As a full time English teacher at Smith’s School of English Kyobashi (スミス英会話 京橋) I have the pleasure of coaching many Japanese nationals studying the English language. There is no doubt that English is the most commonly spoken language in the world today. There is also no doubt that speaking a common language enriches our lives. I know my students really want to speak English to enable them to speak with others of the world. Every now and then in my classroom I get the extreme joy of seeing the hint of a smile or the glint of an eye when one of our students realises they have just spoken some perfect English. To realize they have a chance. I know that feeling well.
I came to Japan in 1989. On the day I arrived at Itami airport I could not speak a word of Japanese. I quickly realized that even though my native tongue of English was the most commonly spoken language in the world it was not going to help me much here in Japan. I hadn’t seen much of the world at that stage and was surprised at how few people could speak to me in English here in Japan.
Very quickly I started my job at a Japanese owned Import Export company and once again noticed that I was the only staff member able to speak English. The exception to this was the company president himself who interviewed me and assured me his staff spoke English. Today I realize that most of his staff did speak some English but as a native English speaker new to Japan I really couldn’t understand anything they said. The pronunciation was terrible, the grammar mixed and vocabulary very limited. I knew if I was to speak to these fellow staff members I was going to have to learn Japanese.
I enrolled in The YMCA step course. In those days it had 7 steps. Beginner to advanced. It included Hiragana and Katakana in the first step and used the text book “Nihongo No Kiso.” The Hiragana reading and pronunication drills were very, very strict and any small error would win you a big ZERO in tests. I still keep my class notes and that text book to remind me just how hard it was for me at that time. I made so many mistakes I was sure I had no ability for languages at all and had no chance.
My class was made up of 20 students. Almost entirely Chinese factory staff who could not speak English. Half way through this course my company sent me to Germany and so I could not complete the course. Just as well as I was falling behind badly with my the Hiragana and Katakana. Most days my writing tests came back with a score of ZERO!
Upon coming back to Japan after 6 weeks in Germany and all other EC countries (well they became EC in 1992) I enrolled on the step one course again. Once again I invested the money. Once again there were 20 students and this time quite an interesting mix. Chinese, Korean, Russian, Greek, Taiwanese and a French student. While most of my fellow students could do greetings in English they could not speak English. I was alone in that class and once again began to stress out.
We all studied hard through step one and this time I managed to keep up with the lead group. I studied until the early hours of the morning every night to stay in front of the class. I had to work at the office during the day so I became tried but kept going. I still remember getting my first 100% in a Hiragana test. The teacher held the test and quietly said (“Sumisu-san, yokudekimashita”) I was as happy as any man in the world.
Over the years working for the export company I continued to join YMCA step courses and my company continued to send me overseas. I was eventually sent to work and live in 52 countries. That’s one for every week of the year. I retired from that company in 1989 as the CEO and on that day had people from 17 countries working in my staff group. I promise you as I traveled the world I did all business exclusively in English. It is true, English is the most commonly spoken language in the world. I can also promise you you it was great to find all those English speakers and begin to learn about them and their cultures.
Now, the day I will never forget came at the end of my step one YMCA course. We had all worked pretty hard on that course and had become friends as well. On the last day the course places were announced and we had a small party. We were all chatting away and having a great time. Talking of our homes, families and jobs. We were chatting about the hot Japanese summer and the cold winter. We were even discussing the high prices of Japanese apartment rents. There was so much smiling and laughing. We were having real fun together. That’s when it hit me, this group of people who could not even say hello to each other just a short time ago are now enjoying each other’s fellowship in JAPANESE!
By taking the time to study a new language we had opened the door to a whole new world. I will never forget that day for as long as I live.