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Interview with Mr. Micawber

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Charles Harper  

Below you will find an interview
with Charles Harper, whose pseudonym
and business name is «Mister Micawber».

Website    Forum    TOEIC sample tests

Charles, how is it going? You know I have been thinking about you and your situation. It seems you have a pretty laid back life style. I remember you telling me that you have your own private classes and you of course enjoy them. Apparently you also spend a lot of time answering questions from students online. I wonder what role your webpage is playing in your life? Why did you create it and how are you using it?

Mr. Micawber:
This sounds like one of your famous interviews -- perhaps you should make a career move to the media industry.

Since you have seen my web page, you recognize that it is a free and very basic set-up from Yahoo -- nothing that moves or flashes or responds to your input with bells or whistles. I am not adept at HTML, nor do I know how all this stuff really works. I started the web site as a greenhorn's experiment when I first bought a computer and came to the Internet (I was one of those holdouts against IT until a very few years ago). I had no further goal beyond seeing if I could create a basic homepage, and my business seemed the logical topic. Having done that, I lost interest in all the possible embellishments and moved on (to Starbucks).

The web page does nothing to attract new students (I don't believe it has brought me a single one), but it is an invaluable teaching tool in a very simple way: two of its pages (Quiz and Jokes) are replenished weekly and serve as lesson material (about 10-15 minutes of each hour class) for virtually all of my students. Over time, this has saved me immense amounts of individual material preparation, photocopying and distribution, and it also ensures that my students think about and fiddle with the English language for at least a little while during the week, sometime outside of our single hour together, when they access the page and solve the quiz and joke.

Now and then I add a small feature (like the US map puzzle) if I happen to run across something suitable, but I normally spend only half an hour on Sundays loading a new joke and a new language quiz -- both, as you may notice, taken from other acknowledged sources. Other than that, the site is on its own. I've got better things to do (at Starbucks).

Charles, thousands of English language students know you as Mister Micawber. How did you come up with this nickname?

Mr. Micawber:
An epiphany, perhaps.
Those students also probably know me as a rather demanding -- or let us say, «challenging» -- instructor who spends a good part of the class forcing his students to think. My first school here in Japan had a name that I liked better -- «Living Hell English». This, I felt, was an accurate description of what they were in for if they came to me. However, when we moved to our present location, I decided a fresh image was in order (to avoid frightening off prospective pupils and a good way to elude the authorities), so I cast about for a new name.

Charles Dickens is an author known in Japan, particularly for «A Christmas Carol», and the character of Mr. Micawber from Dickens' David Copperfield chanced to cross my mind. Wilkins Micawber is a man full of great plans that are always destined to come to naught, and in the course of the subplot, he goes from penury to poorhouse in short order, one step ahead of his creditors; yet he never loses his optimism or enthusiasm for life, is always expecting «something to turn up».

The «hopeless comedy of Micawber» (as G.K. Chesterton calls it) seemed closely to parallel my own, and so it seemed right and natural that I assume his name (much as he would have done mine, had our roles been reversed). Since the school name is Mister Micawber's, many of my students began calling me by that name, and from there it was a simple deceit to assume the same screen name on the internet.

Near the end of David Copperfield, Wilkins Micawber and family emigrate to Australia, and we learn that he turns over a new leaf there, repays his debts, and becomes a district magistrate. I wonder if belated success is in store for me as well?

Very interesting. So, why did you choose Japan as the country to work and live in?

Mr. Micawber:
I didn't choose Japan, precisely -- I just chose a Japanese wife. I had been idling in southern California, working occasionally for some little theatres in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and spending the rest of my time polishing my tan out at Santa Monica Beach, when, in a West Hollywood bookstore, I met a Japanese girl who was participating in a three-month staff exchange program between UCLA and Keio University. Well, you know -- one thing led to another, and before you can say «Bob's your uncle, we were on a plane to Narita to spend a summer in Japan in order to get acquainted with her culture».

A summer has turned into fifteen years.

At the time, I hadn't taught English since a stint with Berlitz in Montreal back in 1967-8, so I didn't really know how feasible it would be for me to find work in Japan. But in 1990 the market was still wide open, and within a few days I found myself in a teaching job at a commercial language school (the usual modus operandi for new teachers), and by the end of the year I was its Head Teacher.

From there, it didn't take much thought to realize that I could eliminate the middle man and start my own school, lucrative enough to make Japan a good place to stay.
(Sashimi influenced the decision too, of course.)

So does your wife work for or with Mr. Micawber, the language school?

