Counting the number of hours that I put in to improve my listening ability

I was recently asked how I learned to listen to English. After all, it is hard for many non-native speakers to keep up with normal verbal exchanges between native speakers or to understand lectures at university, not to mention movies, where conversations are conducted emotionally. What makes matters worse, most Japanese learners of English study in their home country where virtually no English is spoken or used on a daily basis. Therefore it takes them a bit of effort (and hopefully, grit) to improve their listening ability. Exactly how many hours must one practice until he/she finds no particular problem understanding spoken English?

As is always the case, I cannot provide a perfect solution for all learners. The only thing I can do here is to share with them what I have done. (I cannot even identify what part of my past learning experience directly contributed to the development of my ability to understand English when it is spoken at a normal speed.)

And hence, my experience.

The first intentional attempt to improve my listening skills that I made was to buy a shortwave radio to receive the radio wave from the Voice of America. I had learned from a magazine or something that they offered a special English program. The one I found was broadcast at around 10:45 p.m. At age 16, I didn’t have an earphone or anything (I am talking about an ordinary high school kid 35 years ago), so I would listen to the program deep in the bed so that it wouldn’t disturb anyone in the house. The English used in the program was really slow and simple. I was happy to finally find the “real” kind of English that I could enjoy other than the textbook and the English conversation programs available in Japan.

A second attempt to further improve my listening ability was to listen to BBC shows. With the same shortwave radio, I realized that I could listen to BBC world service. This one attempt, however, was to have a long-lasting effect on the inferiority that I would suffer as far as listening was concerned. Truth be told, I couldn’t understand a word spoken in any of these BBC shows. The shock that I felt was beyond your imagination. I had been learning English for the last six years (I first listened to BBC in my freshman year at university), and yet I couldn’t understand a word spoken in RP – the standard way in which English is spoken in England! It took me a couple of years, to be more precise the entire four years at university to finally understand British English smoothly.

From that phase on, I was not able to achieve any breakthroughs to move on to the next phase … for so long a period of time that I can only barely remember. Even though I already started to teach English at an English conversation school, I was not confident enough when it came to listening to spoken English. My TOEIC score back then was 990 already, but that did not help. I was not confident, even when I talked to a native speaker in person.

This plateau on the learning curve of my listening ability continued for as long as (as I said, if I can remember correctly) 7~8 years when the Internet-based TOEFL exam was introduced as a new form of the TOEFL. I hadn’t taken TOEIC for the past several years, but I had to take the TOEFL iBT, which, by that time, I was already teaching to make a living. I was not sure, either, if I could understand the listening section well, but as it turned out, I got 30 out of 30 in the listening section. That was obvious, because I understood every single word uttered in the section. Complete understanding would logically lead to a full mark.

What had happened by then? Below are things that I think I did during the “dark (latent) period” of my English learning.

1. Watched the same movie repeatedly. By “repeatedly” I mean “countless times,” literally. Tried to write down what they say and played each role myself as I watched it.

2….

3….

4….

No, I cannot remember anything else. (People say, “Time is on your side,” or “Time can tell,” but please be reminded that “time” is the real culprit that takes your memory away.)

As I remember the path to learning English, however, I have found some things that I can emphasize here.

1. I cannot remember anything special that I did to improve my listening ability because that was not special at all. Everything – every effort, every book, every material – was so beautifully integrated into my daily routine that I couldn’t even trace them back as anything “special.” That was deeply ingrained into my unconsciousness.

2. I didn’t have a friend who spoke English as a native speaker for a long time. Especially after I was promoted to management of the school, I tried as much as possible to avoid making friends with them (there were as many as 100 native English speakers there) for fear of the possibility that I couldn’t criticize, reprimand, and even fire them if need be. So you don’t have to have friends to improve your listening skills.

3. Two important caveats

                   1) From the very beginning of my entire learning experience that started back when I was 13 years old, I successfully developed a good habit of listening to NHK’s radio English programs. This I continued for as long as 10 years until I graduated from university. That is the basis on which whatever I did after that turned out effective and even successful.

