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.

%e7%a7%8b

(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?

%e3%82%b9%e3%83%94%e3%83%bc%e3%83%89

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).

img_9417

(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.

Killing two birds with one stone

I WAS WRITING for a new post last night. When I got it all done, I published it and let my followers know about it via Twitter and facebook. Then I deleted all of it.

As I read the post again, I got the impression that there might be some people who would become disappointed and even hurt. In the article, I introduced a negative attitude (or so I think) of average Japanese learners of English and blamed it for their inability to speak English. This topic is a very sensitive issue to discuss. Some authors and publishers, as well as institutions, take advantage of it to make a profit. This is because there is enough demand from consumers, or (novice) language learners who cannot improve their ability. Therefore, I thought I would end up discouraging all those learners by pointing out what could otherwise have been ignored.

If so, and this is a mere speculation, then that’s not what I had intended. As a language teacher, my job does not lie so much in discouraging learners as in encouraging them to learn more and get better results.

%e5%8f%8b%e5%a5%bd%e9%96%a2%e4%bf%82

Thus no sooner had I published the post than I deleted it.

Then, what good does this new post have? After writing all this, I now realize this has such a cathartic effect on me. I teach (the TOEFL) writing for a better score, but the act of writing itself can make you feel better. You can kill two birds with one stone.

p.s. If you do not understand what I wrote about in the first half of this post for the lack of specific description, never mind. It is all written for my own sake 😉

 

Easy tasks can be difficult.

Here is the hardest part of learning a foreign language as an adult learner.

This learner, Ken, is a civil engineering expert who has just started his research for his doctorate dissertation. Since he needs to improve his English for his presentation (he has never studied abroad), he decides to go to school to learn English. His use of the second language is limited basically to the academic settings, so the TOEFL would serve his purpose, his adviser suggested.

That has brought him to this speaking class.

%e3%83%87%e3%82%a3%e3%82%b9%e3%82%ab%e3%83%83%e3%82%b7%e3%83%a7%e3%83%b3

This hypothetical learner is very good at thinking logically and analyzing an issue. He already knows all the necessary technical terms to explain his major. The only thing he has in common with the other learning mates is the lack of English ability.

However, TOEFL familiar topics will ask you whether you prefer to eat out or eat at home,  which of the three meals is the most important to you, or what was your favorite toy when you were a child. Many of the TOEFL test takers are happy to discuss these issues. This is especially true if they are still high school students – those whose memory about their childhood is still vivid. This hypothetical student, however, is, in my opinion, overqualified.

He is not interested in the toy he played with in his childhood, nor does he want to talk about it. He is not interested in the language per se; his interest lies in his major.

Ken’s case sounds a bit too extreme, but in general, adult learners would be more sympathetic with Ken’s struggle of discussing with his teenage learning mates what his favorite toy was. Familiar topics should be dealt with in the speaking test to measure one’s ability to have a casual talk with his/her friends. However, they may be an affective factor in discouraging him/her from displaying the otherwise enough ability to get by.

Trade-offs between two topics

At different stages, TOEFL test-takers have a different impression on the speaking section. You start to seriously prepare for the test when you are a young adult, just as you come back from your exchange program (which most students of mine did). They have already gotten used to responding to everyday events, so all the familiar topic questions like “Describe your favorite food.” or “Do you prefer to get up early to start the day’s work?” are very easy.

%e4%bc%9a%e8%a9%b1%e3%81%ae%e9%a2%a8%e6%99%af

In fact, that’s what these young adults have been doing for the past year. At the same time, they find it extremely hard to effectively summarize a lecture on why dinosaurs became extinct (which, obviously, is an Academic topic). So this hypothetical young adult learner would receive a score report that says Familiar — G(ood), Campus — F(air), Academic — L(imited).

When this student gets older and seriously starts to get back to school (hopefully a grad school for his/her MBA degree), things will have changed. They will always see themselves struggling out of familiar topics. They cannot even develop their favorite food. “My favorite food is Chinese food. I have three reasons for this choice. First of all, it is delicious…” – a response that does not represent what they really have in mind. Such being the case, their score reports will say Familiar — L, Campus — F, and Academic — G.

Which results in the same score of this speaking section.

From my teaching experience – longer than the TOEFL iBT itself –  this phenomenon has always repeated. So much so that I have even hypothesized that there should be a trade-off between the two topics: familiar and academic. This is what makes this section extremely difficult, compared to the reading section, where you can improve your score by one if you get an additional correct answer. The result in the Speaking Section does not form a linear line.

One strategy that can result from the above hypothesis is to focus on the Campus topics, which seem to be topic-neutral. The topic itself does not determine the difficulty level of the prompt.

The next time you take the TOEFL, however, I do hope that you defeat my hypothesis!

The newer, the more complicated.

The private student I’m teaching today studies English for the TOEFL. The TOEFL she is getting prepared for is not the internet based, but that of two generations ago: ITP (Institutional program also known as paper-based test). Since the score she needs is not like 600 (which can be an equivalent of 100 in the iBT), there is only one thing she should do. That is to learn all the basic rules for the “structure and written expressions” section. Simply put, she should learn basic grammar. There are only limited numbers of rules that are tested in this section, so by focusing on them and practicing them repeatedly, the required score can be achieved.

This is what the average Japanese test takers used to do back in the 60’s up to 90’s (and for some people, still now in the 21st century). They were criticized for the lack of speaking ability, which was then added to the exam.

headset

This is how tests evolve. Once thought of as satisfactory, the test gradually looks quaint and malfunctioning. This is modified by adding and subtracting items. As far as the TOEFL is concerned, grammar has been removed from the test, while the passage (both reading and listening) has become twice as long, and the speaking and the writing sections have been added. With 4 hours 30 minutes to complete, obviously, the current test looks and is more difficult.

This way of evolution may apply to other tests. You may find a certain test rather simple and easy to pass, but you never know, by the time your child take the same exam, it will have become one of the hardest. Then it’s time you show off your certificate (which you got a generation ago).