Following an unrewarding series of “language” lessons with a Japanese university professor, who, while collecting a fee from the student, spent most of the lesson time talking about “the intricacies of Shakespeare’s plots in English (his speciality),” Maybin opted for a radically different approach to learning Japanese: he began to study sado, the Japanese art of the tea ceremony.
“For a few brief hours every Friday morning before going to the shipyard, I escaped into a fantasy world filled with kimono, traditional gardens, and incense plumes floating up into the air. My first teacher, Takahashi-sensei, was in her 90s and smoked a kiseru (think hash pipe with long bamboo stem and small, hot metal bowl), which she would rap me on the hand with if I made a mistake. In my third year, she passed away and her daughter-in-law took over. A gentler soul, Inoue-sensei was much more tolerant of banter during our sessions and I was soon getting language training in the form of local gossip and newsworthy items as interpreted by my gray-haired female tea(m)mates.”
Studying tea ceremony involves mastering a number of collateral skills, such as wearing a kimono in the proper manner, arranging flowers, identifying different types of pottery, choosing the appropriate hanging scroll for the season, and “opening sliding doors elegantly.” After eight years of such comprehensive study, Maybin emerged with a beginner license to teach sado. In the process, he went from sounding, in Japanese, like “a shipyard welder aspiring to join the yakuza” to possessing “the speech and mannerisms of a 65-year-old obaasan, my peer group in the tea room.”
In the late 1970s, the discipline of teaching of English as a foreign language (TEFL) was in its nascent stages; very few, if any, foreigners teaching in Japan possessed formal qualification in English-language instruction. Many had no language-teaching experience and more than a few were not even interested in becoming effective classroom instructors. While he was not formally qualified, Don Maybin was one of the rare language instructors who did bring both language-teaching experience and a passion for teaching to the job.
In 1983 he left Mitsui and went to England for six months to obtain professional certification in teaching English as a foreign language; he returned in 1986 to complete his Master’s degree in applied linguistics. For the next twenty-five years, he held a series of academic and managerial positions in English-language training in Japan. In the process he developed an innovative approach to teaching language. He subsequently published a number of articles and academic papers and presented at several conferences throughout the world on the topic of this unique language-training approach.
The constant and predominating passion of Maybin’s years in Japan has been language. In fact, the passion goes back even further—all the way to the dream of a child in rural Alberta to get out and explore the world, and the encouragement of a mother who had longed to learn a foreign language herself.
“My mother was keen that I should excel at French. Due to financial constraints, her own formal academic education had more or less ended in her early teens, after which she had taken various part-time jobs to help her family. One of these jobs was playing the piano at a ballet school. (She had limited formal training, but could play by ear.) The ballet instructor was ‘Miss Belanger’, a woman from Quebec. My mother adored her and dreamed of learning French, but it wasn’t in the cards. So she transferred the dream to me, her oldest son.
“Where other parents were telling their children that learning French was pointless, my mother sat me down with a dog-eared atlas and started pointing out the various places I could visit if I spoke ‘Miss Belanger’s language’. Frankly, my mother never was that good at geography. She could have been pointing at China or Sri Lanka for all I knew. But I was convinced that a little French would take me a long way and walked into my first French class ready to tackle all things français so as to see the world. This would be my ticket out!”
Despite the motivation provided by his mother, Maybin’s first experience in formal French instruction, in junior high school, was less than inspiring. The instructor, an English-literature major resentful at being required to teach a language class, made the whole experience miserable by abusing students “who made any effort to speak en français, ridiculing their pronunciation and rolling his eyes at grammatical mistakes. Every student attempt was potential fodder for a cruel joke and by the end of the first lesson I was convinced that the coming year would be hell. It was.”
Coerced that same year into studying German with his best friend, who was of German extraction, Maybin soon recognized the profound difference a teacher can make to the experience of learning language. The “instructor,” an East German woman, was actually the home economics teacher at the school; she “offered free German lessons in the early morning while she prepared dishes that she would teach later in the day in her ‘official’ Home Ec classes.
“‘Frau N’ was an absolutely amazing woman. Every morning, she would greet each of us by name as we entered her cooking lab, making everyone feel like she was thrilled that we had shown up at all! She scattered German magazines about the room, which we were encouraged to browse through and ask about. She entertained us with stories of her escape from East Germany while in an opera company, giving the details in a mixture of English and Deutsch. By the end of the term we were able to sing classical German lieder, which I remember to this day. Best of all, we got to taste the dishes that she prepared for her cooking classes, often served with hot chocolate topped mit Schlag – ‘with whipped cream’ – a term I shall never forget.”
Check out Don Maybin’s blog, Fool for Language.
Photo courtesy Don Maybin