Monthly Archives: May 2014

#OneStudent and his guest post.

This is a guest post from D., my former student. Read on, and then on to my commentary at the bottom to make sense of my reasons to request the writing in the first place and publish it here, unedited and with permission.



As far as I got from the letter, for some reason your opinion about my level of EFL is quite good, so I am to tell why.
It made me think for a while so for now there’s a couple of words I can say.

It was maybe the 2nd grade (12 years ago) to offer an English lessons for the first time. It wasn’t obligatory so we had a small group of children whose parents wanted their kids to study foreign language. The teacher was my mother’s friend in youth so I became special for her (for my teacher, not for my mom; for mom I’ve been special before for good marks and other stuff). Her name was Ekaterina Vladimirovna, and she was awesome. I remember her way of remembering structures and words, it was based on a rhythmical repeating. It was so effective so i still remember the rules of being polite (“be the first to say “hello””, “say “thank you” a lot” etc.) and the line from the text about breakfast that I will never forget: “…porridge, an egg, a sandwich and a cup of coffee for breakfast…”. We painted arrows up and down over the words to remember where to go with the voice up and down. Once she made me repeat “Africa” nine times till I pronounced it right. Nine times for poor Africa.
After her course I was able to list my breakfast with an excellent pronunciation. But the even better thing to change was that after her lessons I would never consider English as a discipline. For me it always will be a game, a song that I have to sing, a rhythm that I need to play with. Since then being at the ordinary lesson would be a torture for me.

In later classes my teachers were changing every year. They were my school’s director that skipped half of the lessons, three of four students or university graduates (I had problems with literally ALL of them) and one extremely old woman with so German voice so I considered her to be a fascist. Students were so boring and dumb that I had to argue with them to feel awake. Once one of them said that the right noun to be derivative from “lonely” is “lonelity”. I called it bullshit because I knew that in Coldplay’s “Yes” Chris sings “…cause I’m just so tired of this loneliness…”. She was unarmed.

Thanks to them my knowledge in English grammar is about zero. I don’t know any rule, I don’t know how to make two parts of the sentence seem relative. My strategy of allocating the prepositions is terrible. Why am I writing now? Because there’s another awesome woman in my school history of English learning.

She was a teacher in another school, and her lessons were extremely cheap. So many times I asked her to take more money for the lesson but she never accepted. She was not very old, she had a cat named “Boy”, and she was in love with English. Evgenia Ivanovna taught me that English is a LEGO construction toy that I MUST create words and structures in a case of not knowing how to say something right. She tried to explain me some rules but soon she gave up on it. I had a insight, so all we were doing was solving tests in “automatic” mode and reading tons of texts. She never allowed me to spell aloud the wrong answer twice. With her help I won two municipals and one regional English contests. She was proud of me, and that was her best reward.

In my university life I’ve been only polishing what I have on classes (hate to boring lessons, love to the great CREATIVE ones with A.V.) and mostly by myself. I started to read in English (Flowers for Algernon, To kill a mockingbird). Sometimes it is still hard for me (I hate this stupid feeling of forgetting the word I’ve just found in a dictionary) but I do read sometimes. What concerns speaking I benefited a lot from the lessons of Ann because she demanded us to make a speech every lesson. This was helpful to demonstrate my taste to forget all the words that I know during the speech.

This is it, I suppose. Playing English is still one of my hobbies, the bad side of it is that I do not make any progress. My luggage of words does not fascinate, I still use dictionaries (for typing this story I used a dozen of times) and sometimes play dumb (today in a short conversation with a Chinese tourist I found myself unable to recall the word “passage”). But it’s just me being lazy to study.

I think this story above is what you wanted me to do. If not, well, I spent a couple of hours in my past; this is a great gift of you. Thank you. (Thank you! A.V.)



I wondered if D. could write up a story of how come his English is so natural and style so fresh after I read this post by Mike Griffin.

My point, if there has to be one, is not about Russia being an EFL situation and students getting bright and shining with their Englishes (which D., believe me, is a very vivid example of) against all odds, including their schools, books and teachers. A continuing, irritating to many, flux of English teachers, entering classrooms to stay for several months and then rush away. Apparently, D., just like Yeajin somewhere on the other side of the globe, is not a typical student… but in some *good* ways he is. He’s interested, he’s curious, he’s lazy, he’s evaluating teachers by what they taught him, how they did that, what kind of people they came across as, and other subjective factors. He is not typical at all in that he can reflect on his learning like he did, he can create a rich and colourful narrative without being assigned a creative writing task. Or maybe exactly thanks to this.

