In reminiscence

This is a view from the place for the workshop that I hosted the other day (by the way, for those who participated, thank you!).

Back when I first came up to Tokyo, there was only one of those huge condos under construction. The construction company I just joined was so proud of their work that all the newly employed would be taken there. I was among other new college graduates.

As I looked up, I felt full of hope for the future. I had had my mind set on working overseas for this company. I had lots of ambitions: building dams here and there along the Ganges, operating power plants and factories throughout the African continent, … All these plans would harm the environment for sure, but we were in the midst of the bubble economy. We were so ignorant of the environment and the ramifications of our reckless but lucrative activities. (Values change with the lapse of time…)

As it turned out, however, I quit the company because I was assigned to a different division that made it impossible to realize my “ambitions.” (Thank goodness!) I liked the company itself, though. Lenient but trustworthy bosses, great co-workers, helpful clients… Not a day would pass without feeling blessed…  If only Mark Zuckerberg had been born 20 years earlier! I would still keep in touch with all these great people.

As I was approaching the venue for the workshop on that day, I remembered my early adult life and asked myself. Do I not regret my decision to leave all these good people at that time? I have been working really hard since then, in order partly to justify the decision.


Rumor has it that…

I am taking a TOEFL text this weekend. I only wish I were taking it to get the score to apply for a graduate school. I already have one particular graduate school in mind – I am hoping to finally attend it after I have retired in 15 years’ time 😉 Until that time, I will be reminded of it from time to time to enjoy a daydream. As I often say to my students and clients, I will never give up on this one. Well, then what am I taking the TOEFL this weekend for? As a matter of fact, I will have to see if the rumor is true or false.

Recently a little change in the way questions appear on the screen, as well as some minor details, reportedly has been made. The thing is that these reports come from a casual conversation with a limited number of test takers. I cannot believe it yet. How can I? Many students don’t even remember what they said in the speaking section or in the writing section. It would be unbelievable if they remembered the titles of the passages in the reading section. (So don’t worry, ETS test proctors. Test takers won’t tell anyone what the test questions were, because they can’t!)

It is, therefore, time that I took the test myself. When I take a test, I have a specific purpose of going all the way to the test center (This time it will take a couple of hours to get there. I booked a bit too late. Had no choice.)

Some of the purposes that I have had so far include…

  1. What if I write more than 700 words for the Independent Writing whose “ideal” response will be 300 words?
  2. What if I write as little as 250 words for the Independent Writing?
  3. What if I write more than 450 words for the Integrated Writing whose “ideal” response will be 150~225 words?
  4. What if I spoke like a typical Japanese citizen who couldn’t care less about the actual pronunciation?

… and many more.

As a TOEFL instructor, it is crucially important to know the fine line between the response that carries 5 out of 5 and that of 4, 4 and 3, or 3 and 2. That’s where my students are working hard to overcome. It is my job to indicate the passing line to all those test-takers so that they can prepare and get the maximum score with the minimum effort. That is when I am paid.

This weekend, I will sacrifice the time to study myself, but in return, I will receive another set of secrets of the actual TOEFL exam. Yes, there are lots of open secrets in the test. My job is to create a range of covert strategies out of open secrets. Lots of oxymora

Truth be told…

When taking on the Speaking Section, especially on the first two questions a.k.a. Familiar topic questions, quite a few test takers assume a strange attitude toward the truth. They suddenly prefer to lie about their preferences and habits. Their common obsession is to display the hypothetical ability to talk more than necessary, saying, “I cannot keep talking until the beep unless I tell a lie or two.”
But just give it a quick thought. If you had an ability to organize a couple of discrete lies into a well-developed story in 15 seconds, I think you would be successful in a different dimension than our legally accepted businesses.
You are given 15 seconds to prepare, and 45 seconds to display your ability. That’s it. This is not a test for an anchor person to take over Matt Lauer. You are not even asked to finish your talk in time (though they will give you a cue).
So be true to yourself. Base your response on the truth. Everyone has enough life experience to share for 45 seconds. Your lies are easily detected. Your response suddenly becomes inconsistent or even contradictory as soon as you start to rely on a false, made-up resume. As is always the case, honesty is the best policy.

A trade-off problem

March is nearing an end and this is my first post for this month. To tell the truth, my Japanese blog has not received a post for the past month. It even sounds like I am getting less communicative and confined to my own world. Well, it’s just the opposite. I have been very active in the twittersphere – lots of tweets, likes, comments, and retweets. A couple of months after I changed my main means of communication, however, I finally realized that there is a certain capacity to deal with SNS and the amount remains constant. The more tweets, the fewer blog posts.

