Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Advertisements
Gallery

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:

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

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.

Picture Perfect: Marshmallow Sensei is looking for artists

Dear Readers,

This blog has always been rather lacking when it comes to the visual. I guess it comes down to a personal bias really. I’ve simply never felt like photography, specifically my attempts at photography, captured what it was I saw and felt at that moment in time. It never did justice to the memory I held. I just felt like it couldn’t capture the totality of what I experienced because that’s the limit of photography. It is able to capture a moment but not necessarily the feelings with that moment for me is imbued with.

That was always the point of this blog. It was never supposed to be an objective view of Japan. It was always my personal view. Nothing more, nothing less.

There are more than enough blogs out there claiming to tell the truth about Japan. I sincerely hope that if you read this blog that you don’t feel I have done the same. My niche in blogging is sadly, just little old me trying to work out what on earth I think is going on half the time and whether it’s funny enough, amusing enough or just about interesting enough to devote some energy to digitally scribbling it down.

However, none of this means I’m not aware of the power a picture holds. Two of my favourite blogs include artwork from a good friend of mine. Without his efforts Mind the Flash and Gokiburi: On Madness and Mushi wouldn’t be half as fun, or half as read for that matter. More importantly though, I enjoyed the collaboration. I loved seeing my words re-imagined, reinterpreted though the eyes of a reader. It reminded me of what I loved about writing in the first place; that once those words are printed they’re out of the author’s hands. They belong to the reader now and if as a writer you do a half decent job, then the reader can taker pleasure in filling in gaps, dreaming up a whole world to flesh out the skeletal framework you first built.

On a side note, there’s also my awesome Twitter profile picture by Sarah Adams aka @speckledwords.  

So, here’s the point.

The blog has been about for about two years now. In that time I’ve written about fifty posts of wildly varying quality and popularity. I’ve received requests for help, fan mail (Thank you Switzerland!) and even had someone impersonate me on facebook (creepy). A couple stories have even been translated into German and Japanese for online newspapers.

Now, they’d always been a plan of sort, long before I came to Japan even, to write for a living if at all possible. Eventually it just became to write at all.

Now, as much as I enjoy blogging, the form is limited. So I want to put together an E-book; me and every other blogger in the world, I know.

However, if I do this I want it to be more than a couple new chapters and some extended essays and articles built from the foundations of well-read blog articles. I want that feeling of collaboration again.

So here it is, if you’re an artist, a designer, an illustrator etc. and you’d like to add your stamp to the book get in touch. Have a ramble through the blog’s archives and when (or if) you find a subject you can work with create something! You’ve read my opinions, my perspective and I’d love to see what you can come up with by working with the words on the webpage.

The deadline for these entries is July 31st because that’s when I’ll be getting started with my work holidays and my intent is that the additional material will hopefully, in part be inspired by the work I receive.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Marshmallow

Shifting Gears

In the course of my working life, particularly when teaching children, the issue of bilingualism crops up fairly often. There are more than enough parents out there who despite their own language difficulties are dead set on producing bilingual offspring. It may be more common in cosmopolitan cities like New York, but there are plenty of people here in small-ish town Japan who see bilingualism as something of a holy grail, something to be pursued but largely unobtainable.

Now, if you happen to be a multi-lingual set of parents with two native tongues between you and have the opportunity to immerse your children in two languages then good for you, you honestly should be aiming for that goal. Culturally it’s an obvious boon and from what regular pieces in newspapers suggest it may indeed have long-term health benefits.

More importantly you can go about that education in a positive and enjoyable way because it’s more than an extra tool, another line on the resume and all that for your child; it’s access. Access to another culture, another way of thinking and the chance to widen your child’s horizons so that whatever they may choose to be in the future, the world you came from is a possibility for them.

For those of us born with just the one native tongue at hand it’s usually a rather more expensive matter. Particularly so here in Japan; parents spend an absolute fortune over a child’s lifetime putting them through endless cram schools and English conversation schools with disturbingly little to show for their efforts much of the time.

However, I don’t want to get bogged down in where the industry lets people down and where students let themselves down. Been there already. I’d rather focus on the most popular question.

“How?”

How do you do it. That thing. Switching between languages like flicking channels on a TV screen. What is the reality of being bilingual (even in my rather limited fashion)?

Speaking to Japanese people, in particular English teachers, who speak a fluent or close enough level of English I generally get an answer that is akin to my own feelings. We shift gears.

In a land of automatic cars the metaphor doesn’t work quite as well as you’d hope but I can’t think of anything else that really comes close to encapsulating the nature and process of becoming bilingual quite like it.

When you first start to drive a manual you’re pretty much praying you’re in the right gear, the gear box isn’t making any unwanted noises, no screeching, grinding and churning of teeth. You inevitably stall the engine, curse yourself and angrily, and rather uncouthly shift the gear into the correct position with an unceremonious ‘geeeerunnk.’

Slowly you begin to get the feeling that this driving lark isn’t so tough after all. The gears change more smoothly, you no longer crawl up a too steep hill, race briefly and then sharply break before hitting a tree. Eventually you move on to an automatic car. On those simple long straight roads and run of the mill intersections where marks on the road, flashing lights and a line of other cars can direct you within the herd you suddenly find some pleasure in the activity (unless you’re in a traffic jam). Then, just as you relax a boy racer screeches past, all high-speed maneuvers, fast turns and necessary pinpoint accuracy in the manual shift.

You look on and smile, if only I could manage that… safely.

Well… maybe.

The truth is slightly less fun to write. I grew up and learned (very slowly) to drive in Yorkshire. The whole county, unlike Japan, is an endless stream of winding roads, endless roundabouts and utterly random inclines and cambers. I’m sure a decent automatic car can handle it but most people learn to drive manual, simply because people generally respond faster than automatic gearboxes to the lay of the land.

I can’t do that yet. I can’t play with language. I can’t see an odd turn in the road coming a mile off, I can’t adjust naturally to sharp bends in the conversation and an unusual camber might send my car rolling off the road and down the mountainside.

With proper guidance I can choose the right phrase but in the absence of signposts and road markings I lose my way. It’s certain I’ll never go off road in Japanese, but if I’m honest I’ll happily settle for automatic (cruise control too if it’s available); until Google invents the self-driving language at least.

Japan earthquake: An Appeal

It is beyond comprehension. As often as one reaches for the news, for the specifics, the scientific and concrete it simply dissipates at the sight of footage of destruction beyond mortal means.

No words can do justice to the events that occurred here, not immediately. Nor right now, it’s still too close. I wasn’t in the heart of it, I was safe, my building swayed but it did not shudder.

The only real first hand experience I had of it was what many people felt; fear for a friend’s life. However, the people I know who were close to this disaster and continue to remain at the heart of it are safe.

I know this thanks to a global media that has both helped people survive this disaster and also created a perhaps greater impact still. It has multiplied the reach of this tragedy.

For the next weeks and months Japan will dominate every airwave the world over. The terror of tsunami and devastation will be repeated in such a way that this tragedy will long remain in the memory.

This can I hope do more than stun a world for however long the media focus remains on Japan.

Please let it compel you to help in the only way one really can. Give money to those that can help on the ground. Give blood if possible and then when the media cycle ends; remember the people.

A large part of Japan is still standing for two reasons; it planned for this and it was far enough away. The people that were at the heart of this will need more than that. They will need the generosity and kindness of the world. They will need the best we have to offer.

Please give it.

You can donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross here.

For a more sizable list of charities you can donate to see here.