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Bringing the Concept of ‘Real Life’ English into the Classroom

As an assistant language teacher, sometimes it’s who you are here rather than where you come from that matters most to your students

By 6 min read

When you come to Japan to work as an assistant language teacher (ALT), whether it be through the JET Programme, a dispatch company or — if you’re very lucky — a direct hire position, you’ll probably hear a similar spiel as part of your orientation:

“Remember, you’re not just there to teach English. You’re also an ambassador for your country and for foreigners in general. As well as helping the students communicate in English, you also need to introduce them to foreign culture and foreign customs.”

Typically, the way I have seen most ALTs interpret this is to show the students loads of photos, realia and movies from their home countries. Now, anything that broadens a student’s mind and introduces them to something new is — in my opinion — never a bad thing, but without context the essence of the lesson becomes lost.

Today, I want to introduce you to a different approach. It’s one that I adopted several years ago and it has served me well. Ready?

Ask yourself: What would a Japanese child or teenager really be interested in knowing that only I could teach them?

Instead of making the lesson all about you and your country, try to see things from the students’ point of view.

From my own experience, and a certain degree of trial and error over many years, I have come to the conclusion that it is often your experiences here in Japan — rather than anything you bring from your home country — that make for more engaging discussion in the classroom.

Think about it. How do you adapt to living here? How is it different from your own country? What challenges have you faced or do you continue to face here and how do you confront them?


As an example, let me share with you a discussion I had with some of my junior high school students a while ago.

Some of these students had an unhealthy fixation on accents and the misguided belief that an American accent (a California accent to be precise) was the only way to make yourself understood in a native English speaking country. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it was too much American TV or maybe they had a teacher from the U.S. at their eikaiwa (English conversation school) classes after school. In any case, they needed to realize that California accents makeup but a tiny portion of the English speaking population — not just in Japan, but all over the world.

Now, being from Glasgow, I know a thing or two about incomprehensible accents!

To help the students realize this, I began by discussing my experiences with stereotypes while studying Japanese.

From when I started trying to pick up Japanese in 2006, I’ve lived in Tokyo, Osaka, Okayama and now Nagano. Each area had its own unique accent, its own pacing and intonation and even its own unique vocabulary.

I asked the students, most of whom were from Osaka, if they had ever been to Okinawa or Hokkaido. Most of them had been to one or the other, if not both.

“Do you think their accent is different from yours?” I asked. They nodded.

“Can you understand every word they say?” Of course, they answered in the negative. “Well,” I continued. “When you go to an English speaking country, it’s the same.”

“When I study Japanese, I try to listen to different accents. Coming to Osaka has helped me learn Osaka-ben (the local dialect) and made me realize that not everybody who speaks Japanese sounds the same as someone from Tokyo.”

Then I dropped the bombshell: “There’s no such thing as an American accent. Each region of America has its own accent. They are all different.”

The kids, ultimately, responded well. It took some time for them to get their heads around the concept, but utilizing my own experiences in Japan studying Japanese from a variety of accents, gave them a logical context they could easily relate to.

As language learners, we are essentially opposite sides of the same coin.

Of course language learning is the most obvious route, but there are other, more abstract ways that our daily experiences in Japan can inform our classes and help us to connect with our students and our colleagues more effectively.

Shrimp doria.

Another example, so beautiful in its simplicity, is food.

The late, great Anthony Bourdain talked extensively in his novel Kitchen Confidential about the ability for a shared love of food to unite people who otherwise may have little or nothing in common with one another.

Japan is no different.

The topic of Japanese food — or rather my likes and dislikes of certain types of Japanese food — seem to be the subject of intense fascination with some of my students.

“Can you eat raw fish?”

“Have you tried horse meat?”

“How about natto (fermented soybeans)?”

… it takes a deeper line of thought to actually get your students engaged and thinking about things from a new perspective.

Of course, the dreaded natto is one area where I do, sadly, conform to the foreign stereotype. Despite numerous attempts to get into it and plenty of prodding from Japanese friends, I just can’t develop a taste for the stuff. The fragrance just reminds me of the smell that emanates from my shoes after a 10-kilometer walk on a hot, humid, summer day.

However, the point stands: food is something we can all talk about to some degree. When I have lunch with my kids, they always ask me what I think of the menu for that day. It’s also a topic that we can discuss quite early on in our ALT life and be easily understood. Most foods, be they Japanese or foreign, have the same names in English as they do in Japanese. So even if your Japanese is only rudimentary, it shouldn’t be too hard to start a chat with your students about it.

As an example, we did a food quiz with one of my elementary classes recently. Part of this particular lesson was the study of country names and famous foods from those countries.

So, I asked the kids: “What country does doria come from?”

Considering its close resemblance to a gratin or a risotto, the common answers were Spain, Italy and France. All wrong, of course.

No, doria, with its substituting of rice for potatoes, is, I was surprised to learn, a Japanese dish, or at least, a dish created in Japan. It was first created in a hotel in Yokohama by its resident Swiss chef in 1930. The kids seemed stunned by this. Such a simple thing and yet it gave them a whole new perspective on something they’ve probably eaten for years.

And in the end, that’s where I see the role of the ALT working at its best. It’s easy to bombard students with images and stories of far-flung foreign lands in the name of “cultural exchange.” But it takes a deeper line of thought to actually get your students engaged and thinking about things from a new perspective.

As I recall reading somewhere once: “A good teacher teaches. A great teacher inspires.”

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