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Muddling Through Magazines

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I tend to discourage my students from reading mass-market magazines until they are fairly advanced readers of English. I used to do this based on some vague instinct, but later I read that popular magazines tend to use a really challenging mix of styles that can be indecipherable to many English language learners. Aha! That’s the problem–pick up People or Cosmopolitan or Newsweek, and while you won’t tax your brain, you will see a mishmash of slang, academic and technical language, pop-culture references, and jargon. The tone or register varies wildly, too, sometimes in the same piece of writing. Yikes! It makes sense, right? Some students have been deeply relieved when I’ve explained to them why Newsweek and other things that have been shoved at them with the promise of “This is easy to read!” haven’t been so easy after all.

Recently, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve gone overboard in warning students away. When I was in Taiwan and Japan I was essentially illiterate in Chinese and Japanese, but I loved looking at magazines like Taipei Walker and Kikan S. It was through those magazines that I had several of my best experiences. Taipei Walker and the Walker line of magazines highlight shops and restaurants, with little blurbs and tiny maps. It was through one of those spots that I found out about a shop entirely devoted to Wachifield products (a Japanese line that I’m a fan of, featuring a wickedly cute cat somewhere between Kliban and Cheshire). It was in a back street somewhere and I wouldn’t have found it without my incessant magazine-flipping. Some other Taiwanese magazine led me to a fantastic travelling exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s art, too, with the funny result that I’ve now seen Mucha’s art in person in Taiwan and Japan (there’s a Mucha museum just across from the train station in Sakai city, outside of Osaka) but not Europe. Mucha and Wachifield may not be Taiwanese, but both are very popular in Taiwan, and finding my way to those places are some of my favorite memories. I also found some great Taiwanese cafes and restaurants through the magazine–even if you can’t read much, you can tell the price range, look at the lovely little photos, and read the tiny little map.

Kikan S is a Japanese illustration magazine I bought in a manga shop on our honeymoon in Japan, and it had an advertisement for an art exhibition by Japanese fantasy illustrators and manga artists. We had to get some help to figure out where it was, but we managed to go to it and it was terrific! I scribbled down names left and right and remain a big fan of a bunch of the artists I first learned about there. Seeing their paintings in person was a unique experience I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

I can’t say that looking at those magazines actually improved my Chinese or Japanese language skills, and I sometimes think there may be some weird genetic flaw that leads me to want to “read” magazines and watch TV when I’m overseas and can’t understand it. On the other hand, you could say that what little information I got from the magazines worked to reinforce my integrative motivation (positive attitudes toward the target language’s culture and desire to participate in it). Some researchers link integrative motivation with language-learning success, so who knows. It may be worth letting students know about magazines with information that’s usable by them in some way, even if the bulk of the writing is still above their level. Give them other sources for appropriate reading materials, but let them check into the magazines as a way to stay excited about learning English or living in their new home. Let them know why the text is so hard to read, and even better, let them know they can ask you about perplexing things. What I would have given to get someone to explain some of the ads in those Taiwanese beauty magazines…!

What do you think, teachers?

(Huh, it seems that Kadokawa, the Japanese publisher who does about a dozen “Walker” magazines in Japan plus Taipei, tried a Seoul version that failed. I wonder why.)

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