A memoir

One university holds its commencement after another at this time of the year in Japan. I am very glad to see those whom I once taught as high schoolers graduate with flying colors. Time flies. Many of them should have brushed up their English while in university, so I am not expecting any of them to come back to me to again prepare for the TOEFL…or am I?

Here is an interesting example that I once heard from one of my students. Her friend got into Sophia university, a prestigious university especially for its Faculty of Liberal Arts, where international students account for a substantial part of the student body. To get into this particular school, high school seniors work hard on their TOEFL scores. Most of them are admitted when their scores reach as high as somewhere between 90 and 100 (as is the case with college admissions, there are many exceptions).

That means if you go to this faculty, you are widely (and naturally) considered adept at English. English being the main language in classes there, they find it hard not to use English in their daily lives.

Well, that’s the background that I would like you to have in common.

The interesting story is…this female student got into this university, and went to a university in the US for one year on the exchange program, and came back to Japan safe, when she thought that it would be a perfect timing to take the TOEFL again (which itself is praiseworthy, isn’t it?) to make sure that her English is regarded as good enough by global standards.

Her score was about 70.

She may have felt so disappointed, so regretful, and so furious with the result, but I don’t think it is that disappointing. It was just that her attitude toward English had changed since her high school days.

Let’s think about the reading section. High school seniors try hard to pick up one sentence that can be a clue to the question and take time to interpret all the answer choices to eliminate the three false choices. When they get the correct answer, their job is completed. What did they get from the passage? How would they react to the passage? How would they connect the idea to what they already know? These are not relevant, because their sole purpose is to get a score.

Let’s think about the writing section. High school seniors focus on what to think of in response to the prompt, because their resource is quite limited (they have lived for only 18 years!). Once they have come up with something, they start writing about it just as if they were replying to an email message from their friends. That is, believe it or not, enough to get a passing score of the TOEFL. The TOEFL is a test that measures your potential to get by in the US academic environment. It doesn’t require you to use the APA citation and format style or anything like that.

How about the speaking section? This student must have had a lot of opportunity to give presentations in class. Since the test is a formal occasion, I can easily assume that she felt as if she had to give a good presentation.

All these “appropriate and normal” attitudes are negative contributors to the TOEFL score.

So I will not degrade what this student has achieved so far if I am informed of how much she got on the test. As I understand it, a test score is valid only when the test-taker has made all the necessary preparation for the test. While she was qualified to get a better score, her lack of preparation and her “appropriate and normal” attitude toward the language led to what seemed disastrous. This sounds paradoxical, but that’s what any test is all about. If you have fallen in love with the eye doctor at a glance and felt nervous and started to close and open your eyes very firmly, who knows, your eyesight might be 20/40, which would otherwise be 20/20.



You are supported because you support them.

I was supposed to teach three classes until 9 p.m. and start to check the rest of the second draft by midnight, and then, I would make it to the deadline.

It was well planned and I was sure that would work both on paper and in practice. If only I had taken a certain risk into consideration!

Yes, as a father of two and a husband of a great wife, my life is full of risks and I have no choice but to run the risk of ruining my plans. My wife suddenly became sick early today, so I stopped working (Yes, I started to work at 4:30 a.m.), and checked the nearest doctor available on this national holiday. I was with her all morning, though there were not many I could do. My wife being sick, however, means that I also have to take care of two kids, since neither is old enough to go to school.

After putting all three to sleep, I began to cross out those items on my to-do list from the top. That was 11 p.m.

I am confident, however, that I did the right thing: to scrap the plan and ignore the deadline; instead, to take care of my loved ones.

I don’t know what those businessmen in a similar situation to mine would do, but if my decision is reasonable enough, whenever you ask someone like me who has a family to take care of, especially when they are in need, to get a job done, you may run the risk of having to stand by longer than expected. I would call it a family risk. Having a family to support does not always work in a positive manner. Because of it, you may not be able to follow your schedule. So, it is possible to avoid assigning a job to such a person in the first place.

If I think this way, I should be happy because, despite my family risk, many people have offered me lots of opportunity to work.  Besides, it is always my policy and work ethic that I brush up my skills and improve the quality of my work to live up to and even surpass the expectation of my clients. As a result, many of them are willing to take a risk and offer me a job.

I hope I was successful in glorifying what could have turned out a mere case of goofing off.

What is the first section of the TOEFL?

It’s Sunday today and the TOEFL is now being administered in lots of different test centers by now.  About one hour has passed since most test-takers started the reading section. I think by now they can predict what they will get in two weeks. The reading section is the most important section and it can be a good indicator of what outcome should be expected.

It’s not like I am emphasizing the relative importance of reading in learning English. Instead, I’m talking about the order of the four sections. I would not recommend going to the test center with your iPod on, which most people do for the purpose of “getting themselves used to English.” If you successfully get used to the English language by listening to it for 30 minutes, you should question the validity of what you have done so far. You have been studying for countless minutes thus far, but you are not confident yet. At this point, it would be of little use to try to get used to English just by listening for 30 minutes.

On the other hand, many of the test-takers today (I’m talking about tens of thousands of them world-wide!) must have repeated the first couple of sentences of the first passage in the reading section, totally unaware of what they were reading. After repeating several times, they finally knew that they understood nothing. Whatever they do or however they do it, the sentences on the screen do not make any sense to them.

Why? This is easy to answer. They had not prepared for the test enough. They focused on listening until the last-minute, wrongly convinced that they would make it to the reading passage. Alas! They just could not read a sentence. You have made a lot of preparation until the day before the test day, but on the very test day, your preparation should continue. One thing no one can avoid would be reading. After all, it is the first section and by the time the section is over, most people have lost their motivation.


