Teacher identity (my turn)

In answer to this post from Matthew Noble (in answer to this other post from Tyson Seburn), here I go.

Who are you?

Mark Makino.  Native speaker of English, according to most definitions.  I tend to define myself by my experience rather than my upbringing… of course many would say those are the same thing, but “upbringing” is many of those words like “heritage” which somehow get conflated with ethnicity, which in turn gets conflated with biology, all in an attempt to get to know what you are without knowing anything about you individually.  I have a particularly confusing background no matter which of these terms you prefer, which probably explains some of my sensitivity to those terms and my opprobrium for people who use “biracial” and “bicultural” as if they were always the same thing.

My great-grandfather Iwataro stowed away on a ship from Numazu to Seattle.  In the bay, just before the ship docked, he jumped off with some of his fellow stowaways and swam to shore.  Some of the others died in the water, but Iwataro made landfall, and in the ensuing years had a few children in the USA, including my grandmother (I’m not sure how my great-grandmother made her way across the Pacific).  Before the war they all moved back to Japan, first to Tokyo and then back to Numazu as Tokyo became a more likely target for Allied bombs.  My grandmother had the misfortune of spending the war years in Japan as a repatriated dual national from the enemy nation, a so-called 帰米二世 kibeinisei.  After the war she met my grandfather, had 3 kids, and moved the whole family back to Los Angeles.  My dad was 4.  I see a clear gradient of acculturization in my dad’s generation; he has two older siblings who remember and identify with Japan and Japanese more, in direct correlation with their ages at emigration. My dad, on the other hand, only understands Japanese when it’s spoken by his own mother and seems to prefer Mexican food to all others.

Like in many immigrant families, my younger, thoroughly American generation grew up seeing the “other” culture around the holidays at family gatherings where the kids were no longer the focus of everyone’s attention.  I remember the smells of 竜田 tatsuta fried chicken mixed with cigarette smoke over the whine of enka karaoke by my grandfather and others of his generation.  My aunt, chef at these events, owned a teppan restaurant that I also ate fairly regularly at and later worked at.  Japanese culture was mostly synonymous with the nostalgia trips of older family members and food, certainly nothing close to the identity of anyone my age. To this day, I feel close to the nation and its culture only as a non-member of Club Japan, and feel positively offended that anyone could think it has something to do with my genes.  It has a lot more to do with my jeans, which are from Uniqlo.

I don’t even usually like explaining this all, because any explanation of your non-white family in the USA pigeonholes you as inherently and congenitally destined for mastery of the culture and language of “your heritage” (In Japan it provokes a severely awkward conversation on who the “pure” Japanese and Americans are in my family).  In truth, my early years are dominated by memories of role-playing games (Final Fantasy, Palladium, and Warhammer), Ren & Stimpy, and the usual variety of activities with school and friends.  The part where I weaved through smoking adults for a few hours while hearing unfamiliar speech on New Year’s was quite small, and by the time I became aware that it was unusual I was at least a teenager and fairly invested in my music-and-philosophy identity, the one you are probably most familiar with.  I didn’t hear the Iwataro story for the first time until my 20s, and still relate to that side of the family almost entirely in English.  In truth, the bilinguals I spent the most time around were my mom and brother, both classical musicians who learn(ed) languages partly for work and partly out of intellectual interest.  I myself didn’t really start learning Japanese until college, and then it had nothing to do with enka or smoke-filled living rooms; it was a fairly standard-issue college kid’s interest in building social capital with some worldly experience.  My Japanese abilities now I credit mostly to my continued daily interactions with my wife and occasional emails or facebooking with friends from the dog park.

So my takeaway from the family and personal history I just described isn’t “I am close to the culture and language of my heritage”, but “perception of heritage is one of many ways people can be motivated to learn a culture and language”.  The fact that so many assume that I grew up speaking Japanese, that it’s somehow permanently a part of me, and that rather than hours of study and negotiation with live interlocutors is responsible for my present abilities has made me very sensitive, even touchy, about the distinctions between actual lived experience and the presumptions that the words “upbringing” and “heritage” often contain. If there is a conversational landmine you can step on with me similar to “gender is just biology” with feminists, it is lazy conflation of appearance with affiliation and affiliation with ability.  I think this is an asset as a language teacher in that I am openly hostile to the idea that the identities foisted on visible minorities should prevent them from functioning and identifying as fluent or native speakers of the majority language.  Nobody got as indignant as I did when the judges on American Idol would encourage a Latino/Latina contestant to “embrace your heritage” and sing a bit in Spanish.

What is your teaching philosophy?

Gosh, it’s pretty much an extension of the above, not letting institutional definitions of you and your abilities determine what you can actually do.  When students start acting as if they think they can do the thing I want them to be able to do, I try to act as if I believe them even if there isn’t that much evidence yet.

What does it mean to you personally to have a professional identity?

Like being a recognized speaker of a language, considering myself a professional language teacher means I can “pass” among other people who also consider themselves professional language teachers.  This sounds meaninglessly tautological, but people who consider themselves professional language teachers usually have some hard-won insight from experience or training (those who don’t generally consider language teaching a hobby or a gap-year pastime and don’t think being a “professional language teacher” is even possible).  Having a professional identity, sending and responding to signals in a way other language teachers expect and knowing their jargon, means that I get to listen to and interact with these people.  This adds to my own insight, and making me a better language teacher as well.

How far is it useful to be conscious of your identity as a teacher?

Having that identity motivates me to participate in its upkeep by reading journals occasionally, responding to blog posts, and buying books to keep on my kindle so that I can explain that I’m going to get started on the next Dörnyei book just as soon as I finish the book I’m reading now (Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar).  Ironically, these are all things that happen outside the classroom.  Inside the classroom, it is my sense of professionalism that reminds me not to suck up all the air in the room and give students much more space to interact.  This may strike some as contradicting a teacherly identity, but I believe this ceding of control is one area that language teachers’ sense of proper conduct differs from that of, say, history teachers.

For the record, Sammy’s range opened up a lot of Eddie’s songwriting potential, but Eddie plays more the way the world wants him to with Dave.

How far is a teacher’s identity linked to their sense of value, and how can teachers’ associations foster this sense of identity and value?

I’m not sure I understand the question (besides the notable use of “their” as a singular pronoun – that I understand), but in general teachers’ associations succeed when they give lay members validation by letting them speak and share.  Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of the way we generally conduct ourselves in class, but we expect to be able to add our 2 cents, feel validated for voicing our opinions even more than being technically correct, and above all feeling like we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves.  We are also usually more than happy to cede our spot to give someone else the chance to succeed, and in this sense it’s important that teachers have novices and less experienced members to watch grow.  I was one of those in my earlier months as Chapter President.

What experiences have most deeply affected your own sense of professional identity?

The MA was a big one, mostly because it for the first time in my teaching career put me in regular contact with other ELT professionals from around the world, gave me an identity in that community, and as I mentioned earlier giving me motivation to keep up with developments in the field.  It also led directly to my becoming involved with JALT, as I kept reading articles from something called “JALT Journal” and looked it up, only to discover there was a chapter near me.

As far as my identity in the classroom, I think having been a language learner and a learner in general myself informs quite a bit of how I see my role and the range of behaviors I’m comfortable exhibiting.  Part of the reason I was very interested in Dogme was that virtually everything I still remember of my own junior high and high school years was off-script, things that the teacher said or did outside the carefully planned lesson which many man-hours at all levels of government were expended in crafting.  I don’t think it’s safe to say that the curriculum should be totally scrapped because of this, first because I don’t have conscious access to all my brain and can’t be sure if the “main” parts of past classes actually affected me in some other important way, and also because I think part of the reason I remember these moments is that my teachers generally stayed on message, making these moments stand out as a result.  I don’t think it’s possible or advisable to compose a class entirely of off-kilter but memorable moments, but I think the ratio can be tilted a bit more in their favor.  As a result, I prefer randomness to plannedness and memorable chaos to forgettable tranquility.  All this because Mr. Madrid used to have us rub a certain spot on his desk every day for a year to illustrate what happens to the remains of ancient civilizations and classical art when they’re not cared for.

Things language teachers know #2 – the limited ability of even test writers to read minds

Testing some skills would seem more straightforward than testing others.  If you want to see whether people can ride a bike, put them on bikes and see if they can get from point A to point B with a reasonably low rate of broken bones and concussions.  If you want to see whether people know who the Axis and the Allies were in World War 2, ask them to name them.  If you want to know if someone can speak a language, have them speak it in the presence of testers or record them speaking it for later evaluation.

