My year teaching English at a Japanese university, part 2

I spent the last post going over why eikaiwa offer better English education than universities.  Now I’m going to contradict myself a bit.

There are a few points on which universities’ English courses are superior to eikaiwa classes.  In fact one of those points is nearly a fatal blow to the idea that eikaiwa can be considered proper education at all.  And that is:

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My year teaching English at a Japanese university, part 1

I have just finished my one and only year teaching English part time at one of many campuses of a large private university in central Japan.  Some of you might not know what “separate campuses” means at a Japanese university, but in general it means that each campus has only a few departments.  In my case, it was exactly one rather esoteric department, with fewer than 10 majors.

Private universities in Japan are generally less prestigious than public.  Unfortunately for educational standards, a falling population of children means that universities care more about filling seats than opening minds… or to split hairs, care more about filling seats for 30,000-yen entrance exams than filling seats in lectures thereafter.  For obvious reasons this concern for income is especially evident at private institutions.  There is an entire book dedicated to the theme that higher education in Japan is a Baudrillardian simulation, all rituals and forms and no empirical reality.  Not that the logic of a credential eventually coming to replace education instead of being a guarantee of it is not found at public universities or universities in other countries, but Japanese private universities seem to set the standard for meaninglessness in higher education.

Low-ranked private universities are to education as this is to enjoying your Super Nintendo

Because mine was a private university and my campus had a single department (which was not English), you might expect it to be the worst of the worst.  In fact, my year there was mostly pleasant, with friendly and helpful staff and enthusiastic students – more enthusiastic than I had expected at any rate.  I would have continued teaching there happily if other life plans hadn’t intervened.

Anyway, more will be said about this university as posts are added to this series.  On to nugget of wisdom the first.

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Foreign language and Salieri

I got JLPT level 1 in 2006.  This probably represents the high point of my achievement in Japanese.  I’m just good enough now to intimidate the people who plateaued lower than me, but not nearly so good that people talking to me forget it’s my second language.

There’s a point in language learning which I will call the Salieri point at which you’re just good enough to realize how much better the really good people are.  I suppose there’s a lesson in behavioral economics to be found there – because my reference point has suddenly jumped way above my head, I find myself much less motivated even though that jump has only come as a result of objective improvement in my Japanese comprehension.  If there were a way to put this into formal terms and study it, I bet it’d be revealed to be a major cause of fossilization.

El arbo envejece como español de escuela secundaria


The worst kind of romaji

I’m not opposed to the type of romaji (Romanized Japanese) that replicates the logic of Japanese phonology, for instance ti for “chi” in words like tintai  (Quick aside – the animated movie Tin Tin is pronounced Tan Tan in Japan because… well just look it up).  Learners just need to be reminded that this is still Japanese, and things don’t magically become comprehensible just because you switched writing systems.  Other languages that use the alphabet have conventions of pronunciation that are different from those of English, and Japanese is entitled to one as well – but of course that’s a different issue than which system of romaji is the most intuitive for English speakers.  For English class, I insist on Hepburn (e.g. Shinshū) rather than Kunrei (Sinsyû) except for names, with the caveat that students who spell their names with Kunrei had better be prepared to walk people through how to pronounce (for example) Syôta Utizima.  Students are regularly shocked when I tell them they can actually spell it Shoughtaugh if they want, but the same rule of being able to explain it applies.  Incidentally, passports require Hepburn romanization.

Anyway the point of this entry is to complain about my least favorite type of romaji ever.  That is the type that is written with the intention of being read katakana-style, and only makes sense when intentionally mispronounced.  Some typical substitutions are kisu for “x” or ru (one of the most common Japanese verb endings) for “l”.  Some marketers use this mispronunciation as fodder for puns, a la vegitabel, where the end is a pun on taberu (eat).  Here are some real-world examples for your pure horror:

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Things I hate about vegetarianism

I got a lot of people mad at me many many years ago by posting in a forum that I thought vegetarianism, which I was much more into at the time, was a very public-minded practice and that it was obvious to me that the more people were vegetarians, the better we’d be.  The people who got the most upset were the vegetarians.  The meat-eaters were indignant, which is a word I’ve always interpreted as “the kind of angry that feels great”.  The vegetarians were just garden-variety angry.  Some vegetarians keep very angry gardens.

The experience got me thinking about how much I agree with the principles that underlie vegetarianism (I still don’t eat meat, but haven’t talked about vegetarianism, much less actively promoted it for years) but hate the cloud of cultural detritus that follows vegetarianism around, such as its quasi-religious view of itself.

In the spirit of the modern Internet I thought I’d organize this post into a list of arguments for and ideas associated with vegetarianism I reject.

