Hard lessons in broken English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Mar 15 02:15:46 UTC 2006

>>From the Sydney Morning Herald,

Hard lessons in broken English

A working holiday teaching English in Japan is a dream that can become a
nightmare, writes Deborah Cameron.

DAVID Dormon, a former department store salesman from Sydney, signed up to
teach English in Japan and look where it got him: fighting a lawsuit
against a powerful company, in a battle of wills with a supervisor who
kept a shame file and grasping at an insecure visa. The lawsuit - over
demotion, a pay cut and intimidation - concluded with a win and
compensation for Dormon. But he resigned anyway, ending the humiliation of
dealing with Japan's leviathan language school, Nova, the country's
biggest employer of foreigners. "I felt very stressed, alone and
unappreciated and I was very happy to get out because I was hating every
moment," he says. His was an experience that is becoming increasingly
representative for Australian teachers in Japan. "Australians are being
exploited as English teachers in Japan, especially by Nova," he says.

As with working holidays in Europe or North America, teaching English has
become a rite of passage for thousands of Australians in their 20s. Nova's
head of overseas recruitment, Stephen Farley, an Australian, denies Nova
is unfair to its employees and says there were faults on Dorman's side,
but it ended the legal action to avoid further costs. English tuition in
Japan is a billion-dollar business. Between January and November last year
private language schools earned 110 billion yen ($1.2 billion) from fees
and book sales, Japan's Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry says.
English is also being taught in corporate programs, through do-it-yourself
tapes and texts, conversation clubs and loose arrangements with
English-speaking friends. Last year 21 per cent of Japan's five-year olds
were enrolled in private English conversation classes, a survey by Benesse
Corp, a publisher and operator of the Berlitz language school, shows.

The high level of spending on private language colleges does not include
the expense of university study or government spending on six years of
compulsory English tuition in schools. There are never fewer than 700,000
students in private tuition in Japan, most of them adult. Students buy
lesson time in packages of up to 300 sessions, sometimes financing the
cost with loans from credit agencies allied to schools. Last March, a
particularly buoyant month coinciding with the traditional recruiting
season by big companies, saw 46,000 new students enrol. English skills are
a plus for job hunters, and recruits are often required to sit for the
Test of English for International Communication, a recognised proficiency
measure. In fact, Japan's mania for results has been something of a boon
for the test, with Japan and South Korea accounting for 81 per cent of all
of its candidates worldwide.

Japan's test score for reading and comprehension was the lowest in a group
that included the rest of Asia, South America, Africa, North America and
Europe. Despite ferocious national effort, English is less widely and
competently spoken in Japan than it is, say, in Indonesia or Thailand.
Even after years of school study, graduates lack confidence and find very
few mentors in public life. Senior ministers, including those who are
fluent, do not set examples by using English and the Prime Minister,
Junichiro Koizumi, is apparently unable to converse, though he attended
the London School of Economics.  Even small talk at private dinners with
leaders such as John Howard or George Bush is via an interpreter. Into
this tangled environment walk hundreds of young Australians every year,
convinced they can educate people and make good money. Of the 1000 who
travel on working holiday visas to Japan, it is a fair bet most are
destined for jobs in language teaching. Together with hundreds more on
year-long work visas, they top up the pool of 12,000 instructors in
Japan's private language schools.

Nova, the biggest school with the highest profile, says it employed
between 5000 and 6000 instructors in 2004. There were 3000 new recruits
that year and 30 per cent were Australians, Farley says. Those in the
industry say Australians are its backbone. A vital mechanism for
maintaining the flow of instructors is a visa system that sets few
barriers and requires no teaching qualifications. "You've got a TAFE
woodworking degree? Excellent," says Dorman. Japan, which has no
immigration policy and is wary of letting in too many foreigners, has
devised a convenient array of visas and training schemes enabling
businesses to import labour. The most notorious - the entertainer visa -
is the figleaf that allows bars to recruit prostitutes and hostesses from
the Philippines and eastern Europe. In 2004 the US State Department put
Japan on its people-trafficking watch list because of the way these visa
arrangements compromised the rights of those who took the bait.

While there is no evidence that young Australian language instructors are
getting sucked into the black economy, veterans of the English-teaching
industry say that they are vulnerable financially. As well as that, the
work is mind-numbing. Past and present teachers also warn of inadequate
health and medical insurance and of concerns with workers compensation
cover. Jim Richards, 34, a former information technology worker from
Wahroonga, has spent three years teaching English in Japan and says there
are many traps. "A lot of people see the advertisements and think it will
be like schoolroom teaching and lots of fun, but when you get here it is
more like doing factory line work," he says. "The whole
teaching-English-in-Japan thing is a complete fraud and the experience can
be quite bitter." Recruits expecting excitement find monotony. The welcome
mat is in reality a stopwatch-driven classroom that allots about six
minutes of "free time"  between lessons, a couple of minutes "warm-up"
with students and a 40-minute class that must be done word-for-word from
company textbooks.

Richards's advice to new hands is to think about going to China, South
Korea or elsewhere in Asia. But for anyone set on working in Japan, the
Nova language school should be the last option, he says. "If you come over
with Nova then stay for six or seven months and start looking for another
job." Once you find one, resign, and leave before the visa expires. New
teachers should also bring at least $2000 in savings because it is almost
impossible to settle in and survive on the 200,000 yen ($2200)  monthly
starting wage, Richards said. Richards resigned from Nova after getting
fed up and now works at FCC in Fukuoka, which he says is better.

Farley says the majority of its Australian recruits were employed on full
visas and not under work holiday arrangements. He says the Nova workforce
is happy and that most people stay for about a year, although between 5
and 10 per cent quit within six months because they did not like the job
or regretted the move to Japan. Nova does not provide medical and health
insurance for foreign workers but has a worker's compensation policy
comparable to Australia's, he says. The company advised all recruits to
bring 120,000 yen because it took up to six weeks, for the Japanese salary
cycle to kick in. Simon Hitchens, 35, from Perth, is another Nova critic.
After several years of service, he was not offered a new contract by Nova
when he revealed his union membership, he says. Nova summarily relocated
him to another office and he was asked to leave company housing, he says.

Kara Harris, 28, an American, also had a sour experience. She says she was
in negotiations with Nova over her sixth consecutive contract when she
asked to be made permanent. In reply the company offered her a 12-month
extension. When Harris went to the union, Nova responded with a list of
accusations including that she was unco-operative, hostile to other staff,
had fallen asleep during work and was a poor dresser. Successive courts
have since found that Harris was unfairly treated by Nova, and she has
negotiated a financial settlement. She is returning to the US where she
will study labour law. Farley denies that Nova objects to unions or
singles out union members.  Very few employees were affiliated with a
union, he said, but "if there are problems people should come and talk to
me about it".

For teachers including David Dormon, the end can be especially drawn-out.
Two years ago, when he was 30, Dormon was penalised financially and
demoted for going out with a 21-year-old student at the school. He was
also transferred to another branch. Even though he says he worked hard to
redeem himself, more complaints about him piled up in a shame file kept on
him by a supervisor and there were new rebukes. The end came in an Osaka
court-supervised settlement that gave Dormon compensation and a reference
letter outlining his commendable record. "The court case was nothing more
than me fighting against something wrongly done to me," Dormon says. "I
was disgusted by their actions. I felt very wronged. I realised very
quickly that all the assumptions that I had about my rights as an employee
and as a person did not exist in Japan."


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