Life in Japan (Intermediate)

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Jill and Steve ask Stephen about his experiences living and teaching English in Japan.

Steve: Hello, Jill.

Jill: Hi, Steve.

Steve: Today we have a special guest and maybe you can introduce him.

Jill: We have Mr. Stephen Coyle with us, who is a very funny guy, gets people laughing around the KP Wood/LingQ office and he’s going to talk to us today about his experience living and teaching in Japan.

Steve: We might just explain that KP Wood, of course, is a company involved in the international trade of lumber, wood products, with offices in two Canadian provinces, in Sweden and Japan.

Stephen Coyle is responsible for sales to Japan and purchasing in Sweden so he travels a lot to both Japan and to Sweden.

In fact, you are going off to Sweden next week but in his previous career he was a teacher in Japan.

So, let me go back Stephen to there you were…tell us when it was and what your feelings were as you went out to Japan for the first time.

Stephen: A couple of years after graduating from university I decided to move to Japan partly to teach English and partly to study Japanese language and culture and business.

So in April of 1990 I arrived in Japan which was right near the end of the “Bubble Economy” in Japan so times were still good those days.

Teachers got paid a lot of yen.

There were a lot of after-work dinner parties, etc.

and we had a fun time.

Steve: And what were your expectations?

I mean you had grown up in Canada and perhaps I think traveled around in North America, maybe elsewhere, but you hadn’t been to Japan before; Asian country.

What did you expect and how was your experience there different from your expectations?

Stephen: Yes.

I had grown up in seven or eight different cities throughout North America and I traveled around the world mostly Australia, Europe.

In Asia the only places I had been to were Thailand and Hong Kong so I thought that Tokyo would be similar to Hong Kong.

When I got there I was surprised to see that actually it’s quite a different place than Hong Kong; a little more organized and the pace is different.

Steve: And you went there with the intention on teaching English.

Did you have a job before you went there or how did you get your job?

Stephen: Yes.

I was hired by a company GEOS Language Systems in Japan which at the time was the world’s largest English academy.

They have a branch office in Vancouver where I was interviewed and trained and hired and they sent me to Japan.

My prerequisite for the job was that I wanted to live in Tokyo.

I did not want to live in the countryside because my stereotype or image of the countryside was that it would be quite backwards.

Little did I know it was far from the truth.

Steve: Now did you study…I know, Jill, you took a course in teaching English as a second language.

How long was that course and what did that amount to?

Jill: I think it was, wow, maybe one to two months.

I can’t remember.

I think it was everyday.

It was Monday to Friday I believe for one month so four and a half weeks or something like that.

And it was…really there were only a few native speakers, English speakers in the class, myself any maybe three other people and the rest of the class were Japanese; Japanese and Korean I think were the two main groups.

Steve: Yeah, you know, I have seen some of these people who have these degrees in teaching English as a second language and I’ve often felt that many of them could benefit by joining LingQ and improving their English.

That’s not to be unfair and I know myself when I studied French in our school system our French teachers at school couldn’t speak French.

So, there is nothing unusual about a language teacher teaching a language that they’re not really fluent in.

But did you Stephen have to take a course in any kind of specialized English as a second language teaching methodology?

Stephen: No, I didn’t.

Actually in those days in 1990 there was such a demand for teachers in Japan that basically anybody who had a university diploma could get a Visa and find a company to hire them quite easily in Japan.

In those days we were more entertainers than we were teachers.

We had to look good which when I was a younger man I was a little more handsome; a little bit thinner.

We had to look good, we had to smile and we had to keep the students entertained.

That’s what we were told to do.

Entertain them so they would keep renewing their memberships and continue to study English.

Steve: But, you know, that’s not an entirely bad philosophy rather than trying to teach them the dry rules of grammar.

That’s what we ask Jill to do on her chats with people and so that people want to come back and chat to Jill and they come and visit Jill and so forth so it’s all about entertaining.

But seriously though, we do believe at LingQ that if you’re having a good time, if you’re enjoying the language, you’re more likely to learn.

If you make it a very onerous burden people will just not do it which brings me to another question.

You had learners in the class and maybe you can tell us a little bit about the kinds of learners you had and I’m just curious if they studied outside the classroom or if most of their learning took place when they were with you?

Stephen: Actually most of my students were between the age of 18 to 30; university students trying to improve their English so that they could get hired by an international company or people, young businessmen, young businesswomen, that wanted to use English in business.

They were all quite busy and the only time that they really studied English was in the class with me once or twice a week.

You have to remember in 1990 to 1993 there was no Internet so it was very difficult to find English materials to study other than books or going to watch a movie or renting a video.

Steve: And did your students improve?

I’m sure many of them did.

What percentage…how many of the let’s say out of 10 typically would do well?

How many would not progress at all?

I don’t know, Jill, if you want to comment on this.

I see you want to get a comment in.

Jill: No.

I was just going to say how many stayed the same?

You know, were with you for a year and after a year basically their level hadn’t changed at all.

I would assume that would be quite common.

Stephen: Well, I was quite proud of my efforts there.

I mean, I did prepare a lot for my classes to make them entertaining as well as educational but no matter how hard I prepared it all depended on the student.

And especially in Japan where a lot of people, especially the men are quite shy to speak a foreign language, some people progressed quickly and some progressed slowly and some didn’t progress.

Typically the young women progressed much faster than the men because I think they didn’t have as much pride or embarrassment.

So it really depended on the student but I would say 60 to 70 percent of the students in a one-year period you could notice a definite improvement.

Steve: How many were there in each class and how much were the students paying per hour for their session?

Stephen: Well, we had some students taking private lessons which, of course, is only one student per class.

At the time it was $9 to $10,000 yen an hour which would be about $100.00 Canadian.

It was quite expensive so I really tried my best to prepare for those classes because I felt bad that the students were paying that much money.

Of course they weren’t paying to me they were paying to the school.

In the group lessons we would have anywhere from four to eight students.

Steve: Now you then came back to Canada after some years and then, perhaps, tell us a little bit about your second career.

Stephen: Well, when I returned to Canada…you have to remember before I went to Japan I was working for the Canadian government in the trade division which spurred on my interest in international trade which was the main reason I moved to Japan to study Japanese and do trade with Japan.

So when I returned to Canada I was lucky enough to find a company that was trading lumber to Japan which is the company I’m with now KP Wood Ltd. and I’ve been here ever since.

It’s been 14 years now trading lumber with Japan.

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