Introducing… Interviews from the Izu

The tagline on the blog reads, “born in New Jersey, raised in Yorkshire, living in Japan.”

I suppose I am a product of all those things. The shelves of American literature lining my walls back in the UK, a fairly northern sense of humour, and now after five years in Japan and a second language filling my brain with about as many words as I’ve published on this very blog, a fairly muddled Marshmallow has emerged.

I may have changed over the years thanks to those influences but one thing hasn’t changed. I’m still not comfortable being the subject matter of this blog. For one thing, I’m simply not that interesting. At least that’s what I think. I’m also limited subject matter.

However, other people. They’re fascinating. Absolutely amazing in fact. And far more fun to write about than my own language based introspection. People in Japan and connected with Japan are doing stuff that I find utterly absorbing. I think you will to.

I’ve posted today the first of what will be many interviews on my new website:

www.interviewsfromtheizu.com

Please give it a look. At the very least the post has some beautiful shots by the chap at https://monkeybrainsushi.wordpress.com

From time to time I’ll be posting on Marshmallow Sensei on Education and Language matters but from now on most of my energy will be spent over at the new site.

Thanks again to everyone who has taken the time to read Marshmallow Sensei. It’s not dead but it is going to be relaxing for a while.

All the best

Marshmallow

Converts and Community

I don’t sound like me yet. I’m on my way there but I’m still a long way from being Matt. I’m still Mashu. And Mashu isn’t that fluent a speaker. He uses words in the wrong place, his use of intonation is lacklustre and confusing to native speakers and his grammar can flail wildly from fluid to fail. Mashu will continue to remain, for some time yet, much stupider sounding than Matt.

Matt is my natively constructed self. His words are my own. His voice is my own. He is one hundred percent me. Ok, he’s ninety percent me and ten percent stolen quotes from Yes, Minister and House of Cards. For a brief moment he was 1 percent Battlestar Galactica. Frack.

Mashu however, is a convert. He’s faltering not fluent; taking limited steps, attempting to follow the correct route along the road to being a real, completely grown up speaker of the language. He’ll never quite reach that destination. He can become a 99.9 percent complete Mashu, permanently loading and never fully installed but he won’t reach the high score screen at the end of the game.

But could I give him up? Could I happily part ways with the reams of vocabulary, the hundreds of kanji symbols and the grammar formations that are now blue tacked to my neurons? No. I just couldn’t.

Mashu may not be an especially accurate depiction of Matt but he’s now a large chunk of my native self. You may not be able to get a sense of Matt from my Japanese but Mashu sneaks out when I’m just being me.

In a recent Advanced class my students and I were discussing an article on The Health Effects of Leaving Religion. For a generally unreligious group it struck me that they seemed to have a particularly empathetic reaction. It wasn’t religion as such that stirred the group or myself, nor even the theological or psychological at issues at play when one loses faith. It was the loss of community.

Japan is most certainly a country where a loss of community would be devastating. However, the thing about having a second language, particularly when one reaches an advanced level, is that it grants you access to a new community without necessarily removing you from your original one. At the same moment it allows you to see your own community, and your mother tongue, through a different lens.

It can be an awkward feeling. There’s a disconnect between how you used to see the world and how you see it now. And if culture is based on a perceived set of shared understandings, then the addition of new language, a new framework, inevitably makes you more aware of some of the assumptions you previously made.

But that disconnect isn’t solely down to you. To some native speakers of your new language you’ll forever have only the one foot in the door as you peek in. You’re no native speaker. To speakers of your native language you’re someone who went looking for more. There’s an implicit distrust of that for some people. You deliberately left the village.

There’s potential for this to be a lonely place I suppose. Self exiled from one community and on a short term visa in the other. Yet, I’m not alone. My students aren’t alone. Being a cultural, linguistic and literal expat… well it’s not as big as the monolingual community, but it’ll do.

So, we can’t go home again. We can’t unlearn a language and nor should anyone want to. I suppose though, if one must be caught between two communities, two tongues and two selves it helps if the view ain’t half bad.

Mt. Fuji

Twitch Teaches English

Japan is capable of incredible change, at an unbelievable pace. But the thing about speed, about power, strength and ability, you still need to know what you’re doing with it.

Right now, as the Japanese nation limbers up for the Olympics, getting itself into fine shape to once again introduce itself on the global stage through sport, industry, and Cool Japan culture, it’s been working on what every person in Japan knows to be important.

Aisatsu

And as demanded by the world, it’ll be doing them predominantly in the world’s lingua franca; English.

