On October 21st, 2017 I stood in front a room of 20 people and started speaking. I’d done several seminars before this and had spoken about all kinds of topics.
But this one was different.
It wasn’t done in English, my first language.
It was in my second language:
The seminar was called “Blogger Meets YouTuber", and was about how I use YouTube in my business.
The topic isn’t important, though.
Because what matters is that just a few years previous, I was struggling because I couldn’t speak Japanese well and could have never imagined speaking to a room of people for two hours in Japanese.
But standing in front of those people?
I felt nothing but calm.
The panic I used to feel was gone.
At school, you're taught English with outdated methods and punished if you make mistakes. You end up with a fixed image of what you should look and sound like when you speak. And when your speaking fails to match that image you’re left feeling frustrated and embarrassed.
You feel like you’ll never be good enough.
But the real problem is no one ever teaches you the stuff that works in the real world.
Like I said: I’ve been there.
And it wasn’t until I was forced to master Japanese that I finally understood the way to help my students master English.
Julian Northbrook's dirty little secret: he failed second languages at school
All through my childhood, I loved art.
I didn’t like school much, and I got terrible grades. Especially French – our second language. It was all boring grammar explanations that I didn’t understand. Copying from the blackboard and translating sentences word-by-word using a dictionary.
I spent most of my time reading science-fiction novels hidden in my textbook, praying the teacher wouldn’t call on me.
Unsurprisingly failed French.
I just wasn’t talented at languages, I decided.
For me, art was the exact opposite of French. I loved the subject and did really well. I got great grades and went on to study at university. I did pretty well, even putting my work into international exhibitions.
I worked hard.
But I also had a lot of fun.
Then, all too quickly it was over.
A few months before the end of university everybody was looking for work. Nobody I knew were looking for work in the art industry. One of my friends went off to work in an office pouring coffee and making photocopies. Another one of my friends went to work in his father’s DIY shop. Nothing to do with art.
I didn’t want to get a boring, mundane job in some office. But at the same time, I didn’t know the steps that I should take to work in the art world.
Working in art just didn’t seem realistic.
I knew how to paint… but I didn’t know what to do beyond that. If I could go back and do it all again, I’d skip university and study marketing instead, alongside doing art by myself... but I digress.
That’s why I ended up going to Tokyo.
I met my (now ex) wife in England, and she was planning to go back to Japan for a while. So after university, I followed her there.
It was the easy option and saved me having to think about my future.
I managed to get an interview for a job working in a gallery in Harajuku, a fashionable part of Tokyo.
I thought, "This is it!".
THIS is what I'm going to do! THIS is the life I was going to live.
But I didn’t get the job.
I had everything they wanted, except one thing: my Japanese wasn’t good enough.
Not long after, I met someone who was working for a famous artist. I was shocked to learn he had no qualifications or even experience with art. But he got the job because could speak Japanese at an advanced level.
I couldn’t do that!
I felt totally lost and didn’t know what to do.
Then, before I knew it… everything in my life suddenly changed, and my chance to be a part of the art world disappeared.
Harsh Reality: your skill is limited by your ability to communicate that skill
After I got turned down for the job that I desperately wanted, I spent months looking for another job in the art world. I never found one. Every time it was the same. My Japanese just wasn’t good enough.
Then before I knew it everything changed dramatically.
My son was born.
If I’m honest, I wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility. But it just happened.
Life became serious, fast.
I gave up on art and working in an art gallery, and got a job as an assistant English teacher working in a school.
The wage was low – but it was the best job I could get. To my own surprise, I enjoyed the teaching. But I HATED all the meetings we had to attend.
I felt embarrassed about my bad Japanese.
I felt humiliated almost every day.
The other teachers were busy and always seemed annoyed at having to deal with me. I had to join meetings and I had lots of ideas, but I didn’t understand what people were saying.
I was afraid of saying something stupid…
So I always just sat in silence, nodding and agreeing with everything if asked a question.
Home life was getting harder as well.
I had to write and send a lot of emails but I was always embarrassed about making mistakes. So I had to get my wife to check everything. Writing a simple email took so much time.
I couldn’t understand what people said on the phone, so every time I needed to make a phone call… my wife would have to do it.
My wife was busy working and looking after the baby all day. And she was getting pissed off at having to spend so much of her time helping me. I was more like another kid she had to look after than a husband.
