Friday, 2 July 2010

Baton (plus au Japon)

This site is currently down (until October 2010) for urgent lifestyle maintenance.
Closing credits

The final thank you goes to Ms Yuki Atsumi for her kindness, selflessness and putting up with my (occasional?) moods over the last 6 months. Japanese territory is far from hostile .. but in Shizuoka, with her family (and the greatest food) it always felt like home. Take care, Shizuoka. Take care, Snow.

(Snow, Ise, March 2010)

The day before my flight home, I visit Kamakura, its Great Buddha, beautiful Hase Kannon and a number of temples. True to form, I also take a wrong turn and get lost on a muddy hiking path.

At the 'hydrangea temple', Meigetsu-in, I read the tourist pamphlet. Inside there's a four-line poem written by the Buddhist priest Kakuryoubou Dousou 'while in the sitting meditation posture' shortly before his death.

For 37 years
I held the mirror of karma high
Now with a smash I break it to pieces
and the Great Path falls away.


So let me get this clear. I’ve only been here for 6 months and I’m expected to make a speech? In front of all classes, most of whose Japanese is so good I don’t understand it? As well as in front of all of the teachers, including the tannin (lead) ones? As a World Cup pundit might put it, that’s a big ask. And, as a sayonara and arigatou, this may not be the most confidence-enhancing of experiences for my Japanese.

Writing this final blog in Shizuoka, building up to England v Germany, slowly forgetting a speech which I consider a debacle, I actually think I’m speaking reasonable Japanese for the first time. This weekend, most of the time, I can express what I want to express. It’s a satisfying way to end six months here.

But it won’t have seemed that way last Friday, at the end-of-course ceremony. My Japanese then will have seemed anything but natural.

Over the previous few weeks, my brain had been fed like the liver of a foie gras goose: stuffed daily beyond its limits with new grammar, which I have little opportunity to use, the learning had been congested. I couldn’t breathe for new words and structures. Again, not a criticism: the Yamasa course lays the grammatical foundations, but you’re going to have to find the free-time (and Japanese friends) somehow if you want to use it as well as pass those exams. I always took a long-term view: follow the course, stick to the essentials, and every so often – as well as maybe in the long term - you’ll be able to ‘activate’ this knowledge through interaction with Japanese in the real world, outside the classroom and away from its role plays and not entirely authentic exchanges. On days like this Sunday in Shizuoka, for example.

Of course there are different ways of making speeches. One is to adlib: neither my Japanese, nor confidence, permit me to attempt this, although I was rather envious and impressed to see one or two in the class above me seemingly manage it. That’s a goal for the future, if I can find a stress counsellor.

(Students in the class above always seem like strutting gods in their command of Japanese, but – then again – I thought the same watching the last end-of-course ceremony three months ago. It only takes three months further study to realise that, well, actually, they’re just three months ahead .. and mere mortals.)

Another is to write a speech and read it. That seems like a bit of cop-out to me.

So I really prepared mine, even if the audience will not have noticed. Oratory has its specific ways and means in most languages – and I suspected the same in Japanese. So, taking care to produce a speech that incorporated words and structures that - for the most part - I knew (what’s the point in reading out someone else’s speech?), I sought assistance from one of my private language teachers and the ever-obliging Snow-chan. I wanted to speak my own Japanese, however clumsy, after all. And then, in the few days before, I did my normal teacher (and once, best man) trick of turning this into prompt cards with key words / bullet points written large. Which I then practised reading, each time looking down a little less.

I didn’t care too much if it would be slow – as we say in English, it’s better not to hurry through a speech - although I’m not sure the Japanese think the same.

