Teaching In Socks

a “whole” in the logic.
When viewed from afar the arrangement of our educational theory seems a bit off. We tell you children to stop asking questions and instead reward those who cam memorize answers. We ask them (and our asked ourselves) regard the information we are taught as indisputable facts. Then in college and perhaps in High School we are informed that the facts we have digested for the past twelve years are–in many cases–not facts per se, but instead simplified solutions. Suddenly questions are more valuable then answers and just as the whole thing starts to unravel we throw you in a nine to five and tell you to forget about it.
I suppose that’s why, at this age,  I am just starting to discover the humor and chaos in language. It could also be that as a language teacher I encounter more often and have developed an eye for it (but let’s face it as the above paragraph indicates I’d rather whine and moan about how it was Mrs Goldman’s fault in third grade). The fact that I learning a new language is probably a heavy contributer to this new found perspective as well.
Unless I was listening to George Carlin comedy bit, I never really questioned the logic of language– even in college. I mostly just sat in awe of people who could manipulate words and conman sentences well, hoping that someday I could do that for a living as well.
Then I came to Japan. The other night a student asked me to check an email they had written in English. In it they made a small typo, typing “the hole presentation” when them mean the “whole” presentation. We had a small laugh about how silly this was. Afterwards, it occurred to me that homophones  are the most damning evidence that language is human, and flawed(besides all the other reasons). We have a one word that mean “entirety, everything” and it sounds exactly the same as a word that means “a void”. This is just lazy, and careless.  Let’s not  even debate the logic behind the phonics of “whole”–it takes a sever ump in logic to arrive at the conclusion that a “wh” combination can make both an “h” and a “w” sound ( e.g. what).
I also spend a great deal of my time studying (okay, 30 minutes a day) Japanese grammar and trying to perfect my understanding of grammatical structure only to often find out that people don’t speak (or write) in perfect grammar; English speakers are guilty of this as well.
I’m not saying we tear the whole thing and rebuild, but we need to realize the foundation we have in place–with all languages across the board–is dangerous. I realized the other week, that on occasions when I’m not paying attention to my anunciation or intonation (which is all the time) I have the habit of asking the check-out lady at the super market for “two, flat owls”. “Fukuro” means means bag. “fukurou” means owl.
Now, I’m lucky; the check-out ladies are pretty understanding (or hard of hearing) because I have yet to receive any owls, but let’s imagine that I did. Owls are vicious devil-birds capable of anything within a 180 degree frame of reference. I on the other hand have no experience raising carnivorous birds and a fear of things attack my head from above.
Simply because some  lazy linguist made an inadvertent error–the is no other logical explanation, you cannot connect owls and bag etymologically–during the naming of things millenniums  ago we now have either two dead owls or one mangled white boy. Must this senseless violence continue or commence simply because we are too lazy to fix something that is broken? There is a seemingly infinite amount of sounds we have yet to use and other that are greatly underused.  Why does “X” get off so easily? Why stop at 26 letters? why not more?
I think at this time it’s only appropriate to announce my candidacy from President of the United States (and the World) on the platform of creating a 27th letter. It could looks like a dragon face! or a dragonfly or a dragon fruit! who knows?  I’m thinking the letter will have a “jh” or “bykl” but I am willing to negotiate this–my running mates, however, two vicious  supermarket Owls, are not.
(Ed note: I would like to apologize for this blog in Advance. i really have nothing to write about this week and I feel like the guy who writes the back page for the American Airlines in-flight magazine; American Way.  Next week I promise more interesting content as I probably will have achieved a new level of consciousness and have the ability to write blogs with my mind powers. )

Smiles are free

Usually when you find a video about Japan on an English speaking website it’s either about robots, or something intensely bizarre–like a game show for cartoon rabbits. This, year I have seen everything from robot chairs, to rocket chairs, to a cat who had been designated the Honorary Station Master  of a train station in Northern Japan.

I found the above video on the AP web channel and I liked it because while it was remotely insane, the story also presented two interesting social dynamics I have noticed during my time here.

The first and more obvious point of cultural significance documented is the immense value workers in the Japanese service industry put on giving good service, and the effort they put in to achieving that goal (as long as you don’t try to order off the menu). I can’t say I’m a person who even really appreciates good service. In retail situations I try to avoid the sales person for fear of being pressured into buying  leather pants or disappointing them when I don’t buy the leather pants they recommend.

