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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

'Eikaiwa' vets look beyond Big Four

Longtime English learners opt for small schools over ubiquitous chains

Special to The Japan Times

Globalization, the Internet and increased mobility have made the planet a smaller place. The world is now often referred to as a global community, and its lingua franca is undoubtedly English. It is the official language of air traffic control and the de facto language of both international business and, apparently, international terrorism. According to linguist David Graddol, one third of the world's population will soon be studying English.

The quality of teachers was consistently cited in interviews as the most important issue for longtime learners of English in Japan.

The market for English lessons in Japan is huge, and the options facing would-be students here can be daunting. There are the ubiquitous "big four" chain schools — Nova, Aeon, Geos and ECC — that can be found near most decent-size train stations. There are a few medium-size chains, which market themselves as a more personal alternative to the major players. Finally, at the other end of the scale are the independently owned English schools, often run by expats who have decided to stay long-term in Japan.

There are alternatives to "eikaiwa" (English conversation, or English conversation schools) too. Many companies, especially foreign ones or Japanese firms with a strong overseas presence, provide English lessons on-site for their employees. Some people may choose to avoid the conversation-school route completely and take lessons with a private tutor. They can usually be found through specialized Web sites or classified ads, and the lessons generally take place in a coffee shop or in the student's home. For those who find themselves strapped for cash, there is always the option of doing a language exchange — teaching Japanese in return for being taught English.

A few months ago I wrote an article for the Community Page about the different choices facing those who decide to teach English in Japan (see This time I spoke to Japanese people about the best places to study English. Everyone I spoke to had their own reasons for studying and had taken lessons at a variety of places.

Yasuhiro Nishimi works for a multinational pharmaceutical company in Tokyo and uses English most days at work. In the past he has studied at several schools, and also at his office with teachers dispatched from an agency. Perhaps not surprisingly, having lessons in his office was the most convenient option. However, the quality of the teachers was something of a problem.

"Most of them were university students, so it was difficult to talk about business matters," Nishimi explained. What's more, he said, the teachers changed regularly so it was difficult to build up any rapport with them.

Since then he has taken lessons at three of the big chain schools, as well as a small privately run conversation school near his home. In terms of learning, Nishimi said that Berlitz was the most effective of the big schools.

"The quality of the teachers was good," and "the 'Berlitz Method' worked," he said.

However, this didn't come cheaply, and he felt that the atmosphere in the school was a little too formal.

Of the other two schools, Nova faired better in terms of class size, with a maximum of three students compared to Aeon's eight. On the other hand, lessons at Aeon were always with the same teacher, whereas the teacher at Nova could change every time. Nishimi felt that the quality of the teachers at Nova was not always guaranteed.

"It depended a lot on luck," he said.

Nishimi now takes lessons at a small school near his home. He said the location is ideal, and the cost of lessons at this school is much cheaper than any of the big chains. There is also a much larger degree of flexibility in scheduling than in the larger schools (Nova was recently penalized for making unrealistic claims about the ease of reserving lessons). However, at a school this size, that flexibility goes both ways, and the teacher may also ask to rearrange lessons.

Of course, not everyone learns English for work. "Travel," "communicating with people of different nationalities," and even "watching films and listening to music" are all reasons often cited by students for studying the language. Those who want to study a more general form of English conversation usually choose an eikaiwa school — but which one?

Until recently, Yuriko Atsuta worked at a trading company in Tokyo where she sometimes needed to use English. At that time she studied general English conversation at the Lado International College of Japan, which went bankrupt in April.

However, she has now quit her job in order to try and pass the Japanese government's test for tour guides, so she is taking more specialized lessons at a small school in Tokyo.

Atsuta said that lessons at Lado were "better than in other large schools," and the quality of the teachers was "generally good." However, group size was again a problem, as classes had up to six or eight students, meaning that Atsuta had less chance to speak.

As for the small school, Atsuta said she was satisfied with the lessons she received there.

"I am given lessons by the same teacher every time and the contents are well considered and consistent," she said. "The quality of the lessons is very good because the teacher knows why I'm studying and what my objectives are."

For Atsuta, the small school has been much better, but these kinds of schools are often not easy to find.

"Large schools advertise themselves and it's easy for students to compare them," said Atsuta.

On the other hand, the advertising for a small school may be little more than sign on the street outside the school, or flyers posted through doors in the local area.

Despite this, small schools can often rely on that holy grail of marketing — word of mouth.

The Nova bunny and the 2-minute Berlitz video lessons on Tokyo's Yamanote Line may be more visible, but a recommendation from a friend is more likely to be acted upon.

Yukiko Hanaoka, a housewife from Tokyo and a friend of Atsuta's, said as much when I interviewed her. She lived in South Africa and studied English there under a private tutor for three years from when she was 10. Last year she passed the National Guide Test after studying at a well known exam prep school in Tokyo. This is her only experience learning English in Japan, but she said that if she were to take lessons at a conversation school, she'd be more likely to go to a small one.

"The larger schools may have more advantages in terms of location and facilities, but small schools are more reliable, since they are often recommended by a friend, usually have an original education program, a customized approach and a friendly atmosphere, all at a reasonable price," she explained.

When learning a language, what works for one person might not work at all for another, but a few common points emerged from the interviews I conducted.

Everyone I spoke to said the quality of the teacher was the most important factor for them, regardless of the size of the school or the type of lesson. At some of the big schools this could be hit or miss, a result either of the high staff turnover or the schools' policy of rotating teachers.

On the other hand, small schools did well in this respect. Their turnover is fairly small — at least compared with the larger schools — and students usually have the same teacher for each lesson.

For those who are starting at quite a low level, a larger school would probably be best. They often have a set teaching method that all the teachers follow, and this can be a very effective way to get to grips with the basics. However, for students who are of a higher level, or who have a more specific goal in mind, finding a good small school is likely to be more beneficial.

Ultimately, however, it's up to each individual to find out what works best for them.

From The Japan Times

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