Social Deviance and Entrance Exams

I wrote a while ago that I considered social deviants in Japan to be the best English students and usually the only ones prepared to learn effectively (i.e. not by studying as if for a discrete-point exam).  Then at the last JALT meeting we were talking a bit about low-level, ne’er-do-well students leapfrogging their more “proper” peers when communicative competence finally became part of their English classes (usually in university) and it put me in mind of discussions of deviance I used to have in my 20s studying criminology.  Specifically in this case, I was reminded of the similarities between a mean-based testing regime and social deviance.  We tend to think of underachievement and social deviance as things to be reduced or eliminated but the definitions of testing regimes and societies mean that some amount of failure is built into both.

The red one is the one most of us learned in school.  68% of people fall within one standard deviation of the mean, and 95% fall within two standard deviations.  As we shall see, this curve is a decent metaphor for social behavior as well.

Read More »

The freemium synthetic syllabus

Synthetic syllabi, or premade sets of discrete language items to be learned in a precise order, are toxic to many ESL/EFL teachers, much like grammar-translation and PPP.  However, continuing my tendency to try to redeem the desiccated shed skins of modern ELT, I believe these syllabi and the coursebooks that are often their physical instantiations have at least one thing to recommend them (beside their familiarity, which is also not to be underestimated), and is something of such overriding value that it may actually outweigh their many drawbacks.

I made the mistake a while back of downloading one of those freemium hidden picture games to fiddle with on my commute back when I still had one. What I noticed most about this game as compared to those of my youth was that the designers had spent a lot of time on ways to connive the player into playing more beyond the mechanics of the game itself, in effect doing away with the casual gaming experience.  They had incorporated layers of quests, sub-quests, and achievements to always make you feel like you’re working toward something, not wasting your time as you objectively are.

(Incidentally, I also noticed why “freemium” has come to have such a bad connotation.  Imagine if Street Fighter 2 had demanded additional money to continue more than once an hour.)

From within the game, your thoughts are occupied not just with your immediate task of clicking pictures but collecting a set of items which you use to unlock a new area of picture-clicking and get one step closer to completing a chapter which is one of 5 in your quest, after completing which you can go back again and try to get 3-star ratings on each minor picture-clicking stage.  This makes the game quite difficult to tear yourself away from, as your play time starts to feel like an investment rather than a diversion.  Even games with the most rudimentary elements (tapping buttons in time, matching colored blocks, tracing a pattern, etc.) now embed your task in a complex tapestry of things to be done in order to go on and do other bigger things.

Did you ever notice none of the birds in this game can fly?

There is a name for this, which is Game Design Thinking (read that article and tell me if the discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards sounds at all familiar).  Basically, game design is the science of bewildering people into spending hours on a futile activity by hyperstimulating the parts of the brain that want to be on task, forcing them to chase imaginary goals for that next hit of dopamine. If you do it right, people will pay you for the right to use your blatant psychological manipulation program and throw themselves into a digital Skinner Box.  Unlike a real Skinner box of course and as this blogger points out, the point is not the token you receive at the end but the process of getting there that triggers addictive behavior.  That and humans instead of pigeons.

Synthetic syllabi as games

What does this have to do with the synthetic syllabus? Think of how chapters and chapter sections are organized in the most premodern, unenlightened grammar-and-vocabulary coursebook you’ve ever used, the kind Geoff Jordan might unflatteringly compare a new product to.  The kind that pays no respect to the interlanguage construct, asks for no output from the student except for the answers to closed-ended questions, and treats language as a series of “language item” bricks to be polished to a shine and laid in a precise order.

In this kind of book, you follow a path from the front cover to the back cover quite similar to a modern iPhone game.  Master each item of a vocabulary list, and move on to a set of numbered exercises. Finish the page and you’re done with Section B, bringing you within one step of completing a whole chapter. Vanquish that review at the end and you deserve a break, maybe a cutscene or a Loading screen before you upgrade your Stealth skill and Dex attribute and start the next chapter.  You feel like you’ve accomplished something, and it almost doesn’t matter that what you’re practicing can’t be applied anywhere else in the world besides this textbook.  The mental kick is reward enough.

People are willing to pay money to experience being sent through a nested series of chores within chores even without any expectation of skillbuilding or social advancement.  So why do modern SLA writers lament this so terribly when the series of chores is called Headway and there are skills learned, albeit incidentally?Read More »

Haafu, pt. 4 – authenticity in the red

(parts 2 and 3)

The “self” in “self-hating ____” is not really you.  It’s the version of you that other people think you’re supposed to be, based on what you look like and where your ancestors came from. “Self-hating” is an accusation of not living up to stereotype.

Rejecting, ignoring or simply not taking the necessary years to learn the culture and language of your grandparents is not an act of self-abnegation, because your grandparents are not you, and the version of you that you’d be denying is from an alternate dimension where language and culture are passed down genetically.

