What We Do at Lingua Espresso, How We Do It and Why

This document is not written for our students, prospective, existing or past. The purpose of this document is to give our peers a summary of who we are, what we do, why we do it, and how we do it, so they can either refer potential students to us or join us — or maybe both.

Introduction

We are a small online English school. We provide individual English lessons online using Skype. Thanks to Skype, geographical distance is not a problem as long as both parties have a PC hooked to Internet through a broadband connection.

We are physically based in Seattle, Washington, USA, but our primary target audience is Japanese people living in Japan. There have been exceptions, however: we have had a few students who are Japanese, but are living in the US and going to school here. In the future, we would like to expand our services to students from other countries, but so far we do not have any concrete plans yet.

In this document, first we will give you the background, or the context in which language-teaching businesses for the Japanese audience operate. Then we will explain our unique approach to the business. You can skip the former and go right to the latter, but you will have to understand the former to truly appreciate the latter.

We do have a kids' English program, but the majority of our students are adults. For the remainder of this document, we assume students to be adults, who have clearly passed the "critical age," whether the critical age hypothesis for language acquisition is true or not.

Background

Before we present our business approach, let us brief you in this section on the general status quo of English education in Japan, and on the situation language schools targeted towards the Japanese audience face nowadays. This background knowledge will help you understand our approach better.

There are two broad categories for such language schools: one is conventional language schools, in which the teacher and the students meet physically at a certain place at a usually pre-set time for class. We call these "conventional" as opposed to the other kind, which is online schools. The latter do not have any classrooms with physical existence, and were brought to life fairly recently only by the advent of the Internet and cheap VoIP services like Skype. Technically those schools can operate from anywhere (we are such an example ourselves), but we are mostly concerned with those which operate from the Philippines, because with their cheap rates, they are fierce competitors.

Talking of competition, conventional English schools are not necessarily our competitors, whether they are based in the US, Japan, or elsewhere in the world. Rather, they and we can complement each other, with them giving classroom instruction and with us giving individual instruction. Conflict of interest occurs only when they offer individual instruction.

Overview of English Education in Japan

English is part of compulsory education in Japan. Japanese children start learning it when they enter a three-year junior high school at the age of twelve. More than 94% of them go on to enter a three-year senior high school, where they continue to study English. If they choose to enter a college and if they succeed (the entrance exams can be tough), they usually get a few more years of English education as the mandatory part of the liberal arts program. Some get even more English, perhaps in a specialized form such as thesis writing, depending on their major.

Despite many such years of education, not many Japanese are proficient English speakers. This is because English education in Japan has focused more on reading and writing, than on listening and speaking. This imbalance is largely due to a historical reason (see below).

When Japan opened up to the outside world in the mid-19th century after more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world (called Sakoku), they suddenly found themselves far behind in technology, and, because of it, threatened by the burgeoning imperialism of the already-modernized Western countries. It became imperative for them to catch up. (The account in this paragraph is very much simplified for brevity.)

The goal was to absorb as much knowledge as possible, as quickly as possible, from the literature of advanced countries. Verbal communication was not considered important. This set the tone for English education in Japan for the next one hundred years and more.

The criticism has been there for a long time — that of the lack of balanced treatment of listening and speaking. However, the Japanese education system of English was locked in a vicious cycle: most of the teachers cannot speak English, and naturally they cannot teach how. Consequently, teachers of the next generation cannot speak it either, unless they get education on their own outside school.

A long-overdue change finally came about in 2006, when listening comprehension was finally included in the national standardized college entrance exam. It is doubtful, however, that the English education up to high school has significantly changed because of the above, or is going to do so any time soon, because the teachers are still the same.

The situation is slightly better in colleges and universities. Compared to high schools, they have more qualified instructors, including native speakers, and sometimes offer conversation-oriented classes.

Other than these accredited institutions, Japanese people also have a choice of attending English conversation school, which is a topic of the next subsection.

