The object of the verb “to teach”

This quote comes from Scott Thornbury’s Twitter account, and is apparently part of a new book he’s working on.  I figure it deserves a bit of unpacking.

First, “teach” has two argument structures, one where the direct object is the content:

"I used to teach maths in England, which is why I pluralize it"

and the other where the direct object is the people doing the learning:

"I used to teach younglings before Anakin killed them all"

In the former case the people learning can be an indirect object, as in

"I teach criminal law to convicts"

and in which case the indirect object can be moved up between the verb and the direct object, like

"I teach 3rd years Defence Against the Dark Arts"

Thornbury’s quote refers to direct objects, not indirect objects, so it can’t be this last one he has a problem with, although there are reasons explored below why this argument structure is a bit problematic.  Having a problem with learners as direct objects of “to teach”, on the other hand, doesn’t really make sense except when you assume unflattering things about the word “teach” itself.

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Eikaiwa websites: Advertising ideology

The eikaiwa industry is to native-speakerism (NSism) what the Trump campaign is to racism. It is the largest legitimate beachhead the ideology has made in mainstream culture, and the clearest venue to see the its power in convincing people to hand over money and other resources.  Unfortunately, as I keep going on about, eikaiwa (for those not in the know, omnipresent commercial English schools in Japan usually featuring NSs) are barely touched on in academic research (exceptions: Appleby, Bailey, Kelsky, Kubota, Nagatomo). Part of this is because it can be hard to gain access to eikaiwa for research, and part of it is because the types who conduct SLA research tend to work in universities, where populations of undergraduates are already easily available.  The drunk searching for his keys under the streetlight and all that.

Just as an introduction to the ideologies of education one can see in the eikaiwa world, I’ve biopsied a small slice of eikaiwa websites from one city in Japan and its surrounding area.  Below I will name them and review the issues I uncover.

GABA, nationwide chain, advertises itself like a dating service.

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Native speaker teachers copying student errors

This post is a list of things that annoy me dressed up in academic finery.

Postgraduate education lends both credence and specificity to Internet grumblings, but sometimes does very little for employability.

Native speaker (NS) teachers in Japan are partially, or primarily depending on the job, hired as models of the ideal English user.  Now, a lot of us reject this idea for many good reasons, but you can expect students to embrace and even to be highly motivated by it.  My thinking is that teachers should be mindful of the fact that native-like proficiency is an unrealistic goal for most students, but also that NS and other fluent speech is full of teachable points which, when explored in class, may yield benefits for students other than their coming to sound just like you.

With that in mind, I’ve been cataloguing various ways in which NS teacher speech in Japan sometimes comes to mimic their students’ non-target-like speech.  From many perspectives, these items would be considered errors in the sense that they are nonstandard in the teacher’s L1 community.  One may be tempted to call them part of a unique dialect reflective of syncretism between various NS dialects and Japanese English learners’ interlanguage, but in my estimation most teachers are unaware that this is happening and continue to see their speech as “standard”.  This not only robs students of the models they’re looking for but also limits the abilities of those teachers to explore the issues that hide in the differences between the teacher’s and learners’ understandings of the language.

These changes can happen for a few different reasons.  In cases of subtle grammatical changes, NS teachers who were never conscious of certain language features may have heard them being used in novel ways and were unable to see and reject them as non-standard.  They also may have begun using them out of solidarity with their learners, unable to see how linguistic innovation is sometimes just an error under a different name.  They also may have adopted them out of a conscious desire to effect the formation of a Japanese dialect of English like Singlish.  In this last case there is nothing wrong with the idea, except that students may not be in on the teacher’s plans and may regard his or her use of, for example “flying start” (a false start in a race) as evidence that that particular lexical item is understood in the teacher’s country of origin rather than part of the teacher’s contribution to recognition of a pidgin dialect in Japanese English.  Again, students in Japan reject the idea of a Japanese variety of English and want to learn a native variety, no matter how difficult or impossible this may be.  My position is a compromise: NS speech represents a model that learners can gain something from, even if what they gain isn’t native-like abilities.

