In Japan, Kuzuhide Sawada learned English by reading books, writing and listening to audio tapes.
Most students, he said, learn the language to pass Japan's rigorous college entrance exams. But the new global economy has placed a greater importance value on mastering English."Speaking or making a speech is very difficult for us Japanese. We learn English for 10 years or so in high school and junior high school, but we learn mainly in writing and reading. We have few chances to listen to native speakers or speak in front of other people," Sawada said.
That all changed two weeks ago when Sawada enrolled in the Western American Language Institute in Murray. The 15-year-old institute teaches English by "total immersion." Once students arrive at the Salt Lake school, they must abandon their native languages.
Instead of living in dormitories where they would speak their native languages among themselves, students live with host families where they are "forced to speak English and forced into the culture of the country," said institute president Wayne Sabey. "We hope they treat the individual not as a guest but as a family member. For instance, they might be asked to mow the lawn."
Most of the school's students are Japanese executives sent to the language institute to improve their English skills. Upon completion of their coursework, many students are placed in management positions in the U.S. subsidiaries of numerous Japanese companies.
"We cater to foreign businesses. It happens the overwhelming majority come from Japan. There's a number of reasons for that. They're more willing to invest in this sort of training for six to 12 weeks. American companies want to do the same thing in a three-hour seminar," Sabey said half joking.
Sawada, for instance, is employed by a foods manufacturing and distribution company called Ajinomoto. The 31-year-old businessman plans to study in Utah a total of five weeks.
"I have no career plans to work here. If I have some chance to work abroad it will be very useful to learn English and American culture," he said.
In addition to paying his tuition, Ajinomoto also is paying Sawada's airfare and salary while he attends the institute.
"The Japanese who work for those companies essentially have a lifetime commitment to the company," Sabey said. "That solidifies it for us wonderfully."
Most of the institute's students are Japanese, but the school also attracts a number of students from Korea, Latin America and Europe.
Latin American companies are more reluctant to invest in employee training than the Japanese. One reason, Sabey said, is a perceived lack of employee loyalty.
"We had a fellow up here working for Johnson & Johnson in Mexico City. He did very well as a trainee and completed his coursework," Sabey said. He's now employed by Bank of America. "This man had been negotiating with the Bank of America while he was here."
Like Sawada, most of the clients of the Western American Language Institute are proficient in reading and writing English."They generally have good vocabularies, good reading ability but little experience in verbal communication," Sabey said.
One exercise intended to sharpen verbal and written communication skills is called JDP, short for Journals and Daily Presentations. For the duration of their coursework, students are required to make entries in their personal journals and give five-minute speeches every day. Both are critiqued and students are expected to incorporate new vocabulary words into their speeches and written exercises.
As Sawada attests, spoken English is difficult to master. The language is full of slang and idiom.
Other stumbling blocks are the two-word verbs that clutter the English language. The verb run, for example, means to go faster than a walk. When combined with the word into as in `Did you run into your boss on the golf course?' the words have a completely different meaning.
"If they want to learn a language, they have to have an enormous amount of exposure to the sounds of the language," Mabey said. "We just flood them with English pronunciation drills."
Since most students attend the institute on the company tab, they are attentive, eager learners.
"The Japanese are driving, hard-working people. They tend to think studying means staying up all night. We have to help them counter that. They ought to be able to finish their homework in two hours and then they get out of the room and spend time with the family. That's the best homework they do."
In fact, "teaching" the Japanese to relax is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching English as a second language.
"The more it can flow and the more you can relax, the better off you are," Sabey said. "One of my standards of how effective an instructor is is how often I hear a big laugh out of the classroom."