I thought that if only I could improve my Japanese, my life would get better.
I just wanted to forget that Japanese wasn’t my first language, and just live a normal life like I had done in England. I studied a lot, but even after I passed the highest level of the Japanese proficiency test I skill couldn’t do that.
On paper, I was there!
I mean, I’d passed the highest level of the Japanese proficiency exam – a test that’s difficult even for Japanese people! I should have been amazing in the language.
But the reality was, just like so many of my students… I wasn’t there.
I didn’t FEEL good at the language.
Far from it.
To make it worse, I had no idea what I should do to improve. I felt like I’d tried everything and nothing seemed to work. I'd reached my limit, and couldn't go any further.
I often thought about school French, and how I’d failed the subject. I obviously just wasn’t talented at languages….
At that point, I started thinking perhaps it was time to give up?
How I fixed my language problems
Around 2009 to 2011, all I could think about was improving my Japanese. But life at home was getting harder and harder.
Money was tight, and we could barely afford to live.
One of my co-workers had noticed that I was having a hard time supporting my family. He asked me why I didn’t consider doing a masters and teaching English at university. The money would be much better, he said, and the job more interesting.
All this time I’d been focused on Japanese and not going anywhere. Getting an English teaching qualification sounded like a good idea.
After several months of talking about it with my wife, I decided to apply.
It was difficult to afford the fees…
But it was an investment for the future.
The course was really hard work.
I had two kids to look after, and a third on the way. I was working full time and had to get up at 5 am to get the work done.
But something totally unexpected happened.
I took my masters to become a better English teacher and to help my students learn English.
But actually, the biggest benefit was for ME.
For the next three years, I became totally absorbed in the topic of second language learning. I read hundreds and hundreds of books, research articles. I attended seminars, I talked to professionals and researchers.
I learned how languages are learned, the things successful language learners do – and the things that they don’t do. I studied how the human brain works, I studied language learning psychology and conducted my own research (first in my masters, and then later at PhD level).
All this time I thought I had been studying hard…
I’d gone from studying textbooks to just watching TV in Japanese all day. I’d gone from trying to practice my Japanese with native speakers to trying to learn just by listening. I’d bought countless courses that promised instant results.
I’d taken conversation lessons, classes, Skype lessons with a Japanese teacher…
I was constantly looking for a better way to improve my Japanese.
I spent all my time memorising flashcards and lists of words thinking that if only I had more vocabulary, speaking would be easier. But I could never remember the words when I needed them. So I thought I just had to speak more and practise what I learned… but this never seemed to help. I studied grammar rules, but never sounded more natural when I spoke.
Then I finally understood: I realised that the reason my Japanese wasn’t improving wasn’t because I wasn’t “talented” at languages. But simply because I was putting all my time and energy into the WRONG things.
Life After Japanese Mastery
For a long time after coming to Japan I lost interest in art.
I stopped going to art galleries and doing art myself. I sold all of my art and photography books. I completely turned my back on that part of my life.
Now art is something that I take great pleasure from again. I go to art galleries as often as I can, and it’s something that I do with my kids. My office walls are covered with their drawings.
While I was in my first year at university as an art student, I was offered a chance to go to Switzerland for 3 months. I would study at a university there and study, all expenses paid. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
But at the last minute, I dropped out.
I made all kinds of excuses as to why I couldn't go. The reality though was that I was afraid. I was scared of being in an environment where I couldn't speak the language.
There were so many times I wanted to quit Japanese, too.
But I'm so glad that I didn't. Because if I had... I wouldn't have the life that I have now. Drawing pictures and playing with my kids in the evening. Running my own business in Japan and now Ireland. Going to art galleries. Cycling. Running. Doing all the things that I do.
If I wanted to I could easily go back to that art gallery in Harajuku and get that job.
But I CHOOSE not to.
Instead I chose a different path in life.
I decided to start a business, helping people just like me who are struggling with English and failing to reach their full potential in life.
Your Next Steps
The goal of Doing English is simple: to help you forget that English isn’t your first language.
So the question is, are you being held back by English?
If you're an intermediate to advanced English learner who feels "Okay..." in English, but not great and ultimately stuck ... don't worry.
I can help you.
The place to start is with my free daily emails for speaking better English, which I send every day at 8am Ireland time.
Go here to subscribe:
Dr Julian Northbrook
P.S. Cheers from the Doing English Team: