Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

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Stuff I will miss 3: Intensely bitter grapes

I’ve been out of Japan, my home for almost all of my adult life, for a year now.  There are now some things I’d legitimately think of planning a vacation around to experience again.  Some of these are of the nostalgic flavor variety, and others are more profound.

(If you had had the power to predict back in 1987 that one of the effects of a global information network would be that everything textual had to be organized as a list, would that have helped you to make any wise investments?  What could you do with that information besides corner the market on scroll bars?)

Air conditioning.  People tend to think of Japan as an ancient country.  I disagree with the concept of “ancient countries” on philosophical and historical grounds (“ancient” being but one of many possible stances a modern person can take on the history of a current political entity), but in any case, you see no evidence of this claim living in an apartment in Japan.  It’s quite rare to find any domicile more than 30 years old, and the facilities within any given residence are bound to be either brand new or from around the same time the domicile itself was built (again, not a very long time ago).  Modularity is the philosophy of most interiors, leading to replaceable fluorescent ceiling fixtures, temporary flooring (often the rugs, tile, and the wafer-thin floor itself), and detachable wall AC/heating units.  The philosophy of housing in Japan seems similar to the philosophy of food in the US – ultrarational and at the convenience of industry.  My current residence in the US is older than any building I lived in in Japan, and its AC sounds like a fleet of Huey helicopters.  The idea that American buildings are old and sturdy and Japanese buildings are new and full of ad hoc fixes clashes with stereotype, but more importantly, sometimes slapdashness has perks in easy upgrades.  My AC in our school in Japan was practically silent in comparison.  If only the walls had been made of material capable of keeping heat in.

Unsweetened food choice architecture.  I still believe the point that I used to make, that the stereotype about everything in the US being incredibly sweet is false.  However, the sweet things here are definitely more prominently placed and almost always the first thing you notice on any given supermarket shelf.  There are croissants among the danishes and donuts, and plain yogurt next to the vanilla and strawberry yogurt, but the sweeter options are at least 2/3 of the options available and always hit the eye first.  This doesn’t technically force you to buy sugar-coated or HFCS-filled products, but it does make them harder to ignore.  Shopping here tends to nudge you towards cavities.  At least the dentists wear gloves here.

Meiwaku.  Interaction has a steep transaction cost in Japan.  Initiating random conversation, asking an off-script question to someone whose job isn’t specifically answering questions, mingling, sharing, and basically doing anything that anyone else might conceivably see all come weighted with fees.  Those fees come in the form of aversion to and fear of being called out for disturbing others (迷惑 meiwaku).  I don’t remember if meiwaku was in that book on Cultural Code Words, but it definitely should be – if there’s any single word that explains public behavior in Japan, it’s meiwakuMeiwaku, to me, is why people don’t usually talk on trains, get up to leave during the credits at the movies, or call out or loudly resist perverts on public transportation.  I see the threat of being accused of causing meiwaku as an additional burden that one feels in every public action, encouraging fairly extreme adherence to rules because the threat looms so large.  If it were a monetary cost, it would be a sales tax of 20% on all verbal transactions, pretty strongly disincentivizing public garrulousness.  The thing is, the revenue raised by this tax also allows for quiet and well-maintained (or at least not willfully destroyed) public spaces and a priority placed on social order, and it is something you can begin to miss in its absence.  Its near-complete lack in the US produces something also undesirable – reckless and risky behavior brought on by a lack of cost for disturbing other people – a recklessness subsidy, accompanied by a widely accepted cultural value on confidence and asserting onself.  In public in the US, all options for public behavior are available to everyone at no cost in face or shame.  As a result, people avoid boring, on-rails conversations but are much more likely to engage in all manner of misanthropic behavior because of how highly weighted self-expression is over public order or consideration of others.

The dream of a pretense of post-racial society.  Japan’s mainstream concept of itself is explicitly racial.  Not “we hate other races”, but “Japan’s story is the story of our race”.  I’ve come to think that most countries are this way, and a legalistic, “our club is the best but anyone is welcome to join as long as they follow the rules” definition of citizenship is a distinct minority of countries.  Now, if one squinted at US history and let the bloody details fade into the background, one could have said that this was the story Americans have always told themselves – that America is an idea that rises above race and class.  In fact, it was true until recently that even the most conservative politicians publicly espoused a legalistic rather than blood-and-soil definition of citizenship.  I worry that having had to defend this president will cause larger parts of conservative America to abandon even the rhetoric of equality.  Cognitive dissonance and all that.

I knew there were elements in the US who envied the easy worldview offered by an explicitly racial view of their nation, and sought to tie Americanness to a mythic concept of “whiteness” just as Japan’s is to “Japaneseness”. I didn’t think these people would ever have a voice in polite society or have their chosen candidate win a national election.

Of course, it seems silly to say I miss the rose-colored view of my home country that I had while I was away from it, but that is the truth.  I miss having the US as an example of a country that didn’t mythologize itself as the work of one uniquely virtuous race while I lived in one that did.

