Archive: On language learning

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A cynical mood front has been gathering in my teacher brain of late. Perhaps it’s because, when I ask my friends who speak good English what their strategies were for learning, they shrug their shoulders. “Study? I guess,” they say. “I just kind of stuck at it.”

Or perhaps it’s because my dentist speaks better English from listening to BBC Radio 4 than many do after years spent in classrooms, or even living in English-speaking countries. In any case, I’m starting to lose faith in theory.

A woman learns English using everyday examples

There are many perspectives on how best to learn a language (National Geographic 1918, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no shortage of theoretical moths batting about the EFL flame, that’s for sure…

* It’s all about exposure to the target language without the pressure to respond: “Put the banana in the box Taro. Well done. Now put the melon on the floor, behind Shohei. Excellent! That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* It’s all about using the target language in a relaxed environment: “Take a seat in the big brown massage chair. Let’s read dialogue number 4. Oh Mavis, what lovely shoes. Are they new? … There now, wasn’t that easy? You’re very clever. That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* Negotiation of meaning should take place in pursuit of the completion of a mutually interesting task: “OK, so there are poster paper and pens at the front of the classroom, so let’s all wast-, er spend ninety minutes drawing a map of your hometown. When you’re finished, present in pairs. Make a list of the similarities and differences. I’ll be in my office. Don’t forget to pay on your way out!”

* Linguistic responses can be automaticised through a series of questions and responses that were written in 1900: “Name six things besides cigars which should be kept in a dry place… Describe all that you could procure from an ideal penny-slot machine… OK great, you can pay at the reception desk.”

* The teacher should say as little as possible, so the students are in control of the target language: “. . . . . . Teacher, what we should do now? Ah… Monkey? No… Pray? Ahhhh…?”

What’s the one unifying feature of these methods? Why, their democracy of course! Their promise to all that if they only show up each week and… What’s that? Money, you say…?

Ah yes. Money.

English language teaching is an industry, and a rather successful one. In fact EFL teachers are the UK’s sole remaining export industry. As a result, rival theories spring up all the time, selling to bright-eyed future globetrotters and world-changers and sunken-eyed hunchback EFLers alike. Siren-like, they shimmy, beckon and seduce, yet all offer hope that, at the end of that road, however long and winding it may be, all will be able to master English, to talk with poise and confidence at embassy receptions and bring up bilingual babies who will spell the end to war and discrimination forever more, ushering mankind into a new post-Babel golden age in which no Taro will be unable to effectively box a banana on receiving said instruction from his teacher.

This, in my experience, is a lie.

Successful language learners are those who care, and those who can. Motivation and aptitude. I wanted to learn, I kind of stuck at it, it sort of made sense, and now here I am.

It’s either that or Radio 4. Which gives me an idea…

From here on 21st April 2013.

Archive: The number one most annoying question to ask a foreigner in Japan

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If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

1. Why don’t you like your country (and are you all this aggressive)?

An afternoon tea party

“To be frightfully honest, I’d much prefer coffee…” (Federico Andreotti, via Wikimedia Commons)

Well now, do you see what you’ve done here? You’ve painted me into a corner, haven’t you? Taken me for a Union Jack-waving, scone-munching, knife-and-fork-requesting stereotype with no mind or personality of her own, then kicked me into the nearest open pigeon hole when I refuse to conform.

I don’t hate my country, no. There are things about it I hate, yes, and miraculously you’ve managed to touch on most of them in the space of this short conversation. But they wouldn’t make me anywhere near as angry if I didn’t care.

I arrived in Japan wide-eyed and full of youthful hope, keen to prove that I was more than the sum of my gangly legs and comically large nose, to bridge the cultural divide and highlight the deep and abiding similarities in our souls. But I also knew that here, not saying was the flower. And so I tried to keep my mouth shut and smile, smile, smile – the only advice I’d received before embarking on my educational mission.

I was to be thwarted in my bid for silence. Mere days in to my new role, I found myself sitting on a stage in front of an expectantly assembled junior high school, trying to answer the question “Do you like Margaret Thatcher?”. The above is not the answer that I gave, but it is the answer that I wish I could have given. The answer that I did give was something mealy-mouthed about how Thatcher’s policies divided people in Britain to this day (usually into opposite corners in which tables are upended and used as ad hoc missile cover), and that many people didn’t agree with them, myself included. But, I added, to soften the blow, that was just my opinion.