And although I’m about to start my list of Japan-adapted NS “errors”, none of this should be taken as a sign that I embrace the concept of the NS teacher as mainly a model of correct English use or pure cultural representative, i.e. that all accommodations to Japan and Japanese learners’ English act to reduce a NS teacher’s value.  First, Japanese English teachers also should know and understand the logic behind these changes and their correct forms in whatever variety they use as standard English.  Also, the problem is not change itself but unexamined change and ignorance of what has changed when, for example, a bowl of ramen is described as “very delicious” as opposed to “very good”.  This holds true for all English teachers.

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The low-frequency trap

I’m sure someone smarter than me has named this phenomenon already, but just in case…

There is a section of the watershed popular psychology book Thinking, Fast and Slow about the availability heuristic.  Loosely, when asked about the frequency of some event, we tend to answer as if we’d been asked how many such events we can remember.  Because events like murders or terror attacks are always fresh in mind, we tend to rate them as frequent, although they are not (the death rate from terror in France is much lower than the famously low murder rate in Japan).  In fact it is their infrequency among other things that makes them memorable, which in turn makes them easier to recall, which makes them seem more frequent than they really are.

The infrequency of an event itself can result in that event seeming frequent.

You actually need very few assumptions to come to the conclusion that your instincts will reliably get questions of frequency very wrong.

One, that unusual things are more likely to be reported, passed on, or simply remembered when observed, and:

Two, that ease of recall is surreptitiously substituted for actual statistical frequency when people are asked “how often does X happen?” or “how common is X?”

The result of these two factors colluding plus the omnipresence of information and news in modern life is that people vastly overestimate the prevalence of airplane crashes, rare diseases, and Olympic medalists from the country whose news they consume.  On a smaller scale, you will judge more prevalent a strange-looking breed of dog you’ve only seen once or twice, a particularly pleasant or unpleasant social encounter you had while visiting a new place, and a bad meal at a restaurant that’s usually good.  Of course the converse, that people will underestimate the frequency of mundane or expected events like deaths from heart disease or days without terror attacks, is true as well, and has some warping effects on the public policy choices of our representatives in government, who are beholden to electorates who suffer from these endemic mental processing bugs or suffer from them themselves.

This and basically all the other chapters of that book leave you with the inescapable impression that trusting your gut is a terrible decision.  Unfortunately it is also a decision that most other people will sympathize with and understand, and is unlikely to lead people to blame you when your illogical choice fails.  The temptation to engage as little of your slow-thinking brain as possible comes from both the uncomfortable mental labor involved as well as from people we have to explain our decisionmaking processes to.

The Moody Musician, pt. 2

My last post on playing music was all about the nerve-racking live performances I take part in against the advice of the majority of my conscious thought.  This time I’d like to navel-gaze about why I’ve until recently almost never let my recordings see the light of day.

See, I own more than a reasonable amount of recording software for someone whose main output for the past few years has been “name that tune” recordings for my facebook friends and soundtracks to random youtube videos, and I use it often enough but almost never share the results.  It exists, like the completed first chapter of a novel, as a source of infinite potential, so I can always say to myself, “well, I could still be a world-class musician someday, if I really work on it”.

I used to get frustrated with students when they seemed to be holding back on speaking at all until they were sure that whatever they said would be flawless native-level English.  Then I realized I was taking the same attitude towards music, refusing to take imperfect steps on the way to perfection.  Like my students, most of whom were a lot braver in this regard than I am, I’ve decided to shelve the perfection project and just work on being better than I am, one piece of output at a time.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 10.16.34 AM.png

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Book Review: 英語はインド式で学べ! (Learn English the Indian Way!)

