I've long thought that it would be a good idea to conduct interviews with my fellow J-bloggers and other Japan-related personalities, to look behind what drives them to do what they do, to let us learn from their experiences. This is the first part of the series that will hopefully, if deemed popular, become a regular feature of this blog.
If you're learning Japanese online, there's a big chance that you've heard about Brett Fyfield. An ambitious web developer, turned online Japanese teacher and blogger, he is well known for his uniquely conceived classes over at eduFire, his helpful advices at the Rainbowhill Language Lab, as well as his constant involvement in the online Japanese learning community in general.
Could you tell me how you got to Japan? Where did it all start?
Good question. When I was about five years old, maybe less, my father used to take me down to the dojo where he trained. He was a karate instructor, and so I got to hear basic Japanese from an early age. Through my involvement in martial arts I developed an interest, and that interest later developed into a desire to travel there and learn the language.
So you only learned Japanese after you got there?
I finally got an opportunity to go there, like many people do, as an English instructor. I had returned from my stay in Europe and China, where I had spent some time freelancing as web developer, and decided that I wanted to stay somewhere long enough to learn the language.
What was you first impression of the country? Was it how you imagined it will be?
The question about preconceived ideas is always something I would ask people when they started complaining about being in Japan. In fact, I asked most people as they were leaving.
My first impression was one of being very, very old. I tried not to imagine too much what it was like before going there for the fear that it may not live up to my expectations. It turned out to be a pretty good way of thinking because it exceeded them!
Did you have any problems adapting to the Japanese way of life?
The hardest thing, at first, was breaking free of the gaijin way of life in Japan! I don't know how many other people have had this experience, but when you teach English, you are surrounded by people that either speak English or want to practice their English, and it is much harder to find people that want to speak Japanese with you. I overcame this by moving to a small country town and joining an aikido club where almost nobody spoke English.
Did the Japanese aikidouka treat you differently, as a foreigner?
Yes, both as an oddity and as a special guest. But after a while, as my Japanese improved, I became just one of the lads. I joined with my flatmate, an American. There was also an Englishman, who came regularly, and a Dutch, who came less often. It was actually a great way to become a part of the social culture of Japan. There were frequent trips to other dojo, and once a year, a weekend away in Tokyo for the annual aikido conference.
You said that you worked as a web developer. When did you decide to become a teacher? Was it what you always wanted to do?
I'm just starting to learn this about myself. I see teaching as a vehicle for learning more about the world. Not just for myself, but also for others.
I became a web developer when I left university because I was excited about the possibilities that the internet held. I spent some time running courses for youth in internet technologies, including web multimedia design, and hosted a few live online events which were pretty ground breaking back then.
What do you believe is most important when learning a new language?
Keeping an open mind, and to be willing to handle a few months sounding pretty silly. You've also got to let go what you know about your first language. The easier you can do that and start to see things from a different perspective, the easier the learning becomes.
What about teaching?
Patience. ... And of course—a real love for what you are teaching!
Do you agree with the general belief that it's much easier to learn as a kid? That an adult can never become fluent in a foreign language?
I certainly believe that some things are much easier as a child, but I don't believe it's impossible for adults.
Even though their voice is less elastic, and their neural pathways less plastic, they are much more socially aware and are able to discern subtlety that children can't.
What about talent? Can one be predisposed to learning a specific subject?
That's also a good question. I believe that there are certain times in our lives when we are more open to the possibilities of doing special things like learning a language or a musical instrument. Sometimes, if you miss those opportunities, you may never reach your your full potential. You will always be able to make some progress, however, no matter when you start.
You've taught both online and in person. Will internet and computing radically change the way we learn, or are they just tools, on par with pen and paper?
They radically change everything because unlike pen and paper they destroy time and space. If you thought the explosion of the internet, which was largely unknown even 10 years ago, was amazing, just wait until you see what mobile computing does in some of the poorest and most heavily populated places on earth.
Do you believe that these changes will have a positive effect on education? What about schools, will they manage to adapt, or will they slowly disappear like dinosaurs?
One of my favorite sayings is: “The teacher appears when the student is ready.” Now I can't remember whether that comes from a dodgy kung fu movie, or it is some ancient Buddhist thought, but what it means to me, is that where ever there are people wanting to learn, there will be teachers. I can't say whether the effect on education will be positive, but it will be disruptive.