Teaching English in Taiwan and Japan

Sapporo in the snow

My first experience in language teaching was in 1966, when I taught German with the Audio-lingual Method of repetition drills, substitution drills and communication exercises—a close relative of the Direct Method or Berlitz Method—all conducted in the target language and reinforced in the language laboratory. It can be extremely effective with most beginning language learners, so that students can produce a few short sentences after the first hour of instruction.

John’s experience with language teaching includes classic novice mistakes followed by proper training, success, administrative duties and finally the frustration of apathy and “chalk and talk.”

John and I spoke over Skype on June 16, when he was in Japan and I was in the Philippines. Next month we’ll have a post on his five years in Uganda. Thanks to John for the photos.

John’s  story


In 1987 my intention was to learn Chinese in Taipei, become fluent and then make business contracts leading to a bright future. And maybe teach English as a supplement. However, after a month of study I had to admit I was tone deaf, unable to distinguish one tone from another. Rather than go back to Australia in defeat I decided to stay on until at least 1989. I supported myself teaching adults in a series of language schools.

The first few places to hire me were fly-by-night operations calling themselves English schools, run by get-rich-quick owners who couldn’t speak English themselves and who had no regard for standards or quality control. I was a native speaker with white skin, and that was the main hiring criterion.

So that’s how I started. Of course I made every mistake it was possible to make. I was totally unqualified and untrained, but somehow I stuck it out.

Can you give me an example of what you later decided you’d been doing wrong?

I made the common mistake of talking way too much. The more the teacher waffles on the less the students speak. The less the students speak the less they retain. Sometimes we had textbooks and sometimes we didn’t. When we didn’t it was mainly me gabbing on. The students said very little, but it didn’t occur to me that this was bad.

My second go-round as an English teacher was with another, better, totally legitimate school, ELSI, or English Language Schools International, an American outfit active in a few Asian countries. I was assigned a mentor to guide me through the problem areas, to monitor my progress, teach me the tricks of the trade and instill the right attitudes. I learned that you’ve got to maximize students’ speaking time. The more they speak the more they retain. When you’re teaching groups of people–mine were all adults–ten, twelve, fifteen people, you need group activities and pair practice. But if your planned activity fails, then you require a backup plan. If an activity flops then stop it and go back over it and make sure everybody knows what to do. If it’s still not working just kill it and go to your backup plan. Preparation in advance is crucial. I absorbed these principles, and I decided to make a career out of teaching and Asia would be my oyster.

By mid-1988 I was working seven days a week. We had weekend classes and even 7 a.m. classes. In all that time I left the city of Taipei only once, just for a half-day outing.

By the autumn I knew I couldn’t face the prospect of another year of waking up in a pool of sweat 200 nights in a row. And I detest typhoons! So I decided to move to Japan or Korea. Some colleagues warned me against Korea, though. They said the schools can be problematic and if you try to teach privately you risk arrest. There were cases of entrapment. And spies come knocking on your door.

[In Korea working at any job that was not part of a foreigner’s work visa is illegal. The Ministry of Education wants to control all education. About that time—early 1990s—the government was offering a large bounty for turning in illegal English teachers. People would follow foreigners to see whether they were going to work at a student’s house. A friend of mine was caught, fined, and deported. The employer was also fined.]

Colleagues either insisted Tokyo was great or Tokyo was terrible. But I ruled out Tokyo and chose Hiroshima. I had no contacts there at all, but it seemed a good choice: big enough for interest but small enough for comfort. In March 1989 I spent two days knocking on doors. At Berlitz Hiroshima someone was quitting, so they hired me and sent me to the main branch in Osaka for training. We learned how to use the in-house material and the in-house method. During the training it was all one-to-one, essentially private teaching.

Could you explain how it works?

You use the official picture book to introduce new grammar points or new vocabulary in digestible chunks. You firstly create an information gap. A simplistic example would be:

“Look at the man in this picture. Is he driving a car?”

