Teaching In Socks

November 26, 2008, 4:45 pm
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Getting In Character for Conversational Listening Tapes 3-6

Getting In Character for Conversational Listening Tapes 3-6

Allow me to start by saying that I’m all for Scotland. Tartan patterns, William Wallace, tourist traps under the guise of the existence of mythical, ancient sea creatures are all to my liking. I’ve never eaten Haggis and probably never will, but I like the name, and I respect a culture that is willing to eat things that will gross other cultures out, it shows moxie and fortitude.

However, can we agree, they don’t speak “proper” English. In fact, I would go as far as to say, they don’t speak English; they speak Scottish.

Before we start tossing pint glasses, I want to make it clear that I’m not attempting to imply that their dialect is inferior or cacophonous, I merely want to illuminate the fact that their colloquial pronunciation and vocabulary presents some significant differences between itself and others forms of English.

I only bring this up because in my classes, the CD’s we use for listening sections attempt to expose the students to a multitude of accents. Thus we have employed Small World-esque collection of voice actors to have conversations about why they don’t get along with their brother or what time they want to eat dinner. This cast of characters includes Proper English Chap, Boastful Big-City American, Heady Australian Girl, Sensible Kiwi Woman and the most difficult Deliberately Slow Scottish Guy. (Please note, these names aren’t official, however, they are accurate.)

Out of this mixed bag, Deliberately Slow Scottish Guy tends to elicit some surprised and perplexed faces from my students.  I consistently have to re-translate for my students which sometimes requires me to look over the transcript to see if he was talking about his “garage”, “carriage”, “marriage”, or something entirely different that I don’t even know about.

When my students signed up to learn English, I know they understood that there are a variety of accents to contend with. However, there is no evidence to suggest any of them came in with the intention or dream of becoming familiar with the finer points of proper Aberdeen intonation. Also, from a didactic perspective, if you’re trying to teach someone a grammar structure and some new vocabulary, it undermines your ability to teach and time management skills when you are constantly throwing them for a loop with new accent du jour each class–with special, exclusive intonation, contradictory word structure, and pronunciation.

I’m not trying to single Scotland out, but it’s a really difficult accent for my students to comprehend. It just not only a tricky one, but also a rarity for my Japanese students to encounter. If we want to prepare them for something they’re realistically going to be exposed to, we’re better off drilling them in in one of the various fancy boy euro-English accents than we are in recruiting voice actors from Edinburgh.

Also, if they’re really going to be a bear, they should be a Grizzly. On behalf of my various Caucused ancestors I’m outraged.  Where’s Ireland? South Africa? The entire southern United States? Canada? Wales? Scouser? Cockney? The whole thing smells of elitism to me.

This whole mess really makes me put more faith in trusted tenants of entropy theory. How did we get from a series of inflected grunts to Latin to this systemic mess of linguistic phylae? One day we are going to evolve to a state where each with have our own personal colloquial telekinetic language, with individually unique intonation and vocabulary unique. At that moment the world will then explode into a quintillion tiny particles of living bio-stardust that will be unable to have conversations with other bit of bio-stardust because they can’t decide if crisps are chips, and chips are fries or if chips are chips, and fries are fries, and crisps are nothing. Won’t that be wonderful.

Constructive Creativity

During teacher training, someone will undoubtedly bring up a situation highlighting how it’s difficult for our students to be creative. The trainer will say, “great question!” then we’ll delve our way into a spontaneous brainstorming session on how to create appropriate creativity channels, provide guidelines, and encouragement so that during a role-play, or in response to a general question the class isn’t stuck with three minutes of dead air while a student tries conjure up what he could possibly buy at a supermarket.

This training exercise can be quite helpful. There are few things more awkward than waiting three minutes for someone to say,”bananas” or “cereal” (really in any situation, not just the classroom). However, sometimes the tone of how this issues is approached and handled assumes there is a national “creativity deficit” in Japan.

I understand that Japanese culture is often more concerned about the group versus the individual, and conformity has it’s place social interactions, but I think in this case the “cultural sensitivity” perspective is taken too far. Japan may have slightly different customs, but Japanese people are still self-aware individuals, who watch television and live in the information age.

To verify my point, I fail to see how a country that can produce a movie like “Tokyo Gore Police”, is lacking in creative spark. Here, is a movie about mutants who can manifest lethal weapons from their own flesh wounds–and the Special Police force that hunts them down. Have we seen this movie in America before? France, you cinematic weirdos, you have anything like this?

dont worry mom, I havent seen this movie.

don't worry mom, I haven't seen this movie.

Let’s not forget this is also the country that brought us Voltron, Transformers, electronic pets, and every other shocking game show tidbit you can imagine.

While I would agree that there are individual cases where students lack a bit of imagination, I think the primary reason thsse long pauses arise,  is that when asking a student to be creative in English, I am asking them to use both sides of their brain simultaneously. Lnagauge and fantasy don’t originate from the same hemispheres. By asking a student to put a language pattern into their own spontaneous hypothetical situation I might as well be asking them to do interpetive math.

