Many years ago, I was playing music in a small Irish pub called The Shamrock, in Shinjuku. It was a rather strange structure with a wall going right down the middle of the room, dividing it into a bar and a lounge area. The stage where I sat and played was the only place in the room where it was possible to see both sides of The Shamrock.
Looking to my right, I saw the bar, crowded with foreigners shouting for drinks, interacting with strangers, and generally having a confused and jolly time. Looking to my left, on the other side of the wall, I saw the lounge, where the chairs were all filled by Japanese quietly talking or just listening to the music.
Once during the evening, a young Japanese woman crossed over in front of where I sat on the stage to the other side of the wall. She had a look of shock on her face as she saw the scene on the other side. The behavior of the people on the other side of the wall was so different that it seemed like a different world. I could almost see the neurons trying to realign in her brain as she considered whether to go up to the bar or to return to her seat and call over one of the serving staff. After almost a full verse of the song, she made her decision, took a deep breath, passed in front of me and made her way, through the people, up to the bar, where she ordered a drink. And this was a key moment for me in my development as a teacher.
As teachers, we must remember that, for us, the world of English is familiar and comfortable, but the same is not true of our learners. It is a different world, separated from their usual world by a cultural and linguistic wall that is just as real as the wall of The Shamrock. The next time you enter a classroom full of waiting faces, consider how you can inspire the courage to cross the threshold and learn to enjoy the music from both sides.
Brian Cullen is a professor at Nagoya Institute of Technology. He has also performed music in Japan for almost 30 years. His most recent album, Bubbles, was released with Sarah Mulvey in 2019.