“This Language-Soaked Life” Part One
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  • Post published:13/05/2021
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sulantra4It’s 8:00 AM and Canadian expat Don Maybin has just arrived at Café de Crie, his favourite coffee shop in Fujisawa City south of Tokyo. As soon as the coffee shop staff see the tall Canadian coming through the door they begin preparing his regular breakfast: a cup of Darjeeling tea and a fuwa fuwa tamago (fluffy egg) sandwich without the ham (it gives him heartburn). As he does every weekday, he has spent the last hour in the “green” (first class) car on the train from home, books and papers spread out in front of him while he creates a lesson plan for his morning first-year English class at Shonan Institute of Technology in Fujisawa. As he finishes his tea at Café de Crie he is still tweaking the plan.

As the plan comes to life in the classroom, it is clear that there is nothing typical about Professor Maybin’s approach to language instruction. At one moment the ever-smiling 57-year-old is circulating among students who are sitting or standing at tables or moving about the room. The students are yelling, gesticulating, rudely interrupting each other or their “professor” (whom they are encouraged to call “Don,” a very un-Japanese practice) to get information—all in broken English, which the instructor does not necessarily correct. A little later, in another activity, groups of students are standing around tables nervously but excitedly watching their teacher, who is holding up a picture. The students are straining to comprehend as he asks a complex question—which actually calls for a simple answer—based on the picture. Before long, astonished and relieved looks appear on the faces of one group as the student with the lowest level of English ability answers the question and the entire group gets to sit down.

Maybin’s English class is radically different from the typical language lesson in Japan, where students listen quietly to lectures on the finer points of English grammar (often delivered in Japanese) or memorize isolated words and phrases from a textbook, all in traditional classroom arrangement. The Canadian expat’s classes are noisy, boisterous, and informal. The noise level is so high, in fact, that, mindful of complaints he received in previous teaching positions, he has requested and been assigned a classroom on the top floor of an isolated, nearly sound proof building.

John Maher, an American colleague of Maybin’s at a Tokyo-area junior college in the 1990s, remembers: “Once an older Japanese professor complained to Don about his students. The professor was using the ‘talk-and-chalk system’—where the instructor lectures and writes on the board while the students sit quietly and take notes—but Don’s students were using the control sentences he had taught them (‘What does that mean?’ ‘Could you repeat that please?’ etc.) in order to better understand the lecture. The professor felt that they were being rude!”

FoodWhat may appear to the uninitiated visitor as cacophonous chaos in Maybin’s university classroom is actually a highly structured and effective series of strictly timed activities designed to maximize language acquisition and communicative ability. The activities have evolved and been perfected over Maybin’s thirty-five years of teaching English. His unorthodox pedagogical style, his love of teaching and of students, and the sheer fun and excitement of his lessons, not to mention the fact that students actually learn to use English for communication, make his classes among the most popular on campus. Achieving such popularity is a remarkable feat given that Shonan is a technical university full of geeks whose interest in language learning is practically nil.

NOON: Maybin has just made the 35-minute walk from the university to the offices of Sulantra, the company which manages and markets the unique online language training program he created and developed with the assistance of several partners. After a quick lunch prepared by Sulantra’s Sichuanese systems engineer (the partners and staff are a multinational, multicultural group), Maybin spends the rest of the day at Sulantra, dealing with the endless stream of tasks and mini-crises that characterize a fledgling organization attempting to make itself known to the world: making plans for the next overseas junket, wrestling with Paypal transactions that won’t go through, replying to user feedback, meeting with staff to plan and troubleshoot. At 8:00 PM he packs up and heads for the station for the long train ride home.

And there is nothing typical about the Maybin-Tsuji home nestled in the lovely forested hills above the resort town of Atami, an hour’s ride on the shinkansen—the “bullet train”—from central Tokyo. Besides the collection of stray cats and dogs adopted by Maybin and Yoshiharu Tsuji, his partner of twenty years, there is usually at least one house guest—more often several guests—from other parts of Japan, or from locations as varied as Australia, Mexico, Bulgaria, Canada, and Turkey. Members of Maybin and Tsuji’s loosely connected international community of friends, or friends of friends, are all welcome and all are treated like family.

Twice a year the couple hosts a dinner in their home for an eclectic group of 30 or so friends. Despite their insanely busy schedule, Maybin and Tsuji manage to find time to shop, clean, and cook for days beforehand, and when the guests arrive, there is invariably a chorus of oohs and ahs over the international spectrum of dishes that has been laid out. At one such party last year, “the dessert course alone had ten items, including homemade Christmas pudding, pears poached in red wine, mincemeat squares topped with ice cream, and trifle made from scratch.” As the party always goes late into the night, several people usually manage to miss the last train home and end up crashing at the Maybin-Tsujis. It is not unusual for a collective breakfast-making party to erupt when everyone gets up the next day.

The fact is that little of Don Maybin’s 33-year residence in Japan has been typical of the foreigner’s experience in that country; the man himself is, after all, far from ordinary. The key to his unique personality and to the richness of his experience in his adopted country can perhaps be found in a decision he made at the age of sixteen while on a language exchange program in Montreal. As he was expected to participate fully in the life of his host family and as the family spoke virtually no English, the peripatetic youngster decided that “the best strategy for me was to say ‘Oui!’—‘Yes!’—to everything the family suggested:

‘Would you like more (incomprehensible word)?’
‘How about if we (incomprehensible phrase)?’

It seems that Maybin has been saying “Oui!” to just about every linguistic and cultural experience since that long-ago ten-day stay in Quebec.


Photos courtesy of Sulantra

Check out Don Maybin’s blog, “Fool for Language,”

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