'Learning Japanese liberates students'

Crispin Chambers teaches Japanese at Tavistock College in Devon. His passion for the language led him to start a successful student exchange programme with a school in Tokyo. Last year his efforts were recognised nationally by winning the prestigious Pearson Award for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School.

My first teaching job was on a tiny Japanese island. After finishing university I was actually thinking of a career in European politics but then I saw the Japan Exchange Teaching programme was recruiting British graduates to work in Japanese junior and senior high schools. I didn’t know anything about Japan, except that it was a great country and that the role would be good for my job prospects. I got placed, not on one of the four main islands, but on one of the smaller islands called Awaji. It was just 200,000 Japanese and me, but it was an incredible experience.

Speaking Japanese isn’t difficult at all. The real challenge is literacy. I was teaching English in Awaji’s main high school and I thought it was an incredible opportunity to learn Japanese. I was very fortunate that I had a great mentor who said it was important to try to read and write the language also. So I really had to knuckle down for a few years. My dad was an art teacher and when I was a young lad I used to practice calligraphy. I never knew what the Chinese characters meant but I was used to drawing them. They are basically simple pictures which you put together to create meanings, so it’s a fantastic language to learn. That’s how it took off at Tavistock College 10 years later. It was the novelty factor of it.

It was the first time Japanese had been taught in a big UK comprehensive. There was huge scepticism. Up until 1996, Japanese was very much an elite minority language which was being taught in small groups in the independent sector. Suddenly our school in Devon was teaching 300 year 7 pupils. Fortunately, the subject took off and the kids loved it. We did a lot of work with parents explaining how Japanese is closely linked to Chinese – it’s a pictorial language and very logical. But if it was going to be an ongoing success we had to get good results at GCSEs. Last year we got 86% A* to C grades. The year before was 84% and two years ago it was 89%.

Learning Japanese liberates students. We have found that dyslexia doesn’t show up in students studying Japanese and special educational needs (SEN) pupils are more likely succeed because often their learning needs are less obvious. Also, most students who come into secondary school from primary have already been pigeonholed into different levels of capability. When they come in to do Japanese they all get a fresh start. No one knows anything except me and the students are free to just have a go and enjoy the subject. It’s novel, it’s something parents or other teachers can’t do, yet they can read and write this hard script language. Kids just get hooked.

Study Japanese and the world is your sashimi. If kids can do Japanese, they can go away and do any subject. You’ll find parents saying that their English handwriting improves because when you learn Japanese you have to be very careful with your stroke order. The thing about Japan is that it comes into every subject area. At our school, one reason other teachers took it on board was because you learn about volcanoes in geography, or earthquake proof buildings in science, or haiku poetry in English. Whatever curriculum area, you’ll always find Japan in there. A lot of my students have gone on to do medicine or law and there’s a confidence that if they can do Japanese, they can do anything. Japan is a huge economy which uses Britain as its bridge into Europe. There are, therefore, fantastic opportunities in a range of industries, from banking to tourism. It certainly enhances your job prospects.

The impact Japanese has had on the wider local community was a massive reason why I won the teaching award. When the judges came to Tavistock they insisted on meeting current and former parents, as well as people in the community. We had to stop parents rushing to the college because there were so many who wanted to come and speak either about their children going to Japan or hosting Japanese students. There were even parents who have used Japanese in their jobs as a result. The former mayor of west Devon even suggested, tongue in cheek, they build a statue of me in the town centre. It’s all about this sleepy town in Devon teaming up with one of the most cosmopolitan, globally recognised cities in the world – Tokyo. You couldn’t have dreamed it up.

Education has been an opportunity for me to give something back. I had almost seven years in Japan and was so fortunate to be welcomed into Japanese homes and schools. These are wonderful people and what we imagine them to be like is not the reality. If you talk to our students, they’d all say how fun they are and how much of a desire they have to learn English. They want to come over here, go horse riding on Dartmoor and have cream teas. They embrace our lives as well. People talk about internationalisation and what it’s actually about is getting students from different countries together. Language doesn’t have to be a barrier. It’s about making the unknown, known.

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'Learning Japanese liberates students'
japanese language – Yahoo News Search Results
japanese language – Yahoo News Search Results

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