Sunday, January 15, 2012

Welcome - and- Teaching English to Deaf J-students

I am a western dragon living in Japan.

This my first blog, so it make take me a little while to hit my stride with it, but I hope I can share some interesting information from my not completely unique but at least uncommon life situation. I'm an American, female, 31 years old (at the moment), living in Japan, where I teach English at a high school and a school for the deaf.

Many people ask, as soon as I say I teach at a school for the deaf, how exactly that works. Maybe a lot of people think deaf children can't speak and can't hear so learning a foreign language might be awkward if not impossible. I agree in that, when I found out I'd be teaching at a school for the deaf, I wondered exactly how that would work. I've never known a deaf person myself, and really wasn't sure how I'd go about teaching there.

There are around fifty students total at the school, from preschool up through high school. Some are just deaf, but perfectly bright and functional in all other ways. Others have additional learning disabilities. Almost all the students wear hearing aids because almost all of them can all hear at least a little. All the regular teachers use Japanese sign language--which is a combination of the finger-spelling used in American sign language and the more symbol-based British sign language (neither of which I really know much about). I only teach there once a week, so it's difficult for me to pick up a lot of the sign language, but I can use some.

It's also so true that communication is much more than words. Whether it's working with deaf students or just being in a country where few people know my first language, I've learned how to be extra-expressive with my body language and facial expression. Even though I know how to say "I don't understand" in Japanese, I can also say it with a little uncertain tweak of my head and face. In a society that values subtle, non-confrontational communication, a facial expression might even be better than spelling it out with words.

So, communication with my deaf students, although challenging sometimes, actually isn't that hard. I have a few signs. I understand a few more than that. I have facial expression and body language. I can draw pictures (I really like drawing, and I'm not bad at it). They can hear sometimes, and read my lips if I use Japanese, and sometimes they can hear or lip-read English. I can also write out what I need to say in Japanese or English. If none of that works, a regular Japanese teacher can step in and translate.

Maybe teaching English to deaf students doesn't sound useful or easy, but some of them are better at English than my regular high school students. They certainly try harder. Some of them have more obstacles than just deafness to overcome, and they're still better and try harder than some of my high schoolers.

I'm making my high schoolers sound lazy now. That isn't totally the case. Some students at my high school really do make an effort. For others, sleeping in class is more important than English. Others have decided long ago that English is too hard, and don't make much of an effort. Learning a foreign language can be difficult, and the more I teach English and learn about it myself, the more strange and counterintuitive English appears to me. There's lots more to write about that topic, but I'll close for now and come back to write more later.

Mata, ne. ("See you later" in Japanese)


  1. Hi! I stumbled across this blog post! I have a question, which deaf school and how did you get a job teaching English to those deaf children? I'm a deaf American looking to spend a year abroad, perhaps to teach English to deaf children (preferably in Japan). Please let me know soon. Thanks!

    1. Hello Sheila. The deaf school I taught at was in Morioka. I was employed by Interac, a company that places English-speaking assistant teachers at schools in Japan. I did not have the option to choose which school I wanted to teach at. I was placed there by Interac. I only taught there one day a week--that was the schedule, which I had no power to change. There are several companies that place English-speakers at public schools in Japan, of which Interac is one. They are easy to find online and you can apply online, but the more specific about what school (location, type, etc) you are, the less likely they will be able to place you, if they choose to hire you. I don't know what they would say about your particular situation, but you could try contacting them and see! If you have more questions, let me know, and I'll try to help.

  2. hey katherine,

    im currently based in the philippines doing non-profit work with the deaf. im hearing and interested in teaching english in japan. i did not know that teaching as an ALT at a deaf school was even an option, but after reading your blog post i am quite thrilled at the mere idea of it. you say you only teach one day a week at the deaf school - where else do you teach? did your company place you at two different schools? i'd like to get in touch with you and ask you more about your experience in japan. let me know if this would be okay with you.