Category Archives: Japanese

Breaking: English in Japan is pretty useless.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for 10 months. There are 20+ other blog posts I should have commited to finishing writing about this time, but here’s what’s coming and some background story is likely needed.

One of the courses I have been teaching these 10 months in Clark High School is Culture Course. We have watched videos, took part in an online exchange project with teenagers from South Korea, Russia and Canada, learnt to explain Japanese phenomena to non-Japanese people, read about what constitutes cultural differences in general (the boring part they didn’t really care about all that much). All that has hopefully been coming under the big important umbrella of learning to speak and think of cultures beyond stereotypes. One activity that we all enjoyed was reacting to common generalizations of Japan, its culture and people (the concept was borrowed from an activity I witnessed in Mike Griffin’s class over a year ago). All students without exception were highly responsive and keen on discussing the many common images of the Japanese that are shared in the world. (Sidenote: when compiling that list, I did some research online but also relied on my own friends’ and family’ s ideas, that are probably exactly exemplary stereotypes. In fact, I might have said “My granny/ parents think this and that” n number of times in class… Every time meaning well.)

The part coming below is responses of third-year students to a task in their final test on the course. The task was to give a clear comment on three statements, which happen to be stereotypical ideas about the Japanese. As I was grading the tests, I couldn’t help it but be moved to blog their thoughts, accompanied by my own comments. I wish I could spend more time in class with these students. I wish we could talk about these things, among all others. Instead, I am offering the typed version of the conversations that never happened. Enjoy.

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Statement:

English in Japan is pretty useless. A lot of people, even young people, don’t speak English. Even if they can, they will be too shy to speak when the chance comes.

get along

Student —> Anna

Yes! Yes! Yes! Actually, Japanese study English since they are junior high school students, but many people can’t speak English. Even if we can, we tend to not speak. I think Japanese hate to make mistakes. So they are afraid of making mistakes. We should be confident. We should adapt to globalizing society.

Me: As hard as I might try in my class to help students feel more at ease about making mistakes, I know what you mean. There might be additional, contextually Japanese reasons intensifying the fear but maybe most learners are prone to that sort of reaction? Well, I myself certainly am. One of the many excuses reasons for my profound lack of Japanese speaking after a year living “immersed” in the environment is the fear of being misinterepreted, misunderstood, the fear of using a wrong phrase, sounding too casual, too incoherent. It’s little of a consolation, I know, but it is my way of offering empathy as a fellow language learner.

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I agree with this. Many people think so, including me. In my opinion, people think that Japanese English pronunciation is so bad to speak. English is still a “foreign” language for us, because we don’t use it much.

Me: This comment made me cringe on the inside, feeling so sad and yet grateful to this student for spelling it out. Who are those people thinking so, saying so, instilling such thoughts in learners? Is Russian English pronunciation any “better”? When I was in Thailand, I took pains to understand Thai English, but not because it’s “bad” – it is just so different. It offered variations of sounds that my ear was not accustomed to.

I wouldn’t want it for any of my students, Russian or Japanese, or wherever else I might go to teach, to feel ashamed of the way they speak English.

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I agree with these statements because I am shy to speak. Also, at first we learn English grammar. It causes us to feel “we have to speak English with correct grammar”. It also causes us to feel nervous and tense when speaking English.

Me: Again, I just want to reassure you that both nervousness and tension while speaking any foreign language is such a natural, human reaction… The way I see it. It is a teacher’s job, to a great part, to make that stressful experience less so. I’m truly sorry we don’t always manage, or explicitly show that we care to manage.

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I agree with this stereotype. Japanese people usually start studying English when they are 11 years old. That’s why Japanese people are not good at English and speaking.

Me: Russian people usually start studying English when they are 6-8 years old. Many of them still don’t find themselves to be good at speaking English when they grow up, even after 20 years of learning. I’m not sure what it proves.

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I don’t think that English in Japan is pretty useless because over 80% companies in Japan use English and in 2020 we’ll hold Olympics in Tokyo. At that time, many foreigners will come to Japan. So English will be considered to be an important skill. I do agree with the second sentence, because I do become shy when I speak English. In Japan people don’t use English in daily life so people tend not to speak English, even if they can.

Me: I am with you and thanks for pointing out that good reason to keep motivation up for learning to speak English. As for the last sentence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people in most countries around the world don’t use English in daily life! What I am saying is that we’re all in the same boat here, and it’s good, and there shouldn’t be pressure to necessarily speak the language!

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I agree with this comment. As I wrote, Japan is an isolated country so we don’t have an opportunity to speak another language, not just English. We will be too shy when we try to speak other language.

