Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Language Barriers

More than I would like to admit, one of the reasons I came to Japan was based upon my ignorance of my decision at hand; all the things I did not know. Of course, one was communication. I remember being told (not always from the most credible sources) "pretty much all" the street signs would be in English, that English was the 2nd language, that all the public schools in Japan require at least 6 years of English in school so you'll be fine.

I was not so sure of these statements but I figured if people before me could teach and live in Japan and be alright, I could make it as well. And there has been some truth in this statement as well.

On a continual basis there are great miscommunication stories living in Japan and especially stories from my job at my two elementary schools. Usually I keep them alone in the back of my mind. I decided a recent story was too good and too insightful into my daily life not to share with you.

The homeroom teacher in my third grade class does not speak much English. Last year she taught at another friends' (Austin's) elementary school. Earlier this year, Austin asked me if her class was oddly quiet like it always was for him but at the time he asked, I hadn't noticed anything too strange. If you know any 8 years, you know they tend to be rather boisterous creatures.

The class was the first class of the day. To start class, this teacher routinely says, "Let's start English class" and then I begin teaching my lesson. But on this day, she never said anything. So, standing in front of the class, I waited. I figured she wanted the kids to be silent before we started the morning. The silence lasted for a minute and then nothing. I assumed the kids misbehaved and the long silence was due to this bad behavior before I had arrived.

Five minutes past, nothing happened. The kids were behaving well during the time of silence. Although a few of the more active kids became more anxious, I didn't understand why the homeroom teacher was not allowing class to begin.

Before school started, I had had a really good morning. I figured I would take the time of silence to appreciate it, to meditate on the importance of silence, which I struggle to give myself amongst all the noise.

After ten or fifteen minutes of silence, I methodically began thinking of things I could cut out of my lesson. Ten or fifteen minutes of silence is an eternity for 8 year olds. I figured this was an Eastern teaching philosophy and patiently waited for it to take its course. If the kids learned patience through this exercise, it was more important than learning the time in English.

Fifteen minutes turned into thirty, on this morning I was at peace with it all. I admired the homeroom teacher's ability to keep thirty third graders quiet for so long.

It began to set in that this silence would last all 45 minutes. The teacher finally gave me the nod to end class, so I said, "thank you very much" and left. The kids in this class are some of my favorites, and I felt bad for them because they all looked so confused.

The rest of the day, I never said anything to the third grade teacher. I actually never said anything to anyone that day, I just thought to myself, "that was the most memorable, maybe even coolest class ever". I didn't want to appear to be undermining the homeroom teacher's authority and sometimes it's best for me to just understand there's a lot I just can't understand in Japan.

I teach at two different schools, so after the odd third grader experience on a Thursday I didn't come back to that school until the following Tuesday. Because I had to prepare for the next third grade class, the prior's week class had to be addressed

To my surprise, she said she had thought I wanted the class to be silent the whole time.

At this school there are a handful of really good English speakers, so I asked for their help in translating to affirm the accuracy of what I thought I had heard. When it was  indeed confirmed, we all aloofly chuckled in bewilderment that we could misunderstand each other so badly.

Part of me wants to start this morning's third grade class with a few minutes of silence, just to see how the kids react again :)

If you'd like, tell me your own personal cultural misunderstanding stories, either in the comments or on Facebook.

Below are some pictures last weekend of a camping trip with some friends. We started the drive out to camp at 2:00 am (!) on Saturday morning, slept for a couple hours and hiked the mountain in the morning. Pretty crazy in a myriad of different ways. Thanks to Mason for the pictures!

Really excited to see many of you next week in the great Northwest!

In the tent


at the top with the boys (left to right: me, Makoto, Kazuya, Saiki, and Mason