I was enjoying a fine meal at a vegan café when the conversation between us and the owners turned to English learning.  Now, this happens pretty often when you’re an English teacher (or just look like one) as people are reminded by your presence that they nominally took at least 6 years of English at school and have little to show for it.  In this case though, the owners of the café were as international a couple as you can have when both members are Japanese, and I didn’t get the sense that they were looking for our help in fueling a navel-gazing session on why Japanese can’t learn English.  Still, one half of the couple was in search of learning materials and brought out this book she had bought, wondering what we would think.


The top and middle say more or less what the subtitles indicate. Bottom, large type: “This solves all of the Japanese people’s English weak points!” Yellow type in black stripe: “・After one hour, change into English that works! ・Because it’s ‘World Standard English’, it works all over the world!”

She seemed to realize that this wasn’t the best use of her money, and when I expressed surprise at the unusual angle the authors were taking for their already-suspicious volume, she said I could just take it.  I have to say, I wasn’t expecting a serious academic work, as it’s rarely a sign of quality when the title of a textbook contains exclamation points and the color scheme would, in the wild, indicate the presence of deadly venom.  Still, I was intrigued that a mass market book could so prominently feature the concept of “World Standard English”, as this author (Tadashi Yasuda, CEO of something called “Pan-nations Consulting Group”, and self-described “Leder of communication”) calls the concept better known as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), essentially a set of standards aimed at facilitating English communication between fellow non-native speakers (NNSs).

The style presaged by the cover is continued inside with still-greater intensity.


From the preface.  The section headers read: “This is a book exactly for you, who say ‘I want to speak English!'” and “The English learning methods [practiced] till now have not been suited to the Japanese!”.
On one page I counted 18 exclamation points to 5 periods.  To be fair, this doesn’t reflect exclamation points at the ends of  18 sentences, as some sentences ended with multiple exclamation points – another bellweather of staid and steady insights to come.  The author is also fond of the dots above letters that indicate emphasis in Japanese, at some points using these above every letter in a sentence. The style in general seems to be of a BBS user from an era before emojis barely containing his impatience while explaining a conspiracy theory.

The review

I was wondering how best to organize this review, and after browsing the contents I came to the conclusion that because the book is written for a mass audience and therefore includes reference to a variety of widely-held beliefs and tropes on language and language learning, I would separate my points of criticsm into clichés and non-clichés.  This way I can explore the familiar cultural ground on which this book positions itself before seeing what, if anything, is novel about it besides the angle it uses to catch book-buyers’ (and my) attention.

Why am I reviewing this?!

I should also say before launching into more in-depth content that I know nobody in the respectable ELT world is asking for reviews of the types of language learning books that seem to occupy the same social space as gluten-free brownie recipes and chicken soup-based collections of inspirational stories (the publisher seems to specialize in this genre).  However, I think it is important for people whose ideas of language learning involve lots of words like “emergent”, “lemma” and “socio-culturally situated” to remember that most language learners know none of those concepts or really anything about SLA and are flying blind when it comes to choosing materials.  As such, they are likely to choose books or methods that seem compatible with preconceived or ambient notions of language learning and are purchased for reasons related more to marketing than to rigor or a history of success.  For the same reason I devoted a lot of my time in Japan post-MA to studying eikaiwa, the things that most people actually use to study as opposed to what we think they ought to use deserve the attention of researchers as well.  To quote myself, if you want to study nutrition you have to know what people are actually eating.

Read on!

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Names and superheroes

I had a sudden flash of insight this evening while reading reviews of Suicide Squad, thinking to myself how few teenagers waiting for these movies are named “Bruce”. Likewise any “Tony”s watching Iron Man or “Hank”s watching Ant Man (yes, I know the main character was Scott Lang, not Hank Pym).  Even if those names are way underrepresented among the current crop of teenagers and young adults, there is a good chance that the next cohort of moviewatchers, this cohort’s kids or grandkids, will include Bruces and Hanks again.  The same way that the top baby names for 2016 include names my generation considered antique such as Ethan, Sophia and Charlotte; Ethan and Sophia’s kids might be able to watch X-men and say, “Psylocke’s real name is Betsy? I have 2 Betsys in my class”, a feat last possible in the 1960s.

