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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)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-06-17 13:33 (KST)   
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.

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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 Japan셲 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.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Rudy Ronald Sianturi

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