Gratitude!

I went back to CA alone last winter, and during the 2 weeks that Anna and Nico-chan were alone here they had the good fortune of discovering a new, spacious dog park along our normal commute, complete with lots of friendly dogs and a few that are basically Nico’s besties.

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Even friends fight sometimes.

After I came back and we started working again we became regulars there, going pretty much every day we could – Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and sometimes on the weekend (our weekend is Sun-Mon) as well.

As it happens, just as we’re closing our school at the end of May (today is our last day, and as I write we’re getting ready to move everything out), this place that has become a regular part of our lives is closing too.  Something involving an evil landlord.

So however long we stay in Japan this summer we will be homeless as far as dog parks go.  This distresses me more than losing our school – because we planned that – and makes our idyllic last month or so here feel rather empty.  I use this blog to complain a lot, but even pessimists have to understand that a glass half empty is better than no glass at all.

I thought I would devote a little space here to expressing Thanksgiving-like tokens of gratitude for random things that made my life here better.

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OC English by the numbers

I’ve finished putting almost all our relevant information in spreadsheets, and have some statistics to share about the school we’ve owned and operated for the past 11 years and 9 months.

  • Number of students: 276
    • Number of regular students: 217
    • Number of business students: 59
    • Number private: 34 (among regular students)
    • 42 students took more than one class type

As I said before, we had a small school.  Some others in our industry have this many students at any given time.  Read on for more, and if you’re curious read more about how I feel about leaving here, here, and here.

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Success and failure, pt. 1 – Motivating a 4-year-old and failing to motivate the same 10-year-old

We’re in the final week of school here.  Parents are taking books from our library home for the last time and we’re separating other stuff into “worth making room for at our house”, “worth keeping but no place to keep”, and “burnables”.  Actually, those last 2 groups are the same.  The most unexpectedly difficult adjustment is remembering not to say “see you next week” at the end of classes.

I’m also knee-deep in Orange County English School nostalgia, looking back on 11 years of determining curricula and choosing materials and the memories that those created.

I wrote a semi-academic article in the School Owners SIG Newsletter about how Dogme-style lessons didn’t exactly catch on like wildfire at my school, which I chalk up to students basically not trusting themselves to provide content.  There have been other instances where something I tried didn’t work, and times too of course where something worked brilliantly.  Here’s one story of success and failure in what will probably become a short series.

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I don’t remember the activity behind this drawing, but I think we can assume it was a success.

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The perils of self-employment, part 3: Schadenfreude

There are other English schools in town.  We’ve gone through stages of ignoring them, competing with them, and looking down on them; and now we have no choice but to entrust them with the students we’re leaving behind.

Some of our remaining students have come to us asking for recommendations of where to go after we close.  A few of these have already taken trial lessons at the other places in town and reported to us their experiences.  There is surely an element of flattery to their descriptions, and as much as I want to feel irreplaceable, I also want to encourage them to continue learning English under whatever circumstances they find themselves in, so I hesitate to take the same dismissive attitude that I’ve taken before.

We’ve believed for most of our tenure here that the other schools in town are more focused on making a living than pedagogy, for some observable reasons and some we just assumed.  Therefore, hearing that a trial lesson with one of them is full of

  • Disembodied grammar and vocabulary
  • Almost no interaction that could be called authentic even with the teacher, let alone with classmates, and
  • Rushing from activity to activity with little downtime or back-and-forth

is gratifying – until I remember that we put our students in a position where they’re going to have to rely on one of those schools for English education from June onward.  Suddenly there’s no joy in being better than them.

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Good and bad memories

It’s always a frisson-inducing reminder of the length of your career when your first generation of students approach the age that you were when you were teaching them.  Anyway here’s a story about our relationship with one of them that has a pretty pleasant beginning and middle.  You’ll see the ending when you get to it and then you can decide if the entire episode deserves to be called positive or negative.

