So, I participated in the programme three times, in Oogawara, Ishinomaki and Sendai; all three times I was the ALT.
Short version: Fun, fun, fun, DIALECTS :D :D :D
Long version behind the cut.
1. The myth that the Japanese English teachers can’t speak English at all is not actually a myth. I worked directly with only about 13 of them, but also heard presentations of about 200 in the course of the meetings. The presentations would invariably start or end with “I’m sorry, I can’t really speak English, so I had my ALT prepare a few English sentences for me, which I then memorised”.
2. The ESL teaching policy in Japanese public schools is actually pretty good. I know, because I read an outline, and about half of the document a year ago*, but the the way classes are taught in reality’s got completely nothing to do with the official guidelines.
About a half of the teachers is convinced they should use as little English as possible during lessons, because the children will be scared and discouraged**. They seem to think that whenever they actually ask the children to do something that is not playing a game, they will refuse any cooperation whatsoever.
For instance, one of the teachers told me about a four-hour lesson plan she had for teaching the “I can/I can’t/Can you…” construction. The first hour was an introduction, the second was all about games and exercises, the third for a review, and the last one was about each of the children making a short presentation that basically consisted of a list of things they could or could not do. Apparently, not only were the children too afraid to actually say anything, but all of them complained it was too difficult, so in the end she had to drop the presentation.
Additionally, she said she couldn’t explain to the children the difference between “can” and “can’t”, because it was only one letter, and the pronunciation was very similar, too***. I asked her if she couldn’t just say that “can’t” is a shorter version of “cannot”, as it would, seriously, make things easier to understand****. She said it would be too difficult, BUT I hardly see how it could make matters any worse, since THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING AS IT IS ANYWAY. The worst case scenario would be that they will continue not understanding still, the best case scenario – that it actually helps.
(Furthermore, because every lesson revolves around a Japanese example-sentence, all sorts of ridiculous mistakes occur. Japanese “can” is “dekiru”, and it can be combined with verbs as well as nouns, so when the ESL students want to transpose the construction they know to English, they often get something like “I can baseball” and so on).
3. The textbook they use in primary schools is terrible and clearly written by someone who’ got no idea about English at all.Link link link —> Eigo nooto.
It contains lots of really bizarre words, especially when you consider it’s supposed to be suitable the first or second year English students in primary schools. The vocabulary about getting and asking for directions included stuff like “department store” (clearly, influenced by the Japanese loanword) and “barbershop” instead of “hairdresser’s”.
In general, there are lots and lots of cases when the choice of vocabulary was made by a person that had no idea about English; where the words included in the various sections were either Japanese loanwords or high-context words very unlikely to be used outside of Japan (you basically learn a second language to communicate with people who can’t speak your first language, so it’s completely pointless to learn words that are very unlikely to ever be used in that second language, right?), or were in fact Japanese pseudo-English (和製英語).
For example, the section about food had (and bear in mind it was the section about food in a beginner’s level textbook) words like オムライス、エビフライ and such, and the teachers I worked with were adamant about using “omuraisu” for “omelet with rice” and “shrimp fry” for “fried shrimps”; finally I had to ask a Canadian woman from the other group to persuade them that they were wrong wrong.
Not only was it all wrong, but also the point of teaching eleven/twelve-year-olds words such as “fried shrimp” completely eludes me.
(There weren’t even any fruits on that list. The mind, it boggles)
4. Of course, it was actually fun. In Sendai, I FINALLY GOT TO BE THE PENGUIN :D
Can you sing? No I can’t.
Can you fly? No I can’t.
What can you do?
I can swim.
I can swim.
I can swim very well
I chanted happily, while making penguin gestures and silly penguin faces after I said “Hullo, my name is Sendaianonymous, and I’m a penguin. Chant with me YAY :D :D :D”
I EVEN CROWED ONCE. YESSSSS YESSSSSS YESSSSSS!1!!S!!1!!!!!!1!11!!
5. Also, it was very enjoyable being constantly told by everyone how awesome I was. I’d like to repeat that pleasant experience asap plz.
6. Also, the teachers I worked with in Ishinomaki taught me some stuff about Miyagi dialect, YAY:
こわい・こゑー depending on where exactly in Miyagi you are, “Kowai”, meaning “tired”, can be also pronounced “kowee”.
ぐわる when you’re feeling not so well.
のむべっちゃ・のむべし in Tohoku dialects, the old Kamigata form “beshi” is often used instead of よう forms. However, the “~cha” forms are considerably older then the “beshi”.
いずい（エンズエ）＝不快適、違和感が感じる。It’s written “enzue” in my dictionaries and print-outs and stuff, but the people I’ve met so far have been pronouncing it “izui”. So much for Sendai-ben.
タバコ means “to take a break”***** in Sendai and Kurihara, but not necessarily in other places, where 一服 is often used in the same meaning.
* I know, I’m a sad, sad, sad person, and have no life. But my parents’ basement is such a cool place, especially in summer.
** The teachers in Sendai tended to be in general more for than against using English; that might have been a matter of differences between smaller and bigger cities.
*** If you use the American one, it is. In Japanese, it will be キャン and キャント.
**** It generally is easier to understand something when you know the reason for why it is so. Or maybe it’s just me.
***** The break doesn’t have to involve smoking.