Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Magic English Pill

As I've noted before, it's been a busy time for me as of late. In the last month, I've been offered 4 new private students and will be teaching 12-13 hours a week instead of 8 or so. I've also had a student who has been taking 3 lessons a week for awhile to prepare for a college interview and more frequent freelance work.

With my everlasting cold (now entering its second week of misery-induction), it's been a bit rough but what has been toughest on me has been a particular new student. This student is a housewife in her early 40's with two sons. She has a sister who lives in Canada and a brother living in Philadelphia. She claims she wants to learn English so she can effectively communicate while socializing with Americans when she visits her family. She told me she wants to improve her "broken English".

The problem is that her English isn't just "broken", it's a 5-car-pile-up with no survivors. What's more, she estimates her ability as far higher than it is. She told the referral agency that her level was "intermediate" when she can't even string together a simple sentence. In her first lesson, she answered questions by randomly blurting out words and sometimes starting a butchered sentence then getting stuck and looking wild-eyed at me and gesticulating madly as if that was going to somehow finish her thought. Unless we develop telepathy, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to understand what she means by her being bug-eyed and waving her hands like a demented spell-caster.

During the first lesson, I asked her questions to determine her level and what might be a good approach to teaching her. During the second lesson, I had a text in mind that I wanted to try but she whipped out a bunch of ancient pictures and started yammering about house cleaning. It took me awhile to work out she was talking not about cleaning but de-cluttering. She said she had an entire 6 mat room that was functioning as a closet for the various flotsam her family had accumulated and had to have a truck haul it away, twice, for 140,000 yen (about $1300).

She essentially hijacked the second lesson and made it impossible for me to apply any sort of structure or discipline to the situation without forcibly rejecting her topic of conversation (which would have been pretty obvious and rude). Both of her lessons left me totally exhausted both because of the effort involved in attempting to understand her and in trying to conduct what was essentially a free conversation with someone who greatly lacked the skills to carry on such a conversation.

Her problems with communication are greatly exacerbated by the fact that she has a problem understanding questions which many Japanese students have. That is, she doesn't listen well to the entire question and just picks up a keyword. She responds based on guessing what the question is from the keyword. This results in conversations like:

Teacher: Where do you work?
Student: Yes, I work.
Teacher: But, WHERE do you work?
Student: Salesman.
Teacher: Where is your office?
Student: Yes, I go to office.
Teacher: I'm going to beat you to death with your textbook now.
Student: I have textbook.

Now, this woman wants to have casual conversations with people in the United States and Canada in a social setting. No one will want to talk to someone who never seems to listen to what they're asking and who can't say a simple sentence like "I'm a housewife" without resorting to maniacally waving her hands around and looking at the other party expectantly in hopes he or she will finish the madwoman's thoughts.

This student clearly needs to practice structures and to learn to listen more effectively. Her basics need to be set before she can move on to having lengthy free conversations. So, for her third lesson, I decided I needed to take her in hand and get to the textbook before she could hijack the lesson again. Besides this being what she needs to achieve her goal, it's also pretty much all I can endure energy-wise. I can't possibly make small talk with someone of such limited abilities for an hour once a week. The range of material for someone with her vocabulary and grammar is simply too limited for such types of lessons.

Unfortunately, she seemed relatively resistant to doing practice of any sort. I had her practice a simple structure, "it's the ~th day of (month)" because it was in the text as part of the lesson and because it was useful for talking about birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. She couldn't spit out this simple phrase with 6 repetitions under her belt and I'd exhausted personal holidays and had to start having her practice with other holidays with a set date. When I asked her "what date is Valentine's Day," she replied with "not interested." At this point, I wasn't sure if she was expressing that she was tired of practicing the pattern (which she was not getting right at all anyway) or if she was doing her usual "guess the meaning of the question from one word" routine but I concluded the former from her less than enthusiastic efforts to apply herself. I told her (with I'm sure what was thinly-disguised exasperation) that she could talk about what she was interested in or what would fix her broken English. She settled down a bit after that but I realized that this wasn't the lesson she wanted. What she wanted was the magic English pill.

There are some students who take English lessons thinking that the very act of scheduling them, paying for them, and sitting in the presence of a foreigner who smiles at them and asks questions they are vaguely capable of understanding and replying to will improve their English ability. What's more, they figure doing this one hour a week is enough. These students think that there is some magical process of osmosis that occurs in the presence of a gaijin which improves their English by association. They don't study at all on their own. They don't do homework. They don't do anything but sit there during a lesson and either babble or listen to you babble. What these students want is to take one simple action and be better, like swallowing a pill and quickly getting well when one is sick.

The problem is that this simply doesn't work. While some students with sufficiently advanced abilities really just need to practice and benefit from free conversation, those of low or poor ability need to first focus on basics and the only way they can learn them is by studying on their own and practicing with the teacher or practicing copiously with the teacher. My student doesn't appear to want to do either as she rejected doing homework of any kind and seemed put out by practicing.

I've decided that, if she doesn't settle down in the next 3 lessons, I'm going to have to ask the agency to give her to someone else. I'm reluctant to do this mainly because the psychological implications of being rejected by a teacher are pretty bad. After all, if I won't spend an hour with someone even when they're paying me to do so, what does it say about them? I'd rather she rejected me than I had to reject her.

The reason I'm giving her 6 lessons is that the first two don't really count and I want to see how she copes once I lay down a pattern in the lessons which she can expect and perhaps deal with better. I'm not holding out much hope though. I think she's essentially looking for a gaijin buddy to pass the time with and thinking that'll improve her speaking. While some teachers might be content to sit there and make up nonsense topics so she can blather on about the minutiae of daily life, I'm not one of them. I'm not that hard up for money.


Helen said...

Oh, how I wish there really was a "Magic English Pill"! I've had this kind of problem too. Students who think their level is much better than it is, or that they know more than I do (about English anyway, they may about other things!) I've never been able to figure out how to "correct" their belief in their English ability.

In my case it was a doctor in her sixties. She was convinced that she could speak English well, and I was equally convinced that she couldn't! I was working at an Eikaiwa at the time. She came for a while, but stopped as she was "busy". Fine with me!

Jules said...

I found your encounter with the difficult student very amusing! I've just completed a teaching english course and I am now trying to establish what it is like to teach. Your blog surely gives me this insight!

In my modest opinion you cannot teach anything to who does not want to learn. I think I would give up.

Shari said...

Helen: From reading your blog, I knew you'd be able to empathize. ;-) I have encountered people like this student before but not to her degree. I'm wondering if my pinning her down may make her decide she'll tire and get "busy" as well.

Jules: Hi there, and thanks for your comment. I'm glad that my blog is providing you with some insight (while it provides me with catharsis). I agree with you that you can't teach anything to someone who doesn't want to learn. My only hope is to persuade her to want to learn, but I'm not exactly brimming with over with that hope. ;-)

Emsk said...

My most difficult student was actually the mother of a student, a ten year-old girl. Mom couldn't understand why her daughter couldn't follow Disney movies and lapse into spontaneous English after a mere 50-minute lesson a week with a Gaijin. She would regularly come up to the school to complain to the manager, who flapped around her like a mandarin. I thought I was the only teacher who'd had a dressing-down, but it turs out this dragon mother had also been to see the teacher before me as well. In the end this woman demanded that her daughter try the other teacher.

Weeks later this poor little put-upon girl had something I'd predicted when standing up for myself at a review - a mental breakdown. And for once I hated to say that I'd told them so.