Shallow roots.  The US is unique not in its newness (its government is actually very old compared to that of most countries) but in its inability to pretend to be ancient.  Most people, when asked the age of a country like Japan, will inevitably answer in the thousands of years.  If you consider a claim like this in practical terms, that means either that the denizens of these islands have imagined themselves to be part of a Japanese polity before they even grew rice or that a series of governments, even without continuity from one to another, have been able to exercise control over these islands since the bronze age without the benefit of any communication faster than a pony (or in the earliest days, any form of writing).  Nonetheless, part of the current cultural software in some countries like Japan is a claim to continuous existence back into antiquity, made plausible by some historical facts (people really have lived here for a long time) and some guessing enabled by lack of evidence (nobody knows what these people did besides live in huts and make cord-inscribed pottery).  The US, with all of the history of its current government being part of the written record, cannot feasibly claim any of this.

Belonging to an “ancient society” weaponizes many of the arguments conservatives tend to make in every society – that our way of life has been ever thus, distinctive and characteristic of our land and people, until vulgarians and foreigners infiltrated it and began its corrosion.  Of course, you hear these arguments in the US too, but the difference is that in an “ancient society” everyone starts the discussion by ceding most of the conservatives’ points.  Yes, our way of life has existed unperturbed for millenia, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to give women maternity leave.  Yes, our culture is unique and distinctive, but a little labor flexibility would help our economy’s competitiveness.  Progressives need to start with an acknowledgment of what they are breaking with or they will lose most people’s sympathy.  As I said, the US has versions of these arguments, but people often have to outsource their roots (“Western” or “Judeo-Christian”, nothing on this continent) and the mists of time don’t seem to reach much further back than 1955.  A loss of national or cultural identity can be quite freeing.

Of course, this is a list of the things I miss, and like in the last entry, moving here has certainly disillusioned me of my fellow citizens’ resilience in the face of appeals from antiquity.  The president seems to come to his particular flavor of chauvinism simply by liking things the way he’s used to (white by default and free of the burden of empathy), but others, even progressives, have come to embrace the framing of conservative vs. liberal as traditional vs. non-traditional or continuity vs. interruption.  I suppose I had hoped I would be coming back to a society that saw interruption as its tradition.

Let’s end on something light…

Natto maki.  More sour beans than sour grapes.

natto-maki
Source.  I’ll be sure to try them if I’m ever in Ho Chi Minh City.

Translationism

Here’s another of those posts where I try to slap a label on an ELT phenomenon I’ve noticed (Schmidt, 1994).

Translationism is the prioritizing of translation as a means of seeing and learning other languages.  It is built on the assumption that different languages are sets of arbitrarily-differing tokens which refer to identical basic phenomena in the real world, and therefore that learning another language is a matter of matching the tokens from the L2 to the tokens from the L1 (tokens being lexis or grammar forms).  It is more a result of slips in thinking or adherence to other ideologies than an ideology itself, but is common enough to warrant naming.  Some of the ideologies that it results from are native-speakerism (NSism) and nationalism, which displace translationism when convenient for that ideology.

Disclaimer: Clearly, this post is sort of a holdover from my time in Japan, where I saw this ideology reflected in the approaches taken by both Japanese ELT and Japanese culture in general toward other languages.  I don’t see as much of it in California and thankfully not in ESL.  (To the contrary, I see ESL teachers, unhelpfully in my view, warning students against using bilingual dictionaries.)  I have a feeling translationism is much more prevalent in EFL contexts, particularly ones in thrall to a national narrative that links the dominant ethnic group’s supposedly innate characteristics to its current culture and modes of expression.  Maybe my blogging self misses living in a place like that and always having things to be outraged by.

What follows is a breakdown of types and effects of translationism. ご覧ください。

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JALT vs. CATESOL pt. 2

A few weekends ago I attended my second major CATESOL event, and I noticed a few more differences from my last teaching organization, JALT (the Japan Association For Language Teaching – yes, they capitalize “For”, meaning the acronym really should be JAFLT, or ジャフルト).  I’ve come to notice what I think is a bit of a drawback to CATESOL’s highly dedicated and professional members.  I’ll dance around it for a little before I finally get to it later on.  Or maybe I’ll nestle it between body paragraphs so you’re not tempted to just skip to the bottom.

One thing you find when moving from one culture to another is that you frequently find yourself waiting for things that never happen, seeing social cues that are invisible to the rest of the population and waiting for a conditioned response that is curiously not forthcoming – a “bless you” after a sneeze, a door held open, or a formulaic conversation-ending phrase before your coworker leaves the break room.  In CATESOL and in my first semester in ESL in California I’ve had this feeling very often.  I keep expecting some hot-button topic to be mentioned, even gratuitously, and then it’s not.  Or I expect the speaker to drop an author’s name just to let the audience know he/she knows his/her stuff, but he/she just moves on.  In their place, sometimes things I’m not familiar with get name-dropped instead, or sometimes (this is most alienating) nothing happens at all.  I find myself oddly unable to follow professional conversations in a natural way.  Many conversations here seem like the first time I heard a telephone conversation in Japan, where nobody says “bye”, they just hang up when they’re done talking.

