Haafu, pt. 3: lifeboats

I have to say, this topic gets me more views than almost any other, and while it’s not as if I’m not interested in it I do need some time to get my thoughts in order and reread a few times to check my blind spots.  Therefore I can’t post on it that often, but I just happen to have something I think people might want to read today.  Or more honestly, I have something that I want to write.

Ein volk.


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The Unpublished

Since I’m leaving Japan (soon, I promise), I have to give up on some planned research projects and articles I was planning to write that would have required a presence in JALT or access to Japanese students.  I thought I’d put the graveyard of my article ideas here just so you can see how awesome my CV almost was.


The availability of input in grammar-translation classes

Krashen (he of the non-interface position and learning/acquisition dichotomy) would roll over in his grave if he saw a typical Japanese JHS or HS class and if he were not still alive.  For comparison with intentionally input-heavy methods and techniques like Extensive Reading, I thought I would catalog exactly how many words students in grammar-translation classes actually are exposed to on a weekly basis and how many times they are likely to see the same word used in different contexts.  In my mind, this article would fill a gap in theory-based literature on grammar-translation, and although the theory in this case is something of a relic, it is one that most teachers are familiar with and facilitates the use of an easily quantifiable metric (word counts) for comparing teaching methods.

Read on for more!

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Top 7 In Flames Power Ballads

[Update: I will make changes to this list as new albums come out. The original version of this article was posted before Battles was released. As you can see, the newest album, I, the Mask has knocked Battles from the top 5.]

In Flames has had a lot of power ballads for a band that is nominally death metal.  Their vocalist Anders still spends about half of each album making noises with his larynx that we would normally associate with radiator problems, but somehow they’ve fit in about one song per album for the last ten years in a recognizably Stairway to Heaven or Every Rose Has Its Thorn mold, with quiet verses, bombastic choruses, and chord progressions from the Diane Warren songbook.  The band is quite open about its 80s infatuation and between the suffocating atmosphere induced by relentless double bass and compressed, downtuned guitars it can be refreshing to find an open meadow of lush green melodies on a record.

Mind you, the band wasn’t always melodic in the sense a non-metal fan would understand.  Their first ten years had melody confined to the guitars, and even Anders’ growls were more guttural then than now.  The pop sense that infuses their current output really only became apparent in 1999 with the hummably catchy opening track of Colony. They also had hints of their ballad-writing potential with tracks like Satellites and Anstronauts off the wonderful Clayman album.  These two albums marked a departure from the Swedish folk (at least as metal fans understand it) -influenced sound of their early work to a more conventional rock sound that TROO FANS (every metal band more than 5 years old has these) still resent.

On to the top 5 (out of 5).

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New preposition

It’s been too long since English had a new preposition.  I don’t know when the last one entered the lexicon, maybe whenever “between” stopped being two words, but it’s high time it happened again.  I have a suggestion for a preposition that might fill a gap in our 21st century vocabulary.

That is virin, a combination of viral and in.  It means “throughout or among a group, passed from one member to another”.  Like “among”, it requires a plural noun or group noun (like “audience”) recognizable as composed of objects that are similar to one another.  Unlike “throughout” or “among” it specifies a rough means of transmission.

For example,

  • “Gangnam Style is popular virin younger generations worldwide.”
  • “Heat is absorbed virin the steel.”
  • “The wildfire spread virin the forest.”
  • “The contagion was introduced to the town via livestock and was passed from person to person virin the population.”

As a preposition it generally appears in phrases that follow a noun or verb, free-floating somewhere towards the end of a sentence.  It collocates with verbs of transmission and spreading.

It most naturally describes the motion or state of things whose consistency and character is not modified by spreading, i.e. not physical substances that get thinner or become tarnished by being spread over a wide area or coming into contact with many people.  That makes it a perfect fit for viruses, genes, binary off-on states (e.g., dirtiness but not dirt); and most befitting our new cultural landscape, memes like Gangnam Style in the example above.