By the way, the school year in Japan starts on April 1st and ends on March 31st of the next year. However, more and more universities and graduate schools are letting students start in fall, in an attempt to facilitate interchange of students with foreign counterparts.

Problems with English Conversation Schools in Japan

The Demise of Nova

The last few years saw a dramatic burst of trust in language schools in Japan. This is largely due to all the scandals Nova (their English site; Wikipedia's entry on Nova), a nationwide English conversation school chain, created. Nova became well known in Japan in early 90's for its catchy yet aggressive advertisement. All of their teachers are native speakers. It gained popularity partly because of their relatively cheap lesson fees which you can get by buying a lot of "points" in advance.

Its apparent downward spiral started in September 2005, when they lost a lawsuit that one of their former students filed, in which he claimed that Nova had not refunded him a fair amount of money when he canceled his contract. In June 2007, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry ordered Nova to improve their business practices, which included suspension of part of their operations for six months. In September 2007, it was reported that they were considering closing down as many as 200 schools out of about 900 existing ones, because their business was declining. Many other news items signifying Nova's inevitable demise kept popping up until it finally filed bankruptcy at the end of October of the same year. [Source for this section: Japanese Wikipedia's entry on Nova]

For the insights on how Nova's bankruptcy looked to Americans, see "How Do You Say . . . 'Stranded in Japan'?" which appeared on The Oregonians, and "Japanese Lesson: How Do You Say, 'Taken for a Ride'?" on Wall Street Journal Online. Some American journalist solicited opinions on a Japanese SNS for a new article, although we do not know which one.

Common Complaints

There is no denying that Nova gave all the language schools in Japan a bad name. Unfortunately, it is also true that Nova only exemplified the problems that are typically shared by large English school chains in Japan. Here are some of the common complaints from the students' point of view:

  1. They do not hire enough teachers, so students often cannot book lessons even when they have paid for the lessons in advance (by buying "points").
  2. Most of the teachers do not have any formal TESOL background, and they do not receive much training from the school either. Consequently other than being native speakers, they do not really know the language, still less how to teach it to non-native speakers.
  3. The morale of the teachers is generally low, because they are not treated well by the company. It is only the flip-side of the company having low standards in hiring, providing an easy way for foreign nationals to get a work visa in Japan.
  4. They often let students take lessons from any available instructor for a desired time slot. However, changing instructors only means nobody takes responsibility for the students' progress (Everybody's business is nobody's business).

The Myths Nova Took Advantage Of

Let us forget their recent demise for now and focus on how they became so successful before that. The answer is surprisingly simple. It is this myth perpetuated among Japanese people:

Giants like Nova have taken advantage of this myth to the fullest and used it to boost their business.

You might argue it is not necessarily a myth. To back your claim, maybe you cite the immersion method, which was deemed successful in Canada in teaching French to English speaking students. However, you need to understand it will be very unrealistic for most of the adult English learners in Japan to achieve immersion there.

First, most of the students are far older than mid-teens, and thus do not possess the sponge-like absorption power of young children. Remember the target demographics of Canadian immersion program are mid-teens or younger. Second, it will be financially not feasible, or maybe physically impossible too, because of their other commitments such as work, for them to have class as often as is necessary for an immersion program to work. Third, the teachers they have do not have enough background or training for the successful execution of an immersion program.

For adult learners, acquiring a foreign language means seemingly monotonous repetitions, hitting the books to understand complex grammar rules, and committing yourself to set aside a certain amount of time each day to study. The popularity of such schools as Nova is supported by Japanese people's unspoken wish that native speakers would somehow be able to let them skip this toil.

Another factor that supports this myth is Japanese people's general tendency to value superficial fluency more than actual communication ability. For them, being able to look as if they were communicating is more important than actually communicating. Why? Because it'd look cool! ... to their fellow Japanese. If that is what you want to achieve, it does make sense to have as many chances for practice as possible to brush up on your superficial fluency.

