Learning the Biochemistry of English Classes in Japan

Zahir Hussain, Kagawa University School of Medicine

Aspiring to become a professor in the biochemistry field, Zahir Hussain shares his career development strategies and observations on the teaching of English in Japan and Bangladesh with readers of Teaching Assistance. The author is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at the Kagawa University School of Medicine and is a TA in Ian Willey’s English classes at Kagawa University. His supervisor kindly appraises the energetic and highly motivated TA in a postscript to this article.

Ever since I was a college sophomore, I have been passionate about choosing a research career in which I could enjoy learning about biochemistry and molecular biology. I gained a valuable background in this field from academia and research jobs in my native country, Bangladesh. Technical deficiencies in Bangladeshi institutes of higher learning were major hindrances to fulfilling my passion for further research. So, I started looking for opportunities to enroll in a doctoral course in a developed country. As chance favors the connected mind, I tried to get in touch with many friends and seniors who were already walking on the challenging path of advanced research.

Using connections in Japan, I found one potential Japanese professor in my area of interest. Together with this professor, I submitted a highly ambitious research proposal to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (MEXT) in Japan. The proposal was granted, and I received a MEXT scholarship to support my research journey. And so here I am, in the Department of Biochemistry at Kagawa University School of Medicine working to characterize biocatalysts involved in complex fat metabolism under the supervision of Professor Natsuo Ueda.

Becoming a Mentor in Biochemistry Labs

In addition to developing myself as a researcher, I would also like to become a mentor for others, and eventually a professor, in the biochemistry and molecular biology field as one can never truly learn a subject unless one tries to teach it to others. While I was in Bangladesh, I mentored undergraduate foreign Minority Health International Research Training (MHIRT) research fellows, and after coming to Japan, I mentored a medical student conducting laboratory experiments as well as one new undergraduate fellow from Brunei to perform a mini project in my lab. 

The TA’s Role in the English Course at Kagawa University

In addition to my daily lab work, I decided to try to nourish my language and presentation skills by working in an English class as a teaching assistant. I also volunteered to participate in a Japanese language learning salon. To undertake both the learning and teaching of a foreign language creates an amazing synergy. Knowing a new language means one can explore the world in a new way.

I have been a TA in two English courses at Kagawa University: Medical English designed for third-year medical students and Clinical English designed for fourth-year medical students. Both classes are divided into two sections, with one teacher in charge of each section of about 60 students. I usually stay with one of the teachers throughout the semester so that I can become familiarized with one particular group of students.

As a TA for the Medical English and Clinical English classes, my roles are to take the attendance in the class, disburse study materials among students, help professors with exams, and encourage the students to speak in English in general. Though I feel idle sometimes as my professor plays the leading role, I enjoy the class. I learn many new language skills as if I were one of the registered students. So, the TA position seems to be somewhere in the transition state between becoming a full teacher and being a naïve student.

Different Views on University Education in Japan and Bangladesh

Being a graduate student, I am required to take classes on a wide range of subjects. As most doctoral students are Japanese, the medium of instruction is Japanese. Over my short experience of academic exposure in Japan, I suggest there are the following differences with Bangladesh.

Classes in Japan are less interactive and mostly, one-way. In my country, most classes are interactive, and silence among students is taken as a lack of interest.

Most textbooks in our country at the university level are in English whereas Japanese universities are limited to Japanese versions of textbooks.

Japanese students enjoy lots of freedom in the class: they can play, read novels, gossip, sleep, or leave the classroom at any time without receiving permission from the professor. This is unimaginable in my country, and these actions are usually treated with zero tolerance.

Observations on the English Classes

Language classes are expected to be different from classes on technical subjects: language classes involve communication and, hence, should be interactive. Needless to say, I found the Japanese students appearing to be very shy, silent, and closed in class. However, the professor who oversees these classes, Ian Willey, has been teaching English here for a long time, and he tries to make the class as interactive as he possibly can. In spite of the inherent silence of his Japanese students, their participation in free writing, reading their notebooks aloud in the class, being quick and prompt in answering quiz questions, or in discussions after watching videos, are positive activities worth mentioning.

Postscript by TA Supervisor Ian Willey

I’d like to add a few words about the Medical and Clinical English classes at Kagawa University and the contribution of TAs such as Zahir. I’ve been teaching these classes for over ten years. In the beginning, as I do not have a medical or scientific background, I had hoped to work with medical faculty in designing and teaching these classes. For various reasons this proved impossible; however, we eventually worked out a compromise: foreign doctoral students could help out as TAs. Since then, four TAs from Brunei and Bangladesh have joined these classes.

Although Zahir is modest about his role, his presence in the class is essential. Classes involve lots of group work and discussion, and Zahir is always moving about and encouraging the students to speak in English. He brings such a positive energy to the class (something we teachers can too quickly lose!). It’s also good for students to be exposed to different English accents and different outlooks on medicine and life. I only hope this experience will help him out in his (quite promising) career.