Japanese Getting into the Brogue

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2005

Japanese Getting into the Brogue ECC opens in Ireland the first on-line English language school .

by Neil Maher

However, since early summer that's exactly what has been happening. ECC, one of the four big English conversation schools in Japan, extended its web-learning service to a small modern office in the heart of Dublin in June 2004. The office concerns itself solely with teaching English a la ECC to students throughout Japan. The Internet has always promised to make the world a smaller place, and the growth of broadband technology has finally begun to bring the world into Japanese homes.

ECC succeeded in getting a jump on its competitors with the launch of a web-learning system at their Osaka office at a time when broadband technology was starting to be heavily marketed around Japan. As the broadband network extends in Japan, more towns and rural areas are coming on-line. One goal of web-learning is to make English conversation classes available to people of all ages. Now the student can come home from work or school, relax and then log-on for a 20-or 40-minute English class with a native speaker in Ireland. All the student needs is the webcam, headset and software, which are purchased along with the lesson units from ECC.

But why is ECC in Ireland, a country that most Japanese confuse with Iceland? The answer, according to Adrian McKenna, the recruitment manager in the ECC Dublin office, is simple—Ireland has a lot of advantages. Ireland has an excellent technology infrastructure that has induced a large number of multinationals, including Microsoft and Google, to set up their European headquarters there. Since English is the main language of Ireland, there is a vast pool of potential English teachers. Ireland is eight hours (nine in winter time) behind Japan, which allows for classes to be taught from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Japan time (10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Irish time), without incurring overtime costs. Thus the wage costs are lower in the Dublin office than would be the case in Japan. Finally, the Irish Development Association (IDA) offered tax incentives for ECC to set up their office in Dublin. All in all it was too good an opportunity for ECC to turn down.

So far it has been very successful. The office opened with three teachers but now employs five. It has the potential to utilize up to 18 teachers on-line at anyone time. That the teachers are in Ireland has been a selling point, and the Dublin office has experienced high repeat customers. Hana Matsuo, its general manager, explained that the students are bonding with the teachers because they feel they are really communicating with them and are also learning about Ireland. Making a connection with the teacher improves the students' confidence in English. Because the Irish are naturally friendly and good-natured, the students enjoy their classes.

Another attraction and perhaps fascination for the students is the fact that they are really communicating in English with a native English speaker on the other side of the world, from a country that they don't know very much, if anything, about. Teachers have found that following a lesson many students go on-line and do research about Ireland. In the next lesson they are delighted to display their new found knowledge. The teachers also use photos of Ireland and Dublin in the lessons. On the walls behind many of the teachers are maps of Ireland, flags and other Irish bits and pieces. Many Japanese people don't have the opportunity to travel abroad and to be able to learn from an Irish teacher not only English but also about Irish culture makes the language study that much more interesting and relevant.

But what about the Irish accent, which has been lampooned in many Hollywood films? Well, it hasn't been an issue, according to ECC Ireland. Initially there was a concern that the Irish "brogue" might be difficult for students, but as it turns out, fears have been unfounded. No complaints have been received and the number of repeat customers has been high—evidence of satisfaction with the instruction. In fact, for many years Ireland has been a Mecca for students of English from Spain, Italy, France and many other European countries. Now Japanese students are taking English lessons direct from the Emerald Island.

The web-learning system has been cleverly designed. The classes themselves are based on ECC's English textbooks and are available on-line to the student. When the student logs on he or she can choose a class time and lesson from the on-line schedule. Up to four students can participate on-line in one class with one teacher. All communication, done via the webcam and headset, is almost instantaneous. The layout of the screen is very simple, the teacher has control of what the students view and the entire class is conducted as if it were in an ECC classroom in Japan. The technology also allows pair work between students which the teacher can monitor. For instance, with the web-learning-system students in Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka can have an English class together with a teacher in Dublin. ECC's competitors may also set up shop in Ireland and it could become the norm in the next couple of years for students all over Japan to study English on-line in Ireland from home. It's all so easy, but it's also remarkable how broadband has opened up new possibilities for learning, in every tatami room in Japan. Broadband finally has something to offer than high-speed downloading of MP3 files and movies.

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