Me: It’s a most interesting idea for the background behind that stereotype. I wonder what sort of isolation you have in mind…

*****

I have to say yes to this stereotype. To be honest, Japanese way of teaching English is horrible. They are looking at English as a tool to get a good grade on exam but not as one language. I think this is a reason why Japanese can’t speak English very well. This is one of the reasons why I didn’t go to a normal Japanese school.

Me: Now this is analysing the “problem” on a whole new level! I am constantly left speechless at the amounts of testing that is happening throughout the term, as well as at the worksheets for English classes that I catch sight of in the staff room. All I can do is sigh, and yet you’re saying this is not a “normal” Japanese school..!

*****

I agree with this sentence. Japanese feel shy to speak English in front of other people because they have a little opportunity to talk with other people in English. Moreover, Japanese character is passive so they hesitate to express themselves.

Me: This comment struck a cord with me. Is that so true? Is there something I could do in my class, in those few hours a week we spend together, to unlock the expressive side of that character (that I am certain exists in every teenager at the very least!)..? Or is that being too bold?

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I think Japanese people have no interest in foreign countries and if Japanese people spend their life in Japan, they think “I can live if I use only Japanese.” That’s why they don’t try to speak English so much. Even if they can, they try to be same with other Japanese people. Maybe they pretend to be shy.

Me: In my first months here I used to feel the very same way, that Japanese don’t care about travelling abroad. That was an opinion I heard a lot in class, that was the attitude that used to bother me so much. Now that I’ve grown to be more accepting, I think I see more than when I was overly focused on these opinions. As an example, this weekend during a party/informal meeting for the parents in the school, I was approached by a couple of parents. Both Japanese, very polite, their kid not being in the International Course (which is where I primarily teach), they used all English they had at their disposal to ask me…. about tips for arranging a visit to Saint-Petersburg! It turned out they are planning a vacation there, and they would like to visit the Hermitage museum, go to a concert of classical music, enjoy the architecture of the city. Needless to say how happy I was to share my ideas and recommendations with them, as well as finish our conversation by thanking them for their interest in the culture of my country. …On second thought, I wonder how far English is going to get them in Russia (I honestly don’t know). I hope they join a tourist group 😉

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I agree with this sentence. First, in Japan people don’t have a lesson in which they can communicate in English. School teaches us how to write perfect grammar. So, a few people can speak English and during speaking are too shy.

Me: There’s nothing I could add here… wait, no, I have a question. Don’t Japanese junior high schools have ALTs? I don’t have experience working as one or working in a school with one, so obviously my knowledge is limited to the stories I’ve heard… but it was my understanding that they were there in school to ideally produce some sort of English-speaking environment, or an impression of such. Just as a sidenote: Russian schools don’t have an equivalent of that position.

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I think so, too. These days a lot of foreigners visit Japan, so there are many chances to talk in English, but the way of studying English in Japan really focuses on writing too much <…> Japanese are shy to talk with strangers in English. I think it comes from the historical reason. Once upon a time, Japanese people used to keep distance from foreigners. I think that reason made people these days think they can’t get along with foreigners.

Me: I’d argue that focus on writing is not the cause of trouble in itself. It is the kind of writing that matters. Regarding the final thought, it was thought-provoking to read… Can it be ingrained that deep in the culture to transfer from generation to generation through the subconscious of a whole nation?…

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Finally, a ray of light in the grimly painted picture of English language education for the shyest nation of all:

That’s not true. I speak English every day no matter where I am. I partially agree with the idea that Japanese are shy though. It really depends on each person’s personality. If you are good at English, you can go to a good university, so it’s not useless at all.

 

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All of these students have successfully passed the test. Moreover, they sort of nailed it, making me really happy with their language improvement and clever reflections, well-put in what they say is still a foreign language to them. Thank you for inspiring me to face the blank “draft” page on this blog, too (and for effortlessly filling half of this page with your own writing!)

 

Thank you, reader, for reading. Make what you will out of 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.

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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.

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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 JapanesePod101.com. 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).

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(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.

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(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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Sake, sushi and a kiss

The title of the post can make you think I will be writing about a recent visit to a Japanese restaurant. Or a poem. Or a movie script.
Well, I might. Bear with me and read on.

