Tagged: English

NHK English Characters Worse than Nara Mascot?

We were all highly critical of the “freaky looking deer-horned Buddha” mascot that was chosen to represent the Nara Heijo-kyo anniversary, and rightly so, but I fear that even he was more appealing than the two characters that front NHK’s “Eigo de Asobo” children’s TV show.

Meet Kebo and Motch

Let me introduce these ambassadors of the English language…

Kebo and Motch

This picture from the cover of an NHK CD actually shows the two characters in good light. I usually find Kebo on the left, far more frightening than he appears here.

Goodness me! What are those things?

I’m not an expert on children’s shows, and have only recently started watching them regularly while on babysitting duty, but I did find an explanation in English on a post by Japanese blogger gyutaku:

There are two main charactors on this program.

The one is “Kebo” whose name comes from a Japanese word 「毛ぼこり (ball of dust)」.
He looks like a dirty hairy monster for you.
But you will get used to and not mind.
He can speak english appropriately for his age (6 years old).

I’m not so sure I’ll get used to him, but please continue…

The other is “Motch” whose name comes from 「もち (rice cake)」.
He has white smooth skin.
All people will say “How cute it toddling is!”
Because “Motch” is only 3 years old, he speaks only easy and short sentences.

They play together every day.
Motch likes every funny or yummy stuff.

Kebo is good at everything like ガチャピン.
And, he is so gentle that he isn’t angry at Motch’s mischief.

I don’t know what “Gachapin” is, but I found a really bizarre video when searching that word.

Some people like Kebo and Motch, but…

If the original Nara mascot cost over 500 million yen, I can’t help but feel NHK should have splashed a little more cash on these guys. I mean, look at them… a ball of dust and a piece of old rice cake? I blame those of you who don’t pay your TV license fees! Cheapskates! Think of all the poor children who have to suffer Kebo and Motch because you won’t pay your bills!

Now Jenny on the other hand…

Jenny on NHKLittle Rikuto loves Jenny, the native English speaking guest/presenter on the show. Whenever she does her pronunciation practice and we see a close up of her face that fills my 37″ telly, Rikuto, who isn’t even one year old yet, let’s out a little snigger of appreciation and starts drooling. It’s possible he’s trying to practice his English, but I suspect he’s truly happy to see Jenny after watching Kebo and Motch for so long…

Download Songs for ESL Children

Once a week, I throw my Pooh bag over my shoulder and haul my collection of flash cards and toys to my local kindergarten. With a fresh bunch of children starting their English lessons in a couple of weeks, I’ve taken to revamping the curriculum I’ve been using, and injecting some energy into it with some very genki songs.

The problem with classic children songs

For years, I’ve made do with classic children’s ditties such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, the Wheels On the Bus, a bit of Hokey Pokey and some If You’re Happy and You Know It. While these are all well and good, they’re not suited particularly well to ESL classes. The lyrics are hard enough for teachers to remember, let alone 4 and 5 year old Japanese kids.

Over 75 fun songs for children learning ESL

For this school year, I’ve splashed out on the Genki English Teacher’s Download Pack, a whopping collection of over 75 songs and other goodies to brighten up my classes and most importantly, give the children something they can actually sing to! Here’s a great example of Genki English in action:

Ha! I bet you’ve got that song stuck in your head now! I know I have! 😛

Energize your ESL lessons!

I’m looking forward to using these songs to teach some energetic lessons this year. If you teach kids, and are in need of a curriculum or supplementary materials, check out the teacher pack page for a complete list of its contents.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Calls AEON English School

ArnieWhile I’ve been (and still am) waiting for my websites to move to their new web host, I’ve had some time to catch up on my favorite podcasts. One of those podcasts is from Gaijin-in-Japan.com, and recently in Mike’s 82nd podcast, we got treated to this brilliant prank call to an AEON English school in Japan:

Arnold Calls English School

There are lots of similar ones on ArnoldCalls.com, and you’ll find a load of them here on YouTube, too. Go on, treat yourself to a few laughs! 😀

Don’t Forget Your Pencil!

Time for a quick rant about my job as an English teacher in Japan. Before continuing, please read my disclaimer.

This post is about children who forget to bring a pencil to class. Do I even need to say more? Surely that’s like going swimming without you’re trunks! If you’re going to school, take a pencil. It really shouldn’t be any more complicated than that, right?

Why then, do I have kids who repeatedly forget to bring a pencil? I’m going to assume that they have two bags; one for regular school, and one for English class.. but only one pencil case, and you know which bag that’s in.

