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English Teaching Gets a Shake in Japan

Biggest English school operator in Japan suspended for illegal practices

Rudy Ronald Sianturi (RudyS) – OhMyNews

During my first weeks in Japan last year, I noticed that the four-letter billboard “Nova” appeared nearly everywhere. I quickly learned from the Japanese that Nova is Japan’s largest English language school operator among the Big Four (the three others are GEOS, AEON, ECC).

Founded in 1981 and well-known for being less expensive than other English schools, Nova has grown rapidly since the 1990s with branches throughout the country. Listed in 1996 on the Jasdaq Securities Exchange for startups, it now boasts of the largest number of students in the range of 480,000 and 900 schools.

Probably there is no other country that can match Japan’s thirst for English. Right now, an estimated 1 million Japanese are learning English making the country the most lucrative haven for the English-teaching business.

Yet things will never be the same for Nova again as its shares fell 10 percent at Tuesday’s trading at a 52-week low of 88 yen. It was the most apparent market reaction towards the decision released by the Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). After months of investigation began in February of this year over more than 1,000 cases of complaints, METI ordered Nova to suspend part of its business for six months starting Thursday (14/06) for allegedly cheating its clients. METI even used the words “extremely malicious” to describe the allegation.

The suspension order obliges Nova to report complaints from customers concerning its sales and contracts to METI every three months over the next two years. It cannot also sign up students to new long-term contracts that last for over a year. The order, on the one hand, does not apply to those who have already registered with the school. But it still could be a serious blow to the company’s operation as most of its contracts are of a year or longer.

Under Nova’s system, students can buy “points” in advance to pay for their lessons. The larger the points they buy in bulk, the smaller the per-class fee. By law, clients of private language schools should have an eight-day cooling-off period during which they can ask for the refunds upon cancellation. The problem arises when some students decide to stop halfway through the course after not being able to make reservations contrary to the promise Nova gives that students can book their classes anytime, anywhere.

METI found that several Nova schools failed to give full refunds to these students as the school operator insisted that the cooling-off period had expired. Nova argued that the refundable period began on the days the students registered and not when they actually signed the contract. But the government believes otherwise. In fact, in April 2004, the Supreme Court, in a lawsuit case, ruled out that Nova Corp.’s contract cancellation policy was illegal and ordered it to repay about 310,000 yen (US$2,700) to the plaintiff.

I wonder if the deception on the part of Nova is partly a result of the deep cultural associations the Japanese has for English learning and the so-called “native speakers.” In most teaching-job advertisements, for instance, the employers will state that only native speakers will be hired. And with the native speakers they usually mean only the whites. Other non-European native speakers may easily be excluded. Even in some cases, there are advertisements running specific racial signatures such as blonde hair or blue eyes.

It is commonly known that parents are willing to buy English course packages as long as their children get a chance to talk with or listen to a foreigner. This is confirmed to me during several long discussions by a top recruiter of a big dispatch company with branches in major cities. The company deploys English instructors at both institutional and non-degree English schools. The recruiter disclosed that his company, in order to satisfy parents’ demands, turns down qualified applicants despite proven teaching records for the less qualified ones simply because the latter look “western.” The company even refuses to employ Japanese English instructors as the children do not find them amusing.

The recruiter also revealed to me how the multi-million English language business opportunity and the cultural images lead to the creation of a very competitive and, at times, volatile market. The schools’ board of education, as the primary investors, find it profitable to have native speakers working side by side their Japanese counterparts who frequently serve as the native speakers’ interpreters. Parents believe that their children can learn more effectively if a “westerner” were to teach them. Thus, companies are willing to do anything to get some shares in the market.

Arguably, this association with the “native speaker” as the only effective teacher of English may have an effect on the student’s skills acquisition. Instead of learning how the language works in practice, they at times end up mimicking. In my own encounters with the average Japanese, they find it almost painfully difficult to express themselves in English despite many years of learning the language. I supposed it would be easy, for instance, to ask for directions once I lost my way back home since I saw English schools at every corner. Unfortunately, most of the Japanese I approached could not answer my simple questions. Some even literally ran away once they heard me utter English words.

Moreover, I have the impression that the methods used in many English education programs on TV are still far from being communicative. The instructors talk most of the time, sometimes even acting like a manager brainstorming with his co-workers. The students sit and take notes as in a conventional class. The program provides no well structured communicative activities to spark a real-life conversation. Many times, the lessons end up being mere translations of English phrases and sentences into Japanese.

In effect, the suspension order will hereon surely protect the customers from any illegal practices. It will put the English teaching business back in place. More importantly, it will give every stakeholder in Japan an occasion to rethink the teaching of English in a less biased notion of what really makes for an effective English teacher.

It seems that this shake up could set in motion major reforms in the TEFL field in Japan. The article above is a little unfair (when you ask directions in a foreign language, it’s no wonder that people ran away. The compulsory language classes at school here in the UK (in French or German) does not mean that those kids are any better at handling questions from French or German visitors. I might possibly be able to direct a Frenchman to the train station, but I find it particularly difficult to get over that barrier of speaking in a foreign language. However, the thrust of the argument is simple… English language teaching in Japan is broken.

As Ken over at TPR wrote:

Nova’s business model, based upon signing people up to long contracts and not having to refund them, is dead – and it’s time for something new.

The question is, now that the roulette is spinning, where will the ball land?

The article above was overly critical of the ease at which a native English speaker can get a job teaching English (any degree and a weeks worth of training). I hope this system can continue, Japan uncertainly benefits from bringing foreigners in, despite the infantile character of many (the forums of sites about Japan are full of them…). While it is clear that this needs to be reined in somewhat (through systemic reform), that is not the problem.

The problem is that these companies simply do not care. They do not care about their Japanese employees, they do not care about their foreign employees, and they really do not care about their students. The NOVA business model can be likened to that of a shoe salesman (something I know a bit about). You take some shoes to the counter of a shop and typically you’ll be asked: Do you want some polish with that? At NOVA, however, they suggested that students buy umpteen books, cassettes and so on, most of which will never be covered in the classes (although one wonders if that student may benefit from them through self-study). The pre-paid system also worked well, as NOVA had that money up front and in the bank, instead of coming in drips. Meanwhile, the teachers were over-worked and under-appreciated with poor support in their lives in the foreign country. Furthermore, they are playing by NOVA’s script, so even those teachers with training were somewhat constrained by NOVA lesson plans.

At the end of another article by TPR, Ken suggested:

If you work for them: Quit now. Do not go to work tomorrow. Never show up again. Get a new job now, before the deluge of former NOVA employees hit the streets. You do not owe them anything. If you’re a foreigner on a visa, that does not mean you have to work for NOVA. When a company is so awful, so horribly managed that the government of Japan needs to suspend part of its operations, I seriously don’t think you want anything to do with them.

It seems that with a year to go until I start my own TEFL career, or whatever I finally end up in, everything is going to pot. In 6 days from now, I start my Trinity College Cert-TESOL course, which appears to be 5 weeks of hell! I hope it will stand me in good stead when I attempt to go/get to Japan, we’ll see. At least I will learn how to teach properly, if I end up with my own start-up eikawa, then I’ll be all the better for it. Until then, however, I hope there will be something left to which I can arrive.