Californian eyes making English studies easier

Katie Adler hopes to create conversationalists 'one day at a time' via interactive website

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Visitors to Katie Adler’s interactive website, English with Katie, are greeted with Adler’s sunny smile, her mellow California accent and a wealth of hints to make using the language both easier and more enjoyable. She aims to help language learners in Japan take charge of their English, building confidence in their ability to have real conversations.

While her website was launched in June last year, Adler’s dulcet tones have been gracing the airwaves in Japan for considerably longer. In addition to her work as an announcer and newscaster for NHK Radio, Adler has lent her talents to everything from TV shows and commercials to educational materials and video games.

Although Adler came to her main career as a voice artist quite by accident in Japan, she was in love with the idea of being a teacher since she was very small. “I used to think, ‘Wow, teachers get presents from their students and a paid summer vacation!’ ” The reality for teachers in Japan may differ somewhat from her starry-eyed childhood vision, but Adler says she enjoyed her time working for a major language school in Osaka.

“I was finishing up my degree in communication at the University of California and I found that Sony was coming to a job fair, interviewing teachers to work at their school in Japan. I remember sitting at their booth, right next to the one for recruiters from the FBI!” Adler landed the position and was soon teaching adult English language learners.

A few years into her adventure in Japan, she witnessed the horror of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which decimated Kobe on Jan. 17, 1995. The animal-loving Adler had already been donating her time to a small shelter as a volunteer dog walker, so it seemed natural to try and help the multitude of pets that had been left behind after the disaster.

“A lot of animals were being euthanized because the temporary housing places wouldn’t accept them. Through the grapevine I was put in touch with Elizabeth Oliver, who had founded ARK (Animal Refuge Kansai) a few years earlier. She had stepped in and had started taking in these abandoned pets.” Adler put her thinking cap on and came up with ways to raise funds for ARK.

She says she seems to have had a gift for bringing people together since she was young. “In high school, my friend and I decided to start our own club. We named it “PBFT” — People Bound For Travel — and we went to the teacher in charge of clubs and said we wanted to fundraise and split the money.” Adler shakes her head and smiles. “Well, we were soon told we couldn’t be a club for two people making money just for ourselves.” They relaunched the club, turning it into a successful one with around 20 members who went on day trips to local attractions.

Drawing on her organizational skills and her love of performing in front of audiences, she settled on the idea of a dinner theater, performing one-act plays at an Indian restaurant in Kobe that generously agreed to provide the location. A core team of around a dozen people joined in and the Kobe Charity Players was born. “We were all volunteers but natural-born players,” she recalls. “We performed quarterly shows on a regular basis for several years, benefitting ARK and the animals.”

When Adler started the charity, she could never have imagined it would lead to a whole new career. “An agent saw me on stage in one of our shows and asked if I had ever done voice work. Soon I was getting some minor jobs and then one thing led to another.”

By this time she had moved into university-level teaching, meaning her schedule was rather more flexible than many in the English-language teaching jobs. Eager to improve her skills as a voice actor, she started commuting to the U.S. West Coast for weekend classes, while also maintaining her workload in Kansai. “I’d leave on Friday and fly into San Francisco for classes at a major voice acting school. Then I’d hop back on a plane to arrive in time for my classes here midweek.”

Eventually she was teaching less and less, reaching the point when voice acting became her main profession. Despite her solid reputation and being a sought-after player in the business, Adler remains humble about her talents. “I still take classes even now, although these days you can do them over Skype. Whatever I do, I want to invest the time and the money to train.”

Adler notes that while just being a native speaker in Japan may open doors, there is much more to the business. “What people don’t understand about voice work is that you can do a better job when you have the acting training or the sense of storytelling, too. Microphone technique is also an integral part of it. I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning.”

When she began landing prestigious gigs for NHK, Adler made the big leap from Kansai to Kanto and has been based in Tokyo for the past 13 years. She is currently a member of the NHK “Rajio Eikaiwa” program team, where she enjoys working alongside co-hosts Ken Toyama and Jeff Manning. “The people on this show are so committed. It’s a pleasure to work with them.” She is also a regular on NHK’s World English service, reading the news Friday nights and lending her talents for other narration and voice-over duties.

Although Adler’s life was already full with her busy career, she sensed she was ready to branch out in a new direction, and the result was English with Katie. It brings Adler full circle and back to working with English language learners, but this time she is calling all the shots. Her goal is to help Japanese change their mind-set, offering a fresh and innovative approach.

“Many Japanese get so bogged down in the ‘correct’ way to say something. They never really move away from the testing mode that characterizes English education in this country,” she says. “How many native speakers have been approached by an eager Japanese, asking ‘Can I practice English with you?’ Of course, the knee-jerk reaction is ‘No!’ At some point you must let go of the idea of ‘practicing’ a language and embrace it, use it.”

Adler says her motto with the project is “creating conversationalists one day at a time.” A key phrase is introduced each week and viewers can watch a short video of her using it in natural ways. Throughout the week, variations and additional vocabulary are added, building up to a good understanding of how to use the phrases in real life conversations. The lessons are peppered with amusing anecdotes and hints for maximizing this newfound knowledge, and viewers are actively encouraged to post questions and comments.

She used building blocks as an allegory. “You can build up a tall tower by just stacking blocks one upon the other, but eventually the base will weaken and the blocks will fall. That’s like learning only one set way to say something in English. If people don’t use exactly the phrase you’re used to, then the conversation grinds to a halt. My website gives English learners a variety of blocks to form a secure basis for building their language skills, their vocabulary and their confidence.”

Wanting to provide followers with a chance to use English in a live format, Adler has added two regular entertainment shows to English With Katie. On Thursday nights between 10 and 11 p.m., viewers can tune in to her Internet radio show, where she interviews a variety of guests. “I choose people based on topics that are trending at the time, a story that I come across online or English language teaching professionals.” On the first Sunday of the month she offers an additional segment called “Short Story Sunday” from 9.30-10.30 p.m., featuring different writers talking about their work and lives.

“I launched the two shows to provide an interview show based in Japan where people could use their English in a live format and be an active participant in the interviewing process.” Information about the guests and relevant links are posted ahead of the scheduled interview and listeners can either send in their questions ahead of time, or make a free call through Skype and be connected to Adler’s switchboard. “The interaction has made for some lively discussions,” she says.

Adler hopes that her website will eventually turn into a stepping-stone to online workshops for English learners. She is excited about the potential opportunities for employing online technology but is committed to keeping the focus on communication between people. “I’m not ‘Grammar Katie’ and I’m not ‘TOEIC Katie,’ ” she grins. “I’m ‘Conversation Katie!’ “

For more information, visit englishwithkatie.com or www.katieadler-vo.com.