I don’t know much about D.’s experience travelling abroad and yes, I believe the mere fact of travelling does not guarantee transformative insights in regards to language learning. When I was in the UK after graduation and went to Starbucks, I had a most embarrassing time making a simple order. On second thought, that was a kind of an insight.

D. explicitly shared what has worked for him personally in his 12-year English language journey, and you can also read between the lines to find out more. There’s no conclusion I’m planning to make here or a moral to take away. It is just another #onestudent story, which also features many teachers along the way.

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I think about #OneThing.

This is another upside down blog post. I’d like to rewind this day (and more) back, take you on this backward journey through the convulsive, abrupt and illogical path of my logic, and finally reach the moment when the #OneThing happened. Here we go.


Any day is a set of scenes, each of them full of small things that happen and often go unnoticed, like they weren’t there at all. But they were. And one class in a thread of classes on a long teaching day is a subscene, full of small things that happen and often go unnoticed, or worse, misinterpreted. This one class does not ask you to keep your eyes open for the #onething, nor does it need you to speculate on your professional (in)efficiency. This one class has likely been planned and will surely go its own way, whether this way and your lesson plan go the same way or their paths diverge. This one class will have its unique air, which will be the product of: the moods of the people in class; the feelings of the people in class about the class and about the people in class; the attitude factor; the choices and reactions to these choices; the mindset for this class and these people in it. And probably many other factors, not excluding your choice of a warmer activity and a smooth progression of lesson stages.

What can ruin your class? Do you really think a class can be “ruined”? I don’t think classes get ruined because of inconsistent lesson plans, poor discipline, unprepared students, absence of students, etc. I think a class is 90 minutes which will go and be over no matter what happens in this time. Last week, and the week before, I was battling with every 90-minute slot gritting my teeth to come out emotionally intact myself and with the least amount of damage to my students. The unique air of my classes was predetermined by my anticipation of problems; by my uncertainty regarding my plans; by my unwillingness to face the people in my class; by my own heavy emotional background for those days. No class was ruined in a sense that would imply self-criticism of high order. I am sure my students left the classroom without any strong aftertaste, the most tangible and noticeable maybe being the idea that the teacher looked tired/ bored/ strict/ unwelcoming/ unfriendly. I do believe this was the most harmful impact those classes had, for them. And I felt disoriented and stuck, wishing to flee the university building asap. No harm in that either. I slept, time passed, and today we had great classes which had a very different unique air, because the teacher felt different, and all the components in the subscene of this day fitted together more or less nicely.


For one of the groups I teach the homework was to watch a section from Britain is Great series (individually assigned for every student) and be ready to talk about it. 9 out of 12 students were present. 6 out of 9 students were prepared. 2 out of 6 students had accidentally clicked the same link in our Google Doc and watched the same videos. So we had 5 topics instead of many. The planned activity would have meant working in 2 groups, listening to the different aspects of the greatness of Britain, and completing the KWL charts about the topics discussed in that group with the notes.

I was not shocked or angry or even displeased about the fact those 3 students were not ready for class. Neither were their groupmates. So, while I was having an indecisive moment of thinking how to rearrange the group for the task now with this information, Student K suggested they worked in 3 groups with 1 unprepared groupmate in each. Then they’d move to other groups and listen to other students talking about the greatness, and in this way would all try to cover all 5 topics, in a more engaging and dynamic way (this is now my personal comment, she didn’t really say these words).

I am not sure I had to do much that class. It was interesting to listen to them speak and make comments, and be openly uninspired by some of those topics. It was great to see them organize their lesson flow, set the pace, search for the shortcuts to get finished with the task with less effort in less time. My amazement and satisfaction were piqued when I saw two of the three unprepared guys sit a little aside and start filling each other in on what they’d each heard or missed. That was the #OneThing moment.

Somehow I felt a relief, and I was smiling and felt very good about having these people, all 9 of them, in that room. Because I can trust them to self-regulate our time together, because they seem to trust me to find a compromise. Because today we helped each other to bridge the gaps and create the unique air which probably left all the people in that class feeling involved, respected, and hopefully learning.