After one of my seven-year-olds forgot his pencil for the umpteenth time, I decided to teach him a lesson. Instead of lending him a pencil as I usually do, I sharpened my own pencil and deliberately broke the tip off it. I gave him the tiny broken pencil tip and told him to write with it for the rest of class, and if he didn’t like it (which he clearly didn’t), he should bring his own pencil the next week.

One week passed and back he came, again without a pencil.

So, what can you do? In the Eikaiwa industry, making your student write with a tiny, broken piece of lead is such a horrendous punishment that any other school would have a disciplinary meeting with me and put me under observation! In the Eikaiwa industry, disciplining students doesn’t go much further than having the secretary ask the student to be a little nicer… and to bring a pencil. Why? Because parents pay for their children to enjoy learning English, not actually to learn English. At least that’s the way it seems. Either way, they don’t pay for their children to be told off, and it makes you wonder if ESL in Japan is a big joke.

What did I do? Well, I stepped out of the classroom and told his mum directly, in front of the other mothers, that he had forgotten his pencil (and homework) again, and to make sure he comes to class prepared next time. If you can’t discipline the kid, embarrass the mother!

Teach English Online

Learning English onlineI’ve been teaching English in Japan for over ten years, but I haven’t ventured into online English teaching. However, the internet is now part of our everyday lives, and email is no longer the only common means of communication. People everywhere, young and old, are using webcams, headsets, and software such as Skype to communicate with friends and family.

The demand for English teachers is as strong as ever, but students are looking for cheaper and more convenient alternatives to traditional classes at English schools. Teachers are looking for work at home opportunities that allow them to set their own hours and rates. With the internet, the world of language learning is changing to accomodate both students and teachers alike.

Services offering online English teaching jobs

Here are some resources for teaching English online. If you’ve used any of them or even run them, I’d love to hear your experiences. Leave a comment at the end of this post.

Verbal Planet – verbalplanet.com


English Flow – englishflow.net


American TESOL – AmericanTESOL.com


Teacher James – TeacherJames.com


Culture Link – Teach-English-Online.com


Spoken Skills – SpokenSkills.com


I’m sure there are others, and I will add them as they come to my attention.

Teach English in Second Life

The 3D virtual world of Second Life offers everything you need to recreate that traditional classroom atmosphere.

La Paz, Bolivia, October 8, 2007 – – Educators are now finding that teaching in virtual worlds such as Second Life is most effective when combined with real life activities. The 3D virtual world, Second Life, provides language learners with new opportunities for socially interactive learning, and when it is blended with other online teaching methods language learning becomes a truly communicative, immersive and practical experience… (Source)

Here are some resources for teaching English online in Second Life. Again, if you’ve used them or run them, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

Avatar Languages – AvatarLanguages.com


Second Life English – SecondLifeEnglish.com


I’m particularly interested in using Second Life because it would make teaching English so much more fun, and I’d imagine it would be less intimidating for students than sitting in front of a webcam feeling pressured to talk.

Experiences from real online English teachers

Here are some quotes from and links to articles written by work-at-home teachers.

Teaching English Online by Karen Bond, M.A.

I quickly draw up a table on the whiteboard, and we brainstorm different sports. I mention scuba diving, and I find lots of questions in the text box. “What is scuba diving, Karen?”. I try to explain it, but one student is still puzzled. So I do a quick search on the internet, locate a picture, and post it on the whiteboard.

Teaching English Online by James Hogan. An article discussing some obstacles of online teaching.

“James, I am an ESL teacher and am wondering how you get started teaching english online and does it pay enough?  thanks for the help!  Jean”

The quick answer is it’s easy but, if you have a family or other responsibilities, it doesn’t pay enough!

Be a Stay-at-Home English Teacher

There are as many different styles of online teaching as there are companies. Some services allow you to log on whenever it’s convenient for you, and others have set class times. Some provide online materials or software for you to use, and with others you are largely on your own.

My Thoughts and Motivation by John D Buchanan

John D Buchanan's English Kitty websiteI realized that people were willing to pay a lot of money just to speak to native English speakers. So I put together a website, downloaded Skype, did some free advertising and BAM, I was ready!And it didn’t take long until I found my first paying student from Korea. I couldn’t believe it! I finally did it! I offered a service on the Internet, and I made money. I continued to do this month after month, and I became more popular.

Teaching English online – are you ready for it?

Did you know that Skype and YouTube started as recently as 2003 and 2005 respectively? Skype has over 200 million users and over 100 million video clips are viewed daily on YouTube. The growth of these two services has been phenomenal. Combining telephony and video is already possible and within two or three years, everyone will be video conferencing… and taking it for granted. Not only will the number of users rise dramatically, but the quality of video conferencing software will improve as technology develops.