Well, most of my readers will know that the last one was thrown in as a tripwire, because no language teacher believes testing speaking is that easy.  First, the equivalent of an obstacle course to ride one’s bike over as a test is quite difficult to recreate for spoken language – most people are rather choosy about who they engage in minutes-long conversations with, for one, and the preconditions for the interaction generally aren’t “provide evidence for strangers that you can put words in the right order”.  Also, there is a number of smaller skills involved in bike riding which can be directly or indirectly observed by putting someone on a bike, but what if one of those skills were intuiting the intentions of other bike riders based on combinations of thousands of hand signals and bells of subtly varying frequencies?  And of course, the test needs to be completable in a few minutes and for the sake of fairness the same for every participant.

For the sake of argument, imagine what a perfect testing machine would look like.  Ideally, it’d be able to cut through all the situational variables that can affect test performance and simply tell whether a given concept or skill is instantiated in a reasonably target-like way in any mind it tests (I’m eliding the huge question of what “target-like” knowledge would look like).  What I picture is something like a read-only Matrix brain socket, capable of checking the end result of learning (something of a neuroscience miracle, given that instantiation is probably vastly different in different brains, and more complicated the more complete the learning).  Now add back in every barrier between this mindreading test machine and conventional tests that exist now.  Besides the obvious one of requiring the test-taker to actively retrieve information, there are all the non-subject-related but highly influential factors like sleep, anxiety, allergies, handwriting, and the other people around you taking the test, making noise or maybe just intimidating you by looking smart. Add in the fact that many tests are done by reading and writing and you push all that knowledge through a bottleneck of technology that is common but unintuitive for our species.  Many language tests, even popular ones that purport to be about “international communication”, are administered in crowded lecture halls by means of a cheap Casio CD player to rows of students looking downward at a sheet of paper.  A perfectly accurate test is to the Matrix what TOEIC is to a Dungeons & Dragons manual.

Language in particular is a skill that for test-writers to have any access to they must dig downward through many layers of shifting and misdirecting layers of cognitive sediment.  Through the points of entry provided by our eyes and ears and those of our testtakers, we need to see whether a representation of a complex system of words and rules in one brain is similar enough to a representation of the same system in other brains to meet the standards of progress expected for a semester’s work.  This would be difficult enough if our speech always gave an accurate assessment of what our thoughts were, but our mouths are but the very exit of the funnel into which a whole lot of neuronal activity is poured, and often spilled.

When you think about it, these issues never completely go away for any indirect measure of skills, knowledge, or attitudes.  A multiple-choice history test isn’t as vulnerable to the frequent bugaboo of language tests that the suite of skills you’ve developed in communicating in another language just happens not to include one of the words on the card you’ve been handed and ordered to talk about.  I believe though that many history teachers skip consideration of these issues in favor of enjoining students to be prepared.  Language teachers have no such luxury; to be even barely competent at another language is to have applied knowledge (and/or implicit knowledge) in a variety of domains and the ability to improvise with it.  It’s as if every history test were a debate where the topic is expected to migrate randomly from 2016 to post-WW1 Catalonia.

Since I went way overboard with my last of these entries, why not another?  I also happen to think that a lot of the test-based sorting that goes on between the ages of 12 and 18 ostensibly on something called “academic ability”, which is generally understood to be a biologically-based capacity for computation and memory, is really sorting for being able to be interested in what adults want you to be interested in for those years.  Like Ralph Nader used to say, Americans know plenty of things, even fairly dense statistics, they’re just generally slugging percentages rather than p-values.  It’s not that smart people know probate law and stupid people know when it’s fixin’ to rain, it’s that “smart” people almost instinctively align the things they know with things that earn social capital among other “smart” people.  Being able to do this during one’s teenage years is a talent, but we shouldn’t mistake it for simply having more brain power.  People’s talents are not always apparent when education systems say they should be, and in any case test measure a hundred other things (when I was young, being Scantron-friendly was a big one) before how intelligent someone is comes up.

Friends, i.e. people you have nothing in common with

Having no routine allows you to see the things around you as if for the first time. Since we closed our school, we’ve both had a lot of time to discover things that have actually been around us for years and we never registered or took the time to interact with.  I’ve had analogous experiences on our two-week vacations in the US, in which I go to places that were always nearby for the first 24 years of my life but just never saw as interesting enough to stop playing Diablo 2 for.

