Turn on the waterworks: Michelle Alia is teaching Japanese students English

Michelle Alia is eager to get back to teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese-American teacher in McLean, Va., finished her boot camp with Fanushoku Ichiban, a middle school that specializes in teaching English in prefecture-wide geographic areas, on Thursday.

Alia, 32, was among more than 50 Japanese-speaking Americans who participated in the last week of Fanushoku Ichiban’s three-month proficiency training program. It culminated in two four-hour overnight sessions spent training students and planning retreats for instructors and students for the year ahead.

The boot camp is set up to serve as a mentorship to start any language students on the way to becoming fluent.

This week, an interpreter translating to Alia’s Japanese was a crash course in using proverbs, American slang, gender-neutral language and proverbs about work to teach students to do. One effective use of proverbs showed Alia how you don’t have to be perfect or have a “comprehensive vocabulary” when teaching a language.

“The days are great, except for the hot days,” an English teacher told her.

“In the US, when you use natural speech, it’s always easier,” said Alia, who is wearing dark jeans, a pink button-down shirt and a classic converse.

The accreditation for her passion

Many Japanese students we talked to are busy studying, working at jobs or trying to figure out how to communicate with their parents, siblings or spouses. On Thursday, in addition to becoming fluent, she planned to impart something that would matter to Japanese students for their life: English is great.

“It’s an honor to be here,” Alia said. “I teach as hard as I can. The accreditation for me is the first step in my dream.”

Levin Wuyama was one of Alia’s instructors. He’s in his early 30s, works at an IT office and teaches English to students. He’s a Japanese-speaking American of Japanese descent, a descendant of 12 generations of train conductors of the Nagasaki-based Wuyama family, whose business is history-based, Wuyama said.

He recalled his decision to come to America to teach in the big city, as well as his move to Washington from Tokyo to fulfill his dream of working in the United States. It’s on the back of his mind, when he’s teaching students — whether he teaches in Japan or the U.S. He didn’t become fluent in English in those first weeks, he said, even with fellow students’ help.

His first job taught him, he said. That placed him in an entirely different position than the one he finds himself in now. Wuyama, though, dreams of a scenario where he can move to Japan one day and run his own school.

Michael Glass of Arlington, Va., a short distance from the Hatoyama School where Alia teaches, said he liked being able to speak Japanese again. He said he now hopes to teach. As a child growing up in Japan, it was difficult to understand everyone, Glass said.

“When I came back, I realized that I could talk to everyone in Japan. And, honestly, I’m not too familiar with the Japanese language at all,” he said.

Lighting a return fire

Fanushoku Ichiban, founded 20 years ago, has grown from 1,700 students and 300 people teaching English to almost 3,000 students and 160 instructors teaching in 18 prefectures this year. And while the program is geared toward high school students, students up to the fifth grade are also welcome to take the boot camp.

Spokeswoman Ida Hagiwara said earlier this year that the organization had hired 700 people this year.

The instructors and students will share experiences and experiences with each other, Hagiwara said.

She said that when she first arrived at Fanushoku Ichiban she felt like “a deer in the headlights.” Then she found the instructors, she said. They showed her how to use their history to teach English.

“The instructors feel the same feelings,” she said. “They feel the same passion.”

It’s not just an English boot camp, she said. It’s a home.

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