“Here are some numbers and functions. Scatter them wildly according to how this Coltrane Solo makes you feel, but make sure it follows a percievable, object-based function.”

Go ahead, be crazy and sane at the same time, try it.

I concede using both sides of the brain when learning a language is clearly an essential part of attaining fluency. Let’s not confuse it for some national cultural abnormaility, doing so would be a bit crass. Complications with total brain usage are not limited to a specific nationality, we’re all human

The other day at my Japanese lesson I was asked to pratice and langauge pattern and come up with some questions to find out what kinds of an object my teacher likes. Basic stuff, “what kind of music do you like?”, “What kind of food do you like?”

Under pressure, and with a limited vocabulary, on the fourth go-around I asked, “What kind of tigers do you like?”

Shocked, she fired back in english, “what kinds of tigers are there?”

“Shiroi (meaning white) and….” I paused, “How do you say ‘regular’ in Japanese?”

Sometimes I’m surprised more heads don’t explode in my classroom.

essentials, fringe benefits, and the beginnings of an “honor” discourse

I am currently riding the sonic waves of another productive weekend. I returned to my new favorite city, Kobe, made a deal with the devil, and found myself the new owner of a used guitar. It’s been almost two months since I’ve put my fingers to a fret so it was a relief to get back on an ax and find the chords still familiar and remember that the vocals still need work.

There may be consequences though. I fear that the trim thickness of my apartment walls and my irregular working hours might dictate that my neighbors and I a new familiarity with each other soon. I’m trying to keep the guitar fest to a minimum after midnight, but occasionally the musical urge disrupts my biological clock and I find the notes flowing at an unreasonable hour. It appears my only legitimate chance of salvation lies in the possibility that my neighbors enjoy mediocre, acoustic Stones covers and don’t own any large knives. Sadly, this is Japan, sharp knives are aplenty and my chances look slim.

I hope to go out rocking harder than ever (note to self: polish up that mean “Freebird” solo stat).

In the continued tradition of naming my larger Japanese purchases, I will name this guitar “Mr. Katana”. I was going to go with Guitarzilla, but my cell phone has already claimed “Cellzilla”, and a sequential continuation would just seem so unoriginal.

Friends in battle.

Friends in battle.

I also put my newly purchased soccer ball to use this weekend. It was an interesting experience. The field I used was large and empty, but primarily dirt. I had a few spectators in several elderly Japanese athletes who were using the surrounding track.  Between their uniform looking attire and the way the kept glancing at me with stoic faces, I kept thinking one of them was going to come inform me I needed a permit to use the field or that I wasn’t honoring the facility properly, but I kicked around and left without incident.

Games play a large role in my life in Japan and I’ve begun to relish and appreciate their presence.

I think the Japanese agree; Rock, Paper, Scissors (they call it Janken) is the preferred method of dispute resolution in Japan.  I think this is a fantastic policy.

In my classroom, I also get to play a lot of hangman and Jenga. Hangman actually could be one of the five pillars or learning. I’m not sure what the other four are, but if you want to learn a new word and ensure you remember it, fear of fictional, cartoon asphyxiation is a great motivation tool. I wrap up a class with a rousing game of hangman at least five times a week. I’m thinking about going Pro.

It’s hard to determine if my students enjoy the game anywhere near as much as I do, but as long as I have the control of the whiteboard (which is always), the scaffold and stick figure has a place on the board.

I also know what you’re thinking…JENGA? How does he get paid to play Jenga? I can’t actually take credit for this development. My previous teacher had the genius idea to write some English letters on Jenga blocks. If you make the kids pronounce the letters as they remove the corresponding blocks, you have an unstable learning structure of excitement. If given the choice, I would want to learn everything in Jenga format.  My students agree; the popularity of this game with children (and myself) is immense. I also think the fragility of the Jenga structure provides and interesting social insight.

I think it’s fair to say that most of the world looks upon Japan as a culture that champions “honor” above all other virtues.  For a number of reasons that I will address in a future post, so far, i would confirm this assessment as generally accurate.

However, people often misinterpret the attributes and jurisdiction of Japanese “honor”.



I think that several of my friends are the assumption that my child students are incredibly well-behaved due to this invisible honor specter that keeps them in line. This is not the case, or if it ever was the case, the powers of the ghost are eroding with younger generation (very possible this is the case). It appears in the majority of the “developed” world, the days of regimented, militaristic instilling of obedience to authority have ceased. (debate this and the virtues of such practices on your own time).

Honor is very alive in Japanese society, but my younger students are no more well-behaved or disobedient than children I was in charge of at summer camps in America. Even with Jenga–attraction number one for these kids, I still have classes where the average game lasts less than two minutes because there is the kid (or kids) that achieves enjoyment in sabotaging the tower every chance he gets.  Through clenched teeth or anger and disappointment, I appreciate the cultural similarity.

I want to share some other encounters I have had with the Japanese honor system– in didactic enterprise, eating and politics, as they have been extremely relevant as of late, but they will have to wait as the require their own separate and esteemed post….