Well, at least this lesson left me feeling good about us and willing to write this post.

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Am I learning Japanese?

I am in the process. More accurately, a couple of days ago I pulled myself out of the 2-month stagnation process, thanks to this post of Sandy Millin about how she actually is learning Russian. Thanks again, Sandy, for this unintended nudge, which I’m just hopeful will mean effort on my part for more than a few days after this post is out.

Over to the more detailed answer to the question in the title. I am learning, of course. Am I enjoying Japanese? Very much. Am I progressing? Well, I believe I am. Am I happy with my progress (and myself learning)? Not at all. The funniest thing for me here was to look back and track out my post of Dec 3, 2013, the moment when, having studied Japanese for a whole one long week, I came up with morals and lessons, both for myself, for students, and for the community. Little did I know then what months ahead had in store.


I’m writing this post to:

(1) display the viewable fruit of my effort and tell about my studies. Explain, comment.

(2) ask myself questions resulting from (1). Wonder, speculate…

(3) .. and not despair.


Even though pictures in the posts here in this emerging space of a blog is not much my style (the serene black&white somehow appeals to me), I’ll insert some images here. I was blown away by Sandy’s, to be honest. It is also past my understanding why I, a teacher who keeps telling students to surround their living space with as much English as possible, have failed to do so. Anyway, what’s on display here in (1)? Here’s what one could find in my room and suppose I’m studying Japanese:

photo 11

Most basic Kanji characters taped to the wall in front of my desk. That really means I look at these every day. I can recognize, draw and pronounce the highlighted ones. My confession, one I never imagined myself making, is that I love kanji. I’m also quite keen on hiragana symbols and think they look attractive (maybe that’s why I managed to learn them easily), but katakana syllabary just won’t settle in and really causes frustration at times.

photo1 2

The three owls are staring at me daily with the easiest of conversational Japanese. One of these days I will be giving them neighbours, there are a lot lined up waiting. I’ve found these owls have truly done their job well – I can assure you I know these phrases.

photo1 4

Next up – the box. Old-style cards with random Japanese words and phrases I pick up from here and there (written in kana and where possible in kanji lately) and the English for them on the other side. No context for them as yet. I hope you now have at least one question on the tip of your tongue finger about this box contents. Save it for (2), please.

photo 3

I have no course book. This picture book is the only book for Japanese studies I have, and this is now maybe a shame, already. While being openly a let’s-stay-away-from-coursebook teacher, as a learner I have ironically started wishing for a nice glossy-paged thin volume of something with exercises I could mechanically complete. I would then see the pages covered as an achievement and would likely brag about that now. However, in my one episode of a Japanese coursebook hunt, the books I found were offering me to learn Japanese through Russian AND through the methodology of the 60s. I politely refused.

Apart from the book I have a whole file for kanji writing practice. From this website I downloaded all kinds of seemingly relevant files, one of which was the first 103 kanji with stroke order and space to practise. I’m taking my time, going through them at my own *snail slow* pace.

photo 15One of my two notebooks for studies is the one for random, or all, kind of notes. There’s no structure there at all. The pages at the back of the notebook would reveal my attempt at keeping vocabulary lists but it didn’t work out for me, I see no reason/use in having words listed like that. That is, at this particular moment, for myself.

The other notebook was just started a few days ago and is for recording and practising grammar and vocabulary from this app. The app is great for me since its materials are accessible offline and that’s what I need, since I spend hours in Moscow metro where wifi is still a promise. The initial Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese looks to be a comprehensive resource in itself and I just wish I had time or whatever it is I need to check back there once in a while. Plus I’ve just now joined the corresponding FB group, whatever that means for my future studies.

While speaking of apps, here’s the last picture for this post.


Phone and iPad screenshots for this folder would be about the same. I have only used Sketches app on the phone to practise drawing hiragana, but I now think maybe I could get back to it for kanji as well. My point is having/writing the same things (characters, words, phrases) in different places around me: in pen&paper notes, in phone or tablet notes, in apps, on sticky notes. There are two more apps in this folder I haven’t found a way to make real use of, so they’re waiting for their turn. One app I’m totally not getting is… Quizlet. I created sets, I played with them, I tested myself. It’s not interesting for me and I’m not impressed or convinced, or unhappy about it either, for that matter.