Still, the disparity in the level of service you receive in Japan, versus an average American experience is not only blaring obvious, but also it is often delivered in a way that isn’t overwhelming or distracting. For example,  when I walk into the convenience store I am greeted every time, and thanked every time.  This is a basic and decent amount of human interaction–especially if you want people to pay you money for things–and even brings a certain amount of honor to transaction.In the larger shops they even go as far as to walk you out of the store and thank you profusely.

There’s also the practical side of service; across the board the package you items carefully and efficiently, and when it’s raining they often wrap your bag with a rain cover.

Of course, there is the dark overkill said to service, but not having purchased a car or a home (or really any item large enough to inspire desperation in a salesperson) I find that this brand of sales tactic seems to be confined to the young womens section of the department store.  I can only process these pop-driven, Girl fortresses as a series of blurry, glittering lights and the shrill sounds of intermittent high-pitched giggling between the sound a credit card swipes. Maybe the overkill approach appeals to this specific “tween” consumer, I don’t know and I am sure I wouldn’t know what it looked it. (full disclosure: I am a card carrying member of G.R.O.S.S, since 1988).

That niche market aside, I the level of service in America is more than a few god-awful training videos away from reaching the level of mastery where they work on refining their smile in a machine every morning. Let’s be honest though, refining your smile in a smile-measuring computer  is entirely absurd; it’s like three stages away from Total Recall technology.

However, while the usefulness of this machine is debatable, the greater significance–for me–is the role of this machine in the culture of statistical feedback. As I have mentioned, Japanese people have an emphatic and remarkable work ethic, and this ethic is fueled by setting goals, and receiving feedback to help them set goals to achieve. While I have yet to determine the root of this characteristic, Japan as a whole seems to value quantitative information and feedback higher than the basic qualitative advice. I can understand this to some degree because numbers are an easy way to explain and measure things. If you boss says you are doing the job at 80% then you know where you stand, and how much (but perhaps not what) more you need to do.  However, this can be taken to a fault; it can be applied in places where numbers don’t really work as a great system of measurement or offer insightful way to improve.

Recently in my science class we focused our emphasis on pronunciation. While it’s been a big help to some of the lower-level and beginning students, the head of the class introduced an exercise where the students repeat back to me the word we have just practiced and I give them a pronunciation grade. He asked me to give them a instant percentage grade on each attempt. However, this is class with many beginners; it became instantly clear to me that throwing out numbers could be rather demoralizing for some students who struggle with basic sounds–especially when we are practicing  words ranging from “light” to “tuyere” to “thermodynamics”.

Also, my mind does not work in a way that it can break down individual word pronunciation statistically. I can’t quickly  divide words by syllables or letters and then score which of those has been done perfectly, Furthermore, I don’t think that numbers serve or helpful method of measurement for aurual sounds. If I say it was an 80%, how does it teach the student to get a 100%? How is that even better than me just repeating the part of the word they have difficulty with and giving no score at all?

Having had my own troubles with pronouncing words in the past, I have come to the belief that grading pronunciation is better served by a system with the metrics of, “pass”, “fail”  and “close enough that your friends or colleagues won’t mock you”.

Accordingly, I adjusted my feedback to four responses with that hope that this system was helpful, yet also encouraging. I settled on: “perfect”, “very good”, “pretty good” and then one–in the event that they get stuck or completely mispronounced the word–where I grimaced a little and repeated the word. If they get below “very good” I always repeat the word and emphasize the problem area until they are able to get it correct.

Of course, while my plan seemed like a great idea, it was just another example of me blowing against the wind. At first the students seemed to like my new metrics. They would sort of act cocky and brag if they got a “perfect”. Within the second or third go around of the new scale, the head of the class turned to me and asked, “‘perfect’ is 100%?” “‘pretty good’ 80%? 90%” “‘very good’ is 75%? 60%? which?”. As soon as I compromised and answered those questions he began following up my student assessments by yelling out the corresponding percentage points every time.

Add this to the list of those great “oh yeah, I am in Japan moments”. I’ve learned all you can do in those situations is reach into your motherboard, adjust the dial, and turn your smile up to 110% (“super-perfect”).

That’s right, we smile at 11 over here.

baby steps/blame Canada
February 19, 2009, 4:30 pm
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Let me begin by explaining that the default personnel set up for my English school is this: one native English speaking teacher (me), one Japanese English speaking teacher, and one manager–to work on recruiting new students, and renewing students contracts and making sure the school is profitable.

