From sports to science and acting to aviation, the best teachers are always those who have experienced the subject themselves – people who have been through the bumps and bruises of mastering a skill and are the wiser for it.
It is this belief that led to the launch of Rakuten Super English, a comprehensive English language learning service in Japan that draws on years of findings from Rakuten’s renowned internal “Englishnization” program.
The story of Rakuten Super English starts in 2010, the year Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani announced the company was switching its official corporate language to English in order to facilitate global expansion. Since the announcement, the average TOEIC(R)*2 score of Japanese Rakuten employees has grown from 500 points to more than 830, a level indicating business-level proficiency, and the company has quickly expanded its footprint overseas.
Now all the experience and know-how cultivated through Englishnization is being channeled into Rakuten Super English, an external service offering English learners tools and services to support them in their studies.
For Takashi Katsuragi, General Manager of Rakuten’s Education Business Project Promotion Section, the launch of Rakuten Super English is a logical next step.
“After many years of experience building the Englishnization program, we knew we could help make English-learning more fun and accessible for people outside the company too,” he said.
When it comes to both teaching and learning English, Katsuragi is uniquely qualified to comment. Before overseeing Rakuten Super English he was a leading architect of Englishnization.
“In 2007, Mickey asked me to attend a conference in India. I could follow what was being said, but when it came time to speak, I found myself unable to communicate effectively. I was so frustrated and embarrassed that I enrolled in an English school as soon as I got back to Japan,” he explained.
Katsuragi, who started his career as a train conductor, driver and then trainer for The Japan Railways Group, developing a training simulator for new drivers, took a systematic approach to learning the language that carried through to his work on Englishnization.
“We analyzed data of success cases. We interviewed people who made big jumps in their English level and compiled it all into training documents,” he explained. When, in 2011, 170 new grads weren’t able to achieve the scores necessary to join the company, Mickey asked them to keep studying, delaying their work assignments in the company. After interviewing the new grads, Katsuragi and team found that what was holding them back was vocabulary. Measures were soon taken to remedy the situation and that experience has now informed the new Rakuten Super English service, which incorporates a set of vocab-building tools.
Currently, Rakuten Super English offers the language learning software “Lingvist” provided by Lingvist Technologies OÜ, and the English learning app “Maname,” provided by Rakuten Group company ReDucate. Both Lingvist and Maname are based on adaptive learning algorithms, enabling users to effectively acquire English ability. Both can be used on computers, smartphones and tablets, and are also available as dedicated apps for iOS and Android. Rakuten Super English also offers a TOEFL module (a commonly used test for learners of English as a foreign language) for the Lingvist app developed in-house.
In another new step for the company, Rakuten Super English recently announced plans to open an English language school for children, called Rakuten Super English Junior. Located in Jiyugaoka in Tokyo, the brick-and-mortar school will offer lessons for children aged 9 – 13, and incorporate IT and active learning methods to help students learn practical English more efficiently.
Lessons will utilize a variety of IT tools, including the Rakuten Learning System, a system combining study materials, video learning and study progress-checking tools, and the Maname app, and will be carried out in the “flipped classroom” style, whereby students learn with digital study materials outside the classroom and check their understanding and solve problems in the classroom. The school is set to open its doors on October 2, 2017.
While the Super English service is available for individual language learners, there is no shortage of interest from other companies as well.
“I have visited quite a few companies to share our Englishnization story,” said Katsuragi. “Recently a manager I was speaking with told me, ‘you’re like a man from the future.’ Many of these companies are where we were seven years ago, and so there is a lot we can do to help them.”