The same is true with the capacity for a second language. The capacity itself seems to remain constant. The more reading you do, the better reading ability you will acquire, but that means you fail to improve your listening ability. The more you practice speaking, the better speaking ability you may acquire, which does not greatly affect your reading comprehension.

Just like SNS, language learning is a matter of optimizing the time available.



Cold War

Cold whirlwinds are raging, making a door bang, empty cans roll on the road and crushed by a passing car, and fallen leaves dance crazily. A typical daily phenomenon I can observe at this time of the year : January to February.

I kind of miss a nice Indian summer we had some time ago. I miss it for sure, but that’s not because I can enjoy a walk on a balmy afternoon. Rather I found it easier to adjust myself to the room temperature. Now, outside weather being as it is, the temperature of the classroom I teach is kept as high as 26 degrees Celsius. The Japanese air conditioner never fails to work as accurately as you can imagine. I hate it.


(Autumn is the best!)

It is therefore my personal ritual that when I enter the room, I look inside to see what the students are wearing, and how warm it is inside. If the panel indicates it is higher than 23 degrees, I turn it off as I open the door to the classroom. I don’t mention the temperature a bit and the class starts.

Now, I should be waiting for my students to retaliate. At the beginning of the class, students are still nervous. As class discussion goes on, however, tension finally starts to melt and the students come to … to realize it’s too cold. One “frozen” student goes out of the room to turn on the air conditioner and set the room temperature at 26℃. (Our school rules do not say who is responsible for the room temperature, by the way.)

I will never let it happen. A lot is at stake. I don’t have another shirt in my bag. From a 100-minute, passionate talk with lots of jotting on the blackboard at the temperature of 26 degrees Celsius results a lot of sweat. If I keep wearing a sweated shirt for the rest of the day, I will end up seeing my doc early tomorrow morning, and see myself teaching classes in a hoarse voice. Or as the worst-case scenario goes, I will have to take a leave of absence, meaning I am not paid.

Thus an intangible war has broken out. The “war” metaphor may not be the most appropriate because my students seem to be having fun with me in class. But the thing is…it’s too warm in winter. (FYI it’s just too warm in summer, too. Again, the temperature is set at 26 when I need it down to 22! Now, the “teaching is a war” metaphor applies.)

When should you start working on the TOEFL?


If you live a normal life in your own language environment, the first time you hear the term TOEFL would be the time you have to seriously start working on the TOEFL. Up until you graduate from university and start your career, English may have come across as nothing more than a school subject. Not now. Now you are a chosen candidate for your company’s next-generation MBA holders. Some business people may be already outstanding in their ability of English, which is why they are selected as such. However, most candidates are not that good at the English language and are selected therefore based on not so much their English ability but their performance and attitude toward work (which should be a better criterion because these MBA holders are supposed to contribute to management in the future, not to teaching English). Although such being the case, if you want to get a head start on your career, achieving a certain TOEFL score can make a big difference. You may not need it now, but will definitely need it by the time you become thirty. It is therefore that college graduates in non English-speaking countries should start working on the TOEFL test as soon as their career starts. If you are exempt from the score or passed over for the opportunity, so be it. But if you have been chosen as a candidate, you cannot turn back the clock any more.

A sense of community

In early November we hold a community sports day event. A range of games will be played every year, in which different age groups can participate. Since our first son was born, we have taken part in it. This is mainly because the fliers will be distributed from school or directly to families with small kids. I didn’t even know of these events before having a kid.

The events were organized by the local firefighters’ association, together with those women (mostly grandmothers) who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time. The elementary school principal and vice principal are to join us on the sports day (because it is held on the school playground).


(What is this competition called in English?)

As I grow older, I find these events of greater importance. You don’t actually have to know one another, but just joining this event can nurture a sense of community, and a sense of cooperation. Lots of Japanese citizens, especially younger generations, tend to believe in individualism, but that belief is based on their indifferent attitude toward others in the neighborhood. This sports day event, on the contrary, brings us closer to each other and mix different generations, something that I, when in youth, made every effort to avoid.

I started to learn English because that was the required curriculum. I developed the ability of the English language with a view to being as far away from the Japanese traditional mind as possible. Adopting American culture through English was the best way to keep my attention away from my own community. In my late 40’s, however, that impetus seems to be coming to a halt. I have finally realized how these traditions connect each one of us. I have finally realized that these traditions should be passed on to the next generations. I have finally realized how much we need other neighbors to live a good life.

One TOEFL Speaking question asks the test-takers to choose one thing (out of three) that they would want to do for their children. I did not understand this one choice for a long time: “to give children an opportunity to talk with a community leader.” I can imagine what it is like, but I have never had such an opportunity, nor have I ever known who the hell is our community leader.

Not anymore.