No he isn’t.

“Is he riding a bicycle?”

No he isn’t.

“What’s he doing?”

I don’t know.


You then drill the student on the theme of walking. The culmination of that part of the lesson is eliciting questions from the student on the topic of walking.

I can’t think of a better technique for getting people from zero to basic competence so quickly. They soon make sense of the basics and develop confidence. For upper-intermediate and advanced levels it’s less spectacular, but for beginners/low-intermediates it’s extremely effective.

I taught in Hiroshima for one year, but I was chasing more yen. So I transferred to the main branch in Osaka (Nishi Umeda). Then in January 1992 I was promoted to Head Teacher of the Higashi Umeda branch in central Osaka. That entailed additional training in management and in follow-up training for new teachers. All was well.

Then in July 1994 my fiancée and I got married. She’s a Japanese pediatrician who was studying in Kansas. I flew to the States, we got married and returned to Osaka. Unfortunately, on the return flight I developed Deep Vein Thrombosis, popularly known as “Economy Class Syndrome.” At the time it wasn’t well known, so the doctors had trouble diagnosing it. I was admitted to hospital with chest pains and difficulty breathing. Blood clots, lots of them, had moved into my left lung, and I was in deep trouble. It was touch and go for about a week, but finally they pulled me through.

I was discharged after six weeks, but I had to consider my future. I stepped down as Head Teacher. Berlitz Japan at that time was an employee-friendly company. (The same can’t be said of it these days, I hear.) They were good to me, setting me up to teach part-time and do administration part-time. I learned the behind-the-scenes stuff in the English conversation school scene (Eikaiwa in Japanese): how to juggle scheduling conflicts, interpersonal conflicts and the elements that reduce efficiency and profitability. It was a real eye-opener.

So, for example, teachers might have complaints from students, You have to juggle the schedule to ensure a student doesn’t get assigned a teacher they’d complained about. Another example concerned sending teachers around to far flung branches. There are fewer teachers of other-than-English languages, and you can’t avoid spreading them around. Some of them may be based in Osaka but have to teach a few German lessons in Kyoto, at least half an hour away by train. You have to engineer it so that you can get them there and back with the maximum cost-effectiveness and the least loss of teaching time.

My wife had a long-term ambition to be a medical aid worker in a developing country, in Africa specifically. But like most Japanese doctors she’d never seen a malaria patient or dealt with any of those common tropical diseases in Africa. She needed to study tropical medicine abroad.

When we discussed it, I said, “My place is with you. If you go, I’ll go.”

But first we rewarded ourselves by moving to Sapporo, where she got a clinic job quite easily, and I transferred to Berlitz Sapporo as a rank-and-file teacher. After two years we moved to Liverpool, where the university has a School of Tropical Medicine. My visa was a dependent of a student. That’s about as low as you can get on the immigration scale. I was expressly forbidden to seek any paid employment whatsoever in the UK. So we lived on our savings, and spent a year in student housing surrounded by nineteen-year-olds with guitars.

After that a little Japanese medical NGO in Tokyo hired us. They’d always dealt with Asian countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh, and we were the first people they sent to Africa. That was in May, 2000.

[John’s experiences in Uganda will be the subject of our next post.] 

Five years later we got back to Sapporo. Berlitz had guaranteed me a job on my return. I’d left on good terms and I’d kept in touch during my absence. But in the meantime the management in the Sapporo branch had changed.

I walked in and said, “I’m back! I’m ready to work!”

Who are you?

They gave me a token interview, but I could tell they weren’t interested, especially the guy in charge, a young dude with a pierced tongue. (The Berlitz branch in Sapporo went belly up a couple of years later, giving rise to a feeling of Schadenfreude on my part.)

So I had to restart from scratch, with private students and applying for every job I could find. But by then I was 50 years old, and as everyone knows, when you turn 50 all your experience, skill and knowledge disappears. Most of my job applications remained unacknowledged.