They’re taking it seriously too. In fact, Japanese industry has been taking it very seriously for a while now. Gone are the lackadaisical studies of the boom years. Engineers and Salarymen alike are hitting the books again in order to compete on even footing with the rest of the world. A rest of the world many an industry turned its back on in order to focus on the domestic market.

A few years ago, to much fanfare, Rakuten and Uniqlo both made bold moves in regards to English usage within the companies. Rakuten correctly noting at the time that if you want to expand globally you’re going to need English. Many Politicians and commentators bemoaned this fact suggesting that someone of greater ability in their job would be overlooked for a less able individual with better English skills.

That’s a fair point I suppose, especially when language skills often have more to do with exposure, experience and circumstance than academic ability.

However, it’s worth noting that more of these jobs would end up going to native speakers within the area these companies expand to should Japanese workers be uninterested in improving their language skills.

It’s a simple fact really; you speak the language of whatever nation you’re trying to sell to. And when you export, it tends to not be your own native tongue at play on foreign shores. Funny that…

Fortunately, most companies aren’t as daft as the average politician or pundit and realize that if that expansion is going to be Japanese in nature then its Japanese staff will have to be the ones doing both the walking and the talking.

So, there it is. A clear target. English for exporting the fruits of Japanese business prowess and English to greet the world when it arrives in Japan for the Olympics.

So what’s the problem?

Well, though the average person might suggest that we have a clear path ahead, the reality of how Japan is attempting to make its way there is rather more fuzzy.

It’s somewhat difficult to describe the overall approach to English study in Japan.

But let’s have a go.

And let’s do so using an analogy with a Japanese twist.

Twitch plays Pokémon. Yeah that’s it. That’ll do nicely.

Twitch plays Pokémon was, and still is, essentially an enormous crowd of people attempting to control one character and guide him along the correct path, past the obstacles of the game and on to victory. Almost everyone, bar the odd troll, is working towards the same goal and yet…

An Irish bar that specialises in Juice... I feel conflicted.

An Irish bar that specialises in Juice… I feel conflicted. How to reach my goal of feeling jolly and Irish? Juice or Porter?

And yet it’s like watching a drunk salaryman navigate his way home. He’ll get there eventually but in the meantime he’s going to trip over everything in sight, lose his bearings, spin in a circle before he finally arrives, a disheveled mess who has taken, not so much the scenic route as the one his sober brain and the eight glasses of beer and three highballs agreed on together; a real team effort.

And that’s what Japan’s national approach to English looks like.

Ok, not so much the drunk salaryman. That’s a mite unfair.

But crowd sourcing the controls of Pokémon. That works a treat.

A thousand people shout, this way, TOEIC tests and a one-hour weekly speaking class will lead us to our goal.

And another thousand… shout nothing at all actually. They’re busy reaching mastery of the English language through grammar, overly direct translation and the bare minimum of speaking.

Because, that’s how you pass the university entrance exam. Which is how you get into a good university so that when you graduate you can work for a big company that… wants you to speak English.

Oh my Twitch.

An Introduction to Marshmallow-Go

When I first arrived in Japan it was for one year. I never believed for a moment that I could reach any level of fluency in the language. After five years of French not making a dent in my synapses and three years of Spanish hardly faring better it seemed a fair assumption to make.

Four and a half years on manga still holds little allure for me. I still watch too few Japanese movies. Japanese TV drove me away early on by seemingly being about a collection of thirty or so foreigners lined up like hina no matsuri dolls for the sole purpose of surprising the easily surprised. I still can’t sit seiza style without feeling like I’m about to snap an ankle or lose total feeling below the waist.

Some things have changed though.

My usual rice portion size has tripled. I consume raw fish with a glee that would have made my picky childhood self believe I’d suffered some kind of sharp impact to the head. Earthquakes below a six don’t wake me up anymore. I don’t think Japanese is impossible.

That last one surprised me. More than the sashimi and the seismic shifts the idea that another language could worm its way into my brain seemed utterly unfathomable. How could it hope to make an impact beyond confusion? This collection of sharp angles and squirls that originated from another culture to the already foreign one I found myself in could never make its mark in the same way, surely?

Well, it did. And more than anything else out here, the language itself, the ability to speak to people in day-to-day life far from my English classroom, made me feel at home.

It has also confused, frustrated and annoyed the hell out of me.

I still don’t speak Japanese. I am however, fluent in another variant of the Japanese language. A dialect that emerged in Nagano and then found itself in Shizuoka. It has only one native speaker.

