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In the very first year I started to teach TOEFL, I found something very interesting.

We were discussing how the Moon (the Earth’s satellite) revolves around the Earth, which was actually the main idea  of the passage we were reading in class.

I asked class what the surface of the Moon looks like. I assume that there are a variety of images of the surface of the Moon, depending on which culture you live in. At least in Japan, the Moon looks like there is a rabbit which is pounding rice to make rice cake.

Well, class got the correct answer without difficulty.

However, that was not what I wanted to ask. Who can be satisfied with such a question? They come all the way to learn something more valuable from me. A rabbit pounding rice cake is a very familiar image even among five-year-olds. That cannot be asked by any TOEFL questions because it would give a considerable advantage to Japanese citizens.

What was my real question then?

I went on.

Now, the Moon revolves around the Earth, because it is our satellite. At the same time, the Moon rotates. Yeah, it rotates like a top spinning on the floor. And here is the question.

Why do we always see the same “face” of the Moon? Doesn’t it rotate?

Class sat motionless.

Every time we see the Moon, it shows the same image, no matter when. What’s the secret?

I went on.

OK, when the Moon goes around the Earth, it slowly rotates with the same side facing the Earth. Let’s make an experiment. I am the Earth, and you are the Moon. Can you go around me while always looking at me? When you make a circle, it means you have revolved once, but at the same time, you have rotated once. This is how the Moon moves. It’s called synchronous rotation, and that’s why we only know the same side of the Moon, just as I can see your face, but cannot see your back.

Shinobu! I definitely need more knowledge like that! I can barely read and listen, but I sometimes wonder if I could read much better and listen more easily if I knew more of the scientific  knowledge… Come to think of it, a little knowledge of the judicial system will be of great use when you discuss the death penalty. A little knowledge on colonial times will be of much help when you read a passage about Boston Tea Party.

Since then, I have been very curious to teach those pieces of background knowledge to students to help them understand better. Luckily enough, the TOEFL test does not ask questions from all the various academic fields; it doesn’t have to do with Japanese history, it doesn’t ask you about the order of the past Chinese emperors, nor does it ask anything about traditional food of Bulgaria.

So, I decided to compile some of the most often asked topics in the TOEFL test and help learners deal better and more efficiently with one of the toughest language tests in the world. Together with a friend of mine who now lives in the U.S. and was once a co-worker of mine, I wrote this book.

頻出テーマで はじめてのTOEFLテスト 完全攻略

Obviously, this book is meant for the Japanese people who are preparing for the TOEFL test. However, I am sure that they will go through something very different. The more they read, the more aware they will become of the TOEFL topics, and the better prepared they will be for the upcoming TOEFL test.

Grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, are important knowledge of English, for sure, but there is more to TOEFL than that. I hope you find it in this book.


Secrets of job hunting

I always ask my students, most of whom are from younger generations, to never ask me anything about job hunting. Well, my social status as a TOEFL instructor means that I can help solve most questions about TOEFL, but does not mean that I can answer all the questions from my students, especially when I have virtually no background experience similar to theirs. One that falls into this category is a job-hunting process, or to be more precise, “Which job should I take, a well-known large corporation that my parents know, but I am not attracted to at all, or a venture business that my parents won’t appreciate, but keeps attracting me?”

It looks like a TOEFL writing prompt, but to tell the truth, it’s far from it. The difference? The former does not affect anyone or anything but your score, while the latter, or this particular question that I am asked here, directly affects the rest of the questioner’s life. You know what I do then? I always do my best to avoid giving any suggestion (now this is also different from TOEFL, which requires a definite answer). I will fill the designated time slot by sharing my backgrounds, nodding to the student’s parents, nodding to the student him/herself, repeating the question, until finally time is up and I say, “Oh, gotta run now. I have a class in five minutes.”

OK, just in case you are interested in my backgrounds, I can share with you a part of what I went through.

