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.

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(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.)

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).

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(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.

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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 😉

 

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.

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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).

 

Kite-flying

It is something everyone did in winter, especially in their New Year holidays: kite-flying. I fondly remember what I was doing in my childhood as I saw my son enjoying this tradition. We just happen to have a large park in our neighborhood, where no obstacles surround it, and fewer people gather there on a cold day, so he was running around with his kite without worrying about bumping into other strollers.

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His kite was not of good quality, for he made it himself at kindergarten. It is just a square plastic sheet with a thread tied to each of the four corners. Contrary to our expectation, it was streaming well in the sky.

My question is: Will this tradition remain in the future when my son has grown up? Maybe in the countryside, and maybe not in the city. Lots of people are talking about loss of traditions. TOEFL, therefore, makes use of this topic to ask test-takers to respond to “Will paper books vanish as we have advanced technology?” “Will traditional skills be of little use because most of them are done with the computer and technology?” Affirmative answers may be a little easier to write, since you can describe how things are being eliminated by advanced technology. However, I would personally like to say No to these questions (even at the actual test center). Traditions are things that we had fun with in our childhood and things we should cherish for the future generations. I sometimes wonder if change is always a good thing.

Good old traditions

One important event for us parents this week was the rice cake-making ceremony at my son’s kindergarten. We were asked to help kids make rice cake (well, to tell the truth, we made it for them, and they ate it for lunch). For parents like me, it was quite exciting, too. I just wondered when was the last time I pounded glutinous rice like this? It should be more than 40-odd years back, when I was also in kindergarten. Even in those days, at home we used a rice cake (mochi) maker.

Machines and technologies do a lot of chores for us, but while the task is being done, what do we do? Probably, we use another machine to get other jobs done. With a smart phone in one hand, we listen to music, check email messages, play online games, and most importantly, log onto SNSs. School, in the 21st century, means a lot in keeping our good old traditions from vanishing into thin air.