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Tuesday, March 9, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

Rumble in the whiteboard jungle

Our article on the state of eikaiwa teaching in Japan provoked a flurry of responses. Here's a selection of readers' letters

Tasty teaching

So it's official. "Eikaiwa" has finally become a "cheap and trendy pastime."

Eikaiwa schools may not be providing the serious, bookish pursuit that would have us stumbling for a few hours over grammar books before uttering a word, but would our snobbery have us banish the slightly soggy burger of English learning to the recycling bin?

As David McNeill so rightly says: "Very few students who attend the schools have a realistic idea of what it takes to actually master a language." I would guess this is because very few students have any desire towards fluency. Their demands from the course are not academic, but practically focused, with many wanting to learn about traveling abroad and eating out. Low nutrition it may be, but for many after a long day at work, it sure tastes good.

Whether McEnglish or not, the eikaiwa schools have played a crucial role in increasing the interest in learning English over the past twenty years. Not nutritious? Maybe. But in the end, it's better than being hungry. -- Eve in Japan

Gross abuse

I was very glad to read about the (mis-) state of eikaiwa in Japan.

I have witnessed numerous cases of abuse, harassment, intimidation, bullying, etc. among the foreign and Japanese employees as well as the students at the eikaiwa company where I work.

I have seen sales staff sell tickets to mentally disturbed people and sell new packages of tickets to students who have harassed instructors. I have seen a case where an instructor was chased out of a couple of schools by a stalker. I regularly hear about students who stare at female instructors' breasts, follow them to the station after work, etc. I have heard about franchise owners who request female teachers with big breasts.

I've seen managers harass and bully instructors.

What keeps these schools going is the endless supply of meat coming over for them to grind up and spit out. -- Brendan in Japan

Whingers

As the old saying goes, there are two sides to every story -- not that you'd know it from reading "McEnglish for the masses."

While's there's a lot of truth to the article, it's presented in a one-sided manner, with no input from people whose experiences differ from those of the article's subjects.

McNeill quotes one person who calls working at an eikaiwa "worse than a factory." However, in my experience, the teachers who complain about their "grueling" schedule are invariably those who never had a full-time job prior to their eikaiwa gig.

McNeill's branding of study at an eikaiwa as a "cheap and trendy pastime" is frankly insulting to the students out there who've made the most of their opportunity to learn English.

The bottom line is this: the Japan Times seemingly has a beef with eikaiwas because they -- horrors -- exist to make a profit; therefore they are automatically bad. That's how liberals think, and regarding its attitude toward eikaiwas, the Japan Times is no exception.

Curiously, the Japan Times gladly accepts probably a few hundred thousand yen every month in advertising fees from the very English-conversation companies the Japan Times trashes. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. -- Kenny in Hokkaido

An old racket

As a matter of fact, the English boom ended with the decline of the Bubble economy in the early '90s, and has declined further with the decline of school-aged youth in Japan.

The lousy working conditions and low wages that most teachers complain about (face it, they were never really very good even in the "good old days") are now definitely a reflection of the "profession" being a buyer's market. And lacking cohesive and comprehensive curricula, and qualified instructors, eikaiwa are what they have always been -- a racket.

In any case, that the Japanese are really all that interested in acquiring English is a myth well understood by any foreign teacher that lasts more than a year.

The English taught today (as it has been for decades), particularly in secondary schools, is almost a complete waste of everyone's time. If this wasn't the case, why would there be so many eikaiwa? -- Jeff in Seattle

Plot your own course

I do agree that English schools have succumbed to McDonaldization. It's a bi-product of Japan's economy and something we, as teachers and students, have little control over. However, we do have control over our own attitude towards teaching and can overcome the oppressive atmosphere that the big 5 English schools have created.

Ekaiwas are a product offering a service. Teachers can have an enjoyable time teaching if they come to terms with this fact. Teach for yourself and for your students, not the corporate machine that provides a locker-sized classroom for five students. Students are there studying and want to learn. You, the teacher, should want to teach.