In that spirit, between the time we quit our jobs and started the final rush of cleaning and packing that has culminated in us waiting at Haneda International Airport as I write this, we’ve finally made friends in Japan.  Not students, not students’ parents, but people who we like and who like us without wanting much in return.  This is as rare as a full armor set drop in Normal Difficulty.  Sorry, my Diablo schema got activated.

If that assessment of the rarity of friendship sounds pathetic, note that it seems to be universal around here.  Many of the people we voluntarily spent time with mentioned that they also didn’t usually see people outside of work, or commented on how it was nice that people like us could hang out although “we have nothing in common”.  In Japan, “in common” generally means the small palette of formal identifiers that people make their public selves.  Not equally being part of some purposeful, formal human gathering like a workplace means that you have no reason to talk, let alone care about each other. If you think you really are friends with your JTE or other Japanese colleagues, see how many of them keep contact with you, or even wave back if you see them in a restaurant, after you quit or move.

I tend to think the totally non-operational friendships are more valuable.  I value the relationships I had with my students, but I don’t think most of them knew me as the sometimes cranky, self-absorbed, attempted intellectual that I am (though a few do).  The people we’ve met since we stopped being teachers seem not terribly interested in what we can do for them, and blessedly, not interested in English.

We’ve landed now, and it’s unlikely that I’ll see many of these people again soon.  What guarantees that if we do, we will still be able to have a good time is that we got together in the first place for no particular reason.

Stuff I will miss – sour grapes edition

I must reiterate that I will miss these things, but in the spirit of the cynicism I’ve been feeling since Nov. 9 (in Japan) here is a revised list that puts a negative twist on everything that I like.

  1. Varieties of tofu.  On the other hand, the low level of awareness of vegetarianism results in a ton of “vegetable” dishes that merely contain slightly more vegetables than usual in addition to chicken or pork, and many tofu burgers that contain parts of 3 different animals.
  2. Service.  If I’m with anyone more Asian-looking than I am I can look forward to barely needing to participate in the transaction at all.
  3. People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public.  What is called “casual” in the US would be “homeless” here.  If you want to go out with a minimum of attention to your clothes, you have to stay in your car.  And if you’re a woman, wear a surgical mask to hide your un-made-up face.
  4. Natto. I will be happy not to have to do the dance of negotiating the abject shock on people’s faces when I confirm that I “can eat” it though.
  5. Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”.  I have nothing cynical to say about this.
  6. Cheap paper.  Japan uprooted much of its native forests in favor of industrial cedar before everyone noticed wood from China was cheaper.  I live near an area famous for papermaking, but apparently they mostly make food wrappers now.  Printer paper comes from China.
  7. The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity. Recall the Lagunitas-Michelob principle – you don’t have to worry about the quality of the average product as long as there is enough selection to enable you to choose what you really want.  In Japan the selection for most things is small and of above-average quality, and you pay twice the price you would in the US for even the lower-quality option.
  8. Citrus.  Of course I’m going to California, so it’s not like I’ll be lacking in options or quality.  And mangoes are sold at dollar stores instead of being 800 yen each.
  9. The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation. I have a lot more to say about this. English teachers in Japan focus quite a bit on motivation as I said in the last post, partly because they absolutely cannot count on students being motivated about communication in general and English in particular.  This shows up in a lot of essays where you end up focusing on minutiae because you very rarely feel like the student actually tried to say something.  A lot of those minutiae are translation mistakes because students regard English writing as an application of translation techniques to a perfunctorily written Japanese document.  The feeling is similar to giving brush stroke-level criticism of hand-painted copies of artwork featuring dogs playing poker.
  10. Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!).  Lately the only things I hear about shibas are “a shiba attacked my toy poodle… damn shibas” and “shibas are very popular overseas“, part of a “foreigners love Japan” meme I have never liked.
  11. The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism.  The most common arc for learning a new acquaintance’s political beliefs is that on a night out drinking after several months of knowing each other you finally find out 1) their first name, and 2) that they think the Chinese made up the Rape of Nanking.
  12. Mini Stop.  Convenience stores are huge here because they enable the anti-social norms of contemporary Japanese society.  You can pay your taxes and buy Shonen Jump at the same place, and without having to talk to anybody.
  13. Shocking students with root beer candy.  Another nail in the “gaikoku is weird and dangerous” coffin.
  14. Indian food.  I’m part of a “mixed roots” facebook group, and one thing I always think about when folks bring up minority rights is that the children of ethnic minorities in Japan who are not even half ethnically Japanese have very few advocates.  Many owners of Indian and Thai restaurants in Japan are long-term residents or citizens with kids here, and unlike other ethnic minorities can’t change their names and hope to “pass”.
  15. The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t.  It’s good that people want to know things, but you get to a point pretty quickly where you find yourself thinking, “how can you graduate from high school and not know that kanji came from China?”
  16. On a related note, the feeling that one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything or to stick with it as a matter of principle.  That doesn’t excuse being intentionally uncommitted because you just don’t know anything.
  17. Since we’re moving to California, the cold.  Actually only our dog will miss the cold.
  18. Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun.  People call these 外来種 gairaishu “imported species”, as if other species of birds here emerged straight from Susano-O’s spear.
  19. A few beers, particularly Shiga Kogen IPA and other beers from Tamamura as well as our local Bayern Meister Bier.  See Lagunitas-Michelob principle.
  20. The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers. This is a poison pill for English education – the status of “authentic English user” being reserved for white people means that none of your students think they can ever be as good as you.  I can’t think of a worse assumption for a teacher-student relationship to be based on.
  21. In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching.  Actually, I’ll be glad to teach classes where a majority of students already see the use for the thing I’m offering.  I don’t want to have to trick students into wanting to learn anymore.
  22. Having the time to blog like this.  Maybe I’ll have a job that will be more personally fulfilling than writing for strangers!
See you soon!

