I attended university in the UK in the 90s, a time of no tuition fees and non-repayable bursaries to help with living expenses. This means I did not need a part-time job to help pay for study materials and living expenses. It also means that, until recently, I had not really considered the importance of part-time jobs for university students studying English in Japan. Fortunately, my research opened my eyes to how my students’ part-time jobs were providing them with valuable opportunities to speak English and also motivation to further improve their skills. I interviewed students during my research on student self-efficacy when speaking English. I was fascinated to learn that the majority of students’ spontaneous English conversations were held at their part-time jobs. Let me tell you about two students’ experiences.
Minami (alias) worked at a tourist information booth. She told me about how she could tell foreign visitors the locations of different points in town but sometimes struggled to give directions as promptly as she would like:
After all, if I suddenly get asked something I can’t answer as soon as the occasion demands. So, when I get asked where the ferry port is I say “oh take that turning and it’s right there” or where to buy souvenirs, I feel I want to answer soon and have the words come out soon.
Yumi (alias) worked at a clothing store. She told me that she could help foreign customers with simple things, such as showing them where the changing rooms were and suggesting different sizes, but could not provide them with the same level of assistance as she gave to her Japanese customers:
Of the things that I have to help customers with, the things I can convey are few, so it’s like if only they understood Japanese there are more things I could say, so I think that, if I could say those things in English, I would become more confident to use it properly at work.
I believe the following four factors make students want to be able to speak English more effectively in their part-time jobs: (1) students’ experiences of successful interactions at part-time jobs help them build self-efficacy; (2) the part-time jobs’ duties show students a gap between their current and desired English speaking level, which helps them form clear language learning goals; (3) the student feels satisfied when they can convey their meaning; and (4) the experiences show them a real-world purpose for studying English. I am sure there are non-linguistic benefits as well, so I can’t help wondering what I missed by not having a part-time job when I was a student.
So, as we begin a new academic year here in Japan, I will be asking students how I can help them use English in their part-time jobs or volunteer activities. I will also be looking at how I can replicate part-time job experiences in the classroom through activities such as cross-cultural projects with partner institutions and creating tourist information pamphlets about local areas of interest. Most importantly, I will spend less time assuming what students need to learn and more on asking them what they would like to know.
Dawn Kobayashi (EdD) is an English lecturer at Onomichi City University. Her research interests are educational psychology, speaking fluency, and drama in ELT; she is especially interested in how these areas intersect.