The secret of these schools' success as businesses (not necessarily as educational institutions) is to satisfy their students' fantasies first — fantasies to have pseudo-relationships with those beautiful white people with blue eyes and blond hair — and not give the top priority to improve their English, while making sure that they take their money in advance. This justified their hiring native speakers of low qualifications for cheap pay. It is a good business strategy, because very often the Japanese conscious-level desire to learn English comes from such fantasies on the subconscious level. That's how many people end up just spending more and more money on their lessons without ever seeing much improvement on their English.

However, a significant portion of their students did have a genuine desire to improve their English, and they cared if they saw results. Their frustration kept building when they did not see satisfying results, until it burst when a court clearly ruled that Nova was running a shady business.

Strongly related to the above myth is another well-perpetuated myth:

There is some truth to this, actually. First of all, not many Japanese instructors of English in Japanese high schools are capable of speaking English, much less teach it. Consequently, they cannot quite teach correct pronunciation, or give adequate speaking exercises.

However, it does not give due credit to the Japanese educational system concerning the English language. It does give you grammar. It does give you vocabulary. These are essential in generating correct English. The problem with this claim above is that it tends to be used by those who did not even learn what the Japanese school system offers, in order to blame their incompetence entirely on it.

When combined with the first myth, it becomes a powerful, enticing commercial slogan for language schools, and it has been used extensively exactly for that purpose. They say to you, "It's not your fault that you cannot speak English", relieving you of your guilt of failure, and go on to say, "... but our instructors, with their magical powers only native speakers possess, can help you achieve that." A winning formula.

The Japanese government's pathetic attempt to remedy this situation is so-called Assistant Language Teachers, or ALTs, which they recruit from overseas as part of The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. Sadly, not all JET program participants live up to the expectations.

What Nova Provided Other Than Language Instruction

Some people point out that one of the appeals of such schools like Nova is that they offered a place to meet people. They say there were frequent parties, both official and unofficial.

Competition from Online Schools Based in The Philippines

Just as Skype enabled us to teach geographically distant Japanese people, it did others too. Some shrewd people operate from the Philippines and hire local instructors. Since labor is dirt cheap there and so are other expenses, they can offer incredibly cheap rates. There have been cases where you can get lessons for roughly $5 USD an hour, when you combine all the discounts they offer. This is rather an extreme case, but if you just look at the rates, there is no way you can beat them.

It also works to their advantage that their time is only an hour different from Japan's time. There is also a growing sector in this industry where they arrange for the students' short- to mid-term accommodation in the Philippines while they go to a school there. The availability of various leisure activities such as scuba diving in the tropical environment does not hurt.

Filipino people are generally very friendly and hospitable. For them, this is a good job, even if it seems to us that it pays too little; naturally they are fully committed to keep it by performing well.

The first English concern from the learners' point of view is the Filipino accent. Despite the fact English is spoken among many people in the Philippines for historical reasons, it's debatable whether they can be technically called native speakers of English. A certain school calls them "natural speakers of English" — very clever marketing tactics. When you look at the videos provided by Filipino instructors, they do have accents, to varying degrees; some, fairly small. Beginning students in Japan may not be able to tell the difference.

The second concern is their limited knowledge of the American culture. Their life in the Philippines is definitely Americanized — far more so in many ways than that in Japan. However, few of the Filipino instructors have lived the American life, even if they are "Berlitz certified" or whatever certification they claim to have. There is a natural limitation to their knowledge. Language and culture are inseparable. The more you advance in English, the more you will need to understand the cultural aspects of the language. Those Filipino instructors will eventually fall short in providing students the right knowledge about American English.

However, it is not obvious whether Japanese students actually care about these two points, or if they do, how much. We know the following from our research of the blogs and the like in which the writers talk about how they study English; those who buy into the myth of the magical powers of native speakers tend to think the frequency of talking English with native speakers is the decisive factor in becoming a better speaker. For this reason, they seem to care first about how cheap the lessons are, and how easy it is to have a lesson at the time they want to have one. What they care about next is whether they can have a fun conversation with their instructors. On the other hand, they do not seem to care much about the instructors' backgrounds or qualifications. They also seem to neglect the importance of building firm foundations (such as grammar, vocabulary, etc.), but care a little more about proper pronunciation.

