Specializing as An English Coach for Japanese Students — Liz Bigler
Liz Bigler is an English language coach who specializes in helping Japanese professionals speak clear, smooth English. Based in Atlanta, USA, she took advantage of the pandemic to begin assisting people in all parts of the US, and the world. Her experience living in Japan in the early 90’s taught her a lot about teaching, Japanese culture, and what it’s like to learn a second language. Her unique teaching style is very personalized and takes the client’s own language as the “curriculum.”
I find it so interesting how you say that you help your client’s use their own language as a teaching tool. I’d love to learn more about that. But first, tell us a bit about your backstory. How did you first get started teaching English?
Well, the short answer is that I had been a theater major in college and had been working in the theater in the Atlanta area (stage management, lighting, etc) for several years, and I was getting tired of it. I had a roommate at the time who had just come back from Japan where he’d done a teaching stint. He suggested I apply for it. And I remember thinking, “Japan? Why would I want to go to Japan?”
I literally knew nothing about it, and not one word of the language. And not that much had changed when, a few months later, I started my job in the middle of rural Japan. I remember thinking, “Well, I’m not in Kansas anymore!” And I’ve been teaching Japanese people (and lots of other people too) ever since then.
I started my job in the middle of rural Japan. I remember thinking, “Well, I’m not in Kansas anymore!”
Wow! That most definitely was a huge leap that you made. I wish I had that courage! You’ve pivoted a bit from those early days. What are you doing now?
Ha ha…I’m curious whether you ask this question to everyone. I suspect that everyone has “pivoted a bit” from where they started, right? Well, I guess the biggest difference, not that it’s a “pivot,” is that I know what I’m doing. Ha ha.
I really didn’t know much about teaching back then, but it helped me get my feet wet to get thrown in the classroom. And to have to learn a language from scratch without much support. (This is back in 1990, so no internet (gasp!) let alone language learning apps and so on.) And then when I got back to the States and did my master’s program in ESL, I already had quite a bit of experience as a teacher and as a language learner, which helped supplement my natural instincts.
Fast forward 30 years (wow, that made me feel old), after having taught in a number of language schools and a Japanese/English bilingual elementary school in Atlanta, I feel quite well rounded as a teacher. I had been teaching private students on the side for many of those years, and about 10 years ago, I decided to go solo.
I had been teaching private students on the side for many of those years, and about 10 years ago, I decided to go solo.
At first I taught people in my home, but then got an office and grew into another one and had a few people working part time for me. And then as of March 2020, thanks to the pandemic, I stopped doing face to face lessons, and in June I closed my office, and now I’m launching into a whole new phase of teaching people all over, virtually.
Honestly, I love it more than any other kind of teaching I’ve done. And over the past 5 years or so, I’ve started to specialize in pronunciation and clear speech.
You know, I have been asking a lot of people these days about pivots that they’ve made. Honestly it’s because I feel like “pivot” could be my middle name. But also it ties in well with the idea behind “Make A Leap.” I’m interested to know more about how you’ve primarily worked as an English coach for Japanese students, even while living in Atlanta. What would you say is one benefit and one disadvantage you’ve come to realize about primarily teaching to one culture?
That’s a great question! One benefit: the teaching is very streamlined. A problem that one client has almost always applies to everyone else. So in a group setting, it means almost everything is of interest to everyone.
Especially in pronunciation and intonation, this is great because there’s rarely a time where some people are having to practice something that has never been a problem for them. And teaching the same things over and over through the years to so many different people has made me figure out the best ways to present and practice them. It never gets old and I never stop learning to be better.
And teaching the same things over and over through the years to so many different people has made me figure out the best ways to present and practice them. It never gets old and I never stop learning to be better.
The downside: I have noticed that, in group settings, my Japanese clients get a little anxious when ALL the other students are also Japanese. Of course, it can be weirdly artificial to speak a 2nd language to people who share your first language if you don’t have a real proficiency. Plus, as many people know, there are so many unwritten social rules in Japanese society, and I’ve seen people get sort of paralysed by these norms.