I’ve written down a few things I found myself waiting for and didn’t see – things that are conspicuously absent from my CATESOL/ESL experience.  For reflection, I’ll follow them with some things that I hear regularly in CATESOL or ESL but I rarely or never heard in Japan or JALT.  And for the record, I still haven’t lived in California for even half a year, so feel free to take my claims with as much salt as you need.

MIA in CATESOL

Native Speaker.  I have heard this just once here, from another teacher from Japan.  On the other hand, at least 2 of my superiors have been non-native speakers, and many more coworkers wouldn’t have fit the NST mold in Japan (i.e., they are not white).  I have heard a bit about the advantages of learning from teachers who have experience learning English as adults, in that they understand where the students are coming from or are former ESL students themselves.  Interestingly, this was not couched in a NST/NNST dichotomy, but rather the firsthand ESL experience of those teachers.  I kept expecting the words “native” and “non-native” to be used, as they often were in Japan, to discuss the stereotyped strengths of the NST/NNST groups (in Japan, “foreign” and “Japanese”).  Even more surprisingly, but I haven’t heard any talk of the supposed advantages of NSTs, whether for authenticity, correctness, or anything else.  It’s almost as if people here believe that NS status isn’t as salient as qualifications or experience as a language teacher!

Interlanguage.  This troubles me.  The way I understand our profession, interlanguage is the ball we are always trying to move down the field, and everything else we do is just indirectly trying to do that.  If I don’t hear any acknowledgment of interlanguage in discussions of what we do, I fear I may not understand the rules of the game we’re playing.  By “acknowledgment of interlanguage” I mean recognizing that some aspects of students’ mental representations of English may have to come in a certain order (not the order that grammar textbooks present them in), that the representations we care most about aren’t always amenable to explicit teaching (i.e., “knowing” a rule won’t necessarily lead to its incorporation in IL), and that grammar terms are not necessarily the currency of the classroom, useful as they might be for other reasons. Way too often in CATESOL I hear people talk about “grammar teaching” as if its only possible form were “explaining grammar in metalanguage”, and “grammar syllabus” (or worse, “coursebook”) as a stand-in for “syllabus”.  I see some indirect evidence that people think about IL, and in many cases it could just be that they think they’re too mundane to talk about.  On the other hand, I’ve heard people dropping grammar terms as if they were celebrities they once met, and it seems taken for granted that lower-level courses are “grammar-based”.  My brain threatens to abandon ship whenever someone describes lower-level ESL as “teaching basic grammar forms”.

I haven’t figured out what this lack of mentioning is evidence of, but a bit of open discussion on old staples input, intake, uptake, interaction, and natural order would go a long way toward putting my fears to rest.  I feel a bit like I’ve been admitted to a prestigious medical school, but all I’ve heard discussed are 1) holistic ways to lengthen life and 2) the head bone’s connected to the (beat) neck bone.

Extensive Reading.  I suppose this follows from the last one.  A few colleagues at my current institution have talked about this, and I’ve heard rumors that it was once attempted.  My school does in fact have almost a full bookshelf of graded readers (more if you include other languages), organized by one of the full-timers, so it may be ahead of the curve.  I haven’t heard ER mentioned in presentations though, especially to the gratuitous degree it’s mentioned in JALT, even in presentations on totally different topics.  To the contrary, I have seen a great many reading textbooks here, most intended for close reading as a class, with the more unfamiliar vocabulary the better.  My fear is that the lack of concern for interlanguage is what drives the lack of focus on ER, or that people are making assumptions about their students’ exposure to English outside the classroom (potentially obviating the need for a focus on input in the classroom) that aren’t coming true.  See next point.

Free conversation.  This is generally a term of abuse in SLA, and many people would take it as a sign of quality that ESL teachers seem to avoid it.  However, and this surprised me as much as anything about ESL, most teachers here also seem to understand that their students remain ensconsed in their L1 communities when not in the classroom.  This being the case, and considering how infrequent cases of successful L2 acquisition that include no unscripted interaction are, we really ought to look for ways to actively encourage free conversation, even at the expense of stuff that is actually in the curriculum.  I recognize that not everyone is willing to jump on the Dogme train (another term I haven’t heard in SoCal – Dogme, not train.  Actually, train too) but if our students have little to no interaction, negotiation, opportunity for recast, etc. on subjects of their choosing, and instead have 5 hours of controlled grammar practice per week, we’re sacrificing probably the most important predictor of L2 learning for something 4th or 5th on the list.  It seems very odd to me that teachers can see how close many of their students’ day-to-day lives are to EFL rather than ESL and continue to focus on form as if input and interaction were taken care of.

