The Teaching Assistance column editor interviewed Hikaru Hirata, a full-time instructor of Japanese language at a university in Taiwan. She also teaches intercultural communications classes in English. She graduated in March 2021, from a Japanese university with an MA in English literature; passed the Japanese Language Teaching Competency Test authorized by the Society for Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language; gained practical experience as a teaching assistant in English remedial classes; and interned for a total of five weeks at an English language book publisher and at a Japanese language school in Taipei.
An Interview with a Graduate Student Hired to Teach in Taiwan
Teaching Assistance: You have been teaching in Taiwan for almost one year now. Can you remember your first experiences?
Hikaru Hirata: Yes, I remember enjoying fireworks. There was a really big fireworks festival at the Taipei 101 skyscraper for the countdown to the Chinese New Year.
TA: Did you have any trouble entering Taiwan because of the pandemic?
HH: Yes, the time I spent in quarantine was quite special. I had a working visa as a teacher, so I was allowed to travel from Fukuoka to Taoyuan. On arrival at the airport, I was taken to a nearby hotel room for two weeks. I was not able to meet with my employer. I could not leave the room. I got a telephone call every day from the city government officials. They spoke to me in English. I walked around the room for exercise. I drank lots of bottled water. My food was delivered. I did manage to maintain my health, but I really needed to go outside and talk to people. The experience was unique, but it was boring. Although I prepared lesson plans, I knew they would not be useful until I met with my students. I wouldn’t want to do it again, so I have not returned to Japan. I recently spoke about my experiences of staying in a hotel for two weeks during an online exchange between my eighty students in Taipei and thirty Japanese students at my former university. Until recently, neither Japanese nor Taiwanese students have been allowed to travel abroad. Students are just now becoming really interested in the quarantine requirements.
TA: After your quarantine did you begin teaching right away?
HH: Yes, I began teaching sixteen classes each week at the university from Tuesday to Friday. I teach two classes of intercultural communications using the English language. The others are Japanese oral communication classes for special purposes such as tourism, transportation, and cultural awareness. Each lesson is fifty minutes. On Mondays I teach two classes of Japanese at a high school.
TA: Did your previous intern experience at an English language book publisher and at a Japanese language school in Taipei help you to adjust to working in Taiwan?
HH: Yes, I contacted staff at one of the companies as soon as I came to Taiwan. They have become my best friends and advisers. I would like to cherish the connections with people I’ve met and will meet.
TA: Which teaching beliefs did you foster in Japan?
HH: My teaching beliefs are to cast a light on each individual student. Most of my classes have 30 to 40 students. Even in the largest class I take the time to speak individually with everyone. I let students know that learning a foreign language can be fun and that students don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes when speaking in English or Japanese. I sometimes refer to the conclusion that Carless (2009) came to after interviewing teachers in Hong Kong:
what is required is probably what good teachers have always known and done; namely, a balance of a variety of activities and different approaches adapted to the needs of a particular group of students in a specific setting. Some students may learn well through P-P-P, others through TBLT, others through some combination of the two. (p. 64)
TA: Did your experiences as a TA at a Japanese university help you to teach your language classes to university students in Taipei?
HH: Yes, I was a remedial teacher of English in Japan. I assisted students who were absenting, sleeping in class, and otherwise not keeping up with the regimen of a regular classroom. That experience helps me with students in Taiwan. For example, students were eating breakfast in all my morning classes. It didn’t work to just tell them not to eat. To deal with this problem, I turned my traditional PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production) lesson plan on its head. Tomlinson (1998) suggested that teachers think how to apply this methodology and mix it with other methods depending on student needs. Sato (2010, p. 197) claimed that:
in the last production stage, more open activities and tasks focusing primarily on meaning that are not designed for the use of a specific form, such as opinion gap tasks, can be used. However, we could argue that focused activities, which intrinsically require learners to use the target items repeatedly, can still be effectively employed.
Therefore, I decided to immediately assign the practice and production stages as soon as the students enter the classroom. The presentation stage is given as homework and summarized at the end of the class. Now I teach a Practice-Production-Presentation style in the classroom. Also, during my first month one student seemed to nod off to sleep as soon as I walked in the classroom. Students have a regularly scheduled time to take a nap after lunch. The climate here is hotter and muggier than in Japan, and I was told that she needed to rest. I didn’t accept that answer though; I explained to all the students that no matter the level of competence everyone would be given a chance to speak in the class. I began asking that student a very easy question every time that her turn came up. She finally agreed to respond and seems to enjoy communicating each week.
TA: What do you find most challenging as a university lecturer?
HH: Recently I can’t keep the academic triangle of teaching, research, and administration in balance. I spend a lot of time on prepping lesson plans and doing extracurricular student activities. I need to control my time more. I would like to improve myself by writing research for evaluation outside of where I work. For example, I would like to submit a publication for review by an academic society such as JALT.
TA: Recent news reports about daily life in Taiwan seem to suggest that the public is largely unconcerned about regular incursions of military ships and planes. How do you feel about it?
HH: Yes. Life here goes on normal as usual.
TA: Thank you for sharing your fascinating story on starting a career overseas during the pandemic as well as sharing your insights on Japanese and English language learning and teaching in Taiwan.
Carless, D. R. (2009). Revisiting the TBLT versus PPP debate: Voices from Hong Kong. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 19, 49-66.
Sato, R. (2010). Reconsidering the effectiveness and suitability of PPP and TBLT in the Japanese EFL classroom. JALT Journal 32(2), 189-200. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTJJ32.2
Tomlinson, B. (1998). Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge University Press.