Friday, 1 May 2009

Uninhibited English

One of the students in the doctoral program in my department wants to go on exchange to Sweden next year. He has realized that trying to learn Swedish in Japan is going to be difficult and besides, to be allowed on exchange the major requirement is a score above a certain level on the TOEFL exam. So he's focusing on English. I offered to help him out sometime and ended up getting roped into free weekly lessons. We had our first lesson yesterday and it did not go the way I had expected.

The student in question is younger than me but because he's in the doctoral program he's above me on the totem pole, he's my sempai. We had a couple of courses together last year, and continue to do so this year. We've chatted a bit at department parties. But we've never gone beyond the school-acquaintances level. I know only a few non-school things about him, things that our prof (who is the guy's advisor) teases or asks him about. He has never volunteered information himself.

Imagine my surprise, then, when we sat down for our first "lesson" and suddenly were talking about how his girlfriend is upset about him going, and long-distance relationships in general. Having a bit of (not so successful!) experience in this matter myself, I was able to give him some advice, and we ended up having a great chat. I'm not sure how useful it will be for his TOEFL studies, but he seemed much happier with free conversation time rather than some sort of structured lesson. Since I don't have the time to prepare proper lessons I'm just as happy with it too.

But it did get me thinking. This isn't the first time that I've had an English student start talking about things that they wouldn't talk to me about in Japanese. I had long thought it was just the separate space of the English classroom - a sort of what happens in Los Vegas stays in the English classroom kind of thing. Or maybe it was my foreignness - I was different and thus normal issues of what was polite to talk about didn't apply. But neither of these work with my sempai. We were sitting in a common space in the university - in the middle of a room surrounded by tables of students working on group projects, napping, and eating. So I'm wondering if it has more to do with the freedom of speaking in a new language, and the resulting breaking down of inhibitions.

We had a good time chatting, he got some worries off of his chest. I'm just not sure about how much of a "lesson" it was. I'm guessing the only thing he actually learnt was the second meaning for "score." I couldn't help but explain it to him after I corrected him (after I stopped giggling) when he said "I want to go to Sweden and score TOEFL." (I was having a hard time fighting off visions of the stereotypical tall blond Swedish beauty with a hello-my-name-is Toefl badge on her ample chest) He was at first embarrassed, but then greatly amused. I have the feeling that no matter how many times he'll need to be corrected for making the same mistakes over and over again, he'll never forget that one...!

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