The way we see things

Birthdays in Japan

July 25, 2013 by Bobb Drake

It was my daughter’s birthday last Sunday. As we just came back from Japan and had no time to arrange the birthday party, her friends are coming to celebrate with us this coming weekend. Last weekend, however, we went to a beach and had a great day on her birthday. What are your memories of your birthdays? Were you allowed to eat only things you like? Did someone throw a big party for you?

Birthdays are a special day for everyone. In western countries, one’s birthday is considered to be the day he or she was born and is celebrated on the same date every year.  Isn’t it rare to have a friend or a family member who has the same birthday as you? Can you image sharing the birthday with all of your friends and family? That’s how it used to be in Japan and some other Asian countries; everyone celebrated his or her birthday on the same day.

Until around 1950, Japanese people used a system called “kazoedoshi (数え年)” to count their age. In this system, when a baby is born, he or she is already one year old. This is because babies spend around 9 months in the mother’s womb and it is considered that they already “lived” a year before their actual birth. What makes this system more interesting is that everyone earns a year on New Years day instead of the day each person was actually born. In the old days, New Years day was the national birthday in Japan. After World War II, the western tradition of celebrating one’s birthday was introduced and became popular in Japan. Since then, “kazoedoshi” has been used in a limited circumstance such as “shichigosan (七五三)”, “yakudoshi (厄年)” and “toshiiwai (年祝い)”. These are traditional events relating to one’s age. We celebrate children’s healthy growth by their ages of three, five and seven (shichigosan). We also have certain years that are said to bring us misfortune (yakudoshi), which differ between women and men. I will have a yakudoshi next year and the two following years after that, which I am not looking forward to at all! Toshiiwai is the event to celebrate one’s long life at the ages of 60/(61 under the kazoedoshi system), 70, 77, 88 and 99.

In modern Japan, kazoedoshi is not a major system for us. However, it is still expressed in our life at certain points. Do you have certain events associated with a particular age in your country as well?  

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A Double-sided Coin

July 09, 2013 by Bobb Drake

I suppose the antithesis of an endangered language is a brand new one: living within one’s means versus basking in the lap of luxury. Is there a need for reconciliation? I’d like to stop myself before I jump to conclusions, so let’s explore this double-sided coin.

Language is exciting! It is everything to a people, and without it, we don’t function. It can be verbal, visual, physical, obvious, subliminal… and the list goes on. It is the vehicle for all human interaction. So what causes the birth of a new language while others are dying out?

At the top of the list of popular invented languages (aka “conlangs” or “artlangs”) are Klingon and Esperanto. The word Klingon is a household name to anyone who has watched a Star Trek®  episode or film since the original TV series debuted in 1966. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, however, that Paramount Pictures hired linguistics PhD, Marc Okrand, to create an official and functioning Klingon language for the alien race of the same name. It is a language that thrives in the “real” world, although the number of truly fluent speakers is highly debatable, ranging from a few dozen to 1,000. The language continues to rely on Dr. Okrand for the creation of new vocabulary, and he was even commissioned to write the libretto for a Klingon opera called ’u’ which premiered in The Hague in September 2010! Serious learners can enroll in the Klingon Language Institute!

My first experience with Esperanto, or rather, Esperanto speakers was in 2001. As an English teacher in a a small fishing village on the Sea of Japan, the only other native English speaker around was an American who also spoke Esperanto. He had met his Japanese wife at an Esperanto convention in the US, and Esperanto became their common language. 

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof. A polyglot by necessity, Zamenhof grew up in Bialystok (then part of the Russian Empire and now part of northeast Poland), which was populated by squabbling groups of Russian, German, Polish and Jewish heritage who each spoke their own respective languages. Troubled by this, at age fifteen Zamenhof theorized that the creation of a new language with no political, religious or ethnic ties could bring world peace. His dream was not to replace other languages, but to provide a parallel one that would be easy to learn and by which all people could communicate. Today, Esperanto boasts approximately two million speakers worldwide. One of the exciting perks of learning Esperanto is the Pasporta Servo: a directory of Esperanto speakers who host Esperanto-speaking travelers for free.

As unrelated as sci-fi fantasy and world peace may seem, the spectrum of motivating factors behind inventing languages becomes wider. In the next installment, we’ll look into some surprising sources of invented language. Hint: “la cana.”

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Japanese Seasons and Haiku

July 02, 2013 by Bobb Drake

What do you hear as you close your eyes and go to sleep?

