University students, part-time jobs, and talking about Japan in English

Last Student Loan

Originally uploaded by here_for_now

In my basic EFL Writing class last week, students created simple questionnaires, then asked each other, collated the results and made a brief report. A couple of students chose part-time jobs as their topic.They then posted their reports on their blogs.

One of the purposes of having students write in English on public blogs is to

  • encourage them to think of their audience, and
  • create a potential audience that is not necessarily familiar with Japan or Japanese.

Japan is a high-context culture, which means one where people are almost always talking to an in-group or other; their “nakama” 仲間. They are not used to explaining the context of what they are talking about to others who do not share that context; there’s hardly ever any need. So this is one area where I, as “gaijin” (foreign) teacher, can play an important and valuable role: I offer a point of comparison which is outside their frame of reference, outside their in-group. I do this mainly by pretending not to know what they are talking about.

The course is entitled Talking About Japan, and the premise is that the students imagine they are on a homestay in an English-speaking country. They create conversations between the visiting foreigner (themselves) and the host family on a number of different topics, selected by me (so far), starting with their name. I call them out to a quiet corner of the classroom, two by two, and they have a conversation in front of me, which I grade, and towards the end, I join in e.g.:

“You go to a what university? A private university! Are all universities private in Japan? No? Half? The majority? A minority? What percentage, would you say? What other kinds of universities are there in Japan? What kind of students go to a private university in Japan?”


“What’s that in your pocket? Manga? What’s manga? Oh, a comic! But you’re 19! Surely you’re too old to be reading comics! Do all Japanese 19-year-olds still read comics? Really!? Why? Most people in this (the host family’s) country stop reading comics after the age of about 10!”

Cat among the pigeons.

It’s fun. And it has a serious purpose: to give them a broader or different context from the one they are used to. The one they are used to is one where everyone shares the same context so there is no need to explain (and hence also little need to question or examine) the terms or concepts. “Everyone knows there are both private and public universities in Japan; everyone knows the national universities are harder to get into than the private ones (except perhaps for the very top private ones); everyone knows that undergraduate programs in Japan run for 4 years”, etc., etc. So, because “everyone knows” this background, this context, it goes without saying; it does not need to be said. But, in a different context, e.g. in a different culture or country, it does need to be said because the context is not the same.

In addition, they assume that the norm in Japan is the norm everywhere else, too. (In Britain, for example, most undergraduate programs run for three years, not four.) They have no point of comparison. They have never had to explain these kinds of things before, and perhaps consequently, rarely had to think about these kinds of things before. Despite the Internet, “kokusaika” 国際化 (that’s not a rude word – it means “internationalization”, whatever that means), globalization, etc., my students (at least; can’t speak for others) are still remarkably parochial and insular in their thinking. This is the main purpose of the class: for them to learn to see their own culture in a different perspective, in a different context, and my role is to provide the different context, the reference point of comparison which is outside their context.

All of which is a very long-winded way of introducing an article I found online today about a survey of British university students. It’s mainly about student loans, but it puts the subject of part-time jobs into an interesting context: financial survival! It also includes some interesting statistics, which I plan to use in my classes, in order to provide a badly needed point of comparison. Here’s a sample:

Three quarters of students have jobs. They spend, on average, almost the same number of hours being taught per week (15 hours) as they do at work (14 hours)… While a quarter of those who work spend up to eight hours a week doing so, almost half spend nine to sixteen hours in their jobs. Another fifth spend 17 to 24 hours at work each week, and 5 per cent work between 25 and 32 hours. About 40,000 students (3 per cent) work more than 33 hours a week.

(The Flickr photo I used above includes some comments which reveal just what a big issue student loans are now for British students. When I was a student, tuition was free. See Wikipedia for more details.)

Another reason I want to use this article in class is to help give them a clearer idea of what I mean by an “interesting subject”, and to wean them away from childish ways of thinking and towards more adult (i.e. more conceptual) ways of thinking. However, that topic deserves its own blog entry.

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Literacy vs digital literacy = fundamental vs derivative?

A fellow blogger and teacher of history in the UK, Doug Belshaw, is working on his Ed.D. and his thesis is on digital literacy. I’m sceptical about “digital literacy” being touted as some completely new kind of animal, unrelated to “literacy”, and after groping for the right words, found better ones written by Ayn Rand. Here’s the comments I posted on his website:

I’m still not convinced this hunt for the ultimate definition of “literacy” isn’t a giant red herring. Perhaps “literacy” meant being able to read and write, but even in those pre-digital days, critical thinking and the ability to make connections and understand cultural references were all considered important, even if they weren’t given an umbrella name like “literacy”. Those skills are still important in the digital age; the digital age hasn’t made them any more or less important, I would argue. I’d agree that “writing” means something new with the advent of web-publishing for everyone thanks to Blogger, WordPress, etc.: when you have the option to add media and links, it matters whether you use this or not.

On a slightly different tack, Stokes writes In education’s continuing mission of meeting the needs of learners: Gatto would argue that never was compulsory schooling’s mission. And skills that may have been appropriate for the medieval clerk, are giving way to skills of analysis and innovation that are considered desirable in today’s modern cultures “Considered desirable”… by whom? “Proficiency with words and numbers is insufficient “. Insufficient… for whom? Who decides? Literacy is not a natural phenomenon, but man-made. It’s important to examine the values that underpin literacy, in order to make up our minds whether those values are our own, or did we absorb them uncritically?

My favourite philosopher at the moment, Ayn Rand, has exactly the words I was groping for to express my uneasiness with “digital literacy”: “all human knowledge has a hierarchical structure… [we must] learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative.” Is digital literacy a fundamental, or a derivative? And what are the consequences of learning/teaching a derivative while ignoring the fundamental? To whose benefit is it to push a derivative before a fundamental? Or even, to push a derivative AS IF IT WAS a fundamental? The quote comes from Ch 2 “Philosophical Detection” (I think) in her book “Philosophy: Who Needs It?” Here’s a link to Rule of Fundamentality entry in the Ayn Rand Lexicon…
Search for the book on Google books, then search for “fundamental” and “derivative” (the excerpts they give you are severely limited. If you can, get the book).

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Is fair sometimes unfair? – Part 2

This is a follow-up to my earlier blog-post Is fair sometimes unfair?

I was reminded of the article When Fairness Runs Foul, and of my earlier encounters with the Japanese sense of “fairness” when I read a chapter by philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand is here playing devil’s advocate – illustrating with an example of her own an opinion with which she in fact violently disagrees. (The opinion she is arguing against is not expressed by a Japanese but by a British journalist – Peregrine Worsthorne). Here is the excerpt from Ayn Rand:

This means that if a young student (named, say, Thomas Hendricks), after days and nights of conscientious study, proves that he knows the subject of medicine, and passes an exam, he is given an arbitrary privilege, an unfair advantage over a young student (named Lee Hunsacker) who spent his time in a drugged daze, listening to rock music. And if Hendricks gets a diploma and a job in a hospital, while Hunsacker does not, Hunsacker will scream that he could not help it and that he never had a chance…. Brain power? It’s determined by family life – and he couldn’t help it if Mom and Pop did not condition him to be willing to study. (Chapter 3 “An Untitled Letter”,  in Philosophy: Who Needs It? )

I cannot recall an occasion when I have heard someone protesting in Japan “fukouhei da!” or “zurui!” who has then been called on to explain or justify the accusation: in Japan, it seems the person who thus protests automatically has the high moral ground, and it is for the other party to explain and justify themselves.

Worsthorne is not Japanese, and is not making a pout, whining “It’s not fair!” like a spoilt child.  He is making a well thought-out logical argument, and he elucidates his rational basis for his claim:

The ideal of a meritocracy no longer commands such universal assent… It used to be considered manifestly unjust that a child should be given an enormous head-start in life simply because he was the son of an earl, or a member of the landed gentry. But what about a child today born of affluent, educated parents whose family life gets him off to a head-start in the educational ladder? Is he not the beneficiary of a form of hereditary privilege no less unjust than that enjoyed by the aristocracy?”… Family life is more important than school life in determining brain power… Educational qualifications are today what armorial quarterings were in feudal times. Yet access to them is almost as unfairly determined by accidents of birth as was access to the nobility.

(Ironically, Worsthorne, Wikipedia tells me, was knighted in 1991, thereby joining the aristocracy.)

The Japanese cry of “Fukouhei” is not so rationally based as Worsthorne’s, although it bears superficial resemblance to “the politics of envy”, and may sometimes be used for that purpose.