English is tough enough to learn without the teacher's attitude about their working environment adding to the difficulties. So, do it for yourself and your students, gain experience and be the best educator that you can be and then move on to greener pastures. -- Ken in Tokyo

No quality control

Mr. McNeill has hit the nail right on the head.

I am currently a freelance English-conversation teacher in Tokyo, but came here three years ago as a "teacher" for one of the so-called "Big 5." I managed to endure there for a little over a year before my tolerance had become completely depleted. My experience there was incredibly unpleasant.

What I discovered, through a series of incidents at work, was that quality was not what the school was looking for. It didn't matter what I did in my lessons at all. All they wanted was a warm body to fill the seat, and I became sick with disgust at the company's willingness to exploit their customers and their employees.

"If it looks like a cheeseburger, it must be a cheeseburger. If there's a foreigner in the room talking, it must be an English lesson." This is the philosophy of the eikaiwa. -- Richard in Tokyo

A valuable service

In my time working for (one of the Big Five) in Niigata, I felt that the product, though standardized, was valuable. One can never master a language going to class once or twice per week, but my students definitely benefitted from the conversational pedagogy.

Actually conversing in English is an important aspect of language education promulgated by the "McLanguage Schools," and is often neglected in the Japanese public schools. Furthermore, the company I worked for offered students many chances to socialize with foreign teachers, which were excellent opportunities to speak English and improve. The model, however, is flawed in that new teachers experience a learning curve -- once they become effective they often leave. -- Kevin in Tokyo

Bingeing autopilots

When I worked at a big eikaiwa chain school in Shinjuku, most people were forced to work on Saturday and Sunday, so a sizeable number of teachers would go on all-night binges in Roppongi, Shinjuku and Shibuya, go back home, change, shower and go to work.

We all knew that you could coast through a day's teaching on autopilot with a raging hangover. Walk in, open the book, snooze through the student's lame replies, walk out when the bell went.

The managers, trainers, and secretaries were all in their private little world. Nobody knew what they were doing, and nobody cared. -- Winston in Tokyo

Career choices

David McNeill presents an unfairly one-sided and pessimistic view of teaching in Japan.

It is true "McDonaldization" is sweeping through every aspect of society, especially in the country's post-bubble economy, but Mr. McNeill strongly implies the entire profession is a dead-end, hopeless job by focusing almost exclusively on the least appealing positions in the field.

Perhaps such "McEnglish" teaching jobs can be best thought of as entry-level. Even the big chain schools have opportunities for management positions. Furthermore, respectable university posts are still available for qualified applicants.

It is true that many teachers are not looking to make a career out of eikaiwa work, but let's hope Mr. McNeill hasn't discouraged those of us who are. -- Jeremiah in Yokohama

Another option

I am learning English, though without attending any English-language school, in order to get into college in the U.S.

When I first started studying, I had no idea how to learn English. I had thought of attending some English lessons, while using workbooks, but then decided that maybe I could just do it on my own. I have bought some workbooks and subscribed to English-language TV programming to help me improve my English, but I believe my greatest resource has been my own wish to study and become better at English.

I think that, to some degree, people who go to eikaiwa or English lessons feel fulfilled by virtue of the amount of money they're paying. However, I achieved a level of English good enough to allow me to go to college in the U.S. by teaching myself -- and cheaply.

When I talk about this with my friends, some ask me: "Can you speak English well?" This question seems nonsensical to me. In Japan, there is tendency to measure ability in English by comparing to native speakers. This is not a realistic measure of English ability.

The most important thing about learning English, or any language, is understanding exactly why you need a high level, and what you want to do with it. -- Haruka

Student responsibility

I joined an English conversation class a few years ago. Every time I went, most of my classmates were totally silent and would only answer a question when the teacher asked them. At that time, I felt they wanted too much from the teacher. The most important thing to develop English conversation skills is, I believe, expressing what one thinks, not only listening to what the teacher says. Students must be more like actors or actresses than the teacher. -- Minoru



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