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.


Rumor has it that…

I am taking a TOEFL text this weekend. I only wish I were taking it to get the score to apply for a graduate school. I already have one particular graduate school in mind – I am hoping to finally attend it after I have retired in 15 years’ time 😉 Until that time, I will be reminded of it from time to time to enjoy a daydream. As I often say to my students and clients, I will never give up on this one. Well, then what am I taking the TOEFL this weekend for? As a matter of fact, I will have to see if the rumor is true or false.

Recently a little change in the way questions appear on the screen, as well as some minor details, reportedly has been made. The thing is that these reports come from a casual conversation with a limited number of test takers. I cannot believe it yet. How can I? Many students don’t even remember what they said in the speaking section or in the writing section. It would be unbelievable if they remembered the titles of the passages in the reading section. (So don’t worry, ETS test proctors. Test takers won’t tell anyone what the test questions were, because they can’t!)

It is, therefore, time that I took the test myself. When I take a test, I have a specific purpose of going all the way to the test center (This time it will take a couple of hours to get there. I booked a bit too late. Had no choice.)

Some of the purposes that I have had so far include…

  1. What if I write more than 700 words for the Independent Writing whose “ideal” response will be 300 words?
  2. What if I write as little as 250 words for the Independent Writing?
  3. What if I write more than 450 words for the Integrated Writing whose “ideal” response will be 150~225 words?
  4. What if I spoke like a typical Japanese citizen who couldn’t care less about the actual pronunciation?

… and many more.

As a TOEFL instructor, it is crucially important to know the fine line between the response that carries 5 out of 5 and that of 4, 4 and 3, or 3 and 2. That’s where my students are working hard to overcome. It is my job to indicate the passing line to all those test-takers so that they can prepare and get the maximum score with the minimum effort. That is when I am paid.

This weekend, I will sacrifice the time to study myself, but in return, I will receive another set of secrets of the actual TOEFL exam. Yes, there are lots of open secrets in the test. My job is to create a range of covert strategies out of open secrets. Lots of oxymora

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.


(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.)

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.


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.


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).


Is that the same burger that I had yesterday?

The pricing policy of Kindle should be added to the seven wonders in the world, making it eight.

I once (or twice or more) wrote about this book.

Sales promotion was not the only intention that I had. I really wanted more TOEFL test-takers to read this book and prepare themselves for the test. It has quite a few topics that are very frequently asked in the actual TOEFL test. The more knowledge you have of certain academic fields, the more chance you stand of understanding the lectures that would otherwise be so new to you that you would be at a loss trying to understand them, much less talk about them.

That’s not everything, and this I find very problematic.

The price was set at 800 yen when I introduced this book on my blog and Facebook page. I can now assume it sold better than before, because it is now 1,800 yen – a whopping 225% higher! According to some websites that I found, they set a higher price because they empirically know that once a book starts to sell, it will keep selling well even if the price is higher.

Too bad.

Does that affect how much I will get from the publisher? I was totally unaware of it because I didn’t care (Who in the world that cares about royalties writes a book on the TOEFL, which is taken by not more than 80,000 Japanese people?)

Anyway, I just wondered. Today you ate a burger that cost you $8. Tomorrow, you will try the same burger at the same fast food chain, but the price is $18. You will not take it for the day, and the next day, and the following day… until you forget you have actually eaten it before.



Things you take for granted are not given at all.

I have always noticed the differences in learning environment between the Tokyo metropolitan area and the rural, countryside (where I was born and raised). When I was in high school, it was impossible to buy a foreign book in one day. I was lucky, because in those days, I couldn’t have enjoyed foreign books. But as a university student, I had a hard time ordering foreign books.

First off, I had to take a bus to get to the nearest train station, where I took a train to the terminal. Then I took a ferry (boat) to finally reach the mainland of Japan. Then I could finally get to the destination by train. It took a half day to get there. In the bookshop, I couldn’t find the book I was looking for.  So I ended up going to the counter to fill out the order form.

Still, I was lucky. The book would be sent to my address in a couple of weeks…or months.

Now I sometimes talk to some of my clients who live in a less developed country. They say it is very hard to get a prep book for the TOEFL. When it comes to those books in Japanese, you should forget about it once and for all. You will end up waiting forever in vain. I made one of my clients a promise to give materials he needs in an electronic form. Now he is lucky. He couldn’t get the material himself, but he was able to reach someone who can give it to him. That was another (regional) gap to be filled.