In her article, Elwood makes a brief reference to anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra and her book Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

Americans are sometimes confronted with the dilemma posed by the question “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Naturally at times any person may find himself or herself in a quandary regarding the best answer to this query, but perhaps more Japanese are likely to choose the “happy” option more rapidly. This attitude has been termed “interactional relativism” by anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra in her classic Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

A search on Google Books brought me to Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context by Senko K. Maynard (also on I haven’t read enough of either Lebra or Maynard to understand the concepts fully, but this caught my eye:

Lebra combines this concept of interactional relativism with the concept of the “social preoccupation” of the Japanese people, and refers to the combined concepts as “social relativism”.

“Social preoccupation” indeed. Japanese people never tire of telling themselves and each other that “ningen kankei” 人間関係 or human relations, is the most stressful occupation, while at the same time complex and unavoidable. In other words, it’s a pain in the ***. Or perhaps I should quote Sartre: “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres”, Huis Clos, 1944).

In other words, the Japanese cry of “unfair” is not based on an absolute ethic but on a relativist one. What is a relativist ethic? Is there such a thing?

Ayn Rand wrote that “all human knowledge is hierarchical in structure” and that philosophers “must learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative.” The Japanese sense of “fukouhei” is a derivative, but I’m not yet clear what the fundamental beneath that derivative is.

A favourite saying of many Japanese is “case by case”, meaning the flexibility to decide matters on different factors each time, rather than relying on an inflexible, logical, principle or moral.

I looked up “relativism”  in the Ayn Rand lexicon, but found “pragmatism” instead. Here’s an excerpt:

[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate” … A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism.

So perhaps the Japanese preference for “case by case” is an example of a Japanese form of pragmatism.

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Is fair sometimes unfair?

Life is so unfair sometimes (63/365)

Originally uploaded by labspics

A colleague recently gave me an article from the Daily Yomiuri. “The Language Connection”, “Cultural Connundrums: When Fairness Runs Foul” by Kate Elwood, Tuesday November 4th, 2008. It compares Western (North American) concepts of fairness with Japanese. Yes, they are not always the same!

Intercultural communication researchers Junko Kobayashi and Linda Viswat distributed a questionnaire about classroom fairness to 157 university students in the United States and 155 university students in Japan. Many similarities were observed between the groups. For example, both groups agreed that exams should reflect material covered in class and that it is unfair for a teacher to ask anything falling outside this scope. However, Kobayashi and Viswat also found some interesting differences.

In a question about a student asking information about an upcoming test after class and as a result being better prepared, many students across the Pacific thought it was fair because the student had shown resourcefulness and motivation, while many students in Japan viewed it as unfair because not all of the students had the same information regarding the test.

In a scenario in which a teacher had good readers of English read large passages in class but had poor readers fumble their way through just a few lines, many students in the United States felt this was not unjust given the clear discrepancy in skill. However, the students in Japan believed that teachers must give all students the same opportunities irrespective of capability.

Viswat and Kobayashi at least try and identify a basis for these differences. In the first example, they write,

it appeared that the students in the United States believed that it was fair for personal initiative to be rewarded even if it produced benefits that gave the seeker an edge over others.

The second example, they write,

was related to fairness in the face of differences in ability.

Viswat and Kobayashi identify two kinds of Japanese “unfairness”, as represented by the words “zurui” ずるい and “fukouhei” 不公平 (my emphasis):

Zurui, which is sometimes rendered as “sly” or “cunning,” is related to having the upper hand, or at least being seen as such. While a student at Tokyo University, Nakako Kondo conducted research regarding zurui. She notes that zurui is an emotional expression of perceived injustice that is not subject to rigorous scrutiny but which assumes a sympathetic response on the part of others. Importantly, it is viewed as an acceptable voicing of discontent while other types of negative expression are often frowned upon. Kondo surveyed university students and collected 116 examples of things that might be considered zurui. It turns out that almost anything can be zurui: attractive looks, education, age, order of birth, ability, and any garden-variety good fortune.

Fuko-hei, on the other hand, is usually used in more terms of institutionalized inequality, for example, wage differences based on worker status, gender discrimination, or geographic disadvantage.

