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Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009

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English chain-saw massacre


I have only had two experiences team teaching (the pairing up of a Japanese teacher with a foreign teacher in the same classroom.)

The first time was when I first came to Japan 17 years ago as a new English teacher. I thought the experience was for my benefit, to help me learn how to teach. It was a very pleasant experience because I had no idea what the Japanese teacher was saying.

My second experience team teaching was more recent, at a private junior high school. This time, I thought the purpose of team teaching was to assist Japanese teachers in teaching proper English pronunciation. But when I asked why team teaching was required for Japanese first-year junior high school classes, they said the purpose was to help the students make the transition from having a Japanese teacher to having a foreigner teacher. Hmmm.

Looking out at the sea of 12- and 13-year-old girls sitting obediently in their seats, each with her own personalized blanket over her lap, I thought that perhaps it was true that these little Linuses needed help making the jump to a gaijin teacher.

The jump has more to do with the fact that Japanese teach English as a subject, whereas foreigners teach English as a form of communication.

When I was teaching the students the words "these" and "those," I wrote them on the board and we practiced the pronunciation. The Japanese teacher quickly jumped in to make sure the students understood, by writing the pronunciations in the Japanese katakana alphabet above each word.

The pronunciations had been translated as "jeezu" and "jozu." Huh? Was I misunderstanding something? Perhaps the students had some hearing impairment I didn't know about.

"Jeezu" and "jozu?" Perhaps she meant Jesus and Job? Or maybe they were teaching the students to speak English with a German accent.

Next in the lesson came the word "they" which curiously was not translated as "jey," but "zey!" No wonder students think English is so complicated.

The Japanese teacher explained to me that the students didn't understand the "th" sound and she was just putting it into a more understandable form for them. Like sanding down the rough edges, so they could pronounce it more easily.

When I was teaching singular to plural, I wrote on the board "peach" and "peaches," and had the students repeat. But the Japanese teacher quickly jumped in to the rescue by translating the pronunciations into Japanese as peachy and peachies. I just smiled. Now I know what's behind that plastered on Japanese smile that cashiers have. When you haven't a clue what someone is saying, just grin and bear it.

Little did I know, this was just the beginning. The teacher would go on to change the entire pronunciation of the English language. It was as if I had just handed the teacher a butcher's knife and told her to have a go at the English language.

"Is," became "izu." "Aren't " became "aanto." Smile! I told myself.

As the teacher went away at it on the board translating English into Japanese English, it got to the point where a mere piece of chalk was not enough to make all the necessary changes. Even the butcher's knife was getting dull. And this is when I noticed the teacher had brought her own tool box.

She opened the toolbox and my role suddenly changed from that of a teacher to t hat of an assistant passing instruments to a doctor doing linguistic surgery. "Pass me a hammer and chisel!" the teacher said, and she deftly chiseled out the "r" in the word "horses." After a few more taps and cuts here and there, she had transformed "horses" into "hoshizu."

"Bring me the anvil!" said the teacher, with much excitement. I struggled to lift the heavy anvil up to the podium. She lifted the word "wolves" straight off the black board, held it in some burning flames for a moment, and started hammering away. I watched incredulously as she reshaped the word "wolves" into "oorubuzu."

"The ax!" she demanded, while eyeing an entire sentence I had written on the board.

But just then, I heard a very loud noise. It was so loud, the students held their hands over their ears.

The door opened and the dean was standing there. He looked at the teacher and said, "You requested a chain saw?"



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