Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why learning English is like judo.

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With the introduction to primary schools of the sogo-teki na gakushu no jikan (comprehensive learning classes), which is expected to prompt public primary schools to introduce English classes, an increasing number of parents and teachers are turning to private-sector experts for help in this uncharted territory.

Helene Uchida, who heads the Little America English school based in Fukuoka, is one of them, along with the likes of Keiko Abe who heads CALA (Communication and Language Associates) and Ritsuko Nakata of IIEEC (Institute for the International English Education of Children).

Uchida teaches, writes texts and trains teachers, sharing her experience of English teaching, which now spans 21 years. Starting with just three students in an operation that she managed with her husband, Little America now has three schools in Fukuoka with a total of 300 students aged from 2 to 76--though its focus is on children. Not a large operation, maybe, but its energetic leader keeps herself busy expanding its activities. It not only teaches English, but imports and sells teaching materials by mail order and through its Web site ( It also holds LATEM (Little America Teaching English Methods) seminars for teachers of English to children once a year in Osaka; Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture; Tokyo; Fukushima; Kagoshima; and Fukuoka. Plans are afoot to include Chiba, Nagasaki and Nagoya on the circuit next year.

In these seminars, where many participants are Japanese, Uchida explains her beliefs about teaching.

"You don't have to be a native speaker to be a good English teacher. There are a lot of talented Japanese," Uchida said. "The first piece of advice I'd give Japanese teachers is, be confident, because sometimes Japanese teachers say to me, 'I don't speak English so well, so I don't think I'm that good at teaching English.' I always say, 'Don't say that!' The best music teacher is not the best musician. The best football coach is not the best football player. There's some art to teaching. And you don't have to be a native speaker to teach English well."

In teaching children, she believes the important thing is to give them confidence.

"I think the teachers have to be confident, have to encourage students, have to give very, very simple phrases, simple exercises that they can do with a partner," she said. "And they can experience English, and they'll never forget it."

Uchida emphasized: "I never explain. There is too much setsumei (explaining) in Japanese society! If it's explaining English, nobody's living English."

She then proceeded to explain how her students are made to stand up and go to touch a blue object at her prompt, "Touch blue," and so on. "Just like a baby--you don't explain to a baby what you want it to do. It's true for teaching English. Think or swim--you just come in and do it."

Uchida was recently in a Waseda University lecture room for a LATEM seminar, where 16 English teachers gathered. Most were either self-employed or worked for a private language school, and 13 of the participants were Japanese.

"The seminar is a good opportunity to find out about textbooks," said Eriko Hashimoto of Nerima Ward, Tokyo, who teaches English to children at home. She was participating in the seminar for the third time.

A Filipina, who asked not to be identified, said she was frustrated at the private school where she works because it does not allow her to try new ideas. She said she comes to LATEM seminars--this was her second time--to improve her teaching skills by getting new ideas and to get insights into how she could better handle children in class.

"Helene knows very well how to deal with children," she said.

Before coming to Japan, Uchida taught middle and high school in New York. She then relocated to San Francisco, where she worked for an employment agency. Stress from the new job led her to take up judo, which she saw as an extension of the yoga she had already practiced.

"When I did yoga by myself, everything was about balance and my place with the universe, but I felt sabishii (lonely)--something was not quite there, I didn't know what was missing," Uchida said.

Judo, on the other hand, interested her so much that she came to Japan at age 30, and joined a judo class at Waseda University.

"In judo, you touch. And you push and pull, you have response, stimuli and response. And you get to know your partner," Uchida said. Her judo teacher at Waseda was Fukuoka prefectural assemblyman Sohei Uchida, who was to become her partner in marriage as well as business.

"When he taught me judo, he said to me you can't do judo alone. And you can't speak English alone. You've got to have a partner." That, she said, is what she means when she says her teaching owes a lot to judo. And it seems that the tradition of politeness in judo also has a role in her teaching.

"Everything based on my teaching when I do seminars or when I train teachers is respect for the partner, respect for the student, respect for the teacher," she said. "It's got to be two ways."

Atsushi Kodera, Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Copyright 2000 The Daily Yomiuri

Source Citation
"[2] Why learning English is like judo." Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri (2000): YOSH13298764. General OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2009. .

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