To recap, my main concern is that the lack of IL discussion that I’ve seen evinces a lack of knowledge about what really builds L2 competence, and that grammar books and dense reading activities have filled the gap that that knowledge should occupy.  Again, some people seem to talk in a way that implies IL is a central concern and simply haven’t used the word, which is fine – they don’t feel a need to name-drop it.  The thing is, I’m not convinced everyone is on the same page where this is concerned, as evidenced by the abundance of synthetic syllabi and grammar jargon.  Many folks seem to think that their job is explaining English grammar, and that this will result in students being able to use it.  I hope to be proven wrong.

On the other hand…

行方不明 (whereabouts unknown) in JALT

Credit/non-credit.  By this term I mean the distinction between classes which lead to transfer and those that don’t.  I’m willing to chalk some of my opinions on this topic in Japan to the fact that I spent almost all my career there teaching at my own school and later to non-English-majors at university.  However, I’m convinced that almost all ELT in Japan is low-stakes, and no discussions on credit/non-credit classes are a symptom of this.  Let me qualify that – almost all ELT that conforms at all to international norms is low-stakes, because ELT that is not test-prep is almost by definition irrelevant.  If you are doing anything other than helping students cram in pretertiary settings, you are giving your students more “cultivation” and “character” than real opportunity to advance in society.  The apparent lack of communicative English in the public school systems is a bit more complicated than I’m making it seem here (briefly, the high-stakes tests most parents think they’re preparing their kids for by teaching them grammar-translation don’t actually have much or any grammar-translation on them), but the point is that 20th-21st century approaches to SLA like CLT are on the losing half of a “serious/unserious” dichotomy, grammar-translation being cartoons from the New Yorker and CLT being Larry the Cable Guy.  If you want to be treated as a professional, teach like it’s 1890.

JALT, an organization aligned much more with international ELT than Japanese public education, has a membership who sees grammar-translation as stone-age pedagogy (which sometimes makes it appear to old-fashioned grammar teachers as a professional organization of unprofessionals).  Its ranks are full of highly intelligent and passionate teachers working in stigmatized “oral communication” classes, desperate for their work to be taken seriously.  As with a lot of ELT in Japan, the closeness to international norms of any teacher’s approach seems inversely proportional to the seriousness with which society takes them.  If you are a JALT member, your greatest achievements with your students are almost invisible to the machinery of social advancement.

In contrast, “credit” teaching in community colleges in the US is playing for keeps – you’re teaching students who more often than not plan to transfer to American universities, and the skills they get with you help them in immediate ways.  What they get with your help will lead them to get along better with their classmates, make sense of a lecture, or understand what exactly about the latest Trump quote everyone is so alarmed/amused about within the very near future, not on some hypothetical far-off study abroad or business trip.  Even “non-credit” students still have to live here, and in my experience are motivated in a way that seems less conducive to narrow-minded grammar study.  If you teach in Japan you’ll have a few students who need English to achieve their heartfelt goals, and make inspiring use of their language skills – but my point is that if you teach ESL, they’ll be the majority in every class.

I don’t mean to say that ELT in Japan would be improved by the addition of more credit classes – but the prevalence of discussions of “credit/non-credit” classes in ESL (along with various other terms you hear bandied about, like “SLOs” and “transfer”) shows how much edifice is built around the idea that people in the US really need English education.

Immigrants get it done

As I said in an earlier post, a whiff of desperation and a nagging feeling of inadequacy can sometimes be a great motivator.  Maybe teachers in Japan are overcompensating with their high-minded discussions of when output leads to noticing the gap, but their students are almost definitely better off for it – even if the circumstances that produced such passion for the details of SLA are unhealthy overall.  Also, maybe being somewhat isolated socially, particularly from the norms of ELT in Japan (which, again, date back to the advent of village horticulture in the Yayoi period) allows JALT members not to be co-opted as much by an industry that would much prefer you just use a coursebook than plan tasks or have conversations.

I realize now one of the most essential aspects of JALT – it is composed of immigrants and deviants.  The NSTs in JALT are mostly members of racial and cultural minorities, and the Japanese JALT folks are people who like to hang out with visible minorities.  They would not blend in in a crowd of average citizens and gain little social capital from their careers.  Of course they lack the youthful energy of CATESOL; very few of them went straight from their BA to grad school and then right into teaching.  I suspect most of them (like me) had years of teaching experience before they got their first qualification.  They also have an immigrant’s healthy skepticism of mainstream culture; a decades-old tradition of teaching one particular way has no meaning to an immigrant NST.  They have little use (or little chance of establishing) institution identities around their places of work; they need professional identities established among other people with shared experience and expertise to take pride in their work.

Maybe I’m romanticizing the immigrant experience in Japan a bit.  Still, I think “institutionalization” is my new favorite word for capturing the differences I’ve felt between CATESOL and JALT.