When our students are used to talking with their friends by videophone, they might find going to a school and paying high tuition fees somewhat wasteful if there are cheaper, more convenient alternatives on the internet. Just as traditional brick and mortar businesses are turning to the net, it may soon be necessary for English teachers to do the same.

Disney English System for Japanese

I just learned from my wife that she has sent off a request for a free Disney English System sample DVD. It’s widely accepted that if you want your child to be proficient in a foreign language, then you should start their learning from a young age.

Disney English System websiteThe last decade has seen Japan’s “English conversation” schools fall over themselves trying to recruit students at a younger and younger age. For example, when I started working at ECC in 1998 their Kids English World program was really taking off, with classes for kids as young as four. The next year, selected teachers were picked and given “special” training for their new course for three year olds. NOVA stepped up and offered classes for toddlers and every other school followed.

The youngest kids I have taught are one and a half year olds, and while fun to watch, you don’t really get much out of them. The argument is however, that because they are listening to native English, they will “absorb it like a sponge”, especially picking up on rhythm and intonation.

So, it’s not really a surprise that Disney is pushing this philosophy hard, offering two programs – one for pregnant mothers, and the other for 0-4 year olds.

I’ll reserve judgement until I see the sample, but my initial reaction is I don’t want my son, little Riku, sounding like Mickey Mouse… or even worse… Donald Duck!

Don’t talk in English!

When I first came to Japan in 1997, the big chain school I worked at recommended all its teachers to open a bank account at Tokai Bank because of its proximity to the head office and the fact that the ATMs had English guidance. Soon after though, Tokai merged with Sanwa Bank and all the ATMs were replaced with the later bank’s Japanese-only machines. This caused long queues and much frustration as the foreigners randomly pressed buttons hoping to withdraw some of their money.

That was one example that comes to mind of a Japanese business going backwards during the country’s efforts to internationalize. Around the same time, I signed up for Japan Rent-A-Phone Center, which I think was called Hello Japan (or something like that) at the time. Their service was solely for foreigners, offering cheap phone line rental (600 yen a month) and excellent customer support in English. I still use their service as I’ve found the English support to be invaluable during the six times I’ve moved house in Japan.

A few take-overs or mergers later, and I got the following letter explaining the changes to their customer support service. If you want, you can skip it and just read my comments below.

Don't phone us 'coz we won't understand. Written English only, please!

Since I can fortunately get by in Japanese, and am not planning to move house again, this doesn’t really affect me, but I still find it amusing enough to write about. Let me highlight the best parts:

“our customer support service in English has finished.”

Why? Are there not enough foreigners using the previously foreigner-only service to justify paying for English speaking staff? Or have all the English speaking staff suddenly quit? Or perhaps spoken English is just too difficult to understand?

“…please contact us by FAX or Email. Or you can call our customer support in Japanese.”

Yep, it certainly sounds like the problem is with spoken English. So it’s okay to write in English, then?

“If you prefer to ask a Japanese person to call us for you, that is accepted as well.”

So the choices are: Write in English, speak Japanese, or get someone else to interpret. Got it.

“If you wish to apply for Yahoo! BB, please let us know by E-mail or FAX.”

Yep, okay. So you’re saying if we can’t phone in English, we must either E-mail, FAX, speak Japanese, or get someone to interpret. I figured that was the case first time.

“When you request us something by E-mail, please do not write any details.”

So let me clarify, phoning in English is out of the question, and if we write in English, we must keep it super simple. Got it.

“If you have any other inquiries… please give us a call in Japanese.”

Thank you again for stressing that we must not speak in English. Understood, again.

“… call NTT (Japanese only)”

Ah, so it’s not just Rent-A-Phone Center, but the corporate giant NTT that is afraid to use English on the phone.

Despite Japan appearing to embrace English, and push to make it the country’s second official language, they are still standing firmly in the starting blocks.

Definitely related: Is ESL in Japan a big joke?

Think you can teach Japanese kindy?

I’ve been teaching at Japanese kindergartens for years now, and I always have a lot of fun. The key to success in teaching these classes is to be fun and energetic. While some “proper” teachers complain that they came to Japan to “teach”, and not dance around like clowns, I believe that if your style of teaching is entertaining then your students are going to learn a whole lot more from you… or at least have a blast trying!

Kindy kids are full of energy and really enjoy their English classes if you make them fun. So, with that in mind, I give you Supa Gaijin!

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com. Thanks to Japan Probe for bringing this video to my attention.