I think the authors mean “institutional inequality” not “institutionalized inequality”. My understanding of fukouhei is that it is applied to institutions or authorities when they are believed to have acted in unfair ways, which usually means giving (or giving the appearance of giving) one person or group an unfair advantage over another. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that almost any advantage is seen by Japanese as being intrinsically unfair (whether they choose to make an issue out of it or not seems to depend on whether they are personally affected by it or not and to what degree; see the examples above for “zurui” given by Viswat and Kobayashi).

The 3 kanji for fukouhei 不公平 mean literally “not”,  “public” and  “level or flat” (as in “level playing field”). Public could mean “as seen by the public” or “applied to the public” or perhaps “as applied by public institutions”.

About 18 months ago, I blogged about a discussion I had with a mature student about taking attendance in class:

I had this exchange last year with an older Japanese woman who was auditing one of my classes: I was asking why I am expected to take attendance in class, and why attendance is given such weight in Japan, pointing out that attendance was never taken at any university class I attended in the UK. I also gave the following example: a friend of mine figured out early in his first year at university that lecturers were giving out information that was already in books in the library; he therefore studied the books and didn’t go to any lectures. He passed the final exam with flying colours. The Japanese lady I told this to was outraged: it seemed to deeply offend her sense of justice – it was unfair that he should be given the same graduating certificate as the others when he had not put in the equivalent time in class!

When I gave the example, I had no notion that it might be considered an example of unfairness. So, there were two different interpretations of “fair”: my Western/British one and the Japanese one. It seems that my example fit into the category of personal initiative … rewarded even if it produced benefits that gave the seeker an edge over others; something which many Japanese would seem to regard as “unfair”, according to the research by Viswat and Kobayashi.

Can we dig deeper than this and find a basis for the different attitudes?  (To be continued)

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More roundups

Delicious tells me I have 240 bookmarks tagged “toread”! Time for some pruning and trimming, and … perhaps even reading.

  1. Yuichiro Edagawa is a Japanese architect. 60 years old, he is still full of energy and plans. He has just published a photo-book that introduces Japan’s architectural heritage, both ancient and modern, to the world. I was interested to see that Edagawa

    during his school days … [sat] for the state exam to become a certified interpreter and guide. He passed that exam and also, many years later, obtained a license as a tour organizer. His interest, however, did not lead him into the tourism industry as a career. He, instead, chose to follow through on an earlier decision to become an architect.

    His book is “Japanese Identities” — Architecture between Aesthetics and Nature” by Yuichiro Edagawa, and is available at Maruzen bookstores in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Sendai and Okayama. It is also available through Amazon in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

  2. I’ve recently become interested in Japanese movies, thanks to some reviews in the Japan Times. This movie, Byousoku 5cm by Shinkai Makoto, came up in a recent online search (can’t remember what for), but the article caught my eye:

    The Japanese have always been believed to be a stoic and courteous race, perhaps to the extent that they seem almost cold and distant to the West, who in contrast, do not mind displaying affection openly. This cultural stereotype does have its roots, notably in Lafcadio Hearn’s book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan where he describes the Japanese as having “the most agreeable face possible” to the public and that “even though the heart is breaking, it is a social duty to smile bravely” ([1894] 1976, 659). It is then possible to assume that this instituted politeness has inculcated an innate culture in the Japanese to have what David Matsumoto calls an emotional “inscrutability” (2002, 59) that then gives the impression of an emotional distance exclusive to the Japanese. The idea of the Japanese being “emotionless robots” or at least, people who internalize their feelings because society (“social duty”) prevents them from showing their ‘true’ emotions…. What we can thus gather from this, is the social conditioning that the Japanese have, that in the presence of others, they cannot reveal their honne (“true feelings”) and instead must possess a tatemae (“outward appearance”). It is then interesting to compare this perceived image of Japanese, and contrast it to the seemingly wild, loud, and in some way, uninhibited youth subculture of Japan. The question then arises: do Japanese youth still display this emotional distance? Amidst the hustle and bustle of an increasing urban lifestyle, and encroachment of Western influences, do Japanese youth still subscribe to the age old cultural stereotype as having their emotions constricted by an unspoken societal requirement?
    Byousoku 5cm – the elegiac loss of emotions in Modern Japan

    Released in 2007, Shinkai Makoto’s latest feature film Byousoku 5cm – a chain of short stories about their distance (hereon called Byousoku 5cm) consists of three segments (short stories) inextricably woven together into a film that as the subtitle explains, is about ‘distance’. In contrast to his previous films, which dealt with fantasy and/or science fiction elements, Byousoku 5cm is firmly rooted in reality, thus effectively conveying the problems that the Japanese youth face against temporal, spatial and interpersonal distance. This is reflected in the title of the film, where Byousoku 5cm (the speed of 5cm per second) refers to the speed of which cherry blossom petals fall, being a metaphor for the transient nature of humans, of how despite the slowness of life, people who start at the same origin often drift into their own paths.