Appendix: Phrases that causes my jejunum to undulate violently

“when you get to that point in the curriculum”

“the present simple” (particularly in Chapter One of a grammar textbook)

“transfer errors”

“master a grammar point and continue on to the next one”

“workbook”

“extra-credit reading”

“reduced adjective clause”

“_________ clause” (when spoken to a beginning learner)

“too high-level”

“know the meaning exactly” (meaning “know the accepted translation in Japanese”)

“University of Lye-chester”

jejunumlabelled
Highly sensitive to neglect of interlanguage.

 

If people wrote about the USA the same way they write about Japan

Every year as the traditional calendar tells the American people that their year is coming to a close, they begin reenacting a set of rituals that both binds them to their ancient roots and reaffirms their relationship to each other.  Christmas (named for the most powerful deity in their religion) appears at first glance to be a thoroughly contemporary event, but in truth its essential nature was set in the mists of antiquity, and continues to show the national character of America and its people.  Each child opening a gift from Santa Claus (a benevolent watcher-elf) takes his or her place among the countless others who have come before.  Christmas is but one of the deceptively modern-looking traditions with timeless roots in this nation where the past and the present meet.  In truth, the threads of history that bind America to its origins is always hiding in plain sight.

Gift-giving often attracts comment by observers of American culture.  Foreigners are quick to attribute wintertime gifts to America’s advanced commercial culture, when the Americans themselves have never been in doubt as to the roots of their civic and religious traditions.  The form of this explosion of gift-giving that occurs every winter is unique to this nation, despite outward signs of convergence with other post-industrial societies, and has its roots in the multitude of traditions that were practiced by Americans across their homeland (the western and eastern hemispheres).  As closely as can be put to foreigners, gift-giving in America involves a pretense that nothing in return is expected.  Sometimes this pretense is taken to the point where the identity of the gift-giver is unknown to the receiver.  However, as usual, the undercurrent of understanding particular to Americans gives unique context to an otherwise normal cultural practice.  To be thought well of by one’s peers in America, one must always endeavor to return the favor, whether in the form of another gift or not.  What appears to the foreign observer simply to be an unanswered gift has meaning that Americans implicitly see, and have understood for as long as history has recorded the practice.  As a result of its long roots, winter gift-giving now seems to come as naturally to Americans as reciprocal social giving comes to Easterners.  Some of the names and details have changed in the modern incarnation of Christmas, and certainly Americans’ mastery of technology has enabled them to ship gifts to family, friends, and acquaintances (a level of friendship between stranger and friend, unique in social character across modern societies) across thousands of miles, but the essential nature of winter gifts retains its immutable Americanness.

Across the Internet, yet another technological wonder by which American culture has gained admirers across the world, Americans reenact social rituals which have bound them to each other since time immemorial.  The pretense of informal relationships that both masks and facilitates the forming of deep bonds has been noticed before, and nowhere is this ancient practice more closely melded to modern technology than so-called social media.  Outsiders fret over whether the closest equivalent to “friend” in their language allows for the types of relationships maintained over native American social websites, but the ages-old fluidity of casual social contact in America makes technologically-enabled relationships a perfect fit for American friendships.  As with other things, the Oriental mind may face tremendous barriers in accepting American modes of thought.  Stodgy Eastern concepts of social closeness are challenged by the American manner of conducting relationships, a traditional practice yet again brought to the world’s attention by misleadingly modern delivery.

In annual holiday celebrations and in forming social bonds, Americans display the timelessly unique qualities of their culture despite cutting-edge technological packaging and apparent commonalities with foreign cultures.  In this modern age, globalization seems to threaten young Americans’ cultural inheritance by promoting sameness with other, less unique cultures.  However, America has survived to the present with its core culture changing remarkably little; there is less reason to worry (or celebrate, for some) than prognosticators on university campuses might suggest.  For the foreseeable future, American culture is its gift to the world that looks to keep on giving.

lags
Source.

 

Stuff I will miss – 1 month’s worth of hindsight

Last month, twice, I put a list here of things I thought I might miss after leaving Japan for the warmer shores of California.  Today I revisit that list mostly to verify that no, I do not miss most things in Japan.  I do miss our dog’s friends and their owners (our friends), and JALT people. Kids playing tag in the supermarket, not so much.

Varieties of tofu – sure, if I remind myself of these I miss them.  There are ridiculous amounts of vegetarian choices in the US – I made a great chili last week with something like $4 of ingredients – but a good rule of thumb for finding tasty vegetarian food in the US is to avoid the word “tofu”, which many restaurants seem to take as a synonym for “bland”.  Better choices are usually pasta or salads (which, mysteriously, are usually not vegetarian in their default form).

Service, when I’m in a hurry.  I haven’t had a bad service experience here yet, except when we’re waiting behind someone the cashier knows and they really want to catch up.  It hasn’t been the case though that Americans in the service industry are uniformily rude and sarcastic; they just don’t disappear into their roles as completely as folks in Japan.  When you’re the person that the cashier wants to talk to, you sometimes find out interesting things.  Sometimes you also find out quite a bit about your cashier’s religious beliefs!

