One of the first things that is taught to new conversational English teachers is that Japanese students generally don’t like to make mistakes. This can be a challenge in a conversational English classroom, where identifying mistakes can help everybody learn. The teachers job was to create a fun, safe environment in the classroom so that students would speak as much as possible without fear of judgement if they tripped over their words.
Most students eventually became more comfortable speaking English, mistakes and all. There was one very memorable student who took his mistakes very personally. By all accounts he was a normal, pleasant person. However, when speaking English he would be very slow and deliberate, cautiously trying to craft perfect sentences. This was not unusual, but what happened if he made a mistake was: upon realizing his mistake he would slap himself right in the face! The bigger the mistake, the harder the slap. A particularly bad lesson would leave him with red cheeks. He came to be known as “The Slapper” by teachers in the area.
Seeing The Slapper in action for the first time was a shock for both teachers and other students. It was something that became less shocking over time, but it was still jarring to see an adult slapping themselves when they made a mistake. Teachers would do their best to discourage his unique form of negative reinforcement, and I was even part of a group class where the other students asked him nicely to stop hitting himself. I was impressed with the students both for taking an interest in their classmate and for asking him to stop in English; “please don’t slap yourself” was not a phrase that usually came up in NOVA lessons!
The staff got involved at one point, politely asking him to stop hitting himself because it was scaring the other students and the teachers. I think the message got through. Over time he got better at not hitting himself in the classroom, but he was never able to fully kick the habit.
Hitting yourself when you make a mistake is better than hitting anyone else, but it’s still not a recommended technique for learning English.