Term has finished now in Stirling but there’s still lots going on, in particular with our two days of events for secondary school pupils next week (more on that later!). It’s also a good point in the year to catch up with tales from current students finishing off time abroad and graduates whose post-graduation paths have taken them in unexpected directions like Brett who has just sent us this great post and who graduated in French and Spanish this time last year: ‘
‘If you’re a languages student on the cusp of graduating, you’re probably at the infamous crossroads: translation or teaching. I’ve stared down that path before too, but I just couldn’t bring myself to walk it. I’ve done translation work, and I like it, but I’m not ready to commit to specializing in any field just yet. I’m also quite sure that I don’t want to be a teacher in the UK either. So what does that leave me with? After working for TAPIF (via British Council) in France, and having the time of my life on Erasmus in Seville, I wanted more from language learning before diving into the pool of post-grad uncertainty.
As if Fourth Year isn’t hard enough (specially with studying two foreign languages), I decided to also study introductory Japanese ‘for fun’. If you’re questioning my sanity, you’re right to do so. On Thursdays I used to have a two-hour Spanish class, a two-hour French class, another two hours of Spanish and then two hours of Japanese from 6-8pm. There was method to the madness, however. I’d always been interested in Japan as a teenager, and even at the age of fourteen I knew I wanted to live and work there. I’d heard of the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme, but I had pushed it to the back of my mind, thinking there was no way I’d be eligible to go with basically no Japanese ability. But one day, during our weekly 2-hour Japanese class, representatives from the Programme came to Stirling University. It didn’t take long for me to make up my mind.
I started the application process. That in itself was a journey. Doctors’ appointments, trips to the Consulate in Edinburgh, and mountains of paperwork awaited me (I thought I’d had it bad in France). It paid off though, as I was notified in May that I’d been accepted. But in the afterglow of being successfully hired I was asked the same few questions.
“Urm, why are you going to Japan?”
“Don’t you think it’s a waste after studying Spanish and French?”
I just gave a smile and said “it’ll be an adventure!” But the truth is I didn’t know what I was doing. Why invest so much time, money, and energy into something if you’re not going to utilize it? I pushed those thoughts aside as I got on the plane and endured the 18-hour flight to Tokyo. But the thoughts didn’t leave my mind during the 3-day orientation. It seemed everyone had studied Japanese, or had at least been to Japan before. Even though I had successfully gone through the same application and hiring process as everyone else, imposter syndrome started to creep in.
After the orientation, I flew to my final destination: Tottori City in Tottori Prefecture. Tottori Prefecture lies in Western Japan, and is very inaka (rural). It’s the least populated prefecture, with a rough total of 570,570 inhabitants. Starbucks finally made its debut in Tottori in 2015 (I’m using that as a measurement of ruralness). Other measurements of inaka-ness include; being surrounded by rice paddies, having to pay with exact change on the bus, and always hearing the hum of the cicadas wherever you go. As for weather, it’s hot and humid (around 35 degrees Celsius) in the summer and below freezing in winter.
My job is an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) at a high-level academic Senior High School. You may have some preconceived ideas about Japanese students.
“They must be so polite!”
“They’re amazing at English!”
“They’re so clever!”
Of course, they are, in part. On the whole my students are lovely to work with. They always say “hello” in the corridors, they give me sweets or presents when they come back from holidays, and they often come to chat to me in the staff room. At my high school, every student wants to go to university, so learning English is important for them. This makes my job easier, because it means they try hard to begin with (a welcome change from my situation in France). Outside the classroom, I try to involve myself in cultural activities. I joined my school’s ikebana (flower arranging) club. I’ve also experienced tea ceremonies and attempted Japanese calligraphy.
Maybe you’re thinking, well that’s great, but you’ve not used your skills in Spanish and French. Au contraire. Being a Language Assistant in France gave me my first insight into teaching English as a foreign language. On top of that, my Erasmus semester gave me the courage to speak to people in a foreign language, without the safety net of English to catch me. You might have already experienced these things in Spanish and French-speaking countries, but it can be daunting when your new country doesn’t even use the same alphabet. Thankfully, I also have very kind teachers and colleagues to help me when I’m struggling.
I was lucky enough to be placed in a Super Global High School. What does that mean? Our school takes part in international projects (mainly focused on social and environmental issues). We also have students partake in international exchange programmes. Right now, we have an Argentine exchange student who doesn’t speak much English or Japanese. So, I’ve been proactively helping her, translating any information she doesn’t understand and speaking to her in Spanish when she’s struggling. I guess that’s a job that couldn’t be done if I hadn’t studied Spanish at university.
On top of all of this, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some amazing places that I otherwise would never have been to. I’ve also made my TV debut on both small local stations and prime time nation-wide programmes. Who would have thought?
Living in Japan has given me the chance to reunite with two other Stirling University alumni: Daisuke and Atsushi. They helped tutor me in Japanese and gave me some great advice before I left the UK. If I hadn’t studied languages at Stirling Uni, I would never have met two great friends and developed a support network before I even arrived in Japan.
The obvious thing to mention is the challenge of learning the Japanese language. It’s different in almost every way to English, Spanish and French. Forget the patterns of “Subject, Verb, Object” and noun/adjective placement. I’ve had to unlearn the knowledge I acquired over the last ten years and treat this as something completely new. On top of that, there are three writing systems used in Japanese! Yes, three! Although it’s been a slow process, I feel like I’ve made some small progress in the (almost) year that I’ve been here. In July I’m taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and aiming for N5 level (the equivalent of A1/2 in the CEFR exams).
I’m still not sure what the future holds, but I know I’m going to be in Japan until at least August 2020. After that, I still haven’t made up my mind. I’m torn between staying in Japan, moving to South Korea or travelling around South America. I guess the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that there is no one way to do things. So, if you’re standing at a crossroads and you can’t decide which route to take, why don’t you forge your own path?’
Many, many thanks to Brett for this fantastic post – we’re delighted that JET and Japan are working out so well for you and look forward to more updates over the months ahead. Do keep in touch!