What is a global city?

I happened to see in TIME magazine some statistics on which of the global cities is the most expensive to live in. Tokyo, ranked first for long, has been slid down to the sixth. Singapore was ranked 1st. Mumbai was ranked 131st, the bottom of the 131 global cities mentioned there.

Just out of curiosity, I asked my Speaking class what they meant by “global cities”. As it turned out, my students had a variety of requirements for a city to be called global: population, industry, fame, race, language,…

I do not know exactly what makes a city global. Peace? Well, of those 131, Damascus was ranked somewhere in the bottom. Damascus is the capital of Syria. By the standards of Tokyoites, it is far from peaceful. Then what is the real textbook definition of a global city?

To tell the truth, I do not mind what it means, because it would depend on each individual. What I wanted to point out is that if you do not provide a definition, your reader or listener will try to understand a notion or an idea on their own, based on their own assumption. Most of the time, however, they end up having trouble understanding it (like we did above).

Test-takers write a response to the question with a bunch of assumptions in mind, which, they think, are to be shared by the raters. However, when they say, “There are many sick people” the raters will find it hard to get the idea. They are not as kind as many of you hope them to be. Under time pressure, they are supposed to grade quite a few papers. They may say to themselves, “Sick? There are many sick people? What kind of society does this test-taker live in? Well, there is no time available to give it a serious thought, because I have to get all the job done in an hour. OK, I don’t understand this, so I will give it 2 (out of 5). Now, what’s next?”

Providing a definition means a lot. It is of paramount importance when it comes to trying to get yourself across to someone who doesn’t have anything in common, which is exactly the case of taking the TOEFL test. There are many ways to do this. Learning how is another important aspect of preparing for the TOEFL.

Lost in translation.

This is something that novice learners should do their best to avoid doing.

Back when I was in university, when I was studying English harder than most people in the world (or so I believed), I would often choose some phrase books that introduced idiomatic English phrases or those Japanese phrases that were hard to translate into English. I was happy to learn such phrases like “Chemistry is right.””We got good vibes.” etc.

It was possible for someone like me who had already learned most of the basics of the English language. I already knew syntactical structures of the English language, built the vocabulary large enough to read TIME magazine articles without using dictionaries. I was just interested to know more phrases  that I had often found hard to put into English and vice versa.

However, in retrospect, I would not have been successful in acquiring those phrases had I not learned enough of other aspects of the language. It would have been like learning something without knowing the real meaning of it or like a kid who tried to use a big word in his daily conversation.

Quite a few Japanese people seem to be learning that way, though. They find it pleasing enough to learn one phrase and use it in front of a native speaker (mostly their teacher), but they cannot develop the conversation any more now that they have completed a big task. I will not even try to stop them from such a positive rote learning (I would name it this way), but I would like them to think … what benefits do they have in the process of learning one rarely necessary phrase after another? Novice or intermediate or even advanced learners have lots of other things to do: vocabulary building (most words comprising the lower parts of the pyramid), listening and speaking, summary writing, presentation, and last but not least, preparation for the TOEFL. There is no room for studying such phrase books to cut in.

I know it is just fun, and this joy motivates you to learn more. However, if you keep learning from these phrase books, you may find yourself less flexible in expressing yourself, because as you study these books, you will believe that there is one English expression corresponding to one Japanese expression, which, as it turns out, is an illusion. That is when you feel lost in translation.

English learners who always look for study tips

For the last couple of days I have been working on the first proof. As is often the case with publishing, there is not too much time given to an unknown author (me!), so it is a tough task to complete. Now I have just press the send button to get the first proof back to the publisher.

By the way, this new book, which will come out in April or May, will be of great use for novice TOEFL learners. The book contains lots of materials similar to those seen in the actual TOEFL test. Obviously, I was asked to write this one within the context of the recently proposed introduction of the TOEFL test to the entrance exam to university. I am sure that you will see lots of TOEFL prep books in the Japanese bookshops this spring. I hope learners can find what’s appropriate for them. Regardless of this new policy (of adding the TOEFL to the exams), we need more books in Japan. Learners are just reduced to relying on foreign books, which are a bit overwhelming (Look how thick they are!), and may consequently give up on the entire plan to study abroad.

In this setting, however, learners flock to the bookshop to get books. You may wonder what books, now that you know there are not enough books for the TOEFL in the first place. Instead of studying material, decorating rows of shelves are books on study tips. “How to prepare for the TOEFL” “How to brush up speaking skills” “How I learned English” “How people should acquire a foreign language” and the list goes on and on. Some of them are selling very well.

Well, I am determined NEVER to write a book of that sort. I do not criticize anyone for choosing one of those books, because I did it very often when I was in college. However, after all the effort, I now know that reading or getting study tips in Japanese works as anesthesia or amphetamine. As you read study tips, you gradually feel numb and think that you have learned many things. On the contrary, so long as you are reading Japanese books, you are NOT learning anything about English. If learning English is your goal, learn English. Probably that should be the best policy.

Therefore, I find it hard to understand why Japanese learners prefer to read study advice written in Japanese. It seems to me that they are reading books on how to go on a diet successfully while munching on a slice of pizza. Dieting itself is not bad. Advice for dieting is worth reading. However, before foraging for advice, isn’t it better to stop munching pizza?

When I see people reading advice for learning English written in Japanese, I always remember this analogy. If they have time to read a Japanese book on English, they should read an English book on anything.

But the publishers are not about to stop this trend. Looks like this country is producing millions of English learning critics who don’t speak English themselves.