I am happy though that I found this blog by Matthew Ellman. Matthew recommended me to try out Memrise for myself, which I did. You can see there were 47 notifications from the app at the moment of taking the screenshot, and that should prove I’m studying but somehow lagging behind the app) Actually, Memrise is surely in top 3 useful resources for my Japanese vocabulary, so thanks very much, Matthew.

Busuu is pretty great and I used it quite consistently and successfully for two months last summer to pick up some basic Italian before my holidays there. What I like(d) about it best was that there’s this community part of every unit you go through, where you’re asked to produce some language based on questions they ask or commenting on pictures, etc. It did work for my super basic Italian, and is yet to be seen for my ultra basic Japanese.


What are other “materials” I turn to in my relaxed/ lax approach to self-studying Japanese?

* Video and audio podcast from They’ve got plenty of collections aimed at different levels and for various purposes. Only from one introductory audio I learnt (and remembered) when and why to say いただきます (itadakimasu), おいしい (oishii), まあまあ (maa maa) and ごちそうさま (gochisousama).

* Being an Instagram addict user (frequent but sensible), I follow several accounts which post pictures for learners of Japanese, or accounts of learners of Japanese. I find it useful and interesting to study hashtags in particular, even if かわいい (kawaii) seems to be the all-around favourite.

* Every day there’s at least one status update in Japanese in my Facebook feed. When it doesn’t look too daunting, I copy it out (especially so if it’s just one line) and break it down with the help of the dictionary.

* There are occasional blog findings that refer to the language or culture that I go through (like, for example, recently this post about the blood types of Japan, or RocketNews24).

* In the Facebook group for students I have written about there are enough active members from Japan, and I sometimes learn from them as well (またね- matane, for instance).

* I try to read every product label in Japanese that I happen to see. That’s difficult, as they’re mostly written in katakana (which as I said I’m still struggling with). Besides, it becomes impossible as soon as I see a row of kanji characters.

* I watched “My Neighbour Totoro” for the 4th time with my niece this weekend, and while we understandably were watching it in Russian, I was happy to note that I could catch and understand some bits of original Japanese there. Or catch, type in a dictionary and learn a new word (まって- matte).


(2) Thoughts and questions now:

– My decision to go for self-studying is a conscious choice. Is it the right track? Am I losing much? A week ago I wrote a post on how/IF teachers can motivate students to learn a language outside of class. My case is *formally* no class. Who motivates me? Am I motivated? What’s responsible for that? Would classes help motivation and/or progress?

– I’ve mentioned “here and there” above. Well, this is exactly the essence of “my method”, which I still almost believe should work one day. Sporadic, spontaneous nature of learning… is it the nature of learning a language, especially when you’re thousands of miles away from the target culture? My biggest concern about the success of my studies comes out of my most grounded belief that I don’t need a rigid system to reach a certain language level. I’m ready to reconsider.

– It’s true that the only person I speak to in Japanese outloud (introducing myself, asking for chopsticks, greeting, encouraging for studies, etc)) is me. This is one big problem with opting for self-studying Japanese in Moscow.

I invite you to ask me more questions.

I am making an effort to surround myself with Japanese. Am I learning it? Some learning is happening, but because it’s unsystematic, or because it’s been a while since I last diligently spent 15 minutes per day for 7 days in a row doing something, the current feeling is that of self-doubt. I have a very vague idea of how sentences are structured. Though, of course, I have a big picture and know a lot more than I did 5 months ago, and I’d now come up with several very simple “can do” statements for myself. If need be, that is.


(3) This morning I’m excited again. One result of a tweet exchange around the topic of teachers learning languages was the discovery of Kimchi Bites blog where Martin Sketchley shares his experience self-studying Korean (this particular post with the comment thread was key for inspiring me make an action). My immediate plan is to put this present excitement into practical solutions. Realistically, I won’t be able to run yet another blog, so I’m going to blog about how my Japanese is going here. The regularity cannot be promised, but is hypothetically a post once a week/fortnight.

Another result is this realistic challenge from Matthew. Looks like the next post in the Japanese series is round the corner! Community support, nudge and competition is fun and exciting.


This post, however, is over now. You have read 1800+ words. Arigatou.

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