When the big moment arrived, it was – I feel – a 'bit of’ a car crash. I felt pretty haunted by it even before I had finished. This in the land of saving face. In front of teachers, past as well as possibly future. And the entire student body. Yikes. I started off by forgetting to collect my graduation certificate. I finished by omitting to collect flowers which my stunningly kind and supportive classmates gave me. I held a mike throughout the speech which I didn’t use. (Or want to use, for that matter. With my cue cards, some of which I dropped as my speech ‘progressed’, I would have needed three hands.) And the lecturn, which I also would have preferred not to have, was so low that it reminded me of standing at my kitchen surfaces. The latter are a convenient excuse for my lack of inspiring cooking in Japan, and it has occurred to me since that this might be a fitting analogy (and, equally, convenient excuse) for my speech too. I also confused one or two teachers’ names before correcting myself, adlibbed once or twice in inappropriate Japanese when I lost my place (as my cue cards started slipping down the lecturn, to pelvic level).

Anyway, my friends – well, some of them - said they enjoyed it. Some even said it was ‘good’. I guess they were in a good mood, having passed their exams. None of this is false modesty. I repeat: it was a 'bit of a' car crash. And the support from my class was second to none.

I got a few laughs, but as much at my expense as where I might have hoped to hear them. If it was funny, it was, I suppose, Mr Bean-funny. So much so that my deliberate mistakes – such as when I pretended to call my tannin-sensei Nie-sensei 'kibishi' (strict) before correcting it to 'kireina' (beautiful) – may well have been taken for slip-ups too. Yes, as my dear private lesson tannin Matsuyama sensei, listening in secret from the floor above, asked me afterwards, I was nervous. Very. (As well as sleep-deprived.)

So, in short, good reason to walk around Okazaki with a paper bag over my head for the rest of the weekend. But I didn’t, and had a great final 24 hours (apart from the interminable packing). My classmates I will miss greatly, my teachers too, Okazaki itself, well.. that’s a different story.

Good bye, le Velociste. Au revoir, le Fromage. (For those who have read this from Day 1.) And thank you to everyone for their good wishes. Especially Carla, Sandra, Miffy and Sharon (all san) for their card, and Y-san, my first friend here and the last to say farewell too.

For those who enjoy J-Horror, I gather that my speech has been recorded and may find its way onto Youtube sooner or later. In the spirit of free and open access to information, I will copy the link here, but I will watch it alone, with my head and a large whisky in my hands.

Until then, I have copied below how the speech was meant to come across. (There’s few kanji for ease of reading.) Nie-sensei, if ever you happen to read it: remember, if I didn’t quite succeed in conveying the message, I’ll say it again: you’re a model and a legend. Thank you.


私は YAMASA で 6ヶ月 べんきょう しました。

日本に 来る 前は、イギリス で きょうし を して いました が、今は また 学生 に なりました。

たのしい 六ヶ月 でした。 先生だちもういちど 学生 に なるの は いかが です か。

ほんとう に すばらし けいけん が できました ので YAMASA に また もどって きたい と 思っています。

でも これから 私の もくひょう  は ワールドカップ を 見ること です。 (がんばれ イングランド!)

この 6かげつ いろいろな かた に とても おせわ に なりました。

はじめに、 わたし の クラスメイト に おれい を いいたい です。 「ありがとう」

イギリス で みんな の こと を おもいだします。

つぎ に、 いま まで おしえて くれた せんせいがた、 ありがとうございました。



プライベート レッスン の



おしえること は たいへんです ね。
きょうし を おしえる こと は とても たいへん だった でしょう。

さいご に、 ふたり の せんせい に とくべつ な かんしゃ の きもち を つたえたい と おもいます。

ひとりめ は、 プライベート レッスン の たんにん の まつやませんせい.
たのしい じゅぎょう を ありがとうございました。
いつも わたしの じゅぎょう の ために じゅんび を たくさん して くれましたね。