We now entered a period of austerity. Remember, our time in Liverpool was without income, and in Uganda we were paid a lot less than what we would have earned in Japan. Don’t be misled into thinking because African incomes are so low then the prices must be correspondingly low. They aren’t, so most people’s disposable income doesn’t go very far.

In Uganda my wife had developed a chronic illness called polycythemia, a disorder of the bone marrow. She’s able to travel and work, but her hematologist warned her against working full-time. She started working–and still works–part-time. I was, meanwhile, woefully underemployed.

Then in 2008 a series of coincidences led to an offer to work part-time in a private high school just outside Sapporo. I took the job despite my misgivings about classrooms full of hormonal teenagers when most of my experience had involved motivated adults in private lessons. But the principal assured me I’d be team-teaching with a full-time Japanese teacher from the English Department.

I’ve been there ever since. Now I’m in my eleventh year, still working part-time. There was never any thought of a full-time job. I wouldn’t want that anyway because full-time teachers work horrendous hours and have an unbelievable amount of stress. I still teach grownups some evenings and on Saturdays. So that’s where I am now. 

In Japan, there’s obvious reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Education and the schools themselves to institute meaningful reforms. They make some cosmetic changes, such as offering English lessons in, I think, the last year or two of elementary school. That scheme was introduced with extreme haste and often without the necessary teacher-training. So elementary school teachers with no experience or motivation were thrown in at the deep end. You can understand why many have negative feelings about their role. This negativity is probably transmitted to the kids. I’m sure that’s why students aren’t enthused about English by the time they start secondary school.

So elementary school teachers without any training or experience are shoved into that position.

Exactly. But there are lots of fundamental difficulties with the way English is regarded in this country. There’s a huge gulf between the way Japanese students view English and the way the rest of the world views it.

For example, at the start of every school year I give my students a little questionnaire which my wife translated into Japanese. It asks simple questions about English including: Do native speakers around the world have different accents or do they all speak the same? Where did the English language start? (In other words, where did it originate?)  Most of them don’t understand the originate question. They can’t grasp the concept of a language having a geographical origin.

So the Japanese teacher has to explain that languages just don’t pop out of nowhere. They all had an origin. So where did the English language originate? Almost always the students say English started in America. Then we explain the historical impossibility of that and explain how there’s a country called England and a language called English and write the Chinese characters for England (英国) and English (英語) on the board.

There’s a huge mental chasm between the students and the English language. They see it as abstract, obscure and remote. They don’t see its relevance. On top of that we’re lumbered with woefully dull textbooks written by people who are lucky not to have to teach out of them themselves.

Textbook with workbook

These cheesy textbooks are full of errors, but we can’t add to the confusion by correcting them. And most students have no interest in the subject. Like I said, they regard it as irrelevant to their lives. Plus, our teaching methodology is archaic. The only concession to modern technology is CDs featuring over-enunciated conversations spoken by American women whose voices could cut glass. And we can’t use videos or internet. It’s all just chalk and talk.

Another one

The students are very passive. They’re not good at inferring from examples. So if you try to introduce a grammar function, some new tense or something with example after example, and you expect them to predict what comes next, you’ll just get that old deer-caught-in-the headlights look. They’ll make no attempt to try to figure it out. They expect to be spoon-fed the answer so they can regurgitate it on the next test and then forget it. There’s no implicit or explicit expectation that they’ll retain any of this. So nothing sticks.

I’ve often commented to my colleagues that you can’t distinguish first-year students from third-year students. They make no discernable progress, They just spin their wheels. If you were optimistic enough to challenge your students by saying, Okay, you’ve studied English. Can you compose an original sentence of at least four words? Which doesn’t begin with “My name is…”? you’d just be met with a blank stare.