The history of this dialect is rather short.

It is however very reasonably priced and can be found at all good online retailers.

It can be found at Amazon UK, Amazon US, and Amazon Japan. It can also be found, for those with an iPhone, iPad etc. on the iBooks store.

It’s also available via anyone stocked by the publisher BookBaby.

Note: While around sixty percent of the book is new material, a large chunk has come from the blog because it acts as scaffolding to the rest of what I’ve written. The e-book is however still worth every penny you’ll pay… which really isn’t very many at all. 

Thanks again to everyone involved. 

Image

Thanks to the lads over at Asobi K Design for the work on the cover.

 

They Don’t Speak English in Narnia

How would I sum up the feeling of Japan when contemplating English education?

It’s like crawling into a wardrobe and then complaining that you find yourself confronted by a lion and a witch when you were hoping to smoke a pipe with Ian McKellan.

It really does seem to operate in that world of fantasy and unrealistic expectations. Because, while good teachers are hitting their targets, the general public continues to bemoan the fact that Japan remains notoriously poor at English conversation.

This is nothing new. Japan has been collectively wringing its hands for decades about its poor performance in English, and it’s unlikely to quit wringing them anytime soon. Indeed with the Olympics approaching they may be in danger of breaking a figurative finger or two.

So what exactly is the issue?

Well the issue is that even though Japan knows what the myriad reasons for its difficulties are its been reluctant to acknowledge them, much less tackle them.

Indeed, rather than look at systemic reasons why the nation remains poor in its conversational skills students often seem keen to blame themselves or the English language itself, often going so far as to claim that for a Japanese person it is simply too far from their native tongue to get a handle on it. I’ll grant that compared to a native speaker of a European language they have a tougher challenge ahead of them, but the performance of other nations with equally distant or non-existent relations with English would suggest that it is far from the impossible task some would have you believe it is.

The real answer, and it is ridiculously simple, is schools aren’t teaching kids how to speak English.

That’s it.

By and large, with the exception of private and international schools, Japanese schools don’t teach speaking. If the kids come out of the general system able to speak it’s thanks to the efforts of those within the system, the teachers who go the extra mile, the parents who encourage it at home and of course, the students themselves who somehow find the time in their packed schedule to learn something which currently benefits them to the tune of…zero.

Now, I’m a language teacher, I’m not about to claim that learning a foreign language has no benefit. Economically speaking it’s obviously worth it. A recent episode of Freakonomics Radio placed the ROI on learning English at as high as a 20% increase in potential earnings. Culturally it’s an enormous boon. In terms of your health, bilingualism is routinely cited as something that potentially reduces the risk of mental difficulties in old age.

There are benefits everywhere you look.

Yet, for the average high school kid in Japan.

Zero.

Because it won’t help them get into university.

And from the moment kids are old enough to be dropped off in a cram school or get fitted for their junior high school uniform that’s the only game in town. So until the target of that game changes let’s just be content with Narnia.

Not every destination is what you expect it to be.

Similarly Shimaguni

There are times when the people I speak to smile a knowing smile, lean their head to a slight angle and utter the word shimaguni.

It is a word that seems to embody far more than its literal meaning. It is as if it encapsulates a single notion with such ease that it leads the speaker as a matter of course to delivering it with peculiar alacrity.

This one word sums up everything you wish to know about Japan and reinforces that which we all know to be true. That Japan is utterly unique. Japan is special and different and home to myriad traditions bathed in foggy mystery. More so than any other nation it is an us that has remained almost completely unblemished by the influence of them.

And it is utter and total nonsense.

Japan is fascinating.It really is. It is interesting. The people by and large are kind and hard working. The food is fantastic. And looking out my window on a sunny day  I remain stunned by the natural beauty of the country in which I live.

And much the same could be said for any other island nation. Because that is what shimaguni means. Island nation.

But that’s never the whole truth of the matter. An island nation has rarely ever truly been totally cut off from the outside world.

Granted, Japan imposed isolation upon itself in the past. When trading with the outside it did its best to keep Japan apart from the world at large, placing the Dutch on Dejima and placing strict restrictions on other nations and the Japanese themselves in regards to trade and probably most importantly in this regard, the promulgation of religion. Yet, even during this period the Tokugawa were regularly visited by Korean delegations, though they never made the return journey. This was far from the total isolation needed to genuinely insulate a culture.