It replaces adverb-preposition combinations like “(spread) virally throughout” or “(is reproduced) faithfully among”.  I hope you see the utility of this new word and start using it, and future linguistic historians remember that this blog coined the word first.  Right after they look up what a “blog” is.

Chinese-to-English Whispers

There is a children’s game called Telephone in which a long line of people whisper a preselected message down the line, comparing how it came out in the end to what it was when it started, often with hilarious results. This game is called Chinese Whispers in the UK, possibly because the name Sneaky Orientals was already taken.  I have adapted this game into a few short written activites for English classes, one of which is what I consider a defensible use of grammar-translation in the classroom.

I presented the version of this activity with pictures at Shizuoka JALT this April in a My Share event as a form-focused activity with a clear communicative purpose. Both are for classes of 3 or more people.  The translation version is best for high school and above; the pictures version for elementary and up.

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Guidelines for educationally responsible grammar-translation

Grammar-translation in the ELT community is a bit like Republicanism in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It’s practiced widely outside our community by what we imagine are people who generally don’t know any better or whose priorities are twisted against the interests of their socio-economic group, but espousing its values among we who (think we) are more enlightened is like opening up a bag of Doritos at the ballet.

For those in need of explanation of what exactly I’m condescending about,

Yakudoku [grammar-translation in Japan] is defined as a technique or a mental process for reading a foreign language in which the target language sentence is first translated word-by-word, and the resulting translation reordered to match Japanese word order as part of the process of reading comprehension.

(The article that this quote comes from is a good one to read if you wonder why people keep saying Japanese students are good at reading in spite of the entire culture seeming to regard printed English like a dog regards catnip.)

Grammar-translation, back and forth into and from the TL, seems to be the default method in state schooling worldwide.  It is unpopular among trained ELT professionals for a few good reasons. As a top-to-bottom lesson plan or curriculum, grammar-translation clearly fails, and there is no justifying its nonetheless overwhelmingly widespread practice (claims of its necessity for standardized tests, even when true, just increase the scale of the problem).  It surrenders all responsibility for language learning to the most mentally taxing tasks – memorizing connections between abstract tokens, applying rules of transformation in ways that place a heavy burden on short-term memory rather than automatization, knowing long lists of exceptions that invalidate most of the rules you just learned.  I have a hunch that part of the reason for its continued practice in public schools worldwide is precisely because it turns language learning from an activity that most of humanity has engaged in successfully for most of the history of our species into a bell-curve producing all-purpose test of general intelligence and dedication to the ritualized study process.  What it doesn’t do is produce functional language users, hence its unpopularity among ELT specialists and incredulity that it could be so common.

Grammar-translation also has a role in the ongoing cartelization of skills of native speaker and non-native speaker teachers in Japan.  Demanding as it does fluency in Japanese as well as long familiarity with the conventions that constitute “correct” translations, grammar-translation is seen as the exclusive domain of Japanese (NNS) teachers.  Whether NS teachers can ever become competent practitioners of it is beside the point; they are never asked to.

There is reason though to believe that grammar-translation can still have a place in a responsible and modern curriculum.  Since the 1990s, grammatical teaching, i.e. teaching the rules explicitly, has made something of a comeback among the ELT elite, albeit usually reactively and among lots of input and interaction.  Approaches seen as forward-thinking in recent years, including Task-based Language Teaching and Dogme, recommend explicit negative feedback and focus on form, i.e. some time to look at the abstract rules that govern grammaticality and what is correct or incorrect according to them.  The latest incarnation of the need for explicit as well as implicit knowledge and teaching seems to be the volume reviewed here, which I hope to read when the price drops. Grammar-translation can be a very helpful type of reactive grammar-focused activity and has strengths that other such activities don’t.  In this post I plan to introduce a few rules of thumb for grammar-translation as part of a modern language class.

First step: Throw away this textbook.

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Redistribution of athletic achievement

The Olympics are starting soon.