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Passivization of victimhood in Japanese

The canonical grammatical roles we all learned in JHS and high school don’t capture all the relationships that people can have to events.  “The blob ate Jim” has a clear subject and object with an obvious relationship, but “Jim died on me” is a bit muddier.  “On” in this case marks me as somehow a victim of Jim’s dying, and represents a usage of “on” that is rather opaque to learners in that it has no clear metaphorical relationship to the usual meanings of “on” and also depends on a lot of contextual knowledge to make sense.  “Jim died on me” implies that Jim’s death negatively affected me in (to my ears) a vaguer way than “Jim died for me” implies that I benefited – “died for me” implies that he knew I would benefit, where as “died on me” doesn’t imply any intention on Jim’s part.

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Be Polite!

…is what people in Japan say when their kids are writing kanji.

Why?  Because of the translations available for polite, one (丁寧 teinei, an adjectival noun) would be more correctly translated as “careful” and the other (礼儀正しい reigitadashii) as “with correct etiquette”.  You hear the former a lot if you work with kids, but seldomly with reference to disrespectfulness – it usually means something more like “slow down and take your time to do it right”.  The latter word is considered a good thing but not an admonishment for kids or a general character trait.

This distinction is a bit beside the point, because when people in Japan describe their own ethnic group and society (these are considered the same), the words they use are やさしい yasashii or 親切 shinsetsu “kind/nice”, not any form of polite.

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Apparently this movie is interpretable as both reaffirming and parodying the “Japanese are kind” trope.
It may surprise American readers to hear that Japanese folks generally see their countrymen as sentimental and deeply emotional, not dry and detached “worker bees” as the stereotype goes.  This is an interesting contradiction, because “polite” (but insincere) is probably the first thing Americans think of when they think of Japan.  In Japan however the standoffish and deferential behavior that Americans consider “polite” when they come here is generally thought to be an expression of kindness and sincerity.

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The Uncanny L2 Valley

I’ve had a bit of a conundrum in learning for quite a while that I have found it hard to stay motivated to learn Japanese while living in Japan, which by most accounts is a fine place to learn it.  Before, I called it a Salieri Point, being demotivated by getting just good enough to start comparing yourself to native speakers, who are Mozart in this metaphor. I have another metaphor to share now, and this one concerns how your process in learning to swim is seen by the native-speaking fish around you.

To reiterate, I do have the highest level of 日本語能力試験, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which I got back in 2006, and can read newspapers and most novels at middling speed.  I understate my foreign language ability largely out of habit (nothing is less cool than overstating your language ability) but also because I live in Japan and my reference point is quite high as a result.

Incidentally, the fish metaphor is part of how I explain the seemingly ever-growing difficulty of language learning with the metaphor of a beach – water looks simple, peaceful, and inviting when viewed from above, on land, as a flat plane.  When viewed from the inside it cuts off your air, blocks out the light and seems to extend forever, and all around you are fish who seem to maneuver through it effortlessly.  It’s not the most optimistic metaphor but I think it accurately captures the feeling of looking at a language from the outside as a “thing” vs. from the inside as an environment.  Forests work for this metaphor too – and both (I hope) convey that I might be on hand to explain a thing or two, but they’re the ones who have to paddle/hike.

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The ball represents playing another round of Candy Crush instead of studying

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The Art of the Unsatisfying Reply

I guess this will be the 3rd on a series on racism and microaggression in Japan.

I’ve become pretty skilled at answering problematic or microaggressive questions in ways that open doors to bigger, bridge-building conversations or at least leave me happy that I didn’t reinforce someone’s parochial worldview.  I might do this when I see the parochial worldview being evidenced as harmful to me or others like me (“Do foreigners eat cake every day?”), or harmful to the person speaking (usually because it reinforces a negative stereotype about a group that the person is in, a la “Japanese can’t learn languages”), or just because I find it annoying in an indignant enough way that I want to make a strategic response rather than just end the conversation.

By the way, when asked by students, the best definition of “indignant” I’ve been able to give is “the kind of angry that you use to build your identity”.

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I often tell students to look up words on Google Image Search (Safesarch on, of course), but these give no clue as to the edifying joy that comes with indignance.

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