“In the lesson, I can talk to my teacher one-on-one, and I can understand almost everything that he/she says. But I can't keep up with the speed native speakers talk at and often wonder how to make conversation.”

If you’re an English learner or an English teacher, and this sounds familiar, you might be interested to know about Cafetalk, one of the largest providers of online English conversation classes in Japan.

Cafétalk’s ‘English Challenge’ is a new way of practicing English conversation on-line that invites the student to join two native speakers for a friendly chat. The setting is informal, and the conversation topics are realistic, natural and spontaneous.

Keen students at Kansai University. | © pxhere.com

Students can take one-on-one online lessons from teachers from over 80 countries around the world using Skype or Zoom. Online lessons are perfect for the lockdown introduced to combat the spread of coronavirus. Fear of infection has taken a heavy toll on Japan’s English schools, as it has all sectors. Face-to-face classes are often deemed a risk, as is travel to school on public transport.

With face-to-face lessons often a no-no, the number of registered teachers looking for work has increased dramatically. Yet students are spending less time commuting, and more time at home, which is good news for teachers able to offer online lessons.

As of the end of 2020, Cafetalk had 150,000 registered students, and 2,700 teachers offering 22,000 lessons. Cafetalk is confident that its approach to language learning works, and that it offers a way forward for learners stymied by the way English is usually taught in Japan.

Friendly, but not always effective: a typical English conversation school teacher. | © pxhere.com

English conversation school business has been flourishing in Japan for decades. Visit the English language section of any bookshop and you’ll find that the desire to learn English is good for publishers too, with a plethora of new titles appearing every year promising to show the reader how to communicate fluently in English.

Yet the number of Japanese who feel confident communicating in English remains woefully small. This is partly because Japan’s school curriculum puts so much emphasis on reading skills, to the detriment of listening and speaking. But it is also down to a long-held assumption that learning to speak English is difficult.

In recognition of these stubborn obstacles, in recent years the onus has been on teaching English to kindergarten children, in the hope that by getting them young, they will go on to junior and senior high school without the crippling shyness that hindered their parents’ generation.

Yet even conversation schools find it hard to get their students talking. This is often down to the structure of the classes themselves. The teacher has to think of topics to talk about, and the student feels under pressure to speak accurately and reasonably quickly.

There are also cultural differences to bear in mind. Many learners find it hard to describe their hobbies, work and homelife, because they consider them private matters.

Faced with one-word responses, native English teachers will typically try to engage students in a discussion about something in the news, but this too will often meet with monosyllabic responses from students who don’t feel qualified to discuss such weighty matters.

Cafetalk takes on these obstacles and finds a way around them. The first English Challenge was held in November 2020. As the feedback shows, previous participants really enjoyed the informality of the two-on-one approach.

“It's fun to have a theme and talk about it,” said one learner. “The story develops and becomes a variety of topics. You can talk with people from various countries, and you can see how to change the topic naturally. I think that it will be useful for practicing English at work in the future.”

“After applying to take part in the event, I was a bit worried about what kind of topics would be discussed,” said another user. “But in fact, the conversation flowed smoothly. We started with one topic, then moved on to another, and the teachers were always friendly. Having an opportunity to get to know the teachers was a real boon. If I get a chance, I’ll certainly take part again!”

“The group conversation was good practice because I don't usually get a chance to talk to native speakers,” opined another learner. “It motivated me to learn more in the future. It was interesting to see how the story expanded, and to get to know the teachers.”

Cafetalk’s next English Challenge sessions will run for 75 minutes from 7 pm on Friday, March 26th and for 75 minutes from 1 pm on Saturday, March 27th.

Learners can participate on their PCs, smartphones, or tablets. Participation costs ¥4,000 yen excluding tax (or 4,000 Cafetalk points).

Reception for each session is open until the day of the session, or until five people have signed up, whichever comes first.

You can call Cafetalk with enquiries on 050-5539-3419. Alternatively, use the chat box in the bottom right-hand corner of the Cafetalk home page.

There is a page on the site dedicated to the Cafetalk English Challenge.

By - George Lloyd.