So when those barriers were finally torn down by American pressure, when the Black ships sailed into Edo Bay followed years later by the first American consul in Shimoda, Japan not only embraced the world but chased it down with cries of Wakon Yosai! Japan attempted to learn everything it could from the world and then marry it to their own cultural identity and in many cases they succeed in doing so to this day.

Japan doesn’t need to be unique in every single feature of its culture and heritage in order to be worthy of respect. Nor do the points where we disagree need to be met with a wave of the hand (any hand) that dismisses these points as being examples of how the outside world cannot begin to fathom the Japanese as if they were some homogenous, indistinguishable singular notion.

Recently a colleague of mine lent me an English language book on Japanese culture that had been used as a textbook at her university. She described it as being generally accurate if at times, “overthought.” Wanting to return the favour I picked up a copy of ‘Watching the English’, a book an American friend of mine had recommended to me years ago and found this in the back.

Perhaps it’s time to widen the definition of Shimaguni.

Personally Privileged

A ball flies at over eighty miles an hour makes contact with hewn wood no more than 2.75 inches in diameter and promptly disappears into the distance. A crowd leaps to its feet and roars. I stand up too; a smile on my lips as I get a first hand impression of what from a distance seems to be a singularly simple action. Man throws ball, man hits ball. How hard can this all be really?

A football is booted over sixty yards across field and lands perfectly at the feet of an onrushing German gentleman of Turkish descent who recently relocated from Madrid to north London. He runs a little further before whipping the ball back across the pitch towards the feet of a six-foot-plus Frenchman who proceeds to, with his very first touch, volley the ball past the oncoming fifteen stone of goalkeeper heading his way and into the net. The crowd erupts, my jaw drops.

Technically my jaw dropped long before the ball reached the net. The exact time was when the ball made contact with said German’s left foot and the strip of Velcro he apparently keeps there.

I hand How to be an Alien by George Mikes, a guide to being a foreigner in Britain first published in 1946, at the page where the two lines on sex appear to my Japanese colleague. They read as follows:

Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles.

My colleague smiles, a little nonplussed by the sentence but well aware there’s a joke in there somewhere. I read it and chuckle a little bit still on the fifth reading.

A computer, given one hundred thousand examples can learn to read the number five when handwritten. A computer taught the characteristics of handwriting via the medium of Russian poetry is able read such manner of scrawls after exposure to a mere three hundred poems.

That last example came from the wonderful online magazine Nautilus. Specifically its issue entitled Secret Codes and the piece entitled Teaching Me Softly. The article centered around the notion of ‘privileged information’ or in other words, knowledge gleaned from experience.

This kind of knowledge is why I can appreciate the reaction of baseball fans to a home run without actually appreciating the act itself. I’ve attended about five baseball games in my entire life and I’ve never really, truly played baseball. However, I’ve been and continue to be a long suffering fan of Huddersfield Town so I know what it means to be a fan, to live and die with a score line. As such that moment of pure joy, I get it. I just don’t get the action that prompted it. I understand less of it. I don’t know how hard it is to hit a ball like that, to stand up to the challenge of a ball being thrown like that. I’ll never understand it the same way a kid steeped in baseball will feel that rush.

I do at least understand football. Perhaps I even feel a greater appreciation for it because I was so awful at it; I know that simply trapping a ball, killing it dead in its place takes incredible skill. First touch is a magic and often under appreciated gift. If you’ve never really watched or played football and you’re wondering why one guy on the pitch always seems to have a second longer to make a decision than everyone else, that is it.

That experience is probably the same reason I hardly ever get angry with goalkeepers’ mistakes. After all, I was one of that nut job ilk.  All four feet nothing of me stood shivering between metal poles eight feet high. An education for how unfair life is if ever there were one.

It’s also the same reason why I think foreign language teachers should always have a second language aside from their native tongue. Because, in some small way it puts you in the shoes of every student you’ll ever teach and hopefully in doing so will make you a better teacher; at the very least, a more understanding person in general.

Combine it with being a fan of English football however and it just makes you more impatient with monolingual (and I’m being generous there) fans that complain when a new player or manager has not learned our twisted, garbled and illogical tongue in less than six months.

But privileged information, for all its value, is something of a double-edged sword. Because, while I may know what kouyou (紅葉)and momijigari (紅葉狩り)mean (ok, so might you Japanese speaking reader) and smile when I think of them; anyone who has no clue about what they mean and has never set foot in Japan in the autumn when the leaves are changing and gone autumn leaf viewing, is lucky.

Because, you still get to see it in person for the first time. While I just hope that I never stop seeing it with fresh eyes.

But then again, I’m just privileged to have seen it at all.