わたし は イギリス に かえります ので、これ から は ゆっくり して ください ね。

ふたりめは、ゆうめいな にえせんせい。 

きびしい、いいえ、 きれいな たんにん の にえせんせい。

にえせんせい に ずっと おしえて もらえて とてもうれしかった です。

にえせんせい の じゅぎょう を うけて、 日本語 だけ じゃなくて、きょうし と いう しごと の しかた を おしえて もらえました。

ほんとう に にえせんせい は きょうし の おてほん だ と おもいます。

みなさん、いま まで ありがとうございました。

Classroom Pipedreams

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn not one but two languages (French and German) through to A-Level at school. The emphasis was on teaching then, which was fine by me, and the textbook took centre stage. Substitution-based exercises geared towards understanding and application of correct grammar made for less exciting lessons, usually without singing or dancing, yet - in my opinion - better long-term learning. We also had vocabulary books into which we - contemporary educational anathema – copied new words from the board. Vocabulary learning was for homework and tested regularly in class. It all felt like a long-term project.

Rather worryingly for me, this was 20-25 years ago. But the experience and approach was largely similar to that of the last six months in a class of fourteen in Okazaki: Yamasa, you see, is unashamedly old school in its approach.

Here, too, grammar and vocabulary lead the way. There are no interactive whiteboards - relatively uncommon in this electronic superpower of a nation - and the course textbooks were first published well over ten years ago but no-one seems to mind. Vocabulary is introduced and repeated chorally but, beyond that, it’s for the student to get on with in his own time. What matters is that the basics are put in place. Particles, tenses, forms. And words. It’s not perfect, neither is it always enjoyable, but – for most students - it works, so there's nothing to fix.

Contrast that with the average government-micro-managed Modern Languages department back home. Its obsession with having the latest ICT and gameshow plenaries. Its teachers jostling to teach the most ‘fun’ lessons - always welcome but not the sine qua non of effective learning. Its cyclical yearning for new glossy textbooks with images of the latest stars, which suddenly render years of often invaluable teacher-made resources obsolete, and which are designed to reflect the latest government ‘Programme of Study’ as well as inculcate that old chestnut, ‘cultural awareness’.

(The single best way for the government to promote the latter would be tackle the risk assessment culture that makes the organisation of school exchanges, from which I learnt so much as a student, such a poisoned chalice for most teachers. Though better than nothing, experiencing a foreign country in the company of classmates on an off-the-peg sanitised coach trip can hardly be considered a modern languages trip at all).

Yes, despite my qualified praise for certain educational initiatives (see earlier posts), I fear that the British approach to teaching languages went off the rails and possibly disappeared somewhere unholy a while back.

In 2005, training to become a languages teacher, the challenge for me was to learn not to teach languages like I was taught them. So I had to ‘unlearn’ my own (teenage) classroom experience. Again, I should stress that this brought with it positives too. However, as far as teaching languages specifically was concerned, we learnt - in the name of the most recent best practice called ‘communicative language teaching’ - a very new approach to doing things.

In this new world, communication was king, whilst accuracy was merely a plus. Indeed, error was often excusable. It was suggested that we reward students whenever possible: we were told there were even optimal ratios for ticks to crosses; for words of praise to words of correction. And there was very little of the negative marking which I learnt so much from at school and Yamasa. Maybe this worked in certain other subjects but .. languages? As in life, as in school: isn’t it what we do wrong that we learnt most from? (Granted, if handled with tact and encouragement. Students need to have the courage to make mistakes too.) Thinking back, it seems to me that there was a culture of sending out the wrong message. Grammar always felt neglected and - in all but the top sets of a comprehensive school - rather optional.

The reader (if his name's not Ben) might feel that these criticisms have the ring of elitism. To which I respond: since learning correct grammar takes less time than correcting mislearned grammar, I fear the communicative method is condemning those able linguists who in ever decreasing numbers are continuing their studies into higher education and beyond, to wasted time. Wasted time revisiting the foundations of their language studies which now, as the gold stars earned at school begin to peel, are unmasked as a linguistic botch job. And snobbish and heretical as this attitude may sound coming from a Languages teacher, it’s legitimate to query what those pupils who cannot foresee any future interest in using a foreign language stand to gain from acquiring a ropey, basic grasp of one at all. Languages for Many, but not All, is surely the more realistic ideal.