People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public. Not generally a problem, except for some reason in the city of Barstow, where we visited a Starbuck’s that was apparently brewing something highly experimental in the toilets, and wrappers of instant ramen packages blew down the streets like so much tumbleweed.

Natto. Not so far. I instinctively looked for natto-maki along the back wall when I visited a 7-11, but found a craft beer section instead.  Fermentation seems to be the rule for the back wall at 7-11s internationally.

Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”.  No, but I do miss pastries being smaller than my head.  We stopped by Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ (interesting use of umlauts) on a road trip up north and spoiled ourselves with all manner of baked goods.  These were of high quality to match their enormous size, but many others (thinking mostly of donut shops and supermarket bakeries) replace quality and uniqueness with just more of every ingredient.

I repeat that Japanese folks overplay the “foreign cake is too sweet” stereotype, but it is true that if you pay $1 for a donut here you get roughly twice the amount of sugar as in Japan, if only because the donut is twice as big.

Cheap paper. For some reason. Ditto white board markersToilet paper and paper towels are both expensive here (partly because Americans seem to prefer higher-ply TP and they sell it by the truckload: a little math confirms that per ply, this TP from Japan is actually more expensive).  I’m not sure why I said I would miss cheap office supplies, as I don’t plan to be self-employed here and presumably my workplace (unlike public non-tertiary schools) won’t make me buy them myself.

The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity.  I’m continually surprised at how much extra stuff any food purchase comes with here.  I’m pretty sure at least half of my calories since moving here have been from things I hadn’t planned to eat and was surprised to find on my plate in abundance – collateral calories, if you will.  This doesn’t mean the main dish is made with any less care, but it does speak to a certain expectation on the part of the restaurant and the customer that you will leave the establishment only slightly ambulatory, whether it is from things you actually ordered or low-cost fried starches surrounding them.

Citrus. There is a lot of citrus from Asia which is yet unknown or less common in the US.  I do miss these.  I also miss the jumbo Fuji apples lovingly swaddled in styrofoam, so you can get some of the environmental damage of fast food without leaving the produce aisle.  Fruit here is abundant but you can’t simply fill a bag with random selections from the pile; half of them are bruised and a few look like someone has already taken a bite.  The rule of thumb when buying fruit in the US is that some fraction of what’s on the market shelves won’t be edible, but the fruit costs that fraction less.

The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation.  I’ll get back to this after I start working.  The demo lessons I gave had few of the problems derived from bad (but common in Japan) translation, but plenty of issues that plague EFL/ESL learners worldwide- common stops on the interlanguage highway.  Unexpectedly, my recent online essay job proved useful as I was able to advise a student during a demo on just how long a quote can be before you should make it a block quote in MLA.  Look it up.

Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!).  Not only are there not many shibas here, but most people seem never to have seen one before.  Contrary to the Missionary Japanist concept of the shiba as one of many  objects of Orientalist fascination ’round the world, most people on seeing our dog simply say, “He looks like a fox!” or “Is that a Basenji?” The people who know what our dog is are often shiba owners themselves, although they have some rather heterodox ideas of what is allowed in shiba-dom.  We’re not sticklers for purebreds at all, but the multicolored, skinny, wiry-haired dogs many people call shibas here wouldn’t be recognizable as such in Japan.

The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism.  Perhaps this says something unflattering about me, but I’ve been cut off quite a few times already on freeways by large pickups and SUVs that I can only assume are driven by Trump supporters.  Off-topic, but I had to say it.

Mini Stop.  On our road trip through central and northeastern California, we passed through towns of all sizes, from 300 people to however many live in Los Angeles.  We noticed something interesting about the types of business that are typically the first to spring up when a town crosses a certain population threshold.  In California, Subway is usually the first sign of nascent growth in a small town, the equivalent to your first Temple in a game of Civilization.  Soon to follow are Motel 6, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, CVS (seller of drugs/sweatpants), possibly Carl’s Jr., and Starbucks.  When every burger chain is present, you can start building your first Settler and look towards expanding.  In Japan, first to arrive is invariably the convenience store chain that is prominent in your corner of Japan (7-11, ポプラー popuraa “Poplar”, ローソン rooson “Lawson”, など nado “etc.”), followed by a “family restaurant” like Denny’s, followed by pachinko.  If you have all of these plus a Mini Stop, congratulations, you presumably have lots of pachinko to occupy the hand that is not holding ice cream.

Shocking students with root beer candy. I would consider replacing this with Hi-Chew or Mitsuya Cider candy for students here, but both are already sold at stores, or at least at Daiso (which had proliferated in my absence).  Anything really shocking probably would cost a prohibitive amount to import.  If I see any kinako-flavored Kit Kats I’ll probably get those for a few lucky students at the end of the semester.