Managers are always Japanese, and apparently it is rare that they stay at a particular school for very long. If they are successful, they get moved to bigger schools, and if they aren’t well…  When I first arrived, the default personnel scenario was in place. But within two months the manager was asked to move to another school (not because she was successful) and never heard from again. Sans manager, the other teacher and I were forced to pick up some slack– and in terms of dealing with students this meant the other teacher had to pick up more slack because out of the two of us she was the only one who spoke Japanese. Then in December, we got another Manager, who was capable and successful.

Unfortunately, after two months, the powers that be, recognized her talents and transferred her to another school three days a week.  Also, those same three days a week, the moved the other teacher to another school because she didn’t ave many students here. Thus creating a new, reformed  power hierarchy at my school that consists of just me, alone, by myself.  This essentially means that I am running someone else’s business in a country where I don’t speak the language.

As you can imagine, on occasion, this is ripe for farce.

Thus, in between faxing some forms (usually the manager’s job) and frantically trying to prepare for my class (my job), I was greeted by a visitor from the city office (I was stoked I could understand that much!). He was a wonderfully nice gentleman, who, happened to be friends with one of my students. He also knew less English then I knew Japanese.

He came armed with a series of pamphlets written Japanese, He explained each one, in Japanese pointing pictures of old people cooking and young Australian and Japanese children making arts and crafts together. It became apparent to me that he was in charge of some cultural exchange program, but beyond that I understood little of what he said.

This was a bit depressing; I have now been living in Japan for seven months, and have been taking private Japanese lessons. I study hard and try to speak when I can, but progress is slow, frustratingly slow.  Every Japanese person I try to speak with is always patient and really understanding, and I try to be patient with myself as well, but I’ve encountered few things as difficult as trying to have a productive conversation with someone when we don’t understand each other”s language. It’s like playing the worst game Pictionary or Charades every three seconds, except you don’t even resort to such games because you end up drawing an entire stick-figure conversation or imitating Riverdance.

As soon as he moved away from the explanation of the pamphlets and into free form conversation the structural integrity of our conversation collapsed.  The thick blanket of the linguistic impasse swiftly covered the room. I could see drops of sweat forming on his forehead as I tried to faun understanding to make him less nervous as he tried sentences in both quick Japanese and bits of broken English.

We got to a final sentence with only two words I understood, “Canada”  and “food”. I asked him to repeat the sentence, but I was still to grasp those two words. Realizing we had hit the cul de sac of this conversation I panicked and I did what I usually do in these situations and said “yes”.

Now I  know from a specific Seinfeld episode that this is a bad habit to have, but in situations of international exchange, I have the propensity to panic (I would make a terrible diplomat).

After I said, “hai”, he shot me a look that I briefly interpreted as meaning he understood that I did understand, or that I had just agreed to something.

Did he want me to tell him some Canadian foods? Were they going to make some Canadian foods and did he want me to come? Did he want ME to teach people how to make Canadian food and more importantly did he think I was Canadian?

After he repeated the question again for my benefit, I sucked in my pride and told him that the manager would be back on Friday and she could help translate. We exchanged formalities, he unnecessarily apologized for stopping in unannounced and he promised to come back on Friday. Afterwards, I thought about Canadian foods my list consist of this: Canadian Bacon, Poutine (gross) and some form of Canadian Syrup, also, maybe Ketchup flavored chips (does that count?).

Later my student, the who was an acquaintance of his, came to class and I asked him what his friend had requested. My student clarified everything, saying he wanted me to to either give a speech about Canada or teach peopel how to cook some Canadian foods. I replied to my student, who is very fluent in English, that I would be happy to do that, but I’m not Canadian. He blinked a few times, tilted his head–much in the way a canine does when it’s confused and said, “really?”.

depressing things: 2, Ted: 0 (maybe I get a half point for sucking in my pride instead of insisting that I would agree to teach a Canadian cooking class).

Also, I’ll find out tomorrow if the offer still stand to teach a ethnic American cooking class. If so what should I cook for the class, tacos or pizza?

The medium is the message
December 10, 2008, 5:03 pm
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Today, in my class of scientist I was discussing free falls. Throughout this mini-lecture, one students happened to be particularly on top of the concept and familiar with the terminology.  When he recalled the meaning and proper pronunciation of "Terminal Velocity" with minimal prompting, I praised him with a hokey and mundane stock phrase such as "someone read their book…"

Luckily, he was able to rescue the any semblance coolness of this conversation had with his reply, "Oh, no, I’ve just seen the movie called Terminal Velocity". Terminal Velocity is by no means integral member of the Canon of Awesome Man Action  Films, but it does get an honorbale mention solely because it involves a scene where Charlie Sheen free falls out of a plane in a red convertible. I can’t recall the specifics of why Charlie Sheen drives a car out of an airplane, oh how he resolves this predicament, but the answers to both of those questions are irrelevant.  The student and promptly interrupted the flow of the lecture to spend a few minutes regaling the class (really just ourselves) with discussion of just that scene.

seriously, its not the fall, whoever told you that is wrong.

seriously, it's not the fall, whoever told you that is wrong.