‘Macho’ Joe and ‘Gorgeous’ Rod have a few videos up on www.youtube.com if you search for “supa gaijin”. You’ll see they’re a right pair of nutters, maybe having too much fun in Japan, but they’ve inspired me to try out some new tricks next time at kindy… if I can get hold of that music somewhere!

Try www.supagaijin.com for more on Joe and Rod. The link doesn’t work for me but hopefully that’s just temporary.

Laughing at the guy who can’t speak English.

I had intended to write about something completely different but I came across this video which I just had to post here. It’s a Japanese game show in which if you laugh, you get the cane. What do they laugh at? Well, although they try their best to keep quiet, it’s hard not to crack up when watching this guy try to speak English…

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com.

Spare me my life!

I was just looking around at the Japanese videos on youtube.com, and came across the following ‘English lesson’. I know we talk about using role-play to teach English, and how chants are a good way to remember phrases, but come on! This is just silly! I must confess that I’ve never seen anything quite like this on Japanese TV, but I guess it must exist. Maybe I’m not up early enough to join in the morning TV English aerobics sessions.

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com.

English lessons on Japanese trains

Imagine you have to commute home every night by train. The train is packed so you can’t sit down and you’ve already read the day’s newspaper. You forgot to bring a book and the batteries are dead in your walkman. It’s dark outside so you can’t stare out the windows and you’ve read the same advertising board a thousand times. What are you going to do? Study English, that’s what!

Welcome to modern Japanese transportation, where you can learn the English language by train! Today’s lesson is the difference between ‘service’ and ‘free’, with the delightful Katie Sensei…

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com.

My gullible students!

Yesterday was our Halloween barbeque, which was a lot of fun. One activity we did was set up boxes with pictures of fingers, brains, worms and eyeballs on them. Inside were sausages, prunes, noodles and peeled grapes, and the kids were really quick to figure that out. The adults tend to have a better imagination and pulled some really icky faces when dipping their hands in the boxes.

Two of my students, both in their twenties, can be pretty gullible sometimes. Today in class, they were trying to explain the activity to another student who didn’t come to the barbeque. I jumped in and said:

“Oh, it was so funny, the kids thought they were grapes, noodles and prunes, but actually they really were eyeballs, worms and brains!”

The two girls sat up in horror. Had they really dipped their hands in a box of worms? I pushed it further explaining how we had contacted a farm and got leftover eyeballs and brains sent to us. I told them this with such an honest and serious face, that they truly believed it. It wasn’t until I said the fingers were really fingers that they realized I was joking.

My favorite gullibility test is the “Magic-eye tie”. I have this shiny tie covered in lines of elephants which I explain is like those posters that if you stare at long enough you can see a hidden picture in the center. I’ve done this trick on most of my students and they fall for it every time. It’s hysterical. They just stand their with their eyes wide open staring at the tie. I let them do it for a full two minutes before telling them I’m joking. If you haven’t tried this one before, go and find you most bizarre tie… now!

Is ESL in Japan a big joke?

According to an NHK report in 2000, Japan has the largest commercial English language education market in the world, valued at $20 billion. So, you would expect most Japanese to be fairly proficient in English, right? Wrong! Official TOEIC figures for 1997-1998 showed Japan to have the lowest average score among the 17 countries in which TOEIC test taking is most popular.

As an ESL teacher in Japan, I should consider myself fortunate that people are willing to spend so much money on learning English. I wouldn’t have a job otherwise. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t take pride in teaching my students to speak the language. After all, that is what they are paying for, right? Wrong again, it would seem.

Time and time again, I hear of students frustrated about using the textbook too much in class, or having too much homework, while many simply forget to do their homework completely. Remember that in most ESL schools in Japan, students only take one class a week, so common sense would suggest that if they really wanted to learn English, they would take their lessons seriously and devote some of their free time to self-study.

Okay, fair enough, a lot of adults just study ESL as a hobby. Hey, it’s cool to tell their friends they study English, regardless of whether they are learning anything or not. But how about children? Surely the parents are paying these huge fees so that their sons and daughters can learn English. Well, that’s debatable.

You’ve got two kinds of schools in Japan, the English Conversation eikaiwa schools, and juku, or cram schools. Eikaiwa are where the foreigners like myself teach, while juku are heads down, study, study, study, Japanese teacher-led classes. Although English lessons at juku focus soley on reading and writing English, I always thought that eikaiwa were equally important for learning communication. Now, though, I’m changing my mind…

After disciplining one of my elementary school students for atrocious behaviour, his mother kicked up an enormous fuss.

“This isn’t a school!”, she said. “We don’t pay this money for you to discipline our children! They come here to have fun! If I wanted my child to learn English then I’d send him to juku!”

Well, that knocked me for six.