    Think I’ll check it out. Here’s the English Wikepedia entry for the movie, and for Shinkai Makoto.

So that’s all right then, best beloved, do you see?

Former Wall Street investment banker, Catherine Austin Fitts, has been blogging about the economy, money and investing for a couple of years now. Her expertise and knowledge are impressive, as is her aim: to help people make sensible decisions that not only make money for them, but also help steer the economy away from a negative-return one, or what she calls the tapeworm economy.

Here’s her “translation” of the recent G-20 communique, which shows clearly that our elders and betters are in charge, and from now on all will be well. The first three points should be enough to give you the gist. Read the rest on her blog, and the original G-20 communique on the Washington Post page.

1. Now that the growth of debt and derivatives bubbles has stalled, we are committed to using governmental-central bank mechanisms to cover the positions of any of the large private financial institutions whose profits are at risk due to their management of these bubbles and who can use this opportunity to squeeze and acquire smaller rivals at low cost.

2. Our commitment to use derivatives and market interventions to shift investment from the real economy and commodities into a paper economy is firm. We will continue to use centralized governmental mechanisms to subsidize and manage this process.

3. All of the organizations and players who reaped a fortune engineering the debt and derivatives bubbles will be allowed to keep their winnings.

Fitts also alerted me to “Liar’s Poker” author Michael Lewis’ article on the demise of Wall Street, suitably entitled The End. Lewis may not have been a great hedge-fund manager, but he sure can write. (Thanks to NY Times bestseller “4-Hour Workweek” author Tim Ferriss for alerting me to Lewis and his chronicle “Liar’s Poker”). (And if you enjoyed that, check out another hedge-fund manager’s “Thank you and goodbye” – that’s the censored version – letter of resignation.)

Weekly Roundup – Week Nov. 9th-16th 2008

A roundup of sites that caught my eye this week.

  1. When in Rome… teach! This is a great use of the Internet:
    This week, we introduced the new Ancient Rome 3D
    layer in Google Earth, a groundbreaking collection of 6,700 3D buildings modeled as leading scholars determined they stood in the year 320 A.D.
    While we hope that teachers are already pretty excited to incorporate Ancient Rome 3D into their lessons, we wanted to go a step further and issue an open challenge to educators to harness the power of this new tool in the classroom. Today, we’re proud to announce the launch of the inaugural Google lesson plan contest for K-12 educators in the US, the Ancient Rome in 3D Curriculum Competition. Whether you teach art history to high school students or geometry to fifth graders, the new visual tool can spice up lessons old and new. From a comparative architectural study using the ancient 3D models and modern Street View imagery to a new LitTrip of Virgil’s
    Aeneid, the only limit is your imagination!
  2. Are the diplomas already a failure? I believe it was Melanie Phillips (in All Must Have Prizes) who wrote about the peculiar British attitude towards vocational schools and compared it with that of the Swiss. This School Gate blog entry questions the British Government’s attempt to create a new kind of qualification “separate from A-levels”.
  3. You can lead cattle to water but you can’t make them think. James Atherton (whom I referred to recently) blogs about an interesting article in the Times Higher Education Supplement. Written by Bob Blaisdell, associate professor in the English department, Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York, it reviews a book by Temple Grandin, Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, and a renowned expert on stock handling systems in abattoirs. She is also seriously autistic. Blaisdell provides some interesting insights into learning and learners:

    “I noticed that if you left a pile of camera equipment alone in the middle of the field, all the cows would come up to it and investigate. But if you walked towards them carrying the same equipment, they’d take off. Motion was a problem, so if I just stood there holding the equipment the cows would come to me.”

    I know, I know: we’re in a hurry to impart knowledge to our cattle. (We can lead the cattle to water, but we can’t make them think.) Can we afford to be patient, observant? Can we take the time to be perceptive about the details that make classrooms so distracting?

