The Most Difficult Student to Teach in Japan

I spent over fifteen years teaching the English language full-time or part-time to Japanese people and I have to say teaching is a very rewarding experience. Japanese students are generally enthusiastic, polite, on time for lessons, and they are nearly always interested in what you have to say as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher.

In my experience, most Japanese students take an interest in how you conduct the lesson, they are really keen to learn the English language, they want to hear your opinions, and they’re definitely committed to self-improvement.

Comic Updated Confidence

There is, however, a certain type of student who is always really difficult to teach. Some of you will read this and think that type of student might be someone with strong political or religious views, but in my opinion most Japanese students have a gentle, non-aggressive nature. Some of you might presume I had problems with sleazy Japanese businessmen because I’m female and I was a 外国人 gaikokujin (foreigner in Japan) when I lived and worked in Tokyo, but I can honestly say I’ve never had those kind of problems. I think that if you dress and act appropriately in Japan then this should never really be an issue.

For me, and I’m sure a lot of ESL teachers in Japan would agree with this, the most difficult student to teach in Japan is definitely the quiet and indecisive student.

Your job as a teacher is to interact with students and improve their conversational English language ability. You really need to make sure the conversations in the classroom include all the students. You have to ensure there is plenty of two-way communication or interpersonal communication, meaning everyone in the room needs to have ample time to speak.

It’s more difficult to spot the quiet and indecisive student if you’re teaching group classes where teachers rotate on a regular basis, but if you’re conducting a private lesson it will only take a few minutes for you to recognize this more introverted student. You’ll also realize it’s going to take a lot of effort on your part to fill the rest of the fifty minute lesson when you have a student who just doesn’t want to talk.

In my experience, these quiet and indecisive students are often dressed very nicely but conservatively and they are always very polite, but every question you ask them is nearly always littered with blank stares and conversation fillers that show lots of hesitation. When you start speaking to them and if you ask them to talk about a certain subject you’ll hear them say ええ Ee, あのう Anou, まあ Maa, or ええと Eeto several times, which translate as Um or Let me think about that in English, but that’s probably all they’re going to say before they switch to silence. Other Japanese people will think of an answer quite quickly after these conversation fillers but the quiet and indecisive student will just bite their lip and look down. It’s at that point, you’ll realise it’s going to be an excruciatingly long lesson. In fact, these students will sit quietly and say nothing for the whole class if you don’t find ways to build their confidence and get them to talk.

Every student needs to feel they’re getting value for their money at their 英会話学校 eikawa gakkō (English conversation school). So how do you cope with the quiet and indecisive student and fix the situation so the student talks?

If you lack experience as an ESL teacher, it would be very easy to talk non-stop for the next fifty minutes and not worry about your student saying more than one or two words, but schools are now asking their students to evaluate their teacher and their lessons and although the student might not be happy to speak with you in English they may express their opinions very clearly and succinctly when they are talking to one of the Japanese administrators at the school. The professional ESL teacher will always take a different approach and think of ways to make the class interesting and get every one of their students talking.

Here are 8 helpful tips for dealing with the quiet and indecisive student:

1. You could write down three topics and ask the student to read all three out loud and then pick one of the topics. Ask them to expand on this as you ask them easy questions.

2. You could ask the quiet and indecisive student questions about famous places in Japan or even your own country and ask them if they have been there and what they saw, as well as how they felt when they were there.

3. When the indecisive students start to talk write down key adjectives like “interesting” and “beautiful” and ask the student to use these words in their descriptions to help them keep the conversation going.

4. You could also talk to the quiet and indecisive student about Japanese food. Everyone in Japan loves at least two or three famous Japanese dishes and this can be a great way to get the conversation flowing.

5. You could ask them to ask you 5 questions with the “5 W’s”: Who? What? When? Where? Why?

6. You could make the class fun by mentioning several 外来語 gairaigo (Japanese words based on a foreign language, in this case English) and ask the student to repeat the pronunciation after you, first with a Japanese accent and then properly in English. Common gairaigo are garasu or glass, handoru or handle, miruku or milk, and bīru or beer. There are many more gairaigo but if you live in Japan you’ll know quite a few of these already.

7. If it’s a group lesson you teach regularly, you could always tell the quiet and indecisive student you want them to prepare a short speech on three subjects related to the Japanese culture (or any other subject you think they would be interested in) for the class the following week. Tell them you would like them to talk to the class for just one or two minutes at the start of the next lesson about this without any interruption from the other students.

8. At the end of the class, you could also briefly but sincerely praise the quiet and indecisive student for trying so hard to speak English. This should help to build their confidence and they will most probably look forward to their next class with you.

Comic updated McDonalds

Although quiet and indecisive students can be the most difficult students to teach, they can also be the students who provide you with the most rewarding teaching experiences. Remember, just because a Japanese student is unwilling to talk in a lesson this doesn’t mean they’re stupid, nor does it mean they’re quiet by nature. English language education is mandatory at high schools in Japan so every student has some knowledge of English even if it is limited and remember, students pay large sums of money to attend eikawa (English conversation) schools because they really want to speak English with confidence.



  • Thank you for sharing your interesting opinion on how to teach English to Japanese people, especially to those who is silent and indecisive. I am surprised to know that you have a deep insight toward why Japanese people love cherry blossoms. You are right! I do regard “sakura” the way you point out.

    • Renae Lucas-Hall says:

      Thank you for your lovely comment. Your English is very good. I’m sure you are neither silent nor indecisive when you speak English.