From such a perspective, those Filipino schools do pose a compelling choice. Their fees are generally super-cheap, and they seem to have a lot of instructors on standby. Some even let you take a lesson with just a ten-minute notice.

Our Approach to The Business

In this section, we will detail our approach to the business. If you have not, we suggest you read the previous Background section, so you will understand "where we came from."

Before we go any further, we know one thing for sure: because of the nature of online private instruction, we cannot provide a chance to meet people as conventional schools do.

Honesty As The Foundation

First of all, we will not adopt the "winning formula" we discussed above; if we did, we would be taking advantage of people's naïveté, and that is just not right. We take the high road, and let others take the low one. For example, we will respect each student's desires and goals, but we will not pretend otherwise when we clearly know something will not work. We are firm believers of "Honesty pays in the long run." We take "pay" in this saying quite literally; we believe honesty will make financial sense in addition to the moral one in the long run. We place honesty as the foundation on which to build our business.

We do not give any false information or false expectations. For example, our website has a testimonials page. All the testimonials there are precisely what we received from corresponding students, published almost verbatim only with minor cosmetic changes. This alone is rather rare in this industry, where they post blatantly fake testimonials.

Another small example of the application of this discipline: we tell our students so if they are forgetting to take advantage of a promotional discount (such as the volume discount), if there is any discount on-going.

Targeting Quality-Oriented Students

We cannot possibly compete against Filipino schools on the fee front; naturally our competitive edge needs to be quality, and we have to target specifically those who can appreciate it (a big challenge from the promotion point of view, by the way).

We provide quality in the following ways:

We have a future plan of letting students take lessons in the free-form conversation format, from multiple second-tier instructors for a cheaper fee. We will ask less qualification of these second-tier instructors. However, each student will continue to have just one first-tier instructor, who is the one to give structured lessons and oversee his growth.

By the way, just from the fact that they could see the value of our services, you should be able to imagine our existing students to be highly motivated, determined, driven and self-aware — and they are indeed. They believe in us, and a few of them have given us their testimonials that are very flattering — in fact so much so that someone once suspected that they were fake. If you take pride in teaching, we can guarantee that you find teaching them very rewarding.

Stress on Authentic North American English

Partly in an attempt to set us apart from Filipino schools, we add the following item to the above list:

Being exposed to many kinds of English (such as American, British, Australian, etc.) is not desirable for an English learner unless he already has a solid foundation; otherwise, he will keep getting confused by the differences among these variants of English, which will hinder his growth. This is precisely why we we hire standard North American English speakers only, and we use materials that are compiled with the standard North American English in mind only.

This is in fact another reason why schools letting students take lessons from whoever instructor happens to be available, a common practice among English schools in Japan, is bad news from the students' point of view. They market it as "the ideal way to familiarize yourself with various types of English." This is very clever of them. They make it sound like they are doing it for the students' benefit, but what they are really trying to do is to minimize idling of available instructors; they do this strictly for their benefit. It is a great shame that many people buy into such propaganda.

Conclusions

This document has given you a concise summary of what Lingua Espresso is, what we do at Lingua Espresso, why we do it, and how we do it.

It first described the background: traditional English education in Japan; problems of typical English conversation schools there, as clearly demonstrated by now-defunct Nova; and the rise of Filipino online schools.

It then constrasted it all with our unique approach to the business. We refuse to follow the conventional predatory practice of the industry and instead place honesty as the foundation of our business. Instead of hiring just about anyone as long as he is a native speaker of English and then treating him as some kind of throw-away commodity, we aim to provide quality instruction by hiring instructors very selectively, whom we require to be authentic North American English speakers.

Has this document interested you in joinning us? If so, please go ahead and check out our recruitment ad.


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