Things language teachers know #1 – impermanence

A truth you’re exposed to pretty early on in your training in SLA is that correctness is a matter of making your utterances target-like rather than meeting some objective standard.  This is because those who insist on a purer, correcter version of their language that nobody happens to speak are, well, incorrect – the rules of languages are defined by the people who use them.  Target-like means similar to the community that you want to be a part of, and if that community changes its mind, then what is “correct” changes too.  We EFL/ESL teachers help our students to be members of new language communities, not learn objective facts.  What appears objective and true about the rules of English only lasts as long as English speakers’ belief in or maintenance of them.  That’s right, languages and Tinkerbell have something rather crucial in common.

I understand the need to feel like you’re part of something permanent, or are playing by rules that are not just someone else’s opinion or the product of consensus.  If it bothers you, it’s best not to think about it, but impermanence is the law to which all the things we experience are temporary exceptions.  The groups at various levels of abstraction that you consider yourself part of, the morality you espouse and sometimes observe, and the language you speak are all are.. well, you know who said it best.

The dust and the wind are also impermanent.
Continue reading “Things language teachers know #1 – impermanence”

2 years as Chapter President

As I write, I’m still technically JALT Shizuoka Chapter President, and will be until late November, when the next batch of officers officially take up their duties and hopefully I’ll be getting over my jet lag in California.  I’ve uploaded what will probably be the final batch of events into our online schedule and am wondering where they’ll hold the Xmas party this year.  It has put me in mind to recount the good and bland times I’ve had in this position, and maybe put some lame duck recommendations on the record as well.

Continue reading “2 years as Chapter President”

Stuff I will miss

We’re entering the home stretch of our 12-year stay here in Japan – counting down the days until we fly, mercifully just before the holiday season officially starts.  Like I’ve said before, life in Japan is much nicer when you don’t work and especially when you don’t work in eikaiwa, and my last few months have been filled with good times.  With that in mind, here is a list of the (mostly edible, non-human) things I anticipate missing once we’re gone.