So, thank you, Yamasa. If I were studying in an English school today (a generalisation - I fear I may mean 'comprehensive'), would I learn as much as I did in the 1980s? I doubt it. (Most likely, I would end up doing the thing I always did best at school: teach myself at home, at my own pace, following my nose.)

Just thinking of the lessons I have taught, the emphasis on games would strike me as gimmicky; I’d get anxious being tested on language introduced only minutes ago (I’m equipped with a woeful short-term memory), and the starter-main course-plenary format would seem like a straitjacket, a tired commute to a Learning Objective, devoid of spontaneity, leaving me with the feeling that I've been rammed down someone else’s communicative pipeline. (Teacher, why are you asking me to order snails?)

The journey down the communicative superhighway would seem a bit dull, and I’d want to take the occasional sliproad, head off on a tangent, just as – in real life – you never know when you might want to quit the beaten track, slip into the undergrowth, or even just stop at the nearest Little Chef. (No snails there.) Linguistically speaking.

In the real world, after all, we don’t know what communicative challenge lies around the corner, so let’s not overstate how communicative an environment the classroom can be. We learn best from using language to say the things we genuinely want to say, and at the time we genuinely need to say them - whether this be to order a beer, chat up the barmaid or apologise for one’s drunkenness. The classroom is not life (we get a worksheet after the role play) but it is the place to put the foundations in place. Restoring grammar and vocabulary to the heart of language teaching is not a manifesto for dull, old school lessons, but a sensible acknowledgement of the fact that, at school, we no longer have the luxury of learning like babies.

(Simple format for effective lesson: 1 Learn new words. 2 Introduce, rehearse and apply new grammar. 3 Combine words and grammar. 4 Use it, ideally to produce something new. Oh, and starters and plenaries - which are fine by me - either side.)

A few final words on Yamasa. If I broadly approve its methods (but not its thinking on exams), why do I still speak Japanese so hesitantly and often incorrectly, as well as consistently feel linguistically inadequate in my (rare) exchanges with Japanese? Well, I didn’t come to Yamasa to learn how to speak Japanese. I came to apply a base coat: accelerate through the grammar, give myself a foundation to go out and make progress, and then relate real spoken Japanese back to what I have studied. I've often read that the best way to learn a language is to go out into the world and speak it ... but disagree. I need that foundation, first. The walkabout will come later.

And yet (never satisfied) I didn’t always enjoy lessons, just as I often didn't enjoy school as a child. They could be frustrating. Whether an adult foreign student, or a Japanese junior high pupil discussing whales, language learning can feel like one constant, unnatural performance. There are off-days and on-days but it’s always like a flight simulator, never quite the real thing, however great the pretensions to 'immersion'. So we steer clear of words we struggle to pronounce. Or, preparing to speak, with our answer clear in our head, we fluff our lines or have a mental blank. Or, just when we are warming up, we feel ourselves go cold again and the question passes to someone else. Conversely, the more we forget we are performing, the better we actually perform.

So, to twist a quote (of a Bard, but not a Cornish one), the world’s not just a stage, but also a classroom.

Unless you’re at school, perhaps.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Speed debating whaling

We are led from the taxis into a room with six tables, each with a bottle of mineral water and a welcome sheet. We have not had to sign in or undergo security checks. Our instructions tell us to wait here. Shortly we will be collected by students who will take us to their classroom. There, at 10-minute intervals, we will rotate around the six groups of seven or eight chuugakusei (junior high school students) and "discuss with the students", in English, a topic I know little about: whaling. Our host teacher tells us they want to know "how the foreigner thinks".