You’re born in suburban Michigan to parents who both speak English.  You grow up around friends who also speak English.  You half-heartedly study Spanish in high school.  What part of this picture inclines you naturally to know Vietnamese, Korean, Polish, or any other language, just because your last name is not Anglo?

The accusation of being inauthentic or self-hating for not embracing the culture of one’s ancestors is seldom leveled at people in the ethnic majority.  Only minorities are made to feel they must justify their existence by contributing some ethnic spice to vanilla Americanism.  No one calls Dwight Eisenhower or Andy Richter self-hating for not learning German.

Yes, learning a second language is always good, and a language that someone in your family already speaks may seem to be a natural candidate.  If you’re not burdened with the expectation that your whole identity is wrapped around your minority ethnicity, it makes sense to make progress, however meager, toward a second language that perhaps you have a unique amount of access to.  But as a nominal member of the group whose language that is, taking a step towards learning it doesn’t mean going from 0 to 1. It means going from -100 to -99.

I don’t look very Japanese, and most people in Japan when they hear my last name assume I got it by marrying into a Japanese family. That is, I’m a gaikokujin learning Japanese, and my account balance on language skill is positive.  When people hear that it’s actually the last name I was born with, they have a moment of “oh, so that’s why…” and their perception of me changes.  The explanation for my language ability becomes genes rather than effort and I transform from mildly proficient to a curiously deficient.

It might have been easier for me, and I suspect many minorities, to simply avoid “their” language and avoid putting that negative balance on the books.

Born in debt.

Eikaiwa, terrorists, and George W. Bush (and more Engrish)

I remember before the 2003 Iraq war started, George W. Bush appeared on the news telling Saddam Hussein to “disarm”.  He also spoke directly to the Iraqi public in formal speeches like this one.

I’m not sure how true the part about Iraqis being able to listen to him is, but it is certainly telling how everything he chooses to say to the Iraqis is something the Americans public would have wanted to hear, and that his comments to Iraqis were bookended by parts specifically toward Americans. As for the “disarm” comment which I don’t have video for, I don’t know if an Iraqi news agency reporter was present or whether or not Saddam had CNN.  I guess he would have, but of course if the message was really intended for him W. didn’t need to give it in front of the American public.  Presumably heads of state have means to reach each other without simultaneously reaching hundreds of millions of normal folks.

In guiding his ostensible message to Saddam toward the ears of the American public, W. was putting himself in company of both terrorists and children’s English teachers.  That sounds provocative but also confusing.  I have good, parsimonious and mostly apolitical reasons for saying this which I’ll explain below.

Read More »

Self-fulfilling prophecies in “high level” schools

Folks in Japan are very sensitive to the issue of high schools, to the point where it is a sort of mild taboo to ask someone which one they went to if they have reason to think you know the academic rankings of high schools in their hometown.  It’s something like common sense here that which high school you went to shows how smart and successful you are, much like universities around the world, to the point that you actually write your HS alma mater on your resumé here in addition to your university and graduate school.

High schools make some sense as gauges of academic ability – they’re not technically mandatory (although 95% enroll) and you need to take a test to get into them.  High-ranked ones do indeed yield vastly improved chances at getting into college (see below).  Parents of teenagers can be heard talking about the quality of education at this or that high school in the city, planning which HS entrance exams to take (in my area, you can only take one public HS entrance exam, encouraging people to aim a bit low on the principle of better safe than sorry). If there is a private HS, people will consider it sort of a get-out-of-jail-free card for university entrance exams (or as a reader pointed out to me after this post went up, they will in my area and maybe not yours), as enrolment at private HS, JHS or elementary practically guarantees a spot in its affiliated university, the highest step in a so-called “escalator school”.  This raises an issue of how matriculation at those universities can mean anything if students effectively tested in at age 12, but that’s one for another day.

(Ok, so if kids are basically guaranteed admission to a university after they get into its affiliated HS, JHS, elementary school or even preschool, how can these institutions still be status-bearing?  They might offer good programs but the main thing that justifies their prestige is the difficulty of their entrance exams, and in the case of escalator schools everyone knows a significant portion of the undergrad population was sorted in before even hitting puberty.  I know I’m basically affirming academic credentialism by complaining about this, but a little consistency isn’t too much to ask.  I’ve known kids who tested into these escalators at the higher steps and they always hated the ones who got in on the ground floor, who they felt were lazy and entitled from years of no competitive pressure.  Again, not that competition ought to be the point of education, but when the system is premised on the battle to beat the statistical average of an entire country of test-takers, things like this along with AO and “recommendation” admissions threaten the validity of entire enterprise on its own terms.)