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A memorable time at a JALT event

Something happened at a JALT event a few years ago that I still wonder about.

One of the featured speakers at this semi-major event was a very popular, very charismatic teacher of very young learners.  Many presentations at JALT seem like someone’s first public speaking experience – most of mine are like that – but this one was done right.  From the moment the speaker bounded up the steps to the stage in the medium-sized hall she had the audience completed absorbed, getting us involved in simple but fun ways and hitting an arpeggio of emotional notes throughout.  The speech was on the teaching of moral values as a part of a preschool English class, sort of a Very Young Learners version of CLIL, and featured plenty of anecdotes of precocious youngsters educating each other and, for maximum cuteness, the teachers on values such as honesty, patience, and kindness.  As a JALT presentation it was a complete experience with a clear point delivered by a seasoned pro, and despite my issues with the content I was happy to have seen it from near the front.

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Haafu and gaijin

I divide slurs into two categories:

  1. Offensive because they have unacceptable connotations (resentment, demonization, denigration, etc.), and
  2. Words that are offensive because they categorization they imply is wrong.

The first category includes most of the popular ethnic slurs, and have in common that even the people being insulted generally accept the validity of the categories being applied.  Plenty of people are offended by slurs for groups like women or African-Americans even as they agree with the person doing the slurring on which people those terms include.  For many English speakers in Japan, gaijin and haafu are examples of this – illegitimate terms for legitimate categories (“foreigners” and “biracials”, for those not in the know).  Of course, some don’t mind these terms, and in my experience tend to like the experience of being permanent outsiders or see themselves as reclaiming those terms.  By the way, Louis CK is wrong though about “Jews” being the only group for which the slur is the same as the neutral term – Muslims have the same problem among certain demographics, and Chinese in Japan do too.

The second type of slur, that of incorrect categorization, takes a bit more effort to think of examples for.  According to one of the plenary speakers at JALT 2014, all non-whites were categorized “black” in her part of the US during her childhood, which sadly was not in the 1800s.  Many minorities face belligerent grouping by members of the majority, who use catch-all terms almost as if to say they don’t care if El Salvador and Guatemala are different places; they’re all the same as far as they care.  I see the terms gaijin and haafu as examples of slurs by incorrect categorization too.  And because it’s the categorization rather than the particular term for that group that is wrong, gaikokujin (which many consider more polite than gaijin) and daburu (“double”) are not significantly better.

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The Curse of Knowing the Curse of Knowledge

I first ran into this term in Steven Pinker’s writing manual that came out a few years ago (sidenote: I’m at the age where “a few years ago” could be anytime since John Kerry was a Presidential candidate).  As I understand it, the curse of knowledge refers to the inability of people, once they understand something, to remember what it was like not to understand it.  That is, the present me who knows stuff has very little empathy for the people, including the former me, who don’t.  If I didn’t have on pretty good authority that the former me is a pretty nice bloke, I’d swear he was willfully ignorant or just incapable of noticing the patterns in the events around him.

This tidbit from psychology has fairly large implications for language teaching.  First, its primary implication, which holds for every subject, is that the ideal teacher is not necessarily the most knowledgeable one on the subject matter.  In fact, depth of knowledge coupled with lack of teaching experience could be taken as a strong disadvantage, representing a likely extreme inability to communicate effectively with novices in that subject area.  For me these were most of my science teachers in junior high and high school.  The best teacher could rather be someone just ahead of the learner in the subject matter, who still remembers the steps they had to take to reach that point.  An added bonus is that that person is likely to be demographically more similar to the learner, and therefore someone whose opinions the learner cares about.

Second, on the specific subject of language learning, the “experts” are usually thought to be the native speakers of that language, whose memory of learning the subject is usually lost in the ether of early childhood.  I learned Japanese (and continue to learn) in adulthood, and in many cases I remember the first time I encountered and understood a particular word or grammar point (which we might call intake).  The latest example is やんちゃ,  or “rambunctious”, which the lady who runs the dog park used about a group of pro-wrestling dogs.  There is very little in the English language I have these kinds of memories for.  I don’t remember what it was like not to understand “giraffe”, “deadline” or how to use would.

Hopefully I’ve done a decent job explaining my thoughts on the subject.  It’s hard for me to tell because I don’t remember what it was like not to have them.

So add this to the pile of evidence against preference for native speakers in language teaching.

Meaning of Translation, Translation of Meaning

“Little Manny went picking apples with his grandma”

Manolito went picking manzanas with his abuela.”

If you’re a Trump supporter, the second probably raised your blood pressure a bit.  Why?  If my translations are accurate enough, why do these sentences not elicit exactly the same reaction in people who know enough to understand both?

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