We can expect most, if not all, of the Japanese, to be pro-.  They expect us, the monolithic foreigner, to be anti-. One of us is from Singapore; another from New Zealand. Oh, and there's that up-himself Brit too. (The other three students who have made today's trip will go to another classroom to discuss 'foreign culture'. They are all Americans.)

The Antipodean, also a teacher, has researched the topic at length and brought pages of notes. She knows her stuff and reels off a list of issues such as health concerns relating to mercury poisoning which I am unfamiliar with. These students had better not be too good at English. I am going to blag it - my sympathies lie with the whale, although I am aware this exposes a stack of hypocrisies, not the least being my regular consumption of other majestic, sentient sea creatures (the tuna, the namako ...) .

A further complication is that I am just getting over a hangover, which accompanied me through an exam this morning, and am hoping the mints will work their magic as I (re-)cut the figure of the reflective practitioner for the first time in six months.

After short introductions from the front of the class (which many of the 45 or so students present ignore or talk over - have I lost my classroom authority so quickly?), in our best, basic Japanese, we begin the speed-debating. My first two tables are hard going; they don't seem to listen to one another and I even have to speak some Japanese, which - as it's me - is rather unflattering to them. I can't even remember the Japanese for 'whale'. Not that they seem to mind; on hearing my stop-start pedestrian sentences, they show more interest.

I wonder: am I here for my 'foreign opinions' or my English? There's a whiff of indifference in the air. (I expected shyness; is this its disguise here?) Most have written up their opinions in advance but many of the students' prep-sheets seem to be in Japanese. We do a quick thumbs-up check around the table; with one exception, they are all pro-. But little discussion follows.

Having whittered on in short sentences to little effect about the need to question tradition, man's status as 'king of the jungle' and the reponsibilities this entails, as well as the highly sophisticated intelligence of the whale you Japanese like to eat, and waved my hands pointlessly whilst circulating teachers take photos, I am twice rescued by the 10-minute bell. Move on to the next partner, oops, group, please. This isn't going great. I have had no ticks, sorry, I mean discussions, so far. I used to be a teacher, you know.

Then again, isn't this more than a little challenging for the junior high-schoolers? Most of the students are fourteen years old. And my experience of 14-year olds is that they rarely have opinions on such matters, and those that do may struggle to argue them in their own language. (This, in a country where expressing opinions is rarely the purpose of conversation, and may often seem impolite.) Have they even heard the pronunciation of most of the topic-specific vocabulary they would like to be able to use today? I doubt it. I doubt they even know that vocabulary. So no wonder there's this sense of 'stage fright': language is a performance, and that applies to my Japanese classes too.

I can't help wondering if the Americans got the better deal.

Things become more interesting at the third and fourth tables. For a start, they all listen and all talk a little. Noticeably, the girls tend to have the best English. One or two really give it a go and speak well. Here, the discussion seems to go somewhere at last.

The overwhelming view is that hunting for whales is part of Japanese tradition, and tradition should be respected. In response, I am reduced to simplistic analogies in support of the argument that traditions are not intrinsically good. What would they think if eating dog, a creature less intelligent than the whale (but, to the Japanese I suspect, far more sentient), was an English tradition? They listen politely. Some translate to their friends. Analogy might not be part of Japanese debating tradition. And someone might just be telling their parents tonight that the English traditionally eat dogs.

I ask: have they eaten whale before? Most have, once or twice. Then they surprise me: they even have it on the school lunch menu occasionally, I'm told. It's not a joke. I wonder why I'm here. Revolution is not in the air. Japan will still be whaling for decades to come.

We round off the visit with short, simple conversations in Japanese, pose for a classroom photo, say our goodbyes. The boys stand behind my chair; the girls behind the female visitors. Tonight, it's Denmark v Japan on TV, I'm thinking.

In the taxi back, we discuss how it went. My colleagues are complimentary and generous in their praise of the students' English. I keep quiet; my impressions were mixed. What did I get wrong, I wonder. Damned by my high expectations? Blame my training for that.

One more day in Okazaki.