How to make English more fun for Japanese high school students. Young helpers from US bring lively talk to English classroom

Laura Clouser totters and sways in front of a class of 40 junior high school freshmen in Chiba prefecture, near Tokyo. ``What is she doing?'' the teacher of the English class asks. ``She is skiing,'' a student answers falteringly. ``Are you skiing, Laura?'' the teacher asks. ``Yes. I am skiing,'' responds the blonde Pennsylvanian, providing a relatively painless lesson in English grammar.

Ms. Clouser is one of more than 1,400 assistant English teachers invited by the Japanese government and local governments to bring a taste of real spoken English to Japan's secondary schools. Educators here hope the program will expose students to the foreign language and to a different culture.

Learning English, mandatory in all junior and senior high schools, is normally a grim enterprise for Japanese students. They toil for years to learn the English vocabulary and grammar needed to pass entrance examinations for university. But after six years, most of them - and even some of their teachers - cannot answer a simple question like, ``Where is the station?'' from a stranger on the street.

At a time when Japanese businessmen and tourists are traversing the globe, educators are beginning to realize that being able to converse in English may be more important than memorizing words for an exam.

``If you don't actually use the language, take it for granted that you cannot speak it,'' says Minoru Wada, curriculum specialist at Japan's Education Ministry. The best way to teach English, Mr. Wada says, would be to bring students to the US or Britain and force them to speak English in order to survive. Instead, through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program started last year, ``we are trying to create a similar situation in the classroom,'' he says.

Unfortunately, the stiff requirements of Japan's educational system have prevented practical English conversation from becoming a prominent part of daily lessons. Most students and teachers, participants say, are too preoccupied with the difficult grammar and vocabulary needed for the entrance exam.

``I think all of us know that we can do little to change the English education here,'' says Suzanne Hapgood, an assistant teacher at Murakami Junior High near Tokyo. But many of these missionaries of English say they are creating something equally lasting in helping to open up Japan's insular culture.

``Students will remember that they enjoyed speaking with you,'' comments Ms. Hapgood, a resident of Maine. ``Maybe they'll tell their children, `It's a good thing to learn English because you can talk to interesting people and you can express your own ideas in a different way.' That's where our influence is.''

The purpose of the assistant teachers is not to force students to speak in English, Clouser says. ``The most important thing for them is to know that, though I'm from the US, I'm a person just like they are, and we can talk [together] if it's Japanese or English or Spanish or sign language,'' she says.

Students at two Chiba schools seem to agree. ``I feel that when I grow up, I can get along well with foreigners even if I'm not very good at English,'' says a freshman in Clouser's class.

It's not just students who learn. Japanese teachers, who can conduct their classes without conversing in English, are forced by the program to communicate in the language they teach. They must prepare for an English class and teach together with assistants who are not required to speak Japanese.

The ``teachers are being tested to some extent, especially in their ability to converse in English,'' says Kanehiko Sudo, principal of Murakami Junior High School in Chiba.

Some Japanese teachers have resisted the program, finding the foreign helpers a threat to their teaching methods. The assistants say their first hurdle is to build trust and a good relationship with the teacher they help.

``If I don't know their style of teaching, I feel my job is to adapt myself to that teacher's style,'' says Clouser. ``First it can be difficult. But once you are used to it and [establish] relationships with teachers, that's the key.''

The assistants admit to feeling a bit lonely and out of place at times. ``[Applicants] should think about what it is like to be a minority. Sometimes you want to be back where you know the social code, where it's natural,'' says Hapgood. But she says she's realized that ``the best way to do your job is to be yourself.''

The program's office at the Japanese Embassy in Washington will begin to screen new applicants on Jan. 9.

Applicants must be US citizens under 35 years of age and hold a Bachelor's degree as of Aug. 1, 1989.

``I would recommend this program to my friends depending on the type of person they are,'' says Clouser. Most of all, she explains, they have to be ``very flexible and open-minded to try different things.''

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