さけ
すし
ちゅ

A week ago I started to learn Japanese. There’s nothing to feel extremely proud of yet, I haven’t learnt even half of Hiragana syllabary. But I can read something, I can draw some symbols, and I remember these three words very well.
I learnt German at the university – and gave it up. I started to learn Italian, twice – and gave it up. It’s not much of statistics but could probably lead to a thought that I still have chances to fail. Indeed, perseverance without a distinct, articulate, Big Thing purpose is not my story. That is why I like to hope that this time I’ll do better, and not only because I’ve got the Purpose and I’ve exposed my baby-learner status. I am not alone, and I am aware.
More findings of this last week below:

(1) Having the Purpose is helpful but in the long run it can be a little intimidating. When I started to study German my aim sounded something like “I want to read Remarque in original”. This is a bit of a delusion for a beginner in any language. Aspiration, yes, but not too good a goal. At the moment my micro-goals in Japanese include having a decent 15-minute daily lesson and being focused on what I’m learning. That means sitting down at the desk and writing. During the day I try to liven up my long metro commute and study more with the help of two or three apps.

Moral I’m taking out of this for my students: little aim is a useful aim. Be realistic about what you can do, then do it and stay pleased with yourself, not frustrated at your inability to come up to your own expectations.

(2) During this week I have come to see very clearly one truth about learning a language that I have always known (and it’s nothing revolutionary, you all know it, it’s just nice to think of it from another angle). Language learning does not happen in a linear way. Getting pieces of a language system together comes as a gradual consequence of a chain of tiny discoveries of every single learning moment, of every given (and taken) learning opportunity. My examples:
– I downloaded several apps both for iPhone and iPad and try to use them occasionally, on both devices. One of the apps constitutes my basic “syllabus” of learning to write, pronounce and read hiragana syllables. A couple of others work on different levels (a basic grammar guide, busuu, dictionary, study cards from that hiragana app).
– There is a notebook to practise writing kana (symbols) and simple examples, all coming from the app.
– There is a notebook to record vocabulary I come across (which for now is all mostly passive). In the same notebook I started a Week Recap section, where I basically sum up all I’ve learnt about Japanese from different sources during the week of study.
– I printed out Hiragana syllabary and look at it. (Very useful, give it a try, looking at something)
– I created a photo album in my iPhone for all pics and screenshots connected with studying Japanese. Look at them)
– I downloaded an app which enables me to “sketch” on the phone. So I practise writing on my way. Then I may post a screenshot of some word I like in my Instagram account as my #wordoftheday. I am sure followers, especially the majority of my Russian friends, think I’m nuts.)
– I visited my sister at the weekend and stayed with my 7-year old niece. We practiced learning together. For example, I drew a symbol (like き) and pronounced it (ki), she had to write it in Russian. That was fun.
– There is this good friend (thank you!), who can sometimes be seen online wearing a hat, following newly-born movements (see P.S.) and writing excellent posts, who is not bothered (or is bothered but too kind to say so) to throw in some really tough but real life examples, that is words for me to read. Or I’d say lines of symbols to decipher. These are then supplied with comments of how/ why/ what for that happens in the language. This is all terribly exciting and challenging, too. (Tip for the students – have somebody teach you, who is not formally your teacher, and who will supply you with bits of information about the language in a (yes! Again) non-linear way.)

Moral I’m taking out of this for my students: think 360 degrees, 24 hours and other dimensions. Use your imagination.

(3) First time in the two years of my geeky teacher life I’ve started to use Quizlet. I don’t know most vocabulary items I’ve put there. Words out of context and out of a bigger scheme of understanding of how the language works don’t sink in. Obviously except for those, which are either beautiful, or short, or are sake, sushi and kiss.

Moral I’m taking out of this for my students: before suggesting to your students some method or tool for learning a language, try it out for yourself. It’s interesting that last week I showed Quizlet to three of my students. One of them got off it immediately, the other two are still holding to it. The teenage girl went crazy about it, needed no explanation at all how to manage the sets, how to add words and study and play games. Fun!

Whether I fail or make a little progress is not a question. At the moment I perceive these studies as a process I enjoy. Every day I rush home imagining how I will take the pen and start writing these beautiful kana, line after line, like my niece is doing with the Russian letters and syllables. How I’ll combine them, try to give them their sound. Try again.
And there’s more to come.

Here’s a picture with the only aim to be shown as a thumbnail image of this post.

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P.S. The Glorious #FlashmobELT Movement.

P.P.S. Here are links to the three blogs of teachers/ teacher trainers learning a language, writing about their journeys. Their journeys have been much more exciting (and longer) than mine, they’re definitely worth a read.

Vicky Loras on opening her eyes and starting to study German.
Ken Wilson and his series “Diary of a language learner”
Scott Thornbury’s “(De-)Fossilization Diaries

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