An awed hush descended. Seconds later, mutters broke the surface of the silence like tiny fish coming up for breadcrumbs. “My opinion… my opinion…” Yahari, said the headteacher, iken ga tsuyoi desu ne. As expected (being a foreigner), you have strong opinions.

It was a reaction I was to meet time and again, and one not entirely without reproach. There’s a fine line between having opinions and being opinionated, and my very existence seemed to make waves even when my mouth was firmly shut. For the first time in my life, I was considered to be representative of something. I had become An Ambassador For My Country (Whatever That Might Mean). Everything I said was interpreted through a lens – Christian, opinionated, aggressive, mouth-frothing feminist, tea-sipping English lady – that I barely recognised, and had no intention of perpetuating.

But how to escape becoming my stereotype? People listened the hardest when I was most like what I was expected to be. When I tried to fit in, I fell flat on that comedy nose of mine. Every time I hit the stereotype wall I’d blame myself and my language abilities, and hit the textbooks harder. We local gaijin bonded over furtively exchanged textbooks, gathered in dimly-lit family restaurants to squint at flashcards battered and tea-stained with use, huddled together for warmth, protection and linguistic input at the town’s premier (only) watering hole.

I soon reached the point where I could communicate day-to-day. There I could have stopped, but something wasn’t right. I noticed one day that when I spoke Japanese my voice was high-pitched, exaggeratedly feminine, about an octave higher than it should have been. I listened more closely. My words, too, they were being spoken to order, to fill the space in the conversation as expected, not because they belonged to me. In short, I had lost my voice.

Clearly, I was playing a loser’s game. I realised that if I was going to reconstruct myself in this very different culture, there’d need to be a core person there, and many of my values would come from my own culture. And that meant being more than a cypher, more than a brainless smile, more than a high maintenance ambulant steak. So began the mission to reconstruct Caro-chan.

I’m going to make a sweeping generalisation at this point, because it seems like everyone else is at it and I don’t like to miss a par-tay. Britain is a nation that has fought tooth and claw for political representation. It has been ruled by the rich, for the rich, for centuries, and this has fostered an oppositional, them-and-us, two-party system where everybody knows which side they stand on. It’s not only OK to have an opinion: it’s not OK not to.

I was brought up to have an opinion on most things. I was also taught to be critical of things I did not agree with, with the possible exceptions of nine o’clock bedtimes and cod liver oil. I believe there is a damn good reason for this, and it is that the world does not tend toward fairness or equality; quite the opposite.

I understand that Japan has followed a very different path, its upper classes voluntarily dissolving their privileged position to establish a modern democracy. I also understand that they did so partly to preempt vile class consciousness infecting the minds of their citizens. I understand this because I’ve bothered to find this out, and kept my mind open while doing so. So the next time I give the wrong answers to the right questions, perhaps you could try listening before you make up your mind.

It’s not aggression. It’s not hatred. It’s because I care.

And if it seems doubly shocking coming from a woman, you’re getting just the shock you deserve.

From here on October 28th 2012.

Archive: Saying goodbye

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In 2001, at the tender age of 21, I said goodbye to my friends and set sail for a small town in a rural part of Japan. It was the second time I had ever flown anywhere. I was to be a sensei, an educator, an enlightener, a bringer of English to row after row of bemused Japanese teenagers.

My two years in Sanyo did much to form who I am today. They awakened my love of language, my thrill at the challenge of life out on a limb, my addiction to culture shock. They also taught me a great deal about the kindness of strangers. A small group of kind-hearted people welcomed me warmly into their lives and homes in a way that I will never forget.

One of these people was Keiko Tsuno, town councillor and de facto head of an affectionately boisterous household of fifteen, swelled on most evenings by friends, homestay students, and wide-eyed young English teachers. She was a force of nature, always on the go from work to pickle-making to sign language to pottery to cooking for half the town most evenings, ending the day with “Any time, please come in my house!” She somehow found the time to help me beyond measure.

On October 18th 2009 my friend Keiko said goodbye, after a long battle with cancer. She will always be in my heart.

From here on October 30th 2009.