Emma Nicholls on teaching Japanese in Australia

teaching japanese

Discovering Japan and my path to teaching Japanese

I still remember the moment that I first became interested in Japan. I was about nine years old, in a bookshop where I discovered a Japanese phrasebook. The words seemed so strange and the idea of speaking another language fascinated me – konnichiwa! My parents bought me the book and I still have it to this day.

I started studying Japanese in year eight of high school and it was fun, but I began to wonder why I was learning the language. I distinctly remember coming home from school, having decided to quit. That very same day, a letter had arrived from my school inviting me to audition for a choir festival in Osaka. It would be a two week trip with the Queensland Government to sing in the Osaka Junior Chorus Festival, including homestay and sightseeing. I auditioned, got in, went on the trip, and I was hooked.

While I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of a long journey of engaging with Japan’s language, culture and people. I went on to study Japanese through university with an Education degree and lived in Japan as an English teacher after I graduated. I taught high school Japanese in Queensland when I came back to Australia and have recently moved into the world of diplomacy and international business. While I have never been satisfied with my level of fluency in Japanese (I would place myself somewhere between JLPT N3 and N2), I get so much enjoyment out of what I can speak and using what I have.

Studying an Asian language

During my time teaching Japanese in the public system, I had far too many people ask me why students should study a foreign language (especially as I taught in a rural area). What about students with low literacy levels? Why should they try to read kanji if they struggle to read in English?

I believe studying an Asian language is important because it opens up students’ minds in an increasingly globalised world. With rising Asian economies being our close geographic neighbours, we need to broaden our youths’ thinking beyond their own backyard. Furthermore, with so many refugee and new immigrant Australians, we need to know how to communicate with someone from another country. Attempting a new language really puts students in the shoes of someone trying to be understood in a new environment. Students cannot just listen to a teacher talk about this, and they cannot read about it in a book. They need to experience it.

I will never forget a boy in one of my junior Japanese classes a number of years ago. His name was Blake* and he struggled greatly with reading and writing. I was surprised to find he absolutely loved Japanese and always tried his hardest. When the yearly study tour group of Japanese students visited our class, he said to me, “Miss? Can I ask them a question in Japanese?” “Yeah, Blake, go for it!” I replied. He took his notebook with the sentence patterns he had copied in during class, walked up to one of the Japanese girls and asked her, “onamae wa nan desu ka?” (What’s your name?). I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of amazement on his face when he understood her answer. YES! I could see it click. The Japanese words all really worked! He could do it! He kept going through his book until he had asked all the questions he knew how to ask. And this girl was having a ball too, seeing that Blake was brave enough to try to speak her language. Throughout the study tour, in the school community and beyond, it was wonderful to see how these Japanese students were so warmly welcomed by my own students, and how even more tolerance and acceptance was being developed in the community towards our visitors from overseas.

My career has taken a diversion in the last couple of years. I have taken leave from high school teaching and I’m now working in international education to bring study tours to schools across Queensland, primarily from Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Speaking even a little Japanese goes a long way in this role with serving our Japanese clients, as is cultural knowledge like how to exchange business cards! From a distance, I’m helping students like Blake to have that same ‘YES!’ experience, and I’m learning about the wider field of international business.

Careers for Australian Japanese speakers

If you are, like I was, studying Japanese or another language, desperately wondering what to do with your skills beyond translating or interpreting, please be a teacher. We need so many more teachers to show kids what it means to learn language beyond the textbook. It is a very rewarding career, and Asian language teachers with in-country experience are in high demand.

If you do not want to be a teacher, I strongly advise gaining a second area of expertise. Having foreign language skills is not enough. Think about how you could team it with another area – law, business, medicine, international relations, accounting, event management, science, design, and so on. The fact that you have learned a foreign language will always be admired, and it certainly gives you an extra edge, no matter what field you are in. It will enrich your career and skillset in ways you cannot imagine.

Finally, get out there! Go on an extended exchange in high school or university, or teach English overseas. Join language groups, international university societies, the Queensland Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (QJCCI), the Australia Japan Society (AJS) or one of the other excellent local networks. There are wonderful people in these groups with incredible experience and advice for you. I wish you all the best! Ganbare!

(*Name and some details have been changed to protect privacy)

Emma Nicholls is a young Japanese language teacher currently working in the international education business sector.

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Will Barker is a lawyer in the Brisbane offices of a global law firm. He has studied abroad in Japan and the UK and represented Australia at a number of international youth diplomatic conferences.

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