  1. Varieties of tofu – in addition to the usual “firm” and “silken”, there are fried bricks of tofu, sliced fried tofu, and a tofu-based substance that comes in a variety of shapes called ガンモドキ ganmodoki, “fake goose”.
  2. Service, when I’m in a hurry.  If I want to chat, I like American service.  Service in Japan is not with a smile – it is usually without any expression whatsoever besides automatized formality, but quick and professional as long as you want something exactly as offered.
  3. People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public.  Easier to say this after not riding the train for a few months.
  4. Natto. Not the most popular dish with expats and immigrants but I love almost anything made of beans.  I am not however a fan of the sweet beans, either red or black, that pass for dessert ingredients here.
  5. Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”.  Baked goods in Japan, contrary to image, are generally very sweet and laden with butter.  Kurumipan is slightly sweet, not heavy, and scattered with pieces of walnuts, which make any food instantly good.
  6. Cheap paper.  For some reason.  Ditto white board markers.
  7. The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity. Of course, I won’t miss how much you have to pay for quality here.
  8. Citrus.  There is a lot of citrus from Asia which is yet unknown or less common in the US – besides kumquats and tangerines, there are things called dekopon, shiikwaasa, and kabosu which I like a lot.
  9. The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation.  For an ESL/EFL teacher it helps when errors are easy to explain.
  10. Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!).  Labradors and Golden Retrievers are popular here too.  Akitas are less popular than one would guess.  I have never seen a Boxer, 10th most popular breed in the US.  Chihuahuas and Toy Poodles (called トイプー toipuu) are among the most popular breeds, and them I shall not miss.
  11. The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism.  If anything, voters here seem to want politicians that are as little like themselves as possible.
  12. Mini Stop.  I will be thinking fondly of Mini Stop’s annual rollout of Belgian Chocolate Ice Cream (ベルギーチョコソフト berugii choko sofuto) next fall.  Same for ハロハロ haroharo in the summer.
  13. Shocking students with root beer candy.
  14. Indian food.  Indian food in Japan is probably better than Japanese food in India.
  15. The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t.  You get over surprising people with stuff like “The capital used to be in Kamakura” that they just didn’t expect you to know pretty fast.  It is still fun to give them something like “Japan isn’t even in the top 10 for rice consumption worldwide” or “less than 40 percent of Americans own guns”.  Unlike many Americans, people here don’t generally regard confident ignorance to be just as good as education.
  16. On a related note, the feeling that one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything or to stick with it as a matter of principle.
  17. Since we’re moving to California, the cold.  At least outside.  Inside I will be happy to finally have insulation.
  18. Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun.IMG_3042.JPG
  19. A few beers, particularly Shiga Kogen IPA and other beers from Tamamura as well as our local Bayern Meister Bier.  Most supermarket beers are overpriced – you might think $6 for a six-pack is a fair price in the USA for Kirin (which contains rice and corn starch) but $2.50 for one can is what they go for here.
  20. The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers.  Well, when you think about this state of affairs even a little bit it starts to taste a bit sour, but if I spend too long freelancing in the US I may start to miss this lucrative form of discrimination.
  21. In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching.  Expectations are such here that just getting a class to do something besides stare at their desks is considered a victory.  Many, many teachers in Japan worship Dörnyei and regard his work as more salient to their lives than such insignificant details as grammar or natural usage.
  22. Having the time to blog like this.

Native speaker errors and the origins of which they come from of

I’ve seen more writing by native speaker (or non-non-native speaker) students than non-native speakers recently, for the first time in maybe 12 years.  I have to say, native speaker errors are to non-native speaker errors what economic depressions are to lost wallets.  The roots of the issues stretch downward through Bloom’s taxonomy until you’re unsure whether you should start your critique with “this subject and this verb don’t match” or “things that are not can’t be“.

Here are some examples, paraphrased and otherwise altered for the students’ sakes of course.

“The numbers are frightening how many guns there are.”

Okay, so some of the legitimate uses of it’s to start a sentence imply that it’s okay not to have a clear referent for every pronoun (there’s another example).  Some students take the common injunction not to let pronouns slide by without definition as an injunction to replace every pronoun with a noun phrase, as in the above sentence.  The problem is, it’s frightening how many guns there are is a passable use of… dang, I forgot the technical term for this, but it’s when you cataphorically define the pronoun subject it later in the same sentence, like it’s fun to travel.  I’m not really sure why this usage of it is is kosher in formal writing, but clearly many students think it isn’t and are willing to sacrifice logic to avoid using it.

“When I make friends it helps me to expand my circle of friends.”

For some reason people seem to feel like an adverbial is a more elegant way of introducing a subject than simply naming it.   I see a lot of sentences that start with a subordinate clause, and then have it as the subject of the main clause where it means “the content of the subordinate clause”.  Many of these also feature circularity as in the above example.  The problem for me is how to explain that the adverbial really should just be the subject (“making friends helps…”) without sounding pedantic or condescending.

Lists composed of nouns, have unlike parts, and last contained another unlike part.