After all these years, I still don’t really understand them all, but for example, in Japanese society, you are seldom casual with a person much older than you, so to call someone by their first name, as we tend to do in American society and therefore in my classes, can be awkward. Or to appear much more skilled than someone else is a little arrogant or at least impolite, so I’ve had situations where people with advanced English skills could (suddenly!) barely even create a sentence when put in a group setting. And I don’t think it’s even really them “faking,” it’s just that these unwritten rules run so deep that they unconsciously conform to the group to make sure no one feels uncomfortable. It’s fascinating.
So when we have people from other cultures and language backgrounds in the mix, it sort of neutralizes those rules that apply when everyone is Japanese. Plus it’s more interesting for everyone to meet people from other cultures.
You majorly changed up how you run your business since the pandemic. What changes have you made and how are they working for you?
Well, obviously I’ve “had to” go online. But to be honest (whispering) I had been trying to go online for a long time, but I had had trouble convincing clients. Even when traffic or weather was bad, my clients in Atlanta would prefer to make their way to my office and sit 3 feet across from me than to even try an online lesson. And the pandemic has sort of broken up a lot of that apprehension.
So it’s been really good for me, since I love teaching online. I was never a fan of commuting (or shoes), and I just really love being able to present things to students and literally put a picture or a document or a film clip or anything, literally right in front of their face without any lag time or copy machines or textbooks or white board markers or any of that. I love it.
And, obviously, now that I’m teaching people all over the US and Japan, that would not be possible to do without online tools. So it’s really broadened my world, and made the larger potential of my business come into focus.
And, obviously, now that I’m teaching people all over the US and Japan, that would not be possible to do without online tools.
When we first connected, you told me about your recent experience getting help with Facebook ads. What did you do, and how did that work out for you?
For a number of years, I have been very active in the community here in Atlanta, advertising in the local Japanese newspaper and serving on the board of the Japan America Society of Georgia.
After I closed my office, I realized that I didn’t have to limit myself to serving people in the Atlanta area. But I wasn’t sure how to reach other communities. I’d tried Facebook ads, but didn’t really know what I was doing. Right after the new year had started, I met a guy named Gydion Kummer on a Facebook group for English language business owners. He helped me design and implement a Facebook marketing campaign.
I was very skeptical, but the results of the campaign were very good. I was able to talk in person (via Zoom) to people exactly in my niche, from all over the US. I literally talked to people in Lincoln, Nebraska, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, Austin, Texas, Brooklyn, NY… you name it. I realized that if you know what you are doing, Facebook ads can be a magic carpet to take you to wherever your potential clients are. I’m working with Gydion now on a project to expand my business and offer even more services to clients, specifically to Japanese speakers living in the US who want to make their English more understandable.
I realized that if you know what you are doing, Facebook ads can be a magic carpet to take you to wherever your potential clients are.
Now that my business is completely online, it’s really changed my whole outlook. Just as my clients can be anywhere, so can I. So I’ve had the freedom to visit family members who needed help during the pandemic, and also took advantage of a housesitting opportunity that came up in New York state, so I got to see snow… a LOT of snow this winter, for the first time in many years.. Not only that, but part of my new business model will utilize English coaches who live in places as far flung as Oklahoma and Washington DC. I’m very excited about the opportunities that have been the silver linings of the horrible pandemic.
That seriously sounds so exciting! What you’ve been able to do with your business is what I know a lot of people wish that they could. If you could go back in time, is there anything that you wished you’d known about earlier when it comes to your language teaching career?
Not really. The way that I developed my teaching techniques and my business, even though it was serendipitous, was just perfect for my learning style. I learned from doing it, and still am!
Is there anything else that you’d like to share about yourself?
I discovered the Color Vowel Chart several years ago and it really transformed the way I teach pronunciation and clear, understandable English. It correlates each of the major vowel sounds of North American English to a color word. I literally use the framework of the chart with every client I have, regardless of their level or language background. I have become a trainer for the Color Vowel Approach and love interacting with the community of people who use it. So I just wanted to give a shout out to the “Color Vowelists” out there.
Okay, so if others want to connect with you online, how can they do that?
Email: bigmura [ at ] gmail [ dot ] com