Names are frequently recycled from times of yore in English-speaking societies, perhaps to give an air of historical sophistication and gravitas to the next generation greater than the mundane ordinariness of the names that we’re used to.  My generation has a plethora of Mikes and Daves, and the next generation has names that Mike and Dave consider timeless or just old enough to be classy.  Of course, that’s how our parents’ generation felt too, which is why Lindas and Freds are so underrepresented among their kids.

None of this is so in Japan, where new generations are often given freshly minted names with no apparent precedents.  There is very little chance that the equivalent of “Bruce” in Japan will be widely used again in our lifetimes.  This fact of naming has implications for the current superhero boom, and helps to explain a bit of the differences between popular heroes in the US and Japan.

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Music my students like

It’s often said by language teachers that one perk of your job is meeting people you’d ordinarily have little chance to meet.  This is true.  Since I quit running my own English school in suburban Japan, I haven’t spent nearly as much time with office workers or high schoolers.  On the other hand, I have spent a lot more time with my guitars, who are only late when my right hand isn’t cooperating.

A reliable topic for language teachers is food.  Another one is music.  Both tend to produce conversationable (now there’s a coinage I won’t be crowing about) differences in students that are unlikely to produce argument or unpleasantness, just “oh, I feel I know you better now” slightly better rapport.

I’ve been regularly exposed to music that I would never have listened to on my own, and only some of it has made me grumble something about kids these days.

Read on for a selection of the only Japanese music I’ve listened to on purpose since Shiina Ringo and Seikima II.

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Tom Swifties

I started contributing to a comment thread on a facebook post all about Tom Swifties.  I just thought I’d repost them here to further aggravate readers who expect something about life in Japan or ELT.

“I just dropped off a letter”, Tom posted.

“Free hot dogs!”, Tom shared a link.

“I am bringing back traditional forms of heating”, Tom repeated.

“Cars in Japan have maintenance required by law every 2 years”, said Tom, shaken.

“I don’t check sources for tweets”, Tom said ex-post-facto.

“I think I just gained a level”, Tom said from experience.

“Vin Diesel can’t do sci-fi”, Tom ridiculed.

“Should we ban swearing?”, they discussed.

“If only more teachers read about task-based language teaching”, Mike said longingly.

“We dress our daughter in pink”, Tom engendered.

“I will always support my sister”, Tyrion implied.

“Try lowering the action”, Tom said, high-strung.

“TV needs more Stephen King adaptations”, Tom reiterated.

“Hmm, so Alaska’s native people don’t like being called Eskimos”, Tom intuited.

“Looks like we’ll need the engine to make it back to port”, said Tom, disgusted.

“I can photosynthesize”, Groot believed.

“I was named after my grandfather”, I remarked.

mountain road

Driving in Japan, pt. 2 – where the rubber meets the road on gender equality

For curious parties, we’re waiting for a visa interview at this point, and then we’re off to the USA.  I just have a few more things to get off my chest before that, this time a continuation of my vast array of complaints about driving here – which manages to kill more than twice as many per mile driven as many countries in Europe.  Downer.  The high fatality rate is attributable at least partly to the low level of consciousness about seatbelts, while the rate being lower than you’d expect given what I’m about to say is in my mind due to the fact that people are used to the obstacle course that constitutes a 10-minute drive to the supermarket here.  The idea that you can shut your brain off and drive in a straight line until the next stoplight is quite foreign, or at least it was until people started getting TVs in their dashboards.

I should add the caveat that a lot of what I say is particular to suburban or rural Japan, and that the prefecture in which I experienced most of these has the 4th highest accident rate of all prefectures in Japan (my wife would be dismayed to learn that we are higher on the list than Yamanashi Prefecture, although this seems mostly due to Hamamatsu’s influence).  Read on for more road hazards.

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