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Language Lessons

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"Konbanwa, watashi no namae wa Lajeevu desu. Nihongo no kurasu o ukeni kimashita. Hajimemashite." "Good evening, my name is Rajiv. I'm here for the Japanese class. How do you do?" I kept muttering this to myself while heading to my first evening lesson at the Japan Society. This was one phrase of my pre-memorized arsenal that I hoped would wildly impress my Sensei. At least, that was the plan.

In need of a break from the monotony of teaching French to teenagers every day, I had decided to take up Japanese. If nothing else, I thought, it would bring back the excitement of learning a new language and maybe give me some new perspectives on teaching.

Besides, it seemed like a logical choice. For years, I had dabbled in Japanese. My wife is Japanese, as are many of her friends. We have been to Japan twice, and I even did the ordering in restaurants there. In addition, I had already learned hiragana and katakana (two out of the three Japanese writing styles).

Plus, I am good at languages, and I'm a passionate French teacher who understands the hard work needed to learn a new tongue. In class, I'm known for running a tight, French-only ship, with no room for grammatical errors or distractions. I push my students to do their absolute best, and when they don't follow instructions, I bring out my chef Gordon Ramsay side to put them back on the straight and narrow.

Considering my background, I figured I might as well start with level-two Japanese.

What a train wreck that was! When I presented my first dialogue in class, I thought I'd impress my teacher by adding some of the advanced vocabulary I had already acquired. The Sensei hit me hard with a deafening, "Mo ichido onegaishi masu !" ("Again!") I repeated myself. Still not good enough. "Give me authenticity," she said. "Mo ichido! And sit up straight!"

Some language aficionado I was. Far from impressing anyone, I was sitting there feeling like a wayward teenager who'd been scolded. One of my classmates kept looking at her watch, apparently wondering if I could ever actually do this seemingly simple task. My mouth dry, eyes wide, I stood motionless like a deer in headlights as my Sensei looked at me with disapproving, mascaraed eyes.

"And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges," Shakespeare said. It was my turn to get "Ramsayed." During this ordeal with my Sensei, I could only think of how my students in French would have enjoyed seeing their teacher take a little of his own medicine. It also occurred to me that maybe I was too hard on them at times.

Teacher Learning

At the next evening class, with my tail between my legs, I switched to level-one Japanese. Hard as it was on my ego, demoting myself turned out to a wise decision. It helped me build a foundation in the language. Instead of trying to fake my way through level two with superficial phrases, I was able to follow the advice I give my students—that is, to arduously practice every day and recopy my work until I understood it. Shouldn't all teachers actually do what they preach?

There were other benefits. Word got out at my school about my Japanese evening classes, and my students were both intrigued and impressed. Those who are of Japanese descent now played the role of teacher by giving me additional tutoring during lunch or after school. (Of course they have to impart their lessons to me in French!) Even more surprisingly, some of my students' parents were impressed, too. At parent-teacher conferences, they would say things to the kids like, "If Monsieur Rajiv is learning Japanese, you can learn French."

Meanwhile, the Japan Society's instructional format got me thinking about ways to improve the French curriculum at my school. In particular, extra workshop sessions offered prior to the classes at the Japan Society helped me better understand the material and gave me a chance to interact with other native speakers besides my Sensei.

This year, I want to create a similar supportive environment for my French classes by encouraging a few gifted older students to work closely with struggling younger kids after school. Ideally, this will be mutually beneficial, giving a boost to those in need of extra help and reinforcing my assistants' skills in the language.

Since I am the only French teacher at my school, I have also begun to reach out to native Francophones, including local chefs, business owners and consulate attachés, to mingle with our students at a bi-monthly colloquium (with refreshments to be served). I hope the experience will not only help my students improve their French but also give them a sense of the usefulness of knowing a second language in the professional world.

As for me, I'm soldiering on to level three after completing two sessions at the Japan Society. My Sensei's standard of perfection is ingrained in my head and inspires me to push myself. Every day that I study Japanese, I discover more to learn. It's hard to say for sure whether Japanese class has really made me a better teacher, but being back on the receiving end of instruction has got me buzzing with these new ideas to improve my class.

Most of all, I feel energetic and passionate again about learning—which can't hurt my work as a teacher. Oh, yeah, and I'm also a little more patient with students when they struggle.

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