That’s when I realized that Charlie Sheen, in spite of all of his massively devastating, insanely public personal issues and  body of work that includes numerous celluloid monstrosities and seemingly career ruiners such as Hot Shots:Part Deux and Predator: The Concert this man has ascended into the stratosphere of international lexicon and has become a cross-cultural symbol(albeit of a guy who sometimes drives cars our of airplanes for forgotten reasons).

Despite, the surprisingly amount of quality work (Navy Seals!), Charlie Sheen has done that might balance this out, and justify his status as a person the entire world can discuss, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this. It’s just seems too strange an arbitrary that Charlie might be as recognizable a name as Einstein, or perhaps more recognizable than Aristotle. It’s kind of like when I was in the book store the other day, and in my perusing I noticed that The Wealth of Nations was 60 yen cheaper than The Da Vinci Code.   I’m not going to sit here and whine and scream about how “culture is dead” (culture is dead), that “we’re all doomed” (we’re totally doomed), and “society is a sham” (serenity now) but it’s evident that we have some work to do.

In summation, I think the only way to make this okay is if Charlie just divides all the money that he gets from his hit soul-sucking clown make up infomercial disguised as a television program and gives it to every single person in the world. It’s the only fair. He can keep the money he made from all dogs go to heaven 2. Those dollars were earned.

all dogs go to heaven 3

all dogs go to heaven 3

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.

Aggressive Punctuality
Dont be late!

But don't be late!

Punctuality has never been my forte. If my memory serves me correct, I embraced the dilatory lifestyle as early as 1st grade. These habits were undoubtedly passed down from father, but i hold no ill will towards him as a result; in fact, in retrospect, they may have been a popularity boon of sorts.

I’m not sure if at the time I found it cool to be the kid arriving late, but I think it distinguished me among my peers, and that made me cool. In elementary school, anything that distinguishes you and makes you the center of attention that doesn’t involve you having to wear a pair of pants procured from the Lost and Found or excessive teacher praise is an ethos to cool. Soccer skills were cool, burping skills were cool, and being late was cool. I was the king of being late.

This routine dominated a large portion of my high school and collegiate career, and even permeated into my early professional gigs; however it is not attribute that could survive in Japan. Tardiness is a sin that this nation will not stand for. f you’re five minutes late, you might as well have killed a kitten. Plan on spending the next ten minutes apologizing–it’s a 2:1 ratio at least, unless you’re married.

I tried my best to country with a fresh perspective. In doing so, I began to see Japan’s logic on the matter of punctuality. Namely, what is so important that makes you late? (I still answer “sleep” in response to this question)

I am proud to say that in compliance with the reigning colloquial standards I have shifted my attitude, routine, paradigm and everything else to become a person that–at least on a professional level–arrives on time, if not early.

On average, I arrive at work ten minutes early. I set up the school, and officially clock in about five minutes early. This is nearly a 4,000% increase over my record at my previous employer. It feels kind of good. Not really good, there’s no “punctuality high”, but there is a small sense of accomplishment.

However, despited the marked improvement, the punctuality gods still have a score to settle with me. They conspire several times a week to haunt me with over-punctual students.

These students exceed the newly-rigged adjective, “ultra-early”. Some of these students consistently show up 25-30 minutes before class. I hate show offs.

What’s even more perplexing is their motivation for doing this.  I’m certainly not that interesting to talk to–in some cases I have another class before theirs so I’m not even in the lobby available for conversation, so that motive can be ruled out.Also, I checked around, we do not have a Nintendo Wii in the lobby, nor is their money hidden anywhere. We don’t even serve refreshments.

Now, I understand this isn’t the worse thing in the world. It’s just a little, kind, friendly human interaction. However we need a moderation of all things, and to be honest, in the Internet age, I’m good for about 10 minutes of small-talk, tops. Add on to that their limited command of English, and I have to start getting really creative just to sustain a five minute conversation.

At some point in the year, I wouldn’t be surprised if I am forced to break out “I Spy”. Once that happens, “Twenty Questions” and the daily riddle are sure to follow. If we add that to the weekly routine of “Head Shoulder Knees and Toes” (a classic!) that I already do and by February I will officially be the coolest (lamest) kid in First Grade…again.

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.