Catherine Aker: Teaching English

The very first time I found myself at Kyoto Bunkyo, a combined middle school and high school in Higashiyama, something earth shatteringly shocking happened: I was cool amongst middle schoolers.

They laughed at my jokes. They got excited when I showed up. They all enjoyed talking to me. It was all my middle school fantasies of popularity realized a mere seven years too late.

Of course, as I was soon to figure out, this was not because some latent coolness gene had activated inside me sometime after high school. Rather, it was because no one could understand a word I was saying.

One would assume that this lack of communication should have been obvious after a couple of extremely one-sided conversations. And the truth is, it probably was. Just not to me.

And here, after a few weeks of painstaking observation, are the reasons why:

  1. The English the students know, the students really know. It kind of works like a script. The students know certain phrases and sentences. They have them memorized like they’re preparing for a play. The most infamous is what I like to call the “How Are You” Script.


It goes like this:


“How are you?”

“I am fine, thank you. And you?”

“I am fine.”


As long as you stick to the script, the students can have a pretty passable, if a little bit flat, conversation. Unfortunately, they know the script so well, that your input is barely necessary. It doesn’t really matter what answer you give, the script will continue on regardless.


On one occasion, a student gave the entire script in one breath without my input at all. (“How-are-you-I-am-fine-thank-you-and-you. Good-bye.”)


Nonetheless, the fact remains that when these students are on script, they are in their comfort zone and, although their intonation is a little off, they speak smoothly and confidently. Since most conversations start out with scripts, and frequently contain more in the middle, it’s easy to believe that these students are understanding more than they are.

2.They laugh a lot. Which, as most English speakers are prone to, I usually took as a cue that they were enjoying my insightful and witty comments.


As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. The students frequently used laughter to cover up for times they didn’t understand. I think it was a combination of nerves, a desire to seem more fluent, and behaviors learned from their teachers.


That’s not to say that they never laughed because something was genuinely funny. They did. But it is not the special, “I don’t understand laugh”. The “I don’t understand laugh” is hesitant. All the students take a split second to make eye contact with each other and check if anyone understands. Then, when they do laugh, it comes out in a quick burst and stops just as fast.


But, it’s close enough to regular laughter to convince someone like me that the conversation was on track, and they enjoyed my jokes. Even the one about the platypus. (They actually did know the word for platypus, by the way. They had all studied in Australia.)


Anyway, between the scripts and the laughter, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that anything was amiss. When I finally did notice, there was much mortification on my part for a few days. Afterwards, I had to slow down my speech immensely, and our conversations degenerated into fairly bland repeats of the same discussions, but at least everyone was on the same page.

So, I guess the end result of this story is that communication mishaps are easy. Correcting them is a little bit harder. But at the end of the day, I like the think that learning to bridge a few differences and learning to detect a couple of new ticks is worth it in the end. If nothing else, I’ve won a few cool points, which is a victory in and of itself.

4 thoughts on “Catherine Aker: Teaching English

  1. Wow you noticed a lot about language! I’ve never noticed the “I don’t understand laugh” (maybe I just never realized like you did!), but I’ve had a similar experience a lot, where when I didn’t give an expected answer and the script was thrown off, at which point the student would either look confused or otherwise give the next part of the script which now made no sense.

    I wonder if any of us do/did the “I don’t understand laugh” with Japanese, or if that’s specific to younger learners. But then you did say they may have picked it up from their teachers…

    • I’ve seen the laugh from college age Japanese students studying in the US, so it might be a more universal thing. Or maybe, I just talk too fast so no one can ever understand me.

  2. Very detailed observation! I think it is very interesting that you realized how the students use laughter to cover up for times they didn’t understand. Was the class conducted 100% in English? Were there occasions that you didn’t understand their question (in Japanese or English)? I’ve always had trouble dealing with this kind of situation, when I don’t understand what was being asked. So Aker-sensei, what was or what would be your approach?

    • Our class was conducted as much in English as possible, with occasional explanations in Japanese. We had some difficulties with expressions that just don’t exist in the other languages. For example the phrase, “What do you do?” sparked much confusion among the students, who didn’t know if I meant hobbies or schoolwork or biological processes or what. For the most part, I could understand what the students were asking, but this was mostly because we kept our conversation pretty basic.