It was my final Saturday lesson of the year. It was your standard unit – a tape of two people talking; listening comprehension questions; play again; pair check; class check; study of idioms; pair discussion on the topic. The tape (yes, in 2007) was of a man and a woman about to get off an elevator only to have another man push past them to get off first. The first man comments on the young man’s rudeness, and says it’s becoming more common among the young. The woman agrees and mentions all the bad experiences she’s had on the subway lately. The vocabulary was phrases with ‘too’ (too loud) and ‘not … enough’ (not patient enough), present time expressions (nowadays, recently, these days, etc.), verbs of necessity (should, ought to, have to). The pair discussion was of the “How about you?” variety, and the class is of a level where this is normally not a problem.
But they stalled. But you must have the same problems, I said. Not really, they answered – people don’t really push on elevators here. Have you ever been jostled on the train? Oh sure, but that can’t be helped – it’s so crowded. Think of something that bothers you about someone else, I said, and gave an example of something that bothered me (“The kids on motorbikes are too noisy these days – they keep people awake all night. The police should do something to keep them quiet.” NB-08/03/02 – I meant to add, “instead of just showily harassing high school kids who double their friends on their bicycles.”). But it was hard. Publicly complaining about someone else is seen as a bit trivial and immature in Japan (although privately, between friends, it happens all the time). After a bit of coaxing, one woman eventually allowed that her husband didn’t do enough housework. Another complained that her neighbour played his music too loudly. A man said his boss made him do too much overtime. We complained about situations: “My neighbourhood is too boring,”or “There aren’t enough benches downtown,”or “The TV rates are so expensive, but TV programmes are so bad (the Japanese, like the British, pay for a TV license)”. And they talked and eventually laughed about these and other peeves until the lesson finally moved on to other matters.
I thought about it all on the way home that evening. Their English ability had certainly risen to a whole new level: I had done my job well. Not only had they mastered the grammar at hand (which they pretty much knew anyway), but they were now more culturally aware. They now owned a valuable social skill which could carry them as equals through any society in the world where the English language was spoken.
I had taught them how to whinge.