The next couple of days I walked around shell-shocked. If I’m not supposed to teach English, then what am I here for? Why did I bother studying to be a teacher? Do all the mothers feel this way? Why have I spent the last few years developing a curriculum to teach English, when I should have just pulled out a copy of 101 Great Games for Kids?

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the boy’s mother is right, and I should not worry about teaching, and just have fun with the kids instead. I mean, from a business point of view, going head-to-head with the grammar and vocabulary-based English curriculum of juku is a no-win situation, as the Japanese will always consider juku as real education. Instead, I think I’ll just go in the opposite direction altogther and play game after game after game, perhaps throwing in a bit of English here and there just to appease the teacher in me. Who knows, maybe the kids will have so much fun, none of them will ever want to go to juku!

As things stand however, until high schools, universities and companies start requiring English communication skills over the ability to read a book and memorize 10,000 words, Japan will continue to produce the most educated yet worst English speakers in Asia.

My house is a Daiwa house

There’s a TV commercial in Japan by a house-building company called ‘Daiwa House’ in which an English teacher is reading sentences for his class of high school students to repeat. I can’t remember exactly but he says something like “My father is a doctor”, and all the students diligently repeat him. Then, following the same rules of grammar, he says “My mother is a teacher”, and once again they all repeat. Finally, he says “My house is a Daiwa house”, and he’s greeted by lots of blank faces.

Okay, it’s not particularly funny, but it’s typical of Japanese students to learn English through repetition drills such as the one he used. Generally I find the kids I teach are pretty useless when it comes to making sentences for themselves, and repetition is the most direct way to get the kids to speak English. Hopefully, over time, the language patterns will be so embedded in their brains that they will be able to fall back on their ‘database’ of  rote-learned phrases and produce something of their own.

When I visit kindergartens, I always have the children repeat me, and since I’ve been teaching for a while now, they do it automatically. Unfortunately, many of them do it without having the faintest clue what they are saying. So I like to amuse myself by saying silly things to shake them out of auto-repeat mode.

“I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m a banana!”

“I’m five years old! I’m five years old! I’m two years old!”

A couple of weeks ago I did the ‘Daiwa House’ test:

“Hi! Hi! Hi! Hello! Hello! Hello! Good morning! Good morning! Good morning! My house is a Daiwa house!”

It worked better than on the TV commercial! I had half of the 30 children repeat it pretty well, while the other half mumbled something along the lines of “My how is a hi are how”. Their regular Japanese teacher who watches from the sidelines was cracking up with laughter – she had obviously seen the commercial – while I laughed it off and moved on with the lesson…

Two weeks later on my next visit and the kids rushed out of the classroom to greet me screaming “MY HOUSE IS A DAIWA HOUSE!!!”. That totally blew me away!

Computer Translation

One of my students wanted to write an English translation  of an interview she found in a magazine, and not an easy one at that. Her final translation came to seven pages, and she asked me to check it. “Sure, no problem, let me have a look” I agreed.

Although this student’s English level is pretty high, when it came to translation, she threw her conversational ability out the window and reverted to the direct-translation method that all Japanese are taught in junior and high schools. The result was a stuttered and sometimes incomprehensible article.

The icing on the cake was that for a few of the most difficult paragraphs, she had used an online translation tool such as Babel Fish, and for those parts I was completely lost. Any sense I had made of the article so far was replaced by total confusion. Realizing she had used a translation tool, I asked her to come and look at the computer in the waiting room. I pulled up Babel Fish (http://babelfish.altavista.com/) and asked her to type any sentence in Japanese. She chose ‘mou aki desu’. I asked her to tell me what she thought that was in English and she said correctly, “It’s already autumn”. So then I asked her to type the Japanese into the translation box on the screen and when we converted it to English we saw “Already fall is”. Converting this back to Japanese resulted in a sentence similar to “Already there is falling.”

This little experiment was an eye-opener for her, and hopefully in the future she won’t be so dependant on such software. Before I wrap this post up, I thought I’d do a special experiment just for you longcountdown.com readers.

Here’s a paragraph from the ‘About’ page of this site:

I first came to Japan after finishing university in 1997. My first three months was a homestay-type arrangement with the family of a Japanese friend I had back in the U.K. The following year, after getting my teaching certification, I came back to Japan and have been here ever since.

If I put that paragraph into Babel Fish, convert it into Japanese, and then back to English, we get this. Enjoy!

I finished in 1997 and first came to Japan after the university. My first 3 months were the homestay type rearrangement to which series of the Japanese friend who in me has the back section in England has been attached. After obtaining the proof of my professor, the following year, I return to Japan, after that it was here.