Mr. Micawber:
No, she has a career of her own. (Actually, she is the principal wage earner among us.) She is very helpful, however, when a new student at the beginner level really needs the school's contractual terms explained in Japanese, or when I need a bit of advertising copy turned into kanji. She also did a bang-up job on the recorded message on our telephone, and posed nicely as the «satisfied student» on Mister Micawber's homepage.

So your wife does support your business venture and the two of you share ideas on how to improve Mister Micawber. What role does «Kanji» play in your daily communications? Also, what language do you speak when you talk to your wife?

Mr. Micawber:
You are talking to an American, Torsten -- ergo, a de jure unilingual. The household speaks English if it wishes to influence me, my actions, or my attitudes in any way. I have been resident in Japan, as I said, for over 15 years now, and an hour ago I went to the bank and had the floor assistant help me, as always, operate the ATM; I cannot get money in or out by myself.
However, this nurtured ignorance helps lend the necessary frisson to my existence here, as does my bewilderment with Chinese characters. As I walk down the street today, I am still confronted with the exotic conundrums I met when I first arrived in Japan: another world, an alternate reality -- garish, jeopardous, inscrutable . Were I able to read all the directional signs and advertising posters and other social graffiti, were I capable of chatting amiably about the weather with our neighbors, or vegetating on the sofa in front of the latest samurai soap opera, Yokohama would be as mundane for me as Chicago.

So, are you saying that you like living in Japan because it provides you with an adventures? I take it Japanese people are friendly towards English speaking Americans?

Mr. Micawber:
No, no adventures. Japan is the place to come for utmost safety, convenience, sanitation and quotidian regularity. I like to pretend that I am having adventures, though.

Yes, in spite of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in spite of the still heavy American military presence in Okinawa, in spite of what is seen by many as PM Koizumi pandering to the needs of George Bush, in spite of McDonald's and Costco and Walmart, most Japanese still have a fondness for Americans and the American way of life (as it is portrayed by Hollywood, at least). Some of my older students suffered considerable privation during the last years of World War II, surviving on yams and locusts; others were in the military or are from military families; but I have never been made an object of complaint or condemnation. I have been the recipient of a great deal of friendliness and eager helpfulness (in the cities), a certain amount of xenophobic shyness and standoffishness (in the countryside), and only once been called a «jerk» (and I don't know which one of us was drunker, he or I).

Charles, what about the ESL market in Japan? Is the demand for English language services growing or shrinking?

Mr. Micawber:
An interesting question, Torsten, and many are watching for the answer. For those who have remained here since the bursting of the Economic Bubble at the turn of the last decade (that being 1988-91, and this being 2006), opportunities and salaries seem faded and lustreless. The Good Old Days have got up and went; no one is going home a millionaire after a few years of teaching English here any more.

Still, I don't think it is that bad. Salaries are indeed set in rigor mortis: a fresh new English instructor at your average commercial language school is still guaranteed 220,000 - 250,000 per month, just what it was in 1990. I think that your average Japanese salary man or office lady does not now have as much free cash to use on English lessons. Many commercial schools died in the early 90s; the ones that remain seem to be holding their own, however. English is still a real necessity or a gripping hobby for many, and work should be easy enough to find for the foreseeable future: the turnover of young college BAs who come here to teach for a year or two before going back home to graduate school or a real job continues apace. Fewer Japanese, certainly, are studying English on a whim now, though.

The plum has always been a university professorship (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Once, a postgraduate degree in anything would get you one of these; now it takes a postgraduate degree in linguistics or TEFL. A few years back, there was an industry-wide hassle between foreign instructors and tertiary institutes over the matter of tenure: Japanese professors got it, English professors didn't. Overall, foreign teachers have failed to gain equal recognition; but there may have been progress in gaining longer contracts and so being kept on staff longer (the management argument originally was that English instructors should not be kept long -- away from home, they lose their familiarity with current English!) This means slightly fewer opportunities for newcomers in this area, as incumbents have settled more solidly into their positions, and the universities themselves are generally digging in and trying to weather the slower economy. Budgets are relatively tight.

The most hopeful area is English education for children. The Ministry of Education is in the midst -- again -- of revamping the system, and we are, as I speak, experiencing a gradual transition from mandatory to elective English in secondary school education (grades 7-12), but with the newly-conceived addition of English to the primary school grades. For teachers within the system (actually, «Assistant Teachers» is how foreign instructors are designated), the shift in training, skills and responsibilities required is obvious. Outside the system, there will develop an increased demand for English instructors in «juku» (cram schools), kindergartens, and commercial children's English schools.

So, for those who love children and have training in children's language education, there is particular promise here. Thank goodness, my own clientele of adult learners is well established. One rug rat of my own is one rug rat too many.