Conversation by numbers

Two weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Prof. Michael McCarthy at Osaka Shoin Women’s University, and sponsored by Cambridge University Press. The title was “The Learner’s Turn”, meaning both “It’s the learner’s turn to say something” and “How learners take turns in conversation”. Michael McCarthy is a linguistics expert specialising in corpora, and has authored several books on corpora and language teaching, including From Corpus to Classroom and the recent Touchstone EFL series.

McCarthy gave several examples from spoken English corpora of how fluent speakers take turns in conversation. He said, “Every turn in the conversation, except for the opening one, is a response to the previous speaker”, and proceeded to demonstrate how this works from actual examples. “Well, actually…” was one example, showing a speaker signaling that his answer was not a straightforward answer to the question that was put to him. Remove the “well actually” and you get an abrupt change of topic that sounds like a non-sequitur, and jolts the smooth flow of the conversation. The examples were all very interesting.

“Flow” and “fluency” were key themes in McCarthy’s talk, and ironically it was at one such moment when McCarthy was talking about “confluence” and “fluency” that I wondered whether I wanted to “go with the flow”.

McCarthy stated that conversation must flow; it’s not just an exchange of information. An example he gave was a short exchange between two strangers, one of whom asks the other for the time. The respondent, obviously searching for some kind of timepiece, but unwilling to simply remain silent (thus possibly giving the interlocutor a wrong message, such as “I’m deaf; did not hear your request”), says “Erm… uhhh….” before finding the timepiece and announcing the time. No problem with this; I teach the importance of flow in conversation to my students, and it’s one of the reasons I like and use AlmaLang’s Conversations in Class, especially its Cultural Golden Rules of English conversation (pdf).

McCarthy then gave another example of confluence or cooperation between speakers in conversation: leaving a question half-finished with a hanging “or?”, such as, “So, you wanna have lunch, or…?” with several examples from the corpora of spoken English. McCarthy pointed out that it would be odd, strange, abrupt for the interlocutor to follow this with a cold, “Or what?”, and this is the point, dear reader, where a doubt crept into your author’s mind.

I don’t disagree that it would be odd, or strange or cold to ask “Or what?”, but does this mean that speakers should avoid using this, simply because the corpora shows us that 99% of conversational exchanges show the speakers politely taking their turns and showing cooperation and confluence? There may be cases where you want to be cold and abrupt. Should we pattern our ways of speaking on that of the majority? Does the fact that “this is how most people speak” automatically mean that this is how I should speak? Isn’t this conversation by numbers?

McCarthy’s other main theme, apart from “fluency”, was that teachers can make use of this vast amount of corpora-data to identify what fluent speakers do with the (English) language, and then teach this to learners of English. The justification he gave was that by this means, teachers can help learners at least give an appearance of greater fluency. In other words, you take data on what most, fluent speakers of the language do, and then teach this to language learners so that they will sound like fluent speakers as soon as possible.

This has been tried before, in the area of language-learning strategies. The idea was first proposed by Joan Rubin and Anita Wenden in the classic A. Wenden & J. Rubin (Eds.), Learner strategies in language learning (145-156). London: Prentice Hall. The idea was, first, study efficient EFL learners’ language-learning strategies; then, teach those strategies to other, less efficient, learners, and presto!

This idea morphed into teaching autonomous language-learning strategies to less autonomous students, as it seemed that efficient language-learners were autonomous. I have had less than stellar results with this theory.

McCarthy did not address the question of why non-fluent speakers do not use the strategies of fluent speakers. Is it because they are less quick-witted than fluent speakers, or is there something else at work? The parallel that occurred to me is that of infants learning to walk or talk. Why not “teach” crawling infants the techniques that “successful walkers” use? Then they could perhaps make faster progress towards walking.

Or, why not “teach” speaking strategies to babbling infants? The babblers could perhaps then speed through the annoying babbling stage and move more quickly into speech (or perhaps into “speech-sounding” verbal behaviour), that would most assuredly impress relatives and neighbours!

But perhaps there is a reason why infants go through a crawling phase before walking? Perhaps there is a reason why infants babble before speaking? (See Wikipedia’s entry on Jean Piaget’s developmental process model for children). Similarly, perhaps there is a reason why fluent speakers use such words as “actually” and why non-fluent speakers do not; i.e. because the use of “actually” in conversation requires a conceptual understanding of the target language that is beyond beginners or even intermediate speakers. Perhaps the progression from beginner to fluent speaker requires going through stages, like the stages of physical and mental development in infants; stages that can neither be rushed nor bypassed.  (Cf Second Language Acquisition: Developmental Patterns).

