- Can you introduce yourself?
- What have you found interesting, surprising, or difficult through teaching at Best Teacher?
- Can you talk about cultural differences related experiences you have had with your students?
- Can you talk about tips and know-how for learning a foreign language?
- What have you experienced in Japan?
- What makes you special in teaching English at Best Teacher?
- Do you have any encouraging message for students?
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Peter Ashlock. I was born in the midwestern United States, but when I was 13 years old, I moved to Ontario, Canada–an English-speaking region. I went to University in Montreal, Quebec–a French-speaking region–where I studied Anthropology and Japanese Language, including a year abroad at Keio University in Tokyo. As a result, I speak English, Japanese, and a little French–although my French is not standard French, but rather the Quebec Dialect.
What have you found interesting, surprising, or difficult through teaching at Best Teacher?
Talking to hundreds of different students, I begin to get an idea of conspicuous gaps in the Japanese education system, most of which seem to be caused by the fact that English in Japan is usually taught by Japanese speakers. For example, I have never met a Japanese person who learned about the vowel sound schwa–the sound from the “a” in “about” or the “i” in “pencil”–during their public education, despite the fact this is the most common vowel sound in English and, confusingly, can be written using any vowel in English, including combinations of vowels or no vowel at all. Another surprising error that was universally common was the use of “Japanese” to mean “日本人” (nihonjin, “Japanese Person”). Although technically grammatically correct, and definitely much easier to teach, when you say “Japanese are punctual” or “the Japanese don’t do that”, you come off sounding slightly racist, in most contexts.
I’m happy to be able to correct my students as only a native speaker could so that they communicate only what they intend to communicate, without unfortunate accidental implications.
Many students are eager to talk about politics or current events, which is common in Canada as well, but what is considered a common or uncontroversial political opinion is different in different countries, so I have to tread lightly. For example, in my city of Toronto, we recently had Pride, which is a celebration of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Trans people. This is a huge event in Toronto; over 500,000 people attended, including the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne–the first openly gay Premier of a Canadian province. During Pride, I was careful when students asked about my day, as I know that LGBT+ people do not enjoy the same kind of broad acceptance in Japan that they do in Canada.
Can you talk about tips and know-how for learning a foreign language?
I currently speak three languages–English as a native language, and French and Japanese as second languages, and am working on my fourth: American Sign Language.When it comes to languages, I really don’t think that there is any kind of “secret trick”–you just need to find good resources, be they classes, tutors, or textbooks, and practice a lot.
People often ask me what kind of practice is “best”, and I tell them this: I went to my doctor, and I asked him “What kind of exercise is best? Is it swimming? Running? Interval training? Weights?” and he told me “The best kind of exercise is whatever it is that you, personally, will do”. I think it’s the same for language–you have to find your motivation, whether that’s finding parts of language that bring you joy, or scheduling regular lessons to create accountability for yourself. Since every part of language connects to every other part, practice in one area will help with all the others–although eventually, you will have to branch out and expand your comfort zone–as I’m leaning with Kanji, my least favorite part of studying Japanese.
Still, I would say that learning a language is about managing your motivation, and for me, a key part of motivating myself was looking for things in studying a language that brought me joy. However, one form of studying that people may not have considered up to this point, but which I recommend strongly, is podcasts. They are free, come on a large variety of specialized topics, and, most importantly, unlike TV dramas, movies, or the news, tend to use naturalistic rather than unnatural, heightened English, so it’s better to practice for conversational listening. Podcasts also have the advantage that most podcatcher apps allow you to slow down people’s speech, which can be very useful for people who are still not confident in their English listening abilities.
What have you experienced in Japan?
Although I lived in Japan for one year, I was on my school’s varsity wrestling team, so I didn’t have much chance to travel far. I would really love to be able to visit Okinawa, Hokkaido, and the Kansai region one day. And after watching 君の名は (kimi no na wa, “Your Name”), I suddenly found myself wanting to visit Gifu as well!
What makes you special in teaching English at Best Teacher?
I’m actually quite proud of my lessons for teaching Keigo (敬語, formal or polite speech) in English. Many of my regular students are quite advanced, and eager to learn Keigo in English. Although many people believe English doesn’t have Keigo, in the Japanese sense, it certainly doesn’t, I would argue that nuances in “tone” and word choice are important to master if you want to be not merely functional in English, but truly skilled, which is the goal of many of my students. Although I don’t have time for the whole lesson in this little post, the key to understanding English’s equivalent to Keigo is to understand the history of English, specifically the Norman Invasion of 1066. Once you understand that, even a little bit, you realize there are lots of clues regarding word origins you can use to understand the tone and usage of new words that you find in your studies. I love incorporating historical knowledge like this into my lessons, because for me, having a story about why something is true makes it a lot easier to remember than just saying “this is the rule; please memorize it”. Humans are storytelling creatures, after all.
I have also found that my background in the social sciences is invaluable to social science researchers who need someone to check over their abstracts, papers, or presentation notes, as generally people with the relevant area knowledge to understand what they are talking about are not in English instructional positions. I had a situation where a student studying Music History was presenting a paper in English, and took the abstract to her school’s English Assistance Service. They were completely unable to understand what it said, so she brought it to me for correction, and it turned out that it was actually fine the whole time–it was just that the person at the English Assistance Services did not have the background to understand the piece.
My approach to teaching is to empower students. Not only do I answer their questions and provide instruction during our lessons, I am always happy to provide them with recommendations for additional listening practice based on their interest, online dictionaries (translation and etymological), and my various tips and tricks that I found out over my years of studying foreign languages. I hope that I am my student’s best resource, but I make sure that I am not their only resource.
Do you have any encouraging message for students?
In closing, I’d like to remind anyone reading this who is studying a foreign language–be kind to yourself. This is the hardest and the most important thing. It is often difficult to see your own progress, and easy to focus on the things you cannot do, instead of the things that you can, but remember: This is a hard thing to do. To do it at all, is to do it well.