Charles, Japan could be called the birthplace of the TOEIC. What role does the exam play today in the Japanese ESL market -- how popular is the Test of English For International Communication?

Mr. Micawber:
Ah, TOEIC. Yes, indeed: it is going strong. Designed by ETS at the behest of MITI (Japan's industry ministry), it is now used worldwide to place salary men into their appropriate corporate pigeonholes. Many companies use it to help evaluate recruits and determine which employees will be assigned overseas, and a good score is also likely worth a point or two when salary increments and promotions come around. Some of my students take it in anticipation of joining a company after university, or because they simply want a measure of their Business English acumen, or just because they want to try a language proficiency test but are afraid of TOEFL.

As you know, TOEIC has recently undergone a slight overhaul, which has just been realized in Japan with the TOEICs given in May this year. The listening and reading portions have been expanded, while the grammar section has been downplayed. I understand that this is in anticipation of further and more radical changes still to come, with a spoken test in the offing.

Since I am running a school, I am expected to know something about the welter of language proficiency tests that Japanese EFL students are prey to, but the average native English-speaking instructor in Japan will usually have little to do with them. TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS, CAT, and especially the indigenous Eiken STEP preparations, are still mostly under the tutelage of Japanese instructors. The feeling is that considerable knowledge of grammar is required, and only Japanese instructors can elucidate English grammar, while native instructors are blissfully ignorant of it. Because TOEIC and other such proficiency tests are presumably evolving into more modern and accurate measures of ability to actually use the language, native instructors should find that in the near future there will develop more demand for their services in test preparation classes.

What about Mr. Micawber -- is your school offering TOEIC preparation courses? Also, you have worked for ETS as a test writer. Could you please elaborate on that project?

Mr. Micawber:
Yes, we offer TOEIC, TOEFL and other language proficiency test preparation. Most commonly, I get students who have signed up for the test next month and expect me to improve their TOEIC score in four weekly one-hour lessons. Sigh.

In 1990 or 1991, when I was head teacher cum curriculum coordinator for the Yokohama branch of Bi-Lingual Inc. (now defunct), I was invited to attend a publicity seminar thrown by the Tokyo agency of ETS/TOEIC. It was an interesting admixture of senior university and commercial English teachers, local language textbook authors, and what-have-you. We were presented with an inside view of the workings of ETS TOEIC preparation and presentation, and offered an opportunity to try our hand at question-writing. Subsequently I, and I presume others, were offered formal writing assignments, consisting of some 50 assorted test questions and coming at intervals of perhaps once in three or four months. I did those for about three years, as I recall. I suppose that ETS is continually on the lookout for new writers from different areas of the English-testing world in order to ensure freshness and full coverage of the language, and uses such sessions to find them.

What impressed me was the great care that is taken by ETS (or rather, the Chauncey Group now) in question preparation to ensure that each is correct, accurate, nonregional and unequivocal. An extensive listing of appropriate topics and approaches are offered in their guidelines, and the perceptivity of their senior test planners in analyzing the effectiveness of expression and the appropriateness of distractors is impressive. This I experienced as a lengthy re-writing process, in which senior staff returned my well-thought-out and double-checked creations with a wealth of notes and suggestions which usually took me as long to incorporate and resubmit as it did me to conceive the originals.

This kind of care is necessary when we realize that there is a mob of academicians and textbook publishers out there with their noses pressed up against Chauncey's window, gleaning such tidbits as:

«The grammatical structures that frequently appear in TOEIC questions in Part VI and VII correspond to the structure of an NP (24.4%), the structure of a VP (13.0%), the structure of a PP (10.7%),8 subject-predicate relations (10.5%), and adverbs (6.5%). Other grammatical features and structures which appear in the TOEIC samples analyzed are, for example, adverbs (6.5%), conjunctions (5.9%), prepositions (5.4%), passive voice (3.9%), and the five sentence patterns (3.9%). (Asian EFL Journal, June 2006, V 8 Issue 2 article 10).»

These kinds of statistics re-emerge, unfortunately, as teaching strategies. I hope that with the new revisions, and further to come, in the focus of the TOEIC, this kind of analysis will be less attractive to those who take the test, and more attention will be paid by preparatory schools to enhancing English ability per se instead of trying to outsmart the test writers.

Now You can take some of TOEIC sample tests from Charles Harper
(Business English Practice Tests, Incomplete Sentences)

If you have any English grammar or vocabulary questions,
please post them on this English Grammar Forum.

Next:ESL Cafe: Interview with Executive Vocabulary

Author: Mister Micawber and Torsten Daerr

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