Three years ago, Edward Harley was an English teacher at the Nova Language School in Tokyo. His class schedule found him beginning his day at 9 a.m. and wrapping up some 12 hours later. Of course long hours aren’t an unusual component of most teachers’ routines. In fact the only odd thing about his experience was the very subject he was teaching. Harley was instructing a class of adult Japanese students.
Speaking English is very trendy in Japan. But it’s still rather uncommon for a 23-year-old African American to be teaching it to natives in Japan-a position that would, of course, require him to be fluent in Japanese.
Whether you’re living in a big city or a rural village, Japanese is not a language most African Americans are exposed to on a frequent basis. Harley admits he had a bit of a head start, because his paternal grandmother is Japanese. “I’ve been hearing bits and pieces of the language all my life. But I didn’t get serious about speaking Japanese until college,” he says. So while he began studying a second language out of curiosity, it has since developed into a career opportunity that has taken him half way across the globe.
With the focus now on e-commerce and the integration of technology into the workplace, the old-fashioned skill of verbal communication threatens to get lost in the shuffle. But according to many career analysts, the demand for workers with bilingual abilities is actually on the rise as more Third World countries
are becoming legitimate players in the business arena.
In some careers in the U.S. the ability to speak and write languages such as Spanish, French or German is looked upon as having a specialized skill. And employers are willing to pay for that skill. For example, in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California, police officers and firefighters can make an extra 5% to 10% on their salaries if they are fluent in Spanish.
So not everyone is giving the spoken word short shrift. Harley is just one of many African Americans to have taken his bilingual skills and turned them into money-making careers.
Harley never thought of using his language skill as a career booster. During his senior year as an English major at Tulane University in New Orleans, he took a beginners level Japanese course on a whim and liked it. But after graduating in 1995, Harley decided he wanted to learn more by taking the international route. “I got on the Internet and found an ad from Nova, an educational company that trains and sends Americans to Japan to teach English.”
Harley was chosen by Nova to go overseas to teach English for 14 months. But he soon decided his time in Japan wasn’t enough. “I wanted to go back, this time to actually study Japanese,” he says. “Teaching English in Japan only requires you to know rudimentary Japanese. I wanted to be fluent.” So he returned to Japan on his own with a tourist visa and spent three intense months studying