I’m not sure when, because since I’ve grown up the Olympics like Christmas have gone from long-awaited and always memorable highlight of the year to an excuse to indulge some selfish instincts in socially acceptable ways.  In the case of the Olympics, this instinct is the one to consider myself both highly successful and immortal as part of the human project called the United States of America.  I check the medal counts, pat myself on the back for being part of a political entity that also includes Michael Phelps, then check the weather and go about my day.

Pictured: Olympic Silver Medalist Nancy Kerrigan.

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Translation of noun phrases with premodifying verbs from Japanese to English

When I was studying Japanese in college (emphasis on studying rather than acquiring), I honestly couldn’t believe it when I first heard of the ridiculous flexibility with which verbs modify nouns in Japanese.  I was honestly annoyed that 分からない人 wakaranai hito could mean either “someone who doesn’t understand” or “someone I don’t understand/know”.  As I would find out, most Japanese English learners are similarly confounded by the vagueness of this structure when it comes time to translate it into English.

And translate they will.  This post is about issues surrounding translation of noun phrases with verbs premodifying the noun as in the above example.  It is not a lament of the commonness of translation or the lazy pedagogy that allows translation and translatability to stand as substitutes for intelligibility or correctness.  It is not a recommendation or criticism of translation as a classroom practice.  It is not an examination of other issues surrounding translation of verbs from Japanese, such as the fact that many of the ideas expressed by verbs in Japanese are done so by adjectives in English.  It is just an attempt to explain the errors that J-E translation of these types of phrases often produces.

Verbs in Japanese can premodify nouns (i.e. come before nouns in a noun phrase) in a variety of ways that each may require distinct grammatical structures, most often not premodifying a noun, in English.  Many of these are made possible by the rather flexible relationships verbs in Japanese have to their subjects, objects and indirect objects or complements (functional grammar: agents, themes, patients, etc.), in both their range of meanings and the lack of necessity for many of them appearing in the surface structure of an utterance that includes them conceptually, and would require them in surface structure in English.

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Etymology as a folk pursuit is plagued by a few misunderstandings about what words are and what history means.

First, an etymology is often not what words “originally” meant, because except for recent coinages a la gerrymander whose first utterance we actually have records for, “originally” is an ideological, not logical, point of reference.  Of course, someone had to say every word for the first time at some point, but at that point in time he/she was the only person who had said it, so that word didn’t exist as a token for communication in any group.  Anyway, the first time a word is ever uttered is seldom what people mean by “originally”.  Usually in discourse on any subject, “originally” means “the time which I am taking as the  cultural high point before the start of the slow decline that brought us to the present”, which when you look at it is usually determined by that person’s political beliefs, not their deep understanding of linguistics. Saying hilarious “originally” meant “so funny you almost went insane”, and therefore the modern usage meaning “funny” is incorrect, is like saying that cows “originally” were aurochs, as if aurochs were the last statement on authentic bovinity.

(no, I don’t know the plural of aurochs)

Also, etymology can only tell you what people used to think a word meant, not what it “really” means.  The definition of a word is not some deep-hidden ultimate truth about it that millions of misguided fools including several people from your office are all wrong about.  The definition of a word is simply what people think it means.  If one of the things that people think about it is that some people think it means X, but those people are stupid, then that also is part of the definition or an alternate definition of that word.

So if you find yourself telling people they’re using a word wrong because you know what people used to think it means at some point in the past, you are really just adopting a pose to prop yourself as more educated or elite using as a stepstool the equivalent of knowing Gandalf’s genealogy one ancestor more than average.

The extras

Everyone’s life has a set of peripheral, Rosencrantz-like characters around it that appear only in a certain place, or just serve one function, or divulge key information that moves the plot along, etc.  Of course they have full lives outside of the realms in which you usually see them but with my solipsistic blinders on as I usually do I can only think of them as “the delivery guy with the teeth” or some other simple noun phrase with a few pre- and post-modifiers.  I thought I should catelogue mine before we leave our current life and forget the cast of extras that played bit parts in our days here.

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