I help English learners forget that Engish isn't their first language.
My journey into the world of language started in 2007. I’d just graduated art university and I managed to get an interview for a job working at a gallery in Harajuku, a fashionable part of Tokyo. This is it, I thought. This is what I wanted to do. This is the life I was going to live. Four months later, I was on the plane dreaming of the exciting life I was going to live.
But I didn’t get the job. I had everything they wanted, except one thing: My Japanese wasn’t good enough.
Shortly after, my wife’s friend introduced me to someone she knew. A guy called Tom. He was working on a team under a major Japanese artist called Takashi Murakami. I wanted to know how he'd gotten the job and if I would be able to get a job there, too. So I went off to meet him for lunch.
It turned out that Tom had no experience in the art world. No art qualifications. He had never done any art, let alone shown his work in exhibitions. He just applied for the job and got it. But the thing is: he could speak, read and write Japanese. Lots of people who come to live in Tokyo learn the language. But very, very few bother to get really good at it.
This was a huge shock for me. Here I was, with all these art skills and qualifications. I'd spent years studying art, and I got good grades at university. I'd even shown my work in international art exhibitions. But it was all meaningless.
In this environment, I was nothing without Japanese.
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I hated Tom. He had everything I wanted. I was angry because I thought I was better suited to the job than he was.
I felt totally lost and didn’t know what to do.
Then, before I knew it everything changed dramatically. My wife got pregnant, and soon after my son was born. If I’m honest, I wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility. But it just happened.￼
Life became really serious, fast.
I got a job as an assistant English teacher in a school. The wage was low, but it was the best job I could get. I enjoyed teaching but I hated all of the other work. I felt embarrassed about my bad Japanese. I felt humiliated almost every day. The other teachers were busy and always seemed annoyed at having to deal with me. I had to join meetings and had lots of ideas, but I didn’t understand what people were saying. I was afraid of saying something stupid, so I just sat in silence, nodding and agreeing with everything if asked a question.
Home life was getting harder as well. I had to send a lot of emails but I was too embarrassed about making mistakes. So I had to get my wife to check everything. Sending a simple email took so much time. My wife was busy looking after the baby, working all day. And she was getting pissed off at having to spend so much time helping me – I was more like another kid she had to look after than a husband.
I thought if only could just improve my Japanese, everything would be better. I wanted to forget that Japanese wasn’t my first language, and just live a normal life like I had done in England. But even after I passed the highest level of the Japanese proficiency test I couldn’t do this. I should have been really great at the language – on paper I was there! But I didn’t feel good at the language! And to make it worse, I had no idea what I should do to improve. I felt like I’d tried everything. But nothing seemed to work. I obviously just wasn’t talented at languages.
Perhaps it was time to give up?
Not long after this, I was on the train coming back from work with several other English teachers. I think one of my co-workers had noticed that I was having a hard time supporting my family, and he asked me why I didn’t consider doing a masters and teaching English at university. The money would be much better, and the job more interesting, he said.
All this time I’d been focused on Japanese but not going anywhere. Getting an English teaching qualification sounded like a good idea. After several months of talking about it with my wife, I decided to apply. It was difficult to pay the fees… but it was an investment for the future.
The course was really hard work. But something totally unexpected happened. I took my masters to become a better English teacher. To help my students learn English. But actually, the biggest benefit was for me.
For the next three years, I became totally absorbed in the topic of second language learning. I read hundreds and hundreds of books and research articles. I talked to professionals and researchers. Attended seminars. I learned how languages are learned, the things successful language learners do – and the things they don’t do. I studied how the human brain works, I studied language learning psychology and conducted my own research.
All this time the barrier that had held me back…was doubt.
I’d been doing a lot of stuff, but everything was so random and messy. I’d start things but never finish them. I’d gone from studying textbooks to just watching TV in Japanese all day. I’d gone from trying to practice my Japanese with native speakers to trying to learn just by listening. I’d bought countless courses that promised instant results. Nothing worked. I was constantly looking for a better way to learn the language.
I realised that the reason my Japanese wasn’t improving wasn’t because I was no good at languages. It's not that I wasn’t “talented”. But simply because I was putting all my time and energy into the wrong things.
I needed a clear, structured path to follow that I knew would work. Free from doubt.
From that point on, a lot changed in my life for the better. I left my assistant teachers position and got a job in a Japanese company. Eventually, I left to start my own business. My home life became much easier – I’m able to do simple things I couldn’t before: take the kids to the doctors when they’re sick, call a maintenance man when something stops working. I’m able to be a better husband, someone my wife can rely on. It was like the barrier was gone, and I was free to move forward.
There were so many times I wanted to quit Japanese.
I'm so glad that I didn't. Because if I had… I wouldn't have the life that I have now. Drawing pictures with my kids in the evening. Running my own business here in Japan. Going to art galleries. Running. Cycling. Doing all the things that I do. I wouldn't have any of this if it hadn't been for mastering the Japanese language.
Mastering Japanese has given me much, much more than the language. It gave me the confidence to do all of the things I do now. If I wanted to I could easily go back to that art gallery in Harajuku and get the job. But I choose not to. Instead, I chose a different path.
I decided to start my own business, helping people just like me who are struggling with English and failing to reach their full potential.
During my darkest days, I didn’t have the capacity to do anything other than worry about Japanese. It was a dark, depressing period in my life that I never want to go back to. Language is such an important part of what it means to be human — and when that ability is taken away from us, we suffer.