Multilingual Teaching Assistants Required for University English Classes in Japan

Wong Hinming, The International University of Kagoshima


This issue's column offers an essay by an international graduate student, Wong Hinming, who was hired to work as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for two English language courses with divergent goals. The TA contrasts the teaching strategies for an entry-level communication class with those for an advanced teacher training course. Interestingly, he also explains how students in the two classes were able to help each other to achieve their goals.


As an undergraduate student from Hong Kong at a private university in Japan, the part-time job offers I got were to work in restaurants, supermarkets, or drugstores. Most of the international graduate students whom I know work up to twenty hours a week as service providers, dishwashers, cashiers, or salespersons. When I began studying for a Master’s degree in intercultural studies at a private university in Japan, I felt lucky to have been invited by an instructor to work as a TA. Picking up a job leading toward a teaching career, such as a tutor, student assistant, research assistant, or TA pays about the same salary, but they are much more demanding. In addition to unlocking doors, setting up teaching equipment, and taking attendance, TAs have to help prepare lesson materials, help to resolve questions asked by students during class time, and respond in writing to questions in student reflection journals. In this article, I explain the demands of the job and what happened after I accepted the TA position.

I was a TA for two semesters for a 15-week English Oral Communication course and for a 30-week English Education Methodology course. At first glance, I assumed the only thing similar between these two subjects would be the learning of the English language. I was informed that the first-year cohort enrolled in the basic communication class were non-English majors and were required to study the course. Among the 45 students on the rollcall, there were Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese names. My first language is Cantonese, but I communicated in three other languages as a TA: in English with the teacher and as the target language for his classes, in Japanese when students will ask for translations, and in Chinese with participating foreign students. In the first class, it seemed to me as though the majority were unable to converse freely in English. The 15 students enrolled in the education course were education majors in their third year of learning how to teach English. They were all Japanese citizens, who hoped to land jobs working for the to prefecture, city governments, or private high schools.

The classroom atmospheres for these two subjects were completely different. The syllabus for the teachers-in-training included the requirement to demonstrate two short presentations during the English Education Methodology course. Participants were free to choose from among 15 topics each semester: needs analysis, penmanship, pronunciation, vocabulary, ICT, grammar, reading, writing, listening, speaking, integrating the four skills, interaction, debate, haiku, and evaluation. The lesson plan always included a role play: Each participant performed the roles of teacher, assistant language teacher (ALT), supervisor, vice-principal, principal, or junior high school students. A page or chapter from the textbook New Horizon (2015), which is a widely used Japanese ministry approved English textbook for junior high schools, had to be used in addition to supplementary materials and worksheets. New Horizon has one full chapter on haiku in English as well as a supplementary DVD on making photo-haiku. The student acting as a vice principal had to think and express an opinion about what was good or bad in the class. The student acting as a supervisor had to suggest ideas for a follow-up lesson. The student-principal would thank the struggling student-teacher and offer a few words of consolation or motivation. I was often asked to act as the ALT from Hong Kong who pronounced words, explained cultural points, and modeled the perfect way to respond to questions in the textbook. After each class of English Education Methodology, I read the daily reflection journals that each student was expected to write. The students explained what they learned in the class. For example, they learned how to make a photo Haiku, studied pronunciation and English grammar, and listened to another student’s graduation thesis to get ready to write their own thesis. All around the English education method class was meant to prepare students to be professional teachers.

In contrast, the English Oral Communication class immediately seemed much more relaxing and slower paced than the English Education Method class. Students used Kadoyama and Capper’s (2011) textbook English with Hit Songs. The book has 14 units, each with a different song. Students were assigned groups, and each group of five to six students was expected to make a PowerPoint presentation to explain the song lyrics. The vocabulary from these songs was recycled for using the seasonal words to make haiku in English. The pop songs fitted well with American festivals, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. In the English Oral Communication class, my job was to help the group to prepare their PowerPoint slides and to offer suggestions about assigning roles, such as MC, DJ, singer, and quiz-maker. Because the textbook had 14 chapters, for the extra week without a topic, I suggested that we talk about Christmas. As the TA, I explained about Christmas in Hong Kong. In Figure 1, the students are exchanging gifts while singing Let it Go, the theme song from the movie Frozen.

Interestingly, the education majors were sometimes asked by the teacher to try out their teaching practice with the first-year students in extracurricular activities, such as the ESS (English Speaking Society) club or an English supervision program and remedial classes. The professor in-charge of these classes told me that he used teaching methods that Suzuki and Ishikawa (2007) designed so that students could learn from each other. As the TA, I was able to observe a way to link the student-teachers from the English Education Methodology course with the first-year students in the basic communication class. This is an important connection because students in the two classes were able to help each other to achieve their goals. The beginners could improve their English-speaking skills and the juniors could improve their ability to teach those skills.

By mid-semester, I was becoming more comfortable in my role as TA. The teacher asked me to assist the students from both his classes to use ICT to make presentations. That gave me the opportunity to offer each group advice one week prior to their presentation day. That helped them prevent problems before they happened in class. One student-teacher showed me the quiz questions and test she was planning to do in the next class. Even though the goal of the education class was to focus on using ICT to teach, she said she planned to try to use paper worksheets, the whiteboard, or a paper test. That was the way she learned English at high school, so I explained how to use more digital technology. The teacher suggested that it was necessary for practicing teachers to provide language input not only from ICT-based textbooks, but also from realia, such as newspapers, songs, and real conversations with ALTs (Lyddon & Okumura, 2020). He helped me to caution the trainee to be sensitive to subtle structural differences among wh-question types and explain the grammar forms in the textbook to students before giving supplementary input such as haiku.

Working as a TA in English language and education classes in Japan was a challenging experience. Most of the classroom communication was in real time and had to be spontaneous. While listening to presentations by the student-teachers in training, I had little time to think about the suggestions I would offer them to improve their lessons. Writing comments in the student reflection journals afforded me some thinking time. I responded in the students’ preferred language, so I was lucky to have the chance to check my own grammar outside of the classroom. Nonetheless, the demands of being a multilingual TA with an understanding of ICT is a daunting job.


Kadoyama, T., & Capper, S. (2011). English with hit songs. Seibido.

Lyddon, P. A., & Okamura, H. (2020). Japanese junior high school English textbook input and wh-question formulation. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & R. Gentry (Eds.), Teacher efficacy, learner agency. JALT.

New horizon 3. (2015). Tokyo Shoseki.

Suzuki, M., & Ishikawa, K. (2007). The effects of teachers’ teaching style and actions of student assistants on learning outcomes in first year seminar. Yamanashi Gakuin University Law Review 88-89, 1–11.