I was born and grew up in the countryside. My house is located near mountains and a river.  At this time of year, the night air is filled with the sounds of all kinds of bugs. Without artificial noises such as traffic and stores, the bug sounds are so clear that we can detect a pattern to them. They get louder and then weaker, continue for a while and then stop. I’m not sure if they pattern their sounds with a purpose or not, but it is comfortable to go to sleep while listening to their songs.

As my home town is surrounded by nature, we easily see the transition of the seasons as well as feel it by sound and smell. The trees change their appearance four times a year and there are animals and insects that can be seen only during certain seasons. I cannot explain it well, but each season even has its own smell. Each season has its originality.

For a long time, people in Japan have been enjoying each season and the transitions from one to another. This can be observed in a type of Japanese poetry called haiku, which consists of three phrases of specified syllable length: 5-7-5. Traditionally, each haiku has to have one word indicating the season (kigo) when the poem was written. I would like to introduce two examples below. They were written by my grandmother a long time ago.

1、紫陽花や “ajisaiya” そぼ降る雨に “sobofuruameni” 色猛る “irotakeru”

(ajisai - hydrangea, sobofuruame - drizzling rain, irotakeru - lively coloring)

In this haiku, ajisai (hydrangeas) are used as a kigo to indicate it is in early summer. She expressed the scene that hydrangeas are blooming lively under the drizzling rain.

2、囀りと(saezurito) 瀬音に目ざむ(seotonimezamu) 旅の宿(tabinoyado)

(saezuri – chirping, seoto – sound of river, mezamu – waking up, tabinoyado – the place you are staying while you are on a trip)

Birds’ chirping is a kigo for spring. My grandmother created this haiku while she was on a trip. She woke up to the sounds of birds singing and the river. The river in spring flows vigorously because snow that accumulated during the winter starts melting.

Do you know any haiku created by someone? If so, what do you think of it? Have you created your own? Please share it with us!  

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Gray Areas: Where Real Intuition Lives

June 26, 2013 by Bobb Drake

As many of you know, the Japanese writing system consists of three main components: ひらがな (Hiragana), カタカナ (Katakana), and 漢字 (Kanji). Each component has its main and specialized job, but there are fuzzy lines among their responsibilities. Wikipedia agrees:

ひらがな is used to write native words for which there are no Kanji, including grammatical particles and suffixes and to write words whose Kanji form is obscure to the writer or readers. There is also some flexibility for words that have common kanji renditions […]

カタカナ is primarily used for transcription of foreign language words into Japanese and the writing of loan words. It is also used [...] to write certain Japanese language words [...]

Don’t we, as adult language learners, hate those flexibilities and uncertainties in languages when we are trying to apply rules we have learned? If you are a language teacher, your students must have asked you those “why” questions and given you a hard time.

Understanding the Japanese language ultimately requires understanding that we Japanese people like those gray areas very much. Growing up in a high-context environment where we share a great amount of common background knowledge, we rely on those gray areas to make things less straightforward and tasteful. We embrace the fuzzy line as a privilege to add fine nuances to our language.

When I was teaching Japanese at a university, one of the common “why” questions was:

“Why is this word written in Katakana even though it’s a Japanese word and we can write it in Kanji?”

There are at least a couple of possible answers to this, but the coolest one (at least to me!) is “to put an emphasis on the word by adding unusualness to it”.

It works just like when you bold or capitalize fonts in English, and we often see this usage of Katakana in ads and catchphrases. One recent example would be Nike’s advertising campaign for the 2012 London Olympics: “Find Your Greatness”. In Japanese, this phrase was translated as “きみもトクベツ。” (“ki mi – mo – to ku be tsu.” Lit., “You are also special.”).

“To ku be tsu” is a Japanese (and also Chinese) word written as 特別, and its meaning slightly varies from special to extraordinary. The translator could have written the phrase as きみも特別。, but instead chose to use Katakanaトクベツ.

特別 versus トクベツ-- do they give you different impressions?

They definitely do to me. トクベツ stands out in the short phrase and becomes its focal point.  It gives a catchy feeling to the phrase and piques the curiosity of the reader to find out what kind of “special-ness” that can be. The unusualness of the Katakana expression makes me stop there for a moment and think about what it really means.

Things that seem to be unreasonable to novices may be the place where real intuition lives. If so, why not curiously peeking into it instead of questioning and getting frustrated? Asking a native speaker the “impression” questions instead of the “why” questions may open up a door and let you see new and authentic aspects of language.

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Teaching will expand your knowledge as well as learners’

June 13, 2013 by Bobb Drake

Read this article in Japanese

Japan has a rainy season. It usually begins around June and ends in the middle of July. Some people are annoyed by its warm temperature and high humidity, but I like this rainy season because mountains become greener and seem to be very lively. It is my first time to come back to Japan during this season since I moved to the U.S. 5 years ago. I am enjoying my stay a lot.