Indian food.  We actually live near a “Little India”, but we haven’t gone yet.  I guess Indian has been pushed out by Mexican, at least for the time being.

The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t.  The level of curiosity between the US and Japan is not exactly symmetrical.  Japanese people often harbored intense curiosity about what Americans thought (of Japan), while Americans, if they wonder at all, mostly wonder about rather obscure but bizarre points of popular culture like Babymetal.  Not many people care about the kinds of thoughts on modern Japan that vitiate this blog.  No one acts either surprised or interested when I can name the current Prime Minister.

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.  I have been in the captive audience for a bit of pro-gun lobbying from a car dealer, but aside from that most people have actually kept their political opinions to themselves (except Bernie fans, on their rear bumpers).  I’m sure when I start having deeper conversations with people I’ll find that the instances of “oh, really?” I used to hear have been replaced by “no, actually…”.

Since we’re moving to California, the cold.  Well, this was short-sighted.  Orange County is as warm as ever, but many places north of the grapevine are below freezing at night, and during the day as well in Owens Valley.  Our dog did a bit of playing in the snow on our recent trip there, and I had the very nostalgic experience of snapping frozen grass by stepping on it on our morning walk.

Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun.  Yes, I miss the birds and even the deer.  There are both here, or so the road signs would tell us, but not exactly the same types.  Actually in some cases the birds are almost exactly the same as the ones where we used to live, but still our house is bigger here and so we see less of them.  Also, no hwameis at all, but for some reason we do have flocks of parrots.

A few beers.  Nope, not really.  Beer has really come along in the US since the days of Bud Ice.

The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers.  No, I don’t think I’ll miss that at all.  Of the people I’ve interviewed for so far, at least 3 of them have warned me that I will soon be hired full-time somewhere else and have pressed me for verbal guarantees that I will at least see out the semester.  I don’t think I’m showing off since I haven’t started at any of those places yet (and no full-time jobs have been offered, let alone to start RIGHT NOW), but it looks like I won’t be looking back wistfully at being considered qualified merely for my semi-caucasian looks.

In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching.  Why did I think I would miss this?  It’s unambiguously better to have students who want to learn.  Part of being a professional teacher is motivating people, like part of being a professional wrestler is coping with injury.  It’s still better not to be injured.

Having the time to blog like this.  When I get random views nowadays, they tend to be of the posts that took hours or days to write, ones that took legitimate (if non-academic) research.  It’s quite possible that most of my posts from here on will be “light” ones like this.  Also, because I no longer live in my complaint-muse (Japan), I feel I have less to rant about.  I can’t say I miss having all that extra time and indignation, but evidently it provided some entertainment and insight for some people.  I’ll be on the lookout for further opportunities to be underemployed for extended periods and sitting on simmering pools of discontent.

I also don’t miss the constant mixed feelings of “I have to tell them what their shirt means” and “but they will never talk to me again if I tell them”.

JALT vs. CATESOL

I’m still digesting my first CATESOL conference, along with the fairly huge lunch that came with it, put on by my local Orange County Chapter, and I thought I’d post some reflections on the differences between JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) events and CATESOL, based on the years I spent in officer positions at the former and the whole one event I’ve been to from the latter.

Accents and internationalization

I.e., varieties of non-native accents.  JALT, despite its name, is mostly the NEST organization in Japan; Japanese English teachers and teachers of other languages participate more in other organizations like JACET or no organization at all.  As a result, you hear mostly BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) accents and occasionally Japanese accents.  I widened my circle of native English-speaking acquaintances quite a bit in JALT – and for some reason a hugely disproportionate number of those were from the smallish town of Nanaimo, British Columbia – and I made some Japanese acquaintances too, but not nearly as many at nearby dog parks.

The CATESOL event featured quite a variety of accents and national backgrounds.  I’m pretty sure I heard Korean being spoken in the background at at least a few points, I was approached by a Japanese student doing a semester abroad, the host is apparently from Russia, one of my partners for breakout discussions was from Spain, and several other people revealed having been born in another country during the normal course of conversation but had no (non-Californian) accent that I could discern.  This was quite a refreshing change from the internationalism that somehow results in homogeneity that I witnessed often among English teachers in Japan.

Internationalism is a bit a of a banal subject here, it seems.  No one talks about it; no one encourages it or dismisses it.  No English teacher here thinks it is his/her mission to internationalize Southern California.  Best of all, there is no Holliday-sian Catch-22 where the white BANA teachers are the only ones talking about NNEST equality and opposing linguistic imperialism while their local managers and deans openly use them and their semiotically valuable “Western” features as advertising to recruit students who still think white faces = authentic English.  Also none of the clearly hypocritical regressive liberalism when NESTs’ instincts to valide Japanese teachers’ identities result in agreeing to their claims of non-overlapping magisteria, Japanese teachers’ purview being supposedly impossible-for NEST skills like speaking Japanese and understanding juken.  I attended a presentation at the CATESOL event that addressed these issues, but the context was different – it wasn’t so clearly divorced from the consciousness of the community, including most language teachers, outside the room.

