Words you might like to know

Over the years my bookshelf has become more and more “aspirational”. Books have accumulated and remained untroubled by human hands. Tomes only occasionally perturbed by a light dusting. Spines pristine.

It didn’t use to be that way. When I was younger my financial means were always outstripped by my free time. Like most young people I had all the time in the world and none of the resources (or sense) to make full use of it. So, if a book made it onto my bookshelf, it would almost certainly be read in due course. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Unless it was Ulysses. That’s just for the stability of the bookcase. If I took it off the shelf for too long the structural integrity of the Ikea unit would be called into question.

Recently though, my family have allowed me the time to indulge in a good book or two by dutifully nodding off by ten each night. As an unrepentant night owl, I have few socially acceptable ways to spend the hours between ten and one that won’t leave me unable to get the kids ready for school in the morning, and so back to being a bookworm I must go.

This evening I enjoyed a short three-page essay by Haruki Murakami titled 真っ白な嘘 (mashiro na uso – White Lies) . I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it was in the original Japanese. As the book had furigana, a CD attached, and translation notes it wasn’t such hard going. Here are some words from the essay that students of Japanese/English might enjoy learning:

でたらめ – nonsense

でっち上げ – fabrication, hoax

でまかせ – speaking without thinking

世間を惑わせる人 – people who disturb the public order

例によって – as usual, as is one’s habit, as per usual, just like always

It was a playful and witty little essay. Give it a read. You’ll enjoy it. I wouldn’t bother writing this otherwise.


A Matter of Time

If you’re a football fan of any stripe I’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard of Jamie Vardy. If you’re Japanese you probably stumbled across him while trying to follow Okazaki’s new team Leicester City. Vardy’s story has been one of those tales all football fans love, one where someone toiling away undiscovered one day breaks onto the main stage and wreaks wonderful havoc. It plays into that romanticism that every football fan who is emotionally diving in for each tackle, winding up for each shot, feels on match day.

More interesting for the teachers among us though is perhaps how the hell he took so long to arrive. What on earth were his coaches thinking letting him go because he was too small?

Well pretty much the same thing most teachers think when they throw a bunch of students on the scrap heap each year with horrid platitudes like, ‘Some people just can’t get languages.’ In Japanese it gets phrased even more directly, ‘can do people and can’t do people.’

I hate that phrase. Almost as much as I dislike the question, “Do you understand?”

Thank you CertTesol training for that.

The notion of intrinsic ability drives me crazy because there is very little intrinsically limiting about who we are that is a permanent obstacle.

In a class of teenage girls and boys I might be dealing with two particular limitations. The limited organisational ability of some boys and the limited confidence of some girls. Obviously I see the reverse quite often but the latter example is common enough to be appropriate.

The thing is, those shy girls often go on to become some of the most fluent adult speakers of English I know. And those boys end up being engineers who couldn’t be accused of a lack of precision in any part of their life.

So our problem in education is just the same as any sporting coach. Aptitude and maturity can and do arrive at vastly different times for people. The only difference is that when a student comes roaring back in later years the applause and recognition comes from a much smaller number of people. And the appreciation isn’t sufficient because we never fully understand just how hard it was for them to get there largely through their own efforts.

Those kind of students show the same unbelievable grit and determination as a Vardy type player. To achieve despite the system is impressive and disappointing in the same breath. It should never have been so hard.

But what of the students whose first steps were too difficult, too disheartening to continue?

How many people have we inadvertently thrown on the scrap heap simply because they didn’t possess the necessary skill set to learn a language at that precise moment in time?

We throw away too many Vardys in life. And sadly they’re probably the people we’d want to be our future teachers. Not because of what they achieved, but because they know it doesn’t always come easy; but one day it might, and then who knows how far you’ll go.

Exacting Expectations

Expectations can be a terrible thing, especially as a foreigner in a strange and distant land. Particularly when that land, though certainly distant, isn’t all that strange. It’s simply different. Excitingly so from time to time. Yet, crushingly mundane at others.

The people I meet out here, those who have stayed for far longer than I’ve been here, seemed to arrive with the bare minimum of hopes and dreams burdening their carry-on luggage. It’s an approach I would advocate to anyone planning a life abroad; expect little, enjoy what you can and don’t be too disappointed when you find out the dirt beneath your feet isn’t all that different from the variety of mud you’re used to.

In our case it just shakes a little more often than we might like.

They are a complex thing though expectations. The power of teacher expectations are a common theme in both sociological and educational circles. How a teacher sees a student can effect how a student sees themselves and in turn what they perceive their abilities and limits to be. We can shackle a kid to failure with a misplaced frown if we aren’t careful.

One of the biggest issues in Japan when it comes to language learning are false expectations, false assumptions and seemingly a fear of questioning these ideas.

English is too difficult for Japanese to learn.

Japanese is too difficult for foreigners to learn.

Both heavily embedded ideas and both utter nonsense.

Learning a language that shares no historical connection to your language obviously takes a longer time, but the idea that at their core English and Japanese are harder to learn for specific nationalities?

I don’t buy it.

And not because I have reams of documentation to prove it. Though they do exit.

Rather because if you go into a task believing it will ultimately be fruitless you’re asking to fail. We talk about the power of confidence in sport all the time. Where is it in education? In English language education in Japan it’s long gone by junior high school. Worse, we expect it to be.

The Japanese system expects kids to learn roughly five grammar points per fifty minute lesson. It hardly expects them to mutter a word.

On top of that it expects the teacher to somehow perform this intense instruction in the English language itself, in a room of kids that is expecting to be lectured to in Japanese.

You would be correct in assuming that Japanese teachers by and large hardly use English in their classrooms. What you might not realise is that it’s an arrangement everyone in the room is ok with.

Why? Because parents, students and faculty alike expect, and of course work incredibly hard, to pass their university entrance exams.

And what do I expect? I expect that someday, enough people might notice that learning English, or Japanese for that matter, isn’t some strange and distant land always tantalisingly out of reach.

But we’ve talked about false expectations already, haven’t we?


Mottainai: An interview with Catherine Quinn

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Originally posted on interviewsfromtheizu:
It reminds you of the ocean, perhaps those bands of colour off the coast of Okinawa where the ocean abruptly moves from the transparency of glass to deep and dark blues. Or maybe the snowy cap…

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:


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


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