If there’s any translation it’s always from English to Japanese. That’s deplorable. If you ask them to translate something from Japanese to English, the response is shock. What are you talking about? That’s not how things are done!

Some of these students are pretty intelligent, and under the right circumstances they could do well. But everything seems to work against them. With the rigid test system, their success or failure, their competence, is based purely on exam results. So there’s no incentive for curiosity or originality. It can be very disheartening sometimes.

I’m sure this is true not only in Japan, but I think Japan is particularly slow to raise the standards. The Education Ministry is notoriously conservative and much more concerned with societal issues like singing the national anthem at the start of the day and hoisting the flag. So ours is a constant uphill battle.

One of the things I’ve heard from people teaching English in Japan,  probably at a university level, is that they were always pleased when they get Korean students who actually talk in class. Do you have problems with your students?

Yeah! To get students to say something you have to call on them individually because no one will volunteer a response. No one wants to be first. It’s very different in Taiwan, where their Chinese culture prompts them to establish “face” in the classroom and put themselves forward.

Japan’s the exact opposite. No one wants to say anything in case they’re wrong. So they remain silent. Their risk-averse attitude is antithetical to successful language learning. So you have to dumb down your whole way of teaching because people just don’t want to use the product you’re supplying.

A long time ago I read a column in one of Japan’s English-language newspapers by an Australian academic called Gregory Clark. He’d been the token foreigner on a government panel about English language teaching in secondary schools. Afterwards he wrote in that newspaper that the current secondary school English curriculum should be scrapped altogether. In junior high school the program should become an external private assessment thing like TOIEC or TOEFL. Something appropriate to their level which would build up a functional vocabulary, a working knowledge of basic tenses, decent listening skills and the ability to combine words into sentences and questions. All of the things that students don’t have now. Give them three years of that with practical tests.

Then in high school those who want to continue English can take it as an elective and embark on grammatical analysis while polishing their communicative skills. Those who don’t want to continue in English in high school would at least be left with what they’d developed earlier–some listening comprehension and the ability to compose basic sentences and questions using a workable vocabulary.

I think these are marvelous ideas, but I don’t see them being introduced. They make too much sense. On the other hand, universities are now introducing listening tests for admissions, so there’s some progress in that regard. The students now aren’t just passing tests with multiple choice answers. They must focus more on listening. But it’s not nearly enough. [For a recent Clark article, see (Link)

What about the Berlitz Method? Can you see that being used in the Japanese public school system?

Well, it would require major modification. I’ve had classes with 42 students who feel like they’re prisoners and act like caged animals. The Berlitz method assumes the students are motivated.

Another aspect of the school where I teach is its active sport program. A lot of students have enrolled just for that, even opting to sleep in the school’s dormitory. The focus on sport works against any progress in their studies. In some of my classes the majority of students are members of sporting clubs. In one class I have now there are 32 students, but on any given day 10 or 12 will be absent, off at a badminton tournament or whatever. It’s very difficult to get any traction because you have to keep going back to review whatever a third of the class missed. You feel like a hamster on a treadmill.

I know I’m painting a pretty grim picture. There are some kids who are pretty motivated and who try to rise above all this. If I have one or two such kids in a class of 35, I teach to them. The rest, I can’t entirely blame them. English is just one of several subjects they have to plow through.

Our school is also not highly regarded academically. Hokkaido, the prefecture we’re in, is in the bottom third in the national rankings, and our high school’s in the bottom half of the Hokkaido rankings. I imagine Korea is similar in that regard—everything is ranked and everybody knows everybody’s place on the totem pole.

You meet some foreign teachers in Japan who talk of wonderful, fulfilling experiences teaching in high schools where they have an English club and there are foreign exchange students and the kids use the internet for real English practice and they have state-of-the-art language labs. Most schools will never have that. That’s why most people in Japan will never be able to construct an English sentence which doesn’t begin with “My name is….” The system prevents them from developing any communicative competence. And so it’s likely to remain.