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.


(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.)

Trade-offs between two topics

At different stages, TOEFL test-takers have a different impression on the speaking section. You start to seriously prepare for the test when you are a young adult, just as you come back from your exchange program (which most students of mine did). They have already gotten used to responding to everyday events, so all the familiar topic questions like “Describe your favorite food.” or “Do you prefer to get up early to start the day’s work?” are very easy.


In fact, that’s what these young adults have been doing for the past year. At the same time, they find it extremely hard to effectively summarize a lecture on why dinosaurs became extinct (which, obviously, is an Academic topic). So this hypothetical young adult learner would receive a score report that says Familiar — G(ood), Campus — F(air), Academic — L(imited).

When this student gets older and seriously starts to get back to school (hopefully a grad school for his/her MBA degree), things will have changed. They will always see themselves struggling out of familiar topics. They cannot even develop their favorite food. “My favorite food is Chinese food. I have three reasons for this choice. First of all, it is delicious…” – a response that does not represent what they really have in mind. Such being the case, their score reports will say Familiar — L, Campus — F, and Academic — G.

Which results in the same score of this speaking section.

From my teaching experience – longer than the TOEFL iBT itself –  this phenomenon has always repeated. So much so that I have even hypothesized that there should be a trade-off between the two topics: familiar and academic. This is what makes this section extremely difficult, compared to the reading section, where you can improve your score by one if you get an additional correct answer. The result in the Speaking Section does not form a linear line.

One strategy that can result from the above hypothesis is to focus on the Campus topics, which seem to be topic-neutral. The topic itself does not determine the difficulty level of the prompt.

The next time you take the TOEFL, however, I do hope that you defeat my hypothesis!

In 10 years…will it happen?

Five English teachers observed my TOEFL Speaking class on Thursday. I don’t know in detail (cuz I teach part time there and steer clear of the management.) , but basicaly, just observing whatever class you choose out of curiosity does not necessarily mean you can learn from the class. 

My class is situated on the other side of the  spectrum of Japanese English classes. This is so true when it comes to the Speaking class. Here I take a laissez-faire attitude and let my students try to maximize their ability to speak. This is only possible, however, when students already know how to start a response, when to use a new phrase, or how to change their idea when it is hard to put it in English. 

At school, those basic skills or even basic knowledge with which to build basic skills are to be taught. TOEFL classes may not offer ideas that apply to Japanese school English classes. 

So I thought on Thursday. 

Now, however, I do hope that English education in Japanese secondary school will one day catch up with the TOEFL course standards. TOEFL 80 is now regarded as too high a score for an average student to achieve. I would like to see it changed in ten years’ time. 

A tough question in real life

“Grab that crepe. It’s all yours, H. A whole banana is in it.”

“No, thanks, dad. You know…”

“I know, H. You HATE bananas. Don’t you think it’s easy to deal with your likes and dislikes at home and at kindergarten? You can simply say Nope to reject the offer.”

“uh huh. Simple. And I like that.”

“But the reality is really harsh. You know, you like S in your class, right? Then you would get a kick out of playing at her house.”

“Yeah, why?”

“What if her mother, just out of hospitality, brings all those crepes, saying, ‘Here, lots of banana crepes. Share them with S. I’m sure you’ll like them.’?”

“I’d run out od the room?”

“How would you see her next time?”

“I’d rather not run…”

“Hard, isn’t it? Very different from quasi-reality in kindergarten? … Your dad doesn’t know what to do, either.”

Genetically speaking…

Ever since my son was born, I have kept this promise. I will never teach evening classes. They end at 8:40, which brings me back home at 10:00, when everyone (my son and my daughter) is dreaming in the bed. Yesterday was special. I had a special appointment that I should not refuse. On the train heading home, I tried genetically linking my lifestyle to my father’s. 

Back in my childhood Dad came home early. I don’t remember the dinner time without his presence (except for the time he was in the hospital – he had a number of operations, whose number I don’t remember. I don’t remember either by the time my brother started school, what his internal anatomy was like. At least he didn’t have a stomach any more). 

During my school days Dad was home all the time. Not a day passed by without our discussions about current affairs, baseball and other sports. I still think that Dad should be with the kids and help Mom with the household chores. Dad did the dishes after every meal, saying he liked it because dishes were getting clean. So I take that responsibility now. 

It’s not like I regard my Dad as a role model that I should pursue. It just happens that I look like my Dad in retrospect. When I see some of my relatives, this conversation takes place. 

“When I see you, I’m looking at the spitting image of your father!  ”

“Yeah, I know that myself. I can’t stand looking in the mirror lol.”

“Hey, Shinobu, you look like your father so much that I felt as if he were still alive!”

Before my son was born, I was not like that. I was sort of seeing my father as a negative example. Now that he has passed way, and I’ve got two amazing children, I am starting to resemble this negative example. 

Dad was a construction worker (sort of free lance, working for one company after another). I am a free-lance English teacher, working part-time for a prep school. Dad used biceps muscle to survive while I use the speech area of the brain to survive. 

Looks like I cannot beat his DNA. Entrepreneurs often insist that we live our own lives, but as for me, no matter how hard I try, my future path may not be too different from my father’s.

What’s it for?

About an hour ago, I started to do research on books, those best-sellers and new arrivals, under the category of “TOEFL”. I sometimes do this because I need to be always on top of what’s taking place in this field. (If a teacher like me did not take time to do this, who could afford to spare time for this unproductive routine?) Besides, I haven’t written an article yet on Top 20 TOEFL-preparation printed books that I was asked to submit by All About more than a year back. Yes, I have enough reason to surf (or kayak) through amazon (.co.jp).

This may be something that all those web-site designers and programmers have already noticed, but I realized NOW that the ranking announced by amazon is not based so much on how many books have been sold for a certain period of time, as on when a copy was ordered last time.

One of my books was ranked below 100th when I started to do the above research (two others were included on the top 10 list). I got disappointed, but cannot blame it on anyone else. It’s just that I should write a better, more instrumental book. Then I started to move on. An hour later, when I took a glance at the ranking, Whew! the same book of mine was ranked 18th. I also knew there were three in stock. Now, two.

What does this mean? With only one purchase, the ranking went from below 100th all the way to a whopping 18th? Obviously, my article of Top 20 TOEFL books will not be in tune with the ranking.