Briana Freeman: English Conversation Circle and Assistant English Teacher

Because of the differences between the Japanese school year and the KCJS school year, I assisted at a junior high English class only three times.

Most of my assisting consisted of standing awkwardly to the side of sensei’s desk, doing what sensei asked but failing to be outgoing in the slightest. I dreaded the time at the end of class when the students worked on their homework (or more often, talked amongst themselves), as sensei would then cheerily encourage me to walk about the room offering help and asking if the student’s had any questions. I don’t generally consider myself a shy person, but talking to junior high students, especially those of a different culture and language, was terrifying. There was such a stark contrast between the JET volunteer that was there for half a class, bright and upbeat, and me, who stood nervously trying not to let my discomfort show. I don’t think I could ever teach young children.

This CIP presented a precarious situation to navigate; I was only an assistant, not a teacher. Once, I was asked to read aloud a translation of Momotaro. I stumbled over several incorrect parts, hesitated and blushed when I had to say, “Oh, my God!,” but didn’t mention the errors. The translation was not from a textbook, and if sensei had done it herself I definitely couldn’t point out her mistakes in front of the class.

I often wondered if the only time the students interacted with foreigners was in English class. I sometimes felt like a cultural ambassador, a representative of America for the young teens of my classes. My first day there involved the students asking questions in English and me responding. For example, questions like, “What is your favorite food?” My favorite food, if I had to choose one, is collard greens. But since tons of Americans I’ve talked to haven’t even heard of that, I racked my brain for a food easier to understand. To my everlasting horror, I said, “Cheeseburgers.” How much more stereotypically American can you get? Everyone (including me) laughed and I imagined I heard a few “yappari”’s from around the room.

Despite my shyness, I did encounter quite a few students whose enthusiasm encouraged me; a boy whose pronunciation was excellent, a girl whose penmanship was especially beautiful. Despite English being a required class, there were some who genuinely seemed interested in learning it well. And, one-on-one, kids didn’t seem so intimidating. Maybe I’m not cut out for teaching little kids, but I feel as if I could be a good tutor.

One thing that really surprised me was the low amount of discipline in the classroom. Students would often talk out of turn or interrupt the teacher, but sensei didn’t tell them to stop. It seemed in such contrast to the impression I’d had before coming to Japan: quiet students, respectfully bowing to the teacher before class while saying “Good morning” in unison. I wonder what other Japanese junior high schools are like. But then, I can only compare to my own school experience, which was pretty strict.

I participated in my other CIP, an English conversation circle, three times as well.

The leader and members seemed close; he would often address the women with “-chan” instead of “-san.” I was very surprised at first, but maybe the group is more laid-back than I had assumed. After all, everyone would go out to a bar together after the weekly meeting. In my eight months here, I have seen drinking parties appear in a variety of contexts (business, college clubs, conversation circles, etc.) to aid in socializing and create a friendly atmosphere. It seems an important part of Japanese’ social lives. Since the circle met on Tuesday nights, though, I was never able to participate in this particular social event. I suspect they did much of their group bonding over drinks, and I’m disappointed I missed out on getting to know any of them better.

I learned on the first night that conversation circles consist of a lot of self-introductions. Once you got past the preliminaries, though, it was a great opportunity to speak to a wide variety of interesting people. For example, one guy asked me to teach him some idioms, which made me realize just how weird phrases like “Don’t have a cow” really are. It made me want to learn some Japanese idioms; I wonder if there are any with cows…

There were also some interesting linguistic moments (shout out to Yotsukura-sensei’s class). For example, I noticed was when a woman used “like” as a filler when speaking. It sounded so natural, I knew she must have studied or lived abroad. When asked, (yappari) she answered she’d lived in Seattle for awhile. Although it was just one word, that “like” differentiated her from all the other Japanese I had spoken to that night. I hope I can achieve such naturalness in Japanese!

2 thoughts on “Briana Freeman: English Conversation Circle and Assistant English Teacher

  1. It must have been very interesting to have had two different CIP experiences that offered contrasting environments, though it is unfortunate you were only able to participate a few times each. I know for me it took way more than three times volunteering at my daycare before I felt really comfortable with the community, so I’m sure your experience at the junior high could have been more special too if things had worked out.

    One thing that I that caught my attention was your feeling of being a “cultural ambassador” at the junior high school. I know I sometimes felt that way when talking to the kids at my daycare, but since junior high students are more cognizant, I imagine you must have felt more into the role. Considering your experience at the conversation circle, did you also feel that sense of being a “cultural ambassador” as well? If so, in what ways? And if not, why do you think so?

    • Yeah I wish I could have found just one place to get to know well.

      For some reason I didn’t feel so much like a cultural ambassador at the English conversation circle. Probably because most of the people there had been abroad or were studying to travel abroad, or at the very least had had extended contact with foreigners before (especially if they weren’t new to the circle).