Playing the gaijin* in class

Many language teachers nowadays put a premium on authenticity.  Now, I am aware of all the issues surrounding this term, many of which are the same as the issues surrounding native-speakerism since authenticity to potential learners often means “close to the stereotype”.  A lot of native-speaker (NS) English teachers therefore find themselves being expected to exaggerate the differences between them and their students, to act as a representative of not just their country but the version of their country that exists in the Japanese public imagination.


Pictured: NOVA new recruit orientation

Teachers throw the word authentic around a lot too in service of new, student-centered approaches or materials produced by someone other than Cambridge or Pearson.  In my career I’ve mostly stuck to the credo that being myself is as authentic as I can possibly be, and if that differs from the stereotype then it’s the stereotype that has to catch up.  I’ve been thinking lately though that putting a little effort into playing the role that your students expect, even if their expectation is based on offensive pigeonholing, is a defensible classroom practice.  That is, it may pay to prioritize in methodology and content what feels authentic to students over what is true and accurate.

(*loosely, “foreigner”.  Not a Borat type but more of a gringo.  As part of the memeplex that is the status of non-Japanese in Japan there is an ongoing controversy over whether this word is better interpreted as an abbreviation of gaikokujin (outside-country-person) or a distinct term.  Well, it does seem to have a distinct history, meaning something like “outsider”, but since words’ present meanings are not determined by their etymologies, I’m fine with accepting its as short for gaikokujin.  The rationale for disliking the word is to be found in modern discourse, not in Edo-era history.)

I’ve written before on the changes that would need to occur for the NS concept to become irrelevant in ELT in Japan.  Since many of these changes would require shifts in not just what teachers do but what hiring boards look for and therefore also what students want, they are unrealistic for the foreseeable future, like a lot of changes that people suggest for the education system in Japan that are ultimately suggestions to change the cognition of every citizen of Japan.

(another example: “Universities should fail students who don’t meet class requirements” -> “Universities should not excuse students for job hunting in their 4th year” -> “Companies should stop hiring right out of college” -> “Companies should stop hiring people all at the same time” -> “People should stop putting every rite of passage in April” -> “April should be cancelled”)

I’m writing this post assuming NS teachers are looking to be the most effective teachers that they can in a prescribed NS teacher role.  And yes I am playing devil’s advocate a bit here but I do sincerely want to explore the idea that if teachers are already playing a role in class, it should be one that students recognize.


NS teacher methodology is generally thought to occupy the communicative half of the widespread “grammar/communication” dichotomy.

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Ad for a local juku chain offering a new NS-led English course.  The bit under the off-brand Dennis the Menace says “We hold conversation lessons run by foreigner teachers and genuine [very loaded term here] grammar lessons run by Japanese teachers.  This is with the aim of having children acquire all-around English skill.”

In cases like these, expectations of English-only, conversation-based classes are explicit and clear.  In many other cases such as at university, the expectation will be implied.  In any case, if one is dealing with students who anticipate needing to communicate in order to succeed in the class, insisting on grammatical focus because that is what responsible pedagogy means to you is a bit like insisting on adding protein to a salad.  You can assume kids are getting enough of that somewhere else in the form of fried chicken and burgers, whereas you can’t assume that they’re already getting enough vegetables.  It’s true that fried chicken isn’t the ideal form of protein, but since you have the chance to give them as much dietary fiber as you can in an hour, you really should take advantage of that.

People showing up for NS-led conversation classes are generally aware that it won’t be like their other English classes.  They may still hesitate to talk but the official aims of the class are “communication” or “conversation”, it is not the teacher’s responsibility to adapt to their taciturnity by shifting to a more teacher-centered style.  To the contrary, doubling down on the image that was used to sell the class by being even more a stereotypical “foreigner teacher” might convince students that because this is a different kind of class, different rules apply.  They can actually participate here because the teacher is different and the class is different.  And by participating they may actually develop some skill in speaking, listening, and having conversations, which is the point after all.  Whether they respect you or consider you a real teacher is secondary.

Admittedly, this won’t work for every student.  When it works though, it can have very long-lasting effects on students’ motivations.  When I surveyed teachers for my MA thesis about the roles of NS and NNS English teachers, many of the NNS teachers mentioned the motivational boost they got from interacting with NSs, either ALTs or eikaiwa teachers, in their formative years.  I can’t say this for sure without any research, but I would wager that the motivational effect would have been less than it was if the NSs hadn’t felt as authentically “foreign” to the students – i.e. if they had been fluent Japanese speakers versed in well-rounded pedagogy, the image of the complete English teacher I put forward in that NSism post, and not 20-somethings who are genuinely amazed at the tidbits of Japanese culture that they learn from their students.  Even if you have decades of experience teaching and living in Japan, it may motivate your students more to act as if you disembarked yesterday.


Where the rubber meets the road for playing a stereotyped foreigner in class and responsible pedagogy is really in the type of input you provide for students and how much work they need to do to understand it.  It can also motivate students to respond positively, as they have been led to believe you will, to their stereotyped conversation points and assertions.

I’m assuming here that there is at least some validity to Krashen’s theory that comprehensible input contributes to language acquisition.  Even if we don’t consider input a sufficient condition for L2 mastery, I think most of us could call it a necessary condition (to echo a well-known criticism of Krashen, it’s hard to think of any language-related activity that doesn’t include something you could call input).  Well, it so happens that teacher utterances that conform to stereotype are more likely to contain words, phrases and content which are comprehensible than those which clash with stereotype.  A phrase such as “Japan is safe” is already in the minds of our learners; a “foreigner” saying it is both easily understood and gratifying as it plays to the image of Japan that many Japanese believe in.  More strictly accurate phrases such as “Japan has a low crime rate” or “People in Japan live a few years longer than Americans on average” involve vocabulary and grammar that people are less likely to be familiar with.  In addition, more accurate phrases tend to be longer, making greater demands on short-term memory, and lack the familiar ring of a well-worn bromide like the safety myth.  In short, we can expect statements that conform to stereotype to be processed as intake more readily than those that don’t.

When students try to explain something about Japan to you, it is almost certainly more motivating to feign surprise than to respond with your genuine feelings.  Now, students in my experience aren’t as interested in explaining Japan as the Ministry of Education seems to hope, but they have definitely received a lot of preparation, both inside and outside the classroom, for the opportunity to spread the Gospel of Tokugawa to the heathens in their midst.  Even if you’re not in a strict NS teacher job, it is very motivating to talk generally and play up the idea of students visiting and participating in another culture while still respecting theirs – and if the only way to frame this in your teaching context is with the essentialist nationalist framework that casts individuals as homogeneous representatives of their home countries, then that is the tool you will need to use.  In other words, if you’re a NS trying to build up students’ ideal internationalist selves, you will want to play up their Japanese identities, as that is the way that they are likely to understand their relationship to the international world.

In conclusion, since the NS/NNS divide is something we have to live with for the time being, you might want to consider embracing it, if only because it may have several classroom advantages.  The happiest teachers I’ve known in Japan have generally either simply bought all the myths intact or learned to compartmentalize, meeting their ideological needs with a morning browsing of and then living as a stereotype the rest of the working day.  Their students are probably better for it.  As for me, I quit my job.

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