To be fair, this isn’t a negative point of JALT so much as it is of the surrounding population of teachers and learners.  It is an issue though that I am happy to put behind me.

Youth, cheerfulness of

I was easily one of the older attendees at the CATESOL conference.  There were poster presentations, most of which seemed to be put on by recent college graduates (although one turned out to be an old Japan hand like me who just looks young).  Many tables at lunchtime put me in mind of the archetypal high school cafeteria (as portrayed in film – my high school didn’t have a cafeteria), by the sheer conversational energy and assuredness of youth.  The Plenary speaker was older, but such things are expected.  All the presenters seemed to be my age at the very maximum.  This gave me a short frisson as well as I realized these people were also several years into a local career that I was now starting afresh.

JALT’s composition, mostly college teachers with MAs or better, pushes the age scale quite a bit upwards.  I’m pretty sure at least some of the other Chapter Presidents or SIG Coordinators were in their 60s, and mid-30s (as I was) seemed to mark one as thoroughly green.  If CATESOL is the NAMM show, JALT is the local symphony’s booster club.  One or two JALT folks were younger than me, perhaps young enough to have to show ID when buying beer (that’s a joke – no one shows ID when buying beer in Japan), but even they were well past the time in their lives when they could be sure what they were saying and their dreams were gleefully unrealized.

Motivation, to participate and to discuss

I mean this in two ways; motivation for being there and motivation as a point of discussion. Both provide some interesting contrasts between the two organizations.

I was surprised to find two people at my table in attendance simply to fulfill a workplace “flex time” requirement, which I suppose is the closest equivalent to having 研究費 kenkyuuhi “research funds”to spend and looking for the least boring way to do so.  Many of the local community colleges also apparently sponsor their teachers’ CATESOL memberships and participation in events like these; I know of at least one forward-thinking eikaiwa that does the same for JALT.

I mentioned before that the energy level among the attendees was high.  I attribute this (perhaps prematurely) to security in the meaning of their jobs; they know that professional development is rewarded by their institutions and appreciated by their students.  One lady in particular left a huge impression on me as someone whose work definitely mattered: she taught ESL in prisons.  That fact and concept alone, revealed to me before the plenary started, basically floored me for most of the speech, as I kept thinking about how small my world of TOEFL test prep and Ideal L2 Selves had been instead of listening to what I’m sure was an interesting and practical treatise on critical thinking. I asked her questions about it throughout our lunch, barely letting her finish her sandwich.  I still feel a bit like my perspective on SLA has been broadened suddenly by a factor of 100, possibly leaving stretch marks.  The point is, people in CATESOL know that their teaching matters.

I’m not totally sure that this is a drawback for JALT, though.  To be honest, the type of teacher who works for decades in Japan and doesn’t burn out is usually very good at deciding what to spend mental resources on, who to try to connect with, and how to best motivate different groups of learners.  English teachers in Japan may also describe their jobs as TENOR (this was whispered to me by the teacher and later presenter sitting next to me during the plenary, which actually made me laugh out loud – it stands for Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), but that means that because you’re not constantly being fed job satisfaction, you have to work to look for it or make it yourself.  JALT presentations sometimes have a faint whiff of desperate appeals for someone in society to take their job seriously, but this does make JALT members work very hard on professional-level presentations and serious research.  It’s overcompensating for the way most of society still sees English teachers, and NESTs in particular, but overcompensating has probably motivated a lot of great work in every field in which people have felt chronically inadequate.  It certainly didn’t hurt Napoleon or David Letterman.

Motivation as a topic was much less present in CATESOL than JALT, or so it seemed to me.  Again, motivation in JALT is a bit like water in Mad Max, it inspires cult-like worship when someone like Andy Boon seems to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet in his classes.  The rest of us realize how precious it is when chronically, post-apocalyptically deprived of it in ours, and the predominant issues in lesson planning become not how to facilitate development of students’ abilities but how to get them to care enough to answer a single yes or no question (besides Shunya; he’s always game).  At CATESOL motivation was more like water in Japan; the issue was not how to make more of it but how to channel it and dam it efficiently so as not to let it overflow its banks (unpacking the metaphor, discussions were not on motivation itself but what to do in classes that were presumed to have plenty of it).  There was one poster presentation on extrinsic motivation, and the study that formed its content was from the Philippines.  If you want to pack an auditorium at a JALT conference, just name your presentation some motivational variant on “Getting your students to speak”.  They may have to bump you up to the 大ホール.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either for JALT, though.  The plebeians worshipping Immortan Joe in Mad Max aren’t wrong that water is extremely important, and you can bet that if they ever move to Japan they will appreciate the hell out of that Mt. Fuji runoff.

Lunch

Lunch was huge.  Did I mention that?

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.

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.

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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.