On the second day after arriving in Japan, I went to a book store and saw a huge section of English text books. I took a look at some of them and remembered the time when I was teaching English in Japan. My students were junior high and high school students. When I was teaching English to them, it was easy for me to understand their learning situation. In other words, I could easily find what problem they were having from talking with them, reading their writing and looking at their answers to questions. I was able to do this because I studied English in the same way that they did. My experience of learning English gave me intuition in teaching.

Teaching Japanese, however, doesn’t go the same way. Japanese is my native language. I have never actually studied the language in the way that my students learning Japanese do. Thus, it is more difficult for me to understand what problems students tend to have and why. There are a lot of times that I receive questions about Japanese grammar that I have never thought of. One of the examples is that we have Particles of Speech “ni” and “e”. They are used as in “Kouen (park) ni/e(to) iku (go)”, meaning “(I) go to the park.” I was asked when we use “ni” instead of “e” and vice versa. I couldn’t answer the question. I knew that I distinguished them unconsciously but I didn’t know how. After the class, I studied what governs the choice and then I finally became able to explain the difference in the next class.

When you grow up with a language and you have no trouble communicating with it, you might not “study” the language unless you are required to. Fortunately, I must study Japanese and understand it better to teach effectively. Studying expands my knowledge of the Japanese language and culture.

Through teaching your language, students will be more interested in your country and culture, and at the same time, your knowledge of your language and culture will be deepened. How nice it is to be a language teacher!

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June 13, 2013 by Bobb Drake

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Language through Poetry

June 04, 2013 by Bobb Drake

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about learning language through music. Music does for us something we are naturally inclined to do, which is to make sense out of chaos through finding or creating patterns. Words that would be otherwise difficult to memorize fall into cadence, the repetition of refrains and challenge us with dissonance that typically resolves.  What happens when we remove the music from the lyrics? We are left with… poetry.

Poetry is, as a high school English prof of mine once stated, “the art of the perfectly chosen word.” In bite-sized pieces, poetry fills the mind by succinctly capturing experiences both real and contemplated, and the associated sensory elements. What is brilliant about poetry is that, though it isn’t always rhythmic in the traditional sense (or like most pop music today that employs meter and rhyme), when we recite poetry, we naturally frame it in rhythm that makes sense to us. Think of Spoken Word. While music, dance, acting, etc. can be incorporated, the emphasis of Spoken Word is on the words themselves.

In the journal The Reading Teacher [Vol. 54, No. 8 (May, 2001)], Nancy L. Hadaway, Sylvia M. Vardell and Terrell A. Young outline the techniques and benefits of teaching language to ESL learners through poetry in the article “Scaffolding Oral Language Development through Poetry for Students Learning English.” In the ESL classroom, it is essential for the teacher to model the poem of choice. By reading the poem out loud to the students, the rhythm of the target language is demonstrated. Through student recitation, that rhythm begins to take shape in a natural ebb and flow that can be mimicked in the real world.

The authors point out that, contrary to popular opinion, the types of exercises to use in conjunction with poetry can be as varied as the types of poetry introduced. For example, poems can incorporate regional, historic and social dialects or familiar subject such as family, nature or math. Here are just a few of the activities they suggest:

-          Have students recite a poem chorally: after listening to a teacher model the correct oral reading of a poem, students recite the poem as a group. This method is a fun and unintimidating way for students to speak and gain fluency.

-          Have individuals or teams perform stanzas or entire poems, which can make use of gestures or be scripted in the style of a play.

-          Elicit student interpretations of a poem through illustrations/minimurals.

-          Use gesture or pantomime to express the tone or emotion of a poem.

-          Practice reciting a poem after italicizing words for emphasis.

-          Have students translate an English poem into their native language.

-          Write a poem in a particular style or metric.

-          Students record themselves reciting a poem.

Are you an instructor of ESL or another language? How have you taught language through poetry to your students?


Activity: Illustrate this poem!

The Crocodile, By Lewis Carroll

How doth the little crocodile

     Improve his shining tail,

And pour the waters of the Nile

     On every golden scale!


How cheerfully he seems to grin,

     How neatly spreads his claws,

And welcomes little fishes in,

     With gently smiling jaws!

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Culture and Classroom interaction

May 28, 2013 by Bobb Drake

Read this entry in Japanese

Do you have a favorite class you have taken? Do you remember a class that you really hated? There are probably many reasons behind your preference. But your impression of a class you have strong feelings about may be decided by the teacher’s style of interacting with the students. A number of studies have shown that the way a teacher interacts with the students can increase or decrease their motivation for classroom learning and it can also limit or facilitate the students’ achievement in the class.