Of all the errors I see in native speaker writing, this is the most familiar to me.  My Japanese students were similarly confused about the usual symmetry required when splitting a syntactic tree with a conjunction like and.  The thing is, I think it takes a brain unusually attuned to structure to be able to understand an explanation of this in explicit terms – most people probably get it just from reading a lot.  I’ve had limited success diagramming sentences like “I bought him a coat and umbrella” or “I bought him a coat and her a scarf” to show why “I bought him a coat and a hat for myself” is ungrammatical (or at least a confusing garden path).


If I could choose a single lexical item that portends a badly written essay, it’d be effective, as in “the author effectively establishes mood throughout the story”.  Many students interpret the word how in their teachers’ “describe how author X does Y in story Z” like an Olympic skating judge and simply rate it on a scale of “badly” to “very effectively”.  How does Charles Dickens use dialect to illustrate his characters’ social class?  Effectively!  A gold star for you, Dickens!  This relates to the problem of meta-theses outlined below in that it actually says nothing but announces that something will be said.  I’ve tried to avoid using “effective” in my criticism as a result of noticing this, as well as its polar opposite, awkward, the go-to criticism for proofreaders unable to describe grammar except to other people as smart as they are.

Dangling modifiers

I would have been extremely happy if my students in Japan had used any adverbials at all besides “when S V”.  To the contrary, native-speaking American kids are so loosey-goosey with modifiers that often the interval between periods seems to have nothing but modifiers treading water, having given up on the dream of firmament.  This being a problem, since grammar to be corrected.

Comma splices are everywhere, I don’t always even bother to correct them.

I’ve even started noticing myself making them sometimes, they have started slipping under the radar.


I think I did this back in junior high – used the space normally reserved for a thesis to announce that I had a thesis.  This can take several forms:

  1. “The thesis of this paper is…” Not terrible if what follows is still a thesis.
  2. “This paper will cover these topics…” The supporting topics are left standing like Greek ruins consisting of columns with no pediment.
  3. “How does Dickens use dialect to show social class?” Good question, when your teacher asked you to write about it.
  4. “Dickens uses dialect to show social class very effectively.”


Machine translation requires human-like AI

Some of you alive in the 90s might remember an episode of Star Trek: TNG that is held as an example of the philosophy of language showing up in popular culture.  In this episode, the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise arrive on a planet where the inhabitants speak a highly allegorical language, using phrases about mythic or historical figures a la”Shaka, when the walls fell” to convey messages such as “oops” or “I see your point”.  As a result of these literal translations, the Enterprise’s crew members are forced to decipher what the dense metaphors mean contextually rather than in their normal English idiom as the universal translators usually supply.  Universal translators, as you can probably guess, are supposed to work with any language on the first encounter with that language or even with the species using it, and as far as I know this is the only episode where this particulary difficulty arises.


The problem is, if a universal translator can’t work with the very (infeasibly, as the article above points out) allegorical language spoken in that episode, it shouldn’t work with any language.  Even very closely related human languages use vastly different grammar and vocabulary to express greetings, thanks, obligation, and anything else under the Sol System’s sun.  To know that the verb phrase “thank you” is a show of gratitute in English (not a command, as verb phrases in isolation generally are), while an adverbial like “doumo” serves that purpose in Japanese, a universal translator would need to be a mind-reader before it was a translator, as there is no way to ferret out the fact that “doumo” and “thank you serve the same purpose from first principles or even from the grammar of that language (which universal translators don’t always have access to; they work on every language even on the first try). Moreover, it would need to do this mind-reading on species whose physiology it has never encountered before, meaning it would need to determine where the locus of that species’ cognition is, make intelligent predictions about how the patterns of (presumably) chemical synapse firings correlate to intentions, and map those intentions onto speech acts as they occur in real time.  The prerequisite technology for a universal translator is much larger than mere substitution and reordering of words, and approaches impossible, even by sci-fi standards.

In our world, people often discuss non-sci-fi machine translation like Google Translate as if it also were a scaling problem of existing technology, as if adding more of the same gears and cogs we already have would result in perfect language-to-language recoding.  In essence, people think the incremental improvement of current machine translation technology can save us from the years-long process of mastering new languages ourselves.  This post, with its oddly long prologue, is meant to argue that perfect machine translation would require a project of enormously grander scale than the visible inputs and outputs of textual language, and like the universal translators in Star Trek, would have a project of imposing complexity as a prerequisite, one whose implications would go far beyond mere translation.  In the case of machine translation that prerequisitive is a complete human-like artificial intelligence.

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