It's eight in the morning in a Tokyo office building, and a dozen middle-aged Japanese businessmen sit inside small booths, sweating as they try to talk English to the instructors in front of them.
"I hope my wife will understand my hobby," one 40-something man says, opening his mouth widely around the English words.
He is one of legions of Japanese businessmen, or "salarymen," struggling with a language they thought they had left behind them in school as fears mount that the growing push by Japanese companies into overseas business will mean a dark future for them without usable English.
This is especially true these days, with the strong yen and a lagging domestic market prompting more firms to look overseas for business opportunities essential for their bottom lines.
"I had a business trip to Amsterdam last year and that really was tough. My boss spoke no English, and I had to speak English for the first time in 10 years," said Masahide Tachibana, a 39-year-old software developer.
Tachibana now gets up at 5:00 a.m. to take morning lessons at a central Tokyo branch of Gaba, an English language school.
"I've always wanted to brush up my English and that business trip ignited my aspirations," said Tachibana, as around him other businessmen and women pack up and hurry to work after their 45-minute, one-on-one lessons.
Japan, despite being the world's third-largest economy and a major export powerhouse, is known for its poor English-speaking ability even though six years of study are required in middle and high school.
The country's average score on the TOEFL iBT, a computer-based test of English as a foreign language, in 2010 ranked 27th among 30 Asian countries, below Mongolia and Turkmenistan.
Only 9 percent of 1,156 white-collar workers surveyed by Recruit Agent, a recruiting firm, claim to be able to communicate in English. Many respondents evaluated their speaking and listening aptitude as "Barely."
But things are starting to change, prompted by a growing sense of urgency about employment.
As a result, Japan's foreign language education market is growing, with learners more than willing to fork out plenty of money on lessons, DVDs or e-learning.
booth: a small, often enclosed compartment, usually accommodating only one person（隔开的小房间）
legion: a large number; a multitude（众多，大量）
bottom line: the last line of a financial statement that shows the net profit or loss of a company or organization（账本底线，账本盈亏结算线）
brush up：to renew a skill（复习，提高）
fork out: slang to pay (money, goods, etc.), esp with reluctance（支付）