Foreign language learners need to experience socio-cultural norms of the target language as well as its grammar and vocabulary. Students can learn the appropriate usage of the language by observing their teacher, who is most likely a native level speaker of the language. This creates a dilemma; on one hand, teachers are encouraged to apply their culturally preferred conversational style in the class. However, on the other hand, a problem arises when the teacher’s interactional style is something totally unfamiliar to the students. For example, schools in Japan usually require students to sit and listen to the teacher, but do not give the students many opportunities to present. When Japanese students study abroad in the U.S., they become overwhelmed by how much they are required to talk in class, as well as by the frequency of discussions, debates and presentations. Teachers often ask students if they have comments and questions. Most Japanese students keep silent or limit their verbal presentations.  Sadly, some teachers consider this behavior as the Japanese students being “unmotivated” or “not-serious”. However this is not true, they are participating in class by actively listening in the way they do in school in Japan.

It is widely understood that as foreign language teachers we must obtain sophisticated language knowledge and know how to teach language effectively. In addition to this, I believe that we should understand the students’ cultural background in terms of interactional style (and in many more ways, I am sure). Only then, we can find ways to balance between introducing our socio-cultural aspects and keeping the classroom as a relaxed as possible and a comfortable place to learn. Through conducting this research, I learned what the typical classroom interaction in U.S schools is like. It was actually the opposite from how I had been teaching Japanese to students here. Since then I always keep in mind that when I teach Japanese to students in the U.S, I try to create many opportunities in which learners can speak and share their opinions as they normally do in U.S. schools. At the same time, I also try to involve them in attentive listening activities, which teach valuable Japanese conversational manners.

I have written about foreign language teaching and socio-cultural interaction in three blog posts. I pay great attention to how we can teach students effectively through interacting with them. How about you?  As a language teacher, what do you consider as the most important in teaching? If you are a language learner, is there anything you wish your teacher did differently to successfully integrate the target culture’s teaching methods as well as a learning style that works well in your own native culture?

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May 28, 2013 by Bobb Drake

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What can you learn from observing yourself teach?

May 01, 2013 by Bobb Drake

Read in Japanese

If you are a language teacher, have you ever recorded your class while you are teaching and analyzed the video? The results can be surprising and enlightening! I recorded my Japanese class once when teaching in the United States. The recording was for my final project in a course I was taking. As a first step, I watched the video and transcribed it. I still remember feeling nervous about watching myself teaching. There were many things that I didn’t notice while I was teaching: I misspelled some Japanese words on the blackboard, I misunderstood a student’s question and my voice became quieter when I had to speak in English. Analyzing your own teaching is a great way to identify your own shortcomings, and understand how and what your students have been learning from you. By analyzing my own recording, I learned that I was unconsciously introducing Japanese discourse manners to my class.  

In the last post, I made the claim that it is important for learners to experience socio-cultural standards of language in a classroom. I also mentioned that there are (but are not limited to) three preferred conversational styles in Japan. Do you remember them?

1. Ask for the listener’s agreement with one’s speech using “ne” (similar to “right?” in English)

2. Speak in relation to the previous speaker, showing that one’s comment is related to the previous speaker’s utterance

3. Nod frequently to show that one is actively listening to the speaker

As you may have realized, there is a common requirement for these manners: listening to the speaker attentively. It may sound like an easy thing to do, but we all know that it is not always easy to be an attentive listener. However, Japanese society values listening skills more than speaking. Thus, the ability to listen carefully is an indispensable skill to obtain by a sophisticated language user of Japanese.

When reviewing my recording, I noticed that I was showing the importance of attentive listening implicitly. I was performing those three mannerisms all the time when I was interacting with my students. Also, I was creating classroom situations in which all students need to listen to others’ presentations carefully. For example, I asked one student to present and then directly asked another student “what do you think of that?” before I gave my feedback to the original presenter. To give a comment to the presenter, all other students had to listen to what was said. One may wonder if implicitly introducing conversational manners is actually effective. My study had some positive results.

I also realized that the way I was teaching was very similar to how I had been taught in schools in Japan. Other than the observations I mentioned above, I witnessed more instances in which students listened rather than spoke in class, which is a normal scene in Japan. Thus, I was very surprised to learn from studies conducted by others that some students feel uncomfortable in foreign language classes that have a different interaction style from what they are used to. Perhaps some students in my class have been experiencing difficulties if I use the Japanese style of interaction? If so, this presents an interesting dilemma, which I will talk about next time. See you in 2 weeks!

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