Although the theory sells a lot of books, I remain sceptical. And rather than training speakers to “sound” fluent when in fact they are not, I  prefer a more cognitive approach: helping people to express what they want to say, rather than “selling” them the most popular expressions and turns of phrase.

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Nutshell Notes

A couple of years ago, while taking an online course on blogging – the TESOL EVO course, 2006 – I was introduced to Ed Nuhfer. He was an invited guest on a fascinating course about JiTT: Just in Time Teaching. Ed Nuhfer gave an online presentation about Knowledge Surveys. It was an interesting presentation, well backed up by data collected by Nuhfer over a number of years. It was great to be able to interact with an expert, and Nuhfer directed me to his online teacher-development newsletters called Nutshell Notes.

Today, I wanted to review some of these, particularly ones about a Teaching System. I clicked on an old link, but it came up empty. However, I typed Nutshell into the search function, and found that all of Ed Nuhfer’s Nutshell Notes have been put together into a PDF downloadable file (1.36 mb). Indexed and all. Wonderful. Ones I particularly enjoyed are issues on syllabus, teaching to elicit higher levels of thinking, rubrics, and a series about the Perry model (of university student intellectual development). Nuhfer liked to keep his Nutshell Notes to one A4 page.

Speaking of professional development for teachers, here’s another rich and thought-provoking resource I discovered, by chance, a couple of years ago: James Atherton (now retired) has a blog, Recent Reflection, which provides links to his two other main sites (static, not blogs): doceo and learning and teaching. I haven’t figured out what the difference is between the two: I’ve found practical articles on note-taking or creating handouts as well as more philosophical articles about learning styles (Atherton thinks that pandering to learning styles may be doing the students a disservice). The doceo site has a nice graphic index where you can browse just by clicking the mouse, and so does the learning and teaching site.

Visiting Atherton’s blog is fun if you enjoy serendipity. The item on the top today when I visited was this enchanting item about inflatable street art. “It’s what art is all about.” Check it out.


Yes we can… what?

The newspaper headline yesterday (Thursday, Nov. 6th, 2008) was イエス・ウィー・キャン  We can what? Americans pride themselves on being a can-do nation: not just a nation of practical people of ability, but also of an optimistic attitude that is expressed in that old chestnut: “The possible we do straight away. The impossible takes a little longer.” An admirable attitude, and one that is rooted in a strong sense and understanding of personal freedom, and the excitement that generates.

But just being able to do something (or anything) is not, in itself, suffficient. A sense of ethics, or a code of values, is also required in order to judge which of many possible courses of action should be chosen. In this area, recent events do not inspire immediate confidence. When I say “recent”, I include 1945 and the decision to drop not just one, but two atomic bombs on civilian populations.

And the other question that occurred to me as I read the headline was, “Who is ‘we’?” This is often an interesting, and fruitful, question to ask. In movies and popular fiction, the lead character is often a magnet for the viewers’ and readers’ hopes, fears, expectations and dreams. In the opening chapters (actually, more like the first third- to one-half of the book) of any Harry Potter novel, Harry himself actually does very little: he more of a foil for all the other characters. But the reader imagines himself or herself in Harry’s shoes and easily relates to his situations – of embarrassment, of anger, of alienation, of revenge, of being mistreated and misunderstood. Harry needs to do very little. The reader does most of the work.

In a similar way, when a politician says “we”, he or she does not need to define this “we”: the listeners, viewers or readers fill in the empty space by themselves.

I was reminded of an article by GoldMoney founder James Turk, Government Money or Sound Money? in which Turk takes the government to task for the proposed $700 billion bailout. Turk wrote,

Secretary Paulson even brought out an old bromide to justify this pillaging of American taxpayers: “The financial security of all Americans…depends on our ability to restore our financial institutions to a sound footing.”

Note the use of the communistic “our” in Paulson’s quote. It’s not “our financial institutions”. I don’t own any bank stock, nor do most Americans. What’s more, it’s not the “financial security of all Americans” that is at stake here.

Well spotted, Mr Turk.

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