I’m in the middle of preparing the semester exams for my classes and it got me thinking about something: What is the deal with these students being so stressed over this exam? I mean, they really are. The ones that are old enough to comprehend that they’re taking a test, that is. The little ones just think it’s another activity 🙂

I guess part of the issue is the attitude toward education here in Japan. They take it much more seriously than Americans do (as a whole – there are plenty of serious American students out there, as well as a few “lazy” Japanese ones). For them, there is a right answer for everything. Any other answer is unacceptable. And for things like grammar, math, science, this can certainly be true. 2 + 2 is always 4; you can’t debate about it. But what about the rest? What about learning how to have a conversation? In America, I think we learn from an early age how to express what we think. That’s how adults speak, so we learn to copy them. The freedom to express ourselves is very important to us, so it’s natural for us to learn how to do it, even at the expense of good grammar. Granted, sometimes we Americans don’t censor ourselves as much as we should, which makes us seem outspoken and rude at times. But what is conversation if it isn’t about making yourself understood to someone else? Having come from this way of thinking, I find that when I learn a new language, I want to learn the basics ASAP so that I can convey my meaning. So what if I conjugate a verb incorrectly? If I say “Can I have drink water?”, someone is bound to understand I’m asking for a drink of water. I don’t get embarrassed if I don’t say it properly. Besides, that’s how you learn – by practicing and being corrected.

I’m definitely not saying that Japanese people don’t know how to express themselves. They certainly do, as long as it’s in their own language. But when it comes to learning a different language, I think they get so concerned about speaking properly, that they fail to say anything at all. I think they feel that if they can’t say it properly, they shouldn’t even try. Why risk a “wrong answer”? So they don’t try. I’ve observed this sort of uncomfortableness and unwillingness to speak English several times since I got here. It’s not at all a desire to be rude; it’s actually the opposite. I think they’re afraid I’ll think they’re ignorant. Which, of course, I never would.

So my dilemma is this: How do I teach confidence? I can drill them and drill them on grammar all day long and they’d be perfectly happy to answer me. But that doesn’t help them learn how to converse. What, are they going to write notes to foreigners? Do they plan on only using the dialogues in their textbooks (Do you like Latin music? No, I don’t. Is that your bag? Yes, it is)? One way or another, they have to learn how to speak. I’m sure God didn’t intend for us to have fellowship in silence. The trick is finding a way to help and encourage them overcome their anxiety.

I do want to say that I am so very thankful to all the people here who HAVE tried their hardest to speak to me in English. There are many of them – translators, co-workers, students. They’ve been an invaluable source of encouragement as well as information. My hope is that they are the example that these students will follow.