What puzzled me for a long time was how wide the gap in academic strength is from one HS to the next, when they don’t differ by economic class of the areas they serve (since students can test in from any area) and nominally have to follow the general national curriculum.  I have a theory on this I already kind of gave away in the title but which I’ll spell out in a bit more detail below.

Read More »

A Taxonomy of Engrish

I spent most of my time in Japan regarding Engrish as a ridiculous phenomenon, a national joke that I was in on and the actual nation wasn’t, and probably also symptomatic of some more serious problems (how serious can you take English education in Japan seriously when the new nationwide social welfare system is called “My Number”?).  Little did I know, I was painting with too broad a brush.  There certainly is some Engrish that shows just how little regard there is in Japan for English as a language. Hidden among all the nonsense T-shirts though there is some Engrish that represents genuine attempts at communication, some with English speakers and some tailored to Japanese speakers.  This post represents an attempt at describing those types of Engrish and separating the noise from what real signal exists.

What follows is a 3-way classification scheme for Engrish.  If you don’t know what Engrish is, welcome to the Internet!

Read More »

Too normal to be normal

Disclaimer: I started writing this when I was at my most frustrated with life in Japan, in the final months of our now-closed English school.  Now that we are free and have some actual friends who don’t particularly care about our jobs, I feel a lot less down on livin here.  That said, we are still leaving.  File this one under complaints about living in Japan that I would never make if I were planning to stay here.  And if you feel this way a lot, try getting a dog.


I like deviance and deviants.  When you teach English in Japan, people need something “off” about them to be effective and efficient learners in communicative lessons.  Normal folks on the other hand wear culturally mandated communicative hazmat suits that thwart most attempts at interaction.

There is this image of social space I’ve had in my head for a while now wherein society is a microscope slide and people are plankton.  In the slide marked “Japan”, the most common way the plankton navigate their world is staying as far from all other plankton as possible, preemptively shrinking themselves down to the smallest size possible and excreting constant apologies to reduce friction and allow easy escape when contact with another plankter is inevitable.  Life in Japan is full of strained silences as people deliberately avoid speaking, and when contact is unavoidable, deferential prostrations and confessions of unworthiness for inflicting the burden of social interaction on somebody.

Tokyo Station, 300,000,000 B.C.

Read More »

Foreign? Western? White? Non-Japanese? Occidental proboscis monsters?

There are 3 terms in English that people use interchangeably for the Japanese word 外国人 gaikokujin (a very loaded term for non-Japanese people) here in Japan. None of them are perfect translations since they reflect the communicative needs of different societies, which I believe is a consideration that should affect any translated text. The words are:

  1. Foreigner,
  2. Westerner,
  3. Non-Japanese (NJ), and sometimes just
  4. Gaikokujin or gaijin

I’ve already talked a bit about gaikokujin and gaijin and how using them means adopting some of the least admirable parts of Japanese culture.  Even the 3 English terms though have some problems with definition and usage, and at least one ought to be tossed like savage in the junk heap of formerly acceptable words for types of humans.  The 3 words highlight a few issues I think people should take into account when choosing a translation, particularly for a concept like “people not from this country”, so clearly context-dependent.

It’s-a me, the historical basis for Mario!

Read More »

International marriage in Japan – a correlation broken in South America

I went hunting backward through citations after reading in this book that while international marriages in Japan are predominantly between Japanese men and non-Japanese women, the opposite is true when one partner is “Western”.  Specifically, the book claims that 89% of international marriages in Japan where one partner is “Western” are between a Western male and Japanese female.

Statistically an unlikely pairing, unless that guy is Japanese and the girl is Chinese.

Basically, the author misread her source, but the truth isn’t much different.  The Japanese government statistics cited in the article that she cites say that 89% of marriages between Americans and Japanese have an American husband and Japanese wife.  That’s a fairly minor nitpick, since most people’s readings of the statistics (given below) would come up with a similar number with other countries included in “the West”.  However, I have a bigger nitpick with that article (citing the government figures, cited by the book), which is that it also needlessly dichotomizes gender roles for international marriages into a “Western model” and “Japanese model”, where the wife working part time is considered a “mixed Japanese/Western model”.  Never mind that mothers working part time is an extremely normal phenomenon in Japan – the author frames it as a departure from Japan’s traditional working culture, buying into the conservative myth of the nuclear family.  Part of the blame also lies with the nebulous and outdated term “Western” (hence my excessive scare quotes), which seems to be a way for writers to avoid saying “white”.  Post on that issue forthcoming.  Here I will just say that it rears its UV-sensitive head again as half of a useless Occidental-Oriental dichotomy that people should have stopped using during the Cold War.

By the way, both the article and especially the book are still worth reading.  The book in particular has a ridiculously thorough section on the history of English in Japan, which one wouldn’t necessarily expect in a book nominally on gender and identity.

But none of that is the main point of this post.  What follows is.

Read More »