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Spotlight: (Thriving and) Surviving in Japan

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I’d like to spotlight a new addition to the recommended blogs here, Surviving in Japan (without much Japanese). This blog/how-to-directory is an ever-growing guide to how to improve your life in Japan if you are not perfectly fluent in Japanese, but are in English. The author, Ashley, is a writer (and part-time teacher) with a good sense of what people settling in to Japan really need to know about. She’s also the new writer for the “Lifelines” column at the Japan Times. There’s no travel-guide-style “wear toilet slippers in the toilet or risk embarrassment!”-style advice here–you can find that in your Lonely Planet. Instead, you get instructions, recommendations, links, photos, and even translations on topics such as

There are lots of other posts on everything from minor issues like how customize your order at Starbucks to critical issues like what to do if your Alien Registration Card is missing. (I’m secretly hoping for a post on reading Japanese nutritional labels at some point! That would be handy for me over here, even.)

This blog is highly recommended for being informative, readable, and essentially performing a public service. If you’re moving to Japan or are already there, check it out! I just wish someone were doing this for every country (and in every language combination!).

You can also follow Ashley on Twitter at @survivingnjapan.

CATESOL 2010 Food & Shopping Suggestions

I’m looking forward to CATESOL 2010 in Santa Clara! Some of you will be arriving soon; I’ll only be there starting on Friday, but I thought I’d post some suggestions on where to eat in the area. If you aren’t familiar with the area, it looks like there’s nothing nearby–just corporate offices for Yahoo!, Namco Bandai, and so on. There are places to eat, though, and while I’m not familiar with many of them, I’ve put some of them on a map. (I do spend time in this area, because Mission College is right there, but I live 25 minutes away, so I rarely eat there.) I’m sure the convention committee has made something as well, but I know some people are staying in Fremont and so on, so I thought I’d put together something quickly. (Update: Here’s the official CATESOL 2010 restaurant guide PDF.)

If you have time and comfortable shoes, you should be able to walk safely to most of the more distant ones on the map. You can use Google’s “Walking” option to get directions, and don’t forget to use Street View to get an image of the area. Read on after the map for better suggestions if you have a car or are willing to try to use buses and light rail.

View CATESOL 2010 Food in a larger map

This is not the most culinarily exciting area of the South Bay. If you have access to a car, even driving 5-15 minutes will put you in a much better location. Here are a few suggestions if you have access to a car or can figure out the light rail and bus system (I’m not sure if Google’s public transportation directions work for VTA, but they may):

  • Maru Ichi, real Japanese ramen specializing in a “black garlic” broth (click for map) and lots of other restaurants and businesses, from a Chinese bