to take part in their cultural events, such as flower arranging, kimono, the tea ceremony, and visiting shrines and temples. They are always so happy for foreigners to be visiting these places and taking part in it.

Another highlight is the food. The choices on offer make choosing a place to eat for dinner tricky! The food is exquisite, delicious, beautifully presented and reasonably priced.

The public transport is also excellent. It is different to any experience in New Zealand. The bus system is efficient; you board from the back, put your ready-paid ticket in the machine and then squeeze on board. The trains are perfectly timed right down to the exact minute. They are fast, efficient, comfortable and take you almost anywhere. From my door of the dorm I was staying in to the front door of GENKI JACS, I took one train for 12 minutes and walked for five minutes either side; not bad compared with the distance I travelled from Mt Eden to Birkenhead!

Q: Would you recommend the LIA programme to others?

A. Absolutely! It gave me the boost of confidence I needed to come back and re-vamp my Japanese teaching. I came back with new ideas, great stories, fantastic pictures, a huge range of new teaching resources and a real passion for teaching students another language. It is something I would recommend any language teacher do.

Q: Last year you were awarded a scholarship. Can you tell us about that?

A. It was an educator’s scholarship awarded by AFS and Asia:NZ to teachers who already teach students about Asia. I was chosen to travel to Indonesia with another teacher from Whangarei Intermediate. During our month there we had two host schools (both the equivalent of decile one schools in New Zealand) and we also visited a range of schools, from public schools run by local villages to private schools which run for six days a week. It was an eye-opening experience that provided us with the opportunity to explore how the Indonesian school system operates, the pressures and challenges they face and the impact overseas-trained teachers have on their education system. While we were there, I gained a huge appreciation for what we have in New Zealand.

Debra Atkin is a Japanese teacher at Balmoral School and the recipient of an AFS Language Immersion Award to Japan in 2009 and an Asia:NZ/AFS Educator Scholarship to Indonesia in 2010.