I graduated from university with a degree in law, then got a job with a construction business. This is a decision that I successfully arrived at after all the listening to other people involved. I was not opinionated or anything, so I wanted to keep everyone happy. My professor actually offered me an opportunity to get a job at a (prestigious) bank, but I refused (which made him supermad), knowing that I would end up quitting the job because that was not anything that I had in mind. My parents, neither of whom had even gone to high school, insisted that I work at the local municipal office.  According to them, being a government employee was the key to a  peaceful, stable life. Again, I rejected it. I knew that (no offense!) I would either die out of boredom or die out of frustration. So the construction business seemed to me like a happy medium. It was stable, or even prosperous (consider I was in the midst of the bubble economy). It seemed to me like I would get some free time to brush up whatever I wanted to. It also seemed to me that I would be able to save some money for the day I would be ready for the next step.

I thought this way and decided to get a job in this industry just around this time of my senior year, and got a job next week. (See? That’s what happened in the bubble economy. University students chose where to work; companies would almost always accept them.) In retrospect, at that time, I was ignorant in two ways. I had thought that the company would fully consider my future perspectives and assign this promising newly employed to the department where I’d thought I should belong. Secondly, I didn’t have a clear future goal myself except for studying abroad. Neither took place. Then I quit the job.

I know people give advice most of the time based on their own experience. This is so true with me when I am asked about job-hunting.  I tend to reply with two assumptions: my students are not in the bubble economy anymore, so any job can be so hard to come by; my students, still in their early 20’s, have not yet discovered a hidden treasure in themselves. If you think this way, it is very likely that your brain will stop functioning, because the clever side of your brain (?) realizes that what advice you give them will turn out in vain. Either you will be regarded as anachronistic, or they will discover something so new that your advice will never apply.

If I had asked my professor what kind of jobs I should get in those days, I would not have received a good answer. I could not verbalize what my future should be like. Why? I didn’t know that there was a test called TOEFL then. I knew it only after I quit the construction business. Time will tell, but it takes too long. It took me another 9 years to finally realize that I wanted to teach TOEFL.

I am not in a position to convey any wisdom of job hunting.




The narrower, the better…

For some reason, my son and I were left home with just the two of us. My son recovered from his cold on the previous day, and I didn’t want him to play actively with his friends in the park, but still he needed something special to do to keep himself busy (Children would die when they have nothing to do!), so I decided to take him to a large local supermarket and let him play with the toys and games available on the fifth floor of the building.

Hey, we were in the middle of the Golden Week holidays! Whoever would go to a supermarket?!

That’s exactly what I thought, but in a positive way.

Just as I had expected, there were only a few people on the kids’ floor (it was still early, that’s why). My son had no difficulty occupying the games and toys for as long as he wanted. Adjacent to this toy department was a small bookshop, so I decided to browse while my son was absorbed in cars and dolls (Oddly he shows interest in dolls, which, from my viewpoint, are for girls).

Now you’ve arrived at what I wanted to say today. This bookshop was small. After all, it takes 10% of the entire floor, whose main goods are children’s toys. However, I found it very comfortable and easy to browse some good books there. Since it is small, the shop cannot house all the books that come out every minute, obviously. The second best policy of the bookshop (what would you do if you were the shop owner?) is to display best-sellers, and other books that are really interesting and worth taking a look at. They should make the best of what little space they have to maximize the profits.

I actually bought five books there.

As I browsed there, it just dawned on me that this could apply to learning a foreign language. If you try to learn English to achieve plural objectives (watching a movie without the subtitles, using English to cut business deals, reading novels written in English, speaking at a natural speed in a native-like manner, texting in English…), it would be as if you went to a huge book shop and spend 30 minutes. You don’t know what to start with, going upstairs and downstairs, ending up with no particular book in your hand. You would just come out from the entrance, feeling tired.

Going to a small bookshop, in that sense, can be compared to studying English for a limited purpose (like taking 80 in TOEFL, not 90 or IELTS or TOEIC, just 80 in TOEFL). What you have to do, then, will become clearer and it would be easy to eliminate what does not directly contribute to this end.

You may get much more than what you want, just as I bought five books there, even though I had not expect myself to buy one book.