                   2) Having trouble with understanding RP was mainly because Japanese English education (at least in those days) was conducted in the Standard American accent. This also applied to NHK’s shows. I was fully exposed to the American English, which I had thought was the only English that existed. Having trouble with understanding RP does not mean that I couldn’t understand written English. I had learned English grammar, so with the help of English dictionaries I could read TIME magazines and English literary works.

Now, I can finally calculate the exact hours I spent on the development of my listening ability.

Basic NHK’s shows: 15~20 mins/day×365×10years=912.5 hours

VOA/BBC: 15 mins/day×365×3years(I am not sure)=273.75 hours

Movies: 2h×200(?)=400 hours

miscellaneous items 0.5h×365×(after univ ~ age 34?)=2190 hours

Total: 3376.25 hours

At age 34, I was pretty much sure I could understand spoken English, whether it be a standardized test, a court trial, or a TV drama, the latter of which is a bit hard, partly because I am not that interested in watching a drama and largely because it IS hard. One noticeable thing is that the above number is not anything like you expected when you started to read this post. First of all, I only calculate the first twenty years of my adventure of learning English. So the rest (another twenty years) should be added to see how many hours I have spent thus far in total. Second of all, this result implies that in order to improve your listening ability, the act of listening itself is not as important as people think. More important is to learn the basics of the language – not only its sound, but its structure and vocabulary as well.

There seems to be no one way to only improve the listening ability. It is supported by all the other knowledge and skills of the target language. That is why I said earlier that I don’t know what part of my learning experience made the greatest contribution to the improvement of my listening ability. “Listening,” while it accounts for a substantial time period, is not the only way to improve your listening ability.

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No diet regimen, really? Five rules to keep in mind for a successful diet

I would say I was a skinny young lad back in high school and throughout university. It was after I started to work that I gained a lot of weight – so much so that I looked like a different person. I still remember a couple of years after graduation attending the wedding of a friend of mine from high school, where many of my classmates gathered. One of them was dumbfounded at the way I changed and said to me that he wondered who I was … whether the newly weds had any connections with an oil tycoon from Saudi Arabia (no offense, just his personal idea what an oil tycoon looked like).

Now, as I am aging into my 50’s, I decided to put myself under the control of the very person who was in charge of myself. That was how my weight control campaign started. I have been on a diet successfully since Dec, 2018, for the last six months. I have lost quite a lot.

Yesterday I was throwing away things I didn’t need any more (I ignored the Kon-Mari method and threw away everything my eyes could see). One thing that caught my eye was a suit that I bought when I was still an “Arab oil tycoon.” Out of curiosity, I tried it on. I didn’t even take off the sweat shirt and pants that I was wearing. I felt the pants were too loose, so I also tucked the sweat shirt into the pants, and yet they fell down with my hands off.

That is what I call a successful diet. (I still have to go a bit further to get back to what I used to be in high school, but I will do it very gradually and slowly. After all, I am in my 50’s and don’t have to be as cute as to ask a girl out for a date. My sole purpose of weight control is to keep my health.)

OK, here is something that I always keep in mind to make my diet successful. That is a will power. I am, just like other business people, too busy to start anything new. I don’t get exercise because I cannot find time to do it. If I can spare some time, it is effectively consumed by my children. So the only means of dieting available to such a person is to control his eating habit. Well, it’s not that I have a severe diet regimen or anything. It’s more like I don’t eat much. That’s the only thing someone like me who is a total lay person on dieting can think of when it comes to losing weight. First and foremost, I stopped munches while at work. I used to munch on a range of snacks while checking my students’ writings or preparing the day’s classes, ranging from Japanese fried dough cookies (with lots of sugar on them) to coke. I abandoned all of them. If I wanted to eat something, I focused on my work. That’s the very threshold which one must overcome, and I did. Second of all, I reduced the overall calorie intake per day. Again, I am not a dietician, and neither is my wife, so I just followed the traditional belief on a successful diet: consume less carbohydrate (and sugar) and more fish and veggies. Well, no professional advice or how-to book on dieting was necessary. What one needs to successfully control his weight is a traditional idea and a strong will power.

Here is another important instance where a strong will power plays a critical role. Just as the above “method” indicates, I still drink alcohol. I didn’t quit it because the traditional belief, as I understand it, does not prohibit drinking. I also knew some of my vegetarian friends who drank normally. I put two and two together to come to a conclusion that drinking does not necessarily hinder my weight control plan. So, instead of banning it at all, I started to use it as a way to control myself. Before I eat (in other words, as soon as I come home from work), I measure my weight. If it is in the range of my set numerical goals, I allow myself to drink. If not, I will never. Interesting enough, when it is out of the range (which means I am heavier than I should be), I first feel down because I cannot drink for dinner, but then, I start to reflect on what I did or did not do for the day – something went wrong for sure. Then, over dinner, I reorganize what I should do or should not do the next day, again, feeling down, this time, not so much because I cannot open my beer can, as because I didn’t live up to my own expectation. It is, in retrospect, this way that my will power was strengthened.

All this I have experienced thus far.

Now I feel I am allowed to summarize some of the important elements that lead to a success in whatever one is trying to do.

1) Make sure you have a specific blueprint for the future.

I always had an image of myself back in high school (although I was a bit too thin those days.)

2) Realize the hidden power of your will.

By believing in your will power, it will become even stronger.

3) Follow a strategy that anyone can easily think of.

One does not need anything special in order to succeed. His/her strong will power to accomplish it is of far greater importance. Concentrate your energy not so much on the plan per se as on the very act of your doing it.

4) Give yourself a praise.

Drink beer to celebrate what you have accomplished (even if you are in the middle of the long way to your ultimate goal).

5) Reflect on why you failed.

If you are not successful, there should be something that did not work or went wrong. Identify that factor and make a small adjustment.

To my surprise, these five rules matches exactly the five rules that I have kept in mind to improve my English (as a second language). Ever since I started to go on a diet, I have always suspected that there seem to be many things in common between dieting and language learning. At least there are five.

Having said that, I have yet to lose some to be my ideal self. However for the time being, no one calls me an oil guru from Saudi Arabia.

From this week’s reading class ~classical music and TOEFL~

I am not an expert in music or anything but I know a bit about music – I have learned it in an effort to learn English for the TOEFL. The reading passage for this week’s class on classical music further consolidated my knowledge on it and further attracted my interest in music, I am happy to say. I even started to believe that music history should be taught in high school world history class. Now let’s get as far back as to 17th century Europe (the early Edo period in Japan).

One noticeable feature that separates the Baroque period from the Renaissance period is simplification in the form of music. Polyphony in the Renaissance period dissipated into homophony, a more simplified form of music, at the beginning of the Baroque period. I would say this shift in music finally allowed the general public, experts and lay people alike, to join musical events. In addition to the introduction of homophony, lyrics became simplified. In the previous period, the sacred words used by the church were expressed in Latin, which obviously was not familiar to lay people. The Protestant Reformation had an unexpected role here. Martin Luther advocated the use of German instead of Latin so that everyone could read the Bible. This movement, which turned out so successful and widespread, affected the lyrics used in music accordingly – thus the establishment of the Baroque period, which features the solo melody and simple lyrics. By the way, this religious reformation by Martin Luther was made possible thanks partly to the printing technology newly invented by Gutenberg. With this technology, a copy of the Bible was finally available to a wider range of the general public, who responded to Martin Luther’s call for the act of everyone reading the Bible.

At this point, you will realize that music history is part of, and is very much affected by, world history. Music, as I understand, is not taught in the world history class in high school, but I kind of suggest that it be taught in high school education. Music is more interesting to students than is war, and students will realize that music has been at the mercy of world history, and that maybe their favorite type of music will change its form toward the future with another wave of inventions.

That is not the end of the story about the Baroque period (as stated in the passage in the textbook). This period saw a range of musicians and composers emerging and attempting something that had not been done before. Antonio Vivaldi, composer of “The Four Seasons,” started to be financially independent of patrons. Patrons, throughout the art history, were (and are?) the source of money for the artists. I learned from a movie that Vermeer painted his famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring” without the assistance and financial help from his patron, which irked his family who knew how much paint cost and that he was wasting all of it for nothing. So I could see the bravery Vivaldi had to go on a concert tour himself. This change meant a lot. Composers used to be content if their patrons were happy with their music, which means that they got money. However, now that they had to ask a large audience for money, they needed to make their music more appealing to the audience. They had to devise a new tactic to keep them awake, thus leading to a trend of music becoming a spectacle, a form of entertainment that everyone can join. Later in the classical period, this trend was to culminate in the emergence of Beethoven.

The above interpretation is just a collection of what I learned from books, both TOEFL and others, and of my imagination that naturally comes from what I have learned. It may not be all true, but isn’t it wonderful to realize that you still have a hidden interest in, in this case, classical music – something you have never turned to for fun – as you get prepared for the TOEFL test. Another reason I recommend this exam as a means of improving your language skills.

Royal road

All  test-takers are created equal: they are minimalists. What I mean by their being minimalists is their tendency to memorize certain formats rather than to think. It seems like a good strategy at first sight. After all if they have one thing they want to achieve, the common denominator is to get a good-enough score. That is the end (and the beginning) of the time consuming effort toward getting admitted to American universities.

Both speaking and writing sections are fitting for such a near-sighted strategy. Once they have learned certain samples and formats (even without understanding what they mean), they have a better chance of survival. If they succeed in survival here (i.e. speaking and writing sections), all they need to do is to repeat the conventional translation learning style of reading and listening. In other words, they do not like speaking and writing, two major skills that are required when they are finally admitted.

OK, below is an extreme version of the things those minimalist learners wish they could do themselves. I have made a sample of 90% versatility for speaking #3.

The university is announcing a change in the title presented in the reading passage. According to this new policy, students will have to be prepared for some inconveniences, which made the man a bit angry. He then makes some complaints about this policy. However, the woman does not completely agree with him. The man completes the conversation with another complaint, which sounds legitimate. While she doesn’t think that his three complaints are worth her attention, the man is ready to let the university know about the problems that this new policy may cause. (95 words)

How’s this? It is 95-word long, which is fair enough in length if you look for a good score. If only you went into details! The raters would have to guess whether you have understood the conversation at all, because this response does not tell them anything about your comprehension.

Laughable. Lamentable. Or even shameful? But quite a few students commit a similar undertaking. They try to reduce the amount of detailed information, increasing the prepared statements to maximum.

I object.

This is not a type of preparation for the TOEFL. I like the TOEFL because it gives you an opportunity to learn academic English as you practice four different skills. By preparing for the TOEFL, you are rehearsing what you will be required to do at university. If a miracle should happen, and you should just survive by memorizing a meaningless chunk of English like the above, it would be you who will be having a hard time when school starts. There is no short-cut, magic or proverbial royal road to the required score. Forget about such a silly format above. It is your job then to fill the road to success with your perspiration.

Positive effects of music on language learning

One tested-and-proven way of learning English is by learning songs by heart. Any successful language learner must have learned multiple numbers of songs written and sung in the country whose language they learn. The effectiveness with which learning songs contributes to the improvement of learners’ abilities derives from the following three universal aspects of songs.

Songs are fun.

There is no doubt about this statement. Well, things are always relative, and so is the degree to which songs are fun. Songs are more of a fun activity than reading a passage from a philosophy book, that is to say. So long as it is fun, learners can focus on what they are doing. Which song is selected for the educational purpose, from my past experience, largely depends on the teacher’s taste, but that is no problem. The teacher chooses it because he or she believes it works or it worked as they were learning English. You could even choose the national anthem of the United States, which I often do, when I talk about sporting events like Super Bowl or NBA finals. Since my students already know the music (See how influential America is over other peoples’ culture?), all I should do is a little explanation of the lyrics, which accounts for a substantial time of the “warm-up part” of the class. Songs are fun, and they are of great help.

Songs remain.

Music was of great help to me when I was learning English back in the 80’s, when music videos were becoming a common means of publicizing a new piece. Listening to (or watching) music videos provides a great opportunity to get exposed to live English for learners including someone like me who studied English in a far-away land, where no one ever knew English. I remember learning the lyrics as I watched those videos. (There was one TV show even in Japan to introduce the Billboard chart.) What’s really good about learning the lyrics is that it is just stuck in my head. 30-odd years after I learned that way, I still remember the lyrics of “Living on a prayer,” “Like a virgin,” “Every breath you take,” when I am not sure if a certain expression I want to use is correct or not. I say to myself, “I’m not sure, but this gotta be good enough, cuz Bon jovi used it in their lyrics.” It gives you confidence in using the language.

Songs can help learners listen instead of read.

Reading is a great activity. We also know, however, that while it is essential, it makes you feel drowsy – all from our own experience. From time to time, we need some time away from such a torture. That is when music plays a significant role. So long as it is an English song, we are not just spacing out. We are actually using the right brain to make the best use of what little time we have for a recess. In other words, we are learning while taking a rest. I wonder if there is any research ever done to show the correlation between taking a rest listening to English songs and the TOEFL scores or anything. Anyway, it is not so much a matter of sheer numbers or evidence as a matter of one’s feeling toward the target language. Music can motivate the learners by making them feel as if they were studying even when they are not.

Presumably there should be more benefits (and demerits for that matter) of learning English through music. I will never deny its positive role in second language acquisition. 35 years ago, I started to learn English in earnest. 35 years ago, I also started to listen to American rock (or whatever). Linked to a number of songs that I like, my experience of learning English has always been meaningful.

Teacher or travel agent?

A self-employed language teacher myself, I always have a dream.

I do have my own private space where I can teach my students and have a counseling session with a new client (who is likely to become a student). At the preparatory school I teach part-time, all the equipment is available. I personally do not complain.

Still, I have a dream.

Since all my students are non-native English speakers, who, by the way, are preparing for the TOEFL test, as well as other exams like GMAT, to get into one of the top B-schools or whatever university they choose to attend, I always wonder how they can keep themselves motivated.

I believe that motivation is what it all takes to get a required score of the TOEFL. If you lose motivation, that is when your score will hit the plateau. I can tell you that there is one way you can avoid such a disappointment: to study in America even for a short period of time.

Below is a daily schedule that I always have in mind (when I am dreaming).

  • In the morning, you get up slowly. Take a stroll in Kapiolani Park. (Yes, I am talking about staying in Hawaii!) Back in the room to watch TV (A very good way of studying English.)
  • After breakfast, you attend some language classes at a local language school. enjoy discussions and debates (they are already TOEFL-prep material.)
  • After lunch, I would like to have a session with my students. Takes 3~4 hours to study for the reading and the writing sections.

At least to my ear, this is a perfect plan. If you stay for one whole week like this, you will be able to relax yourself, away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, enjoy nature and shopping, and concentrate on their studies.

OK, this plan is definitely not without problems, and they are very basic problems. I don’t know how to do this 🙂 I may be required to have a travel agent license, which I don’t have yet. I may be required to establish a corporation with a legally required capital, which I haven’t done yet. Probably the dream seems a bit too big to be true. Maybe I should take a test to get this kinda license any way… just for a rainy day.

But let me conclude with this final reminder. If you are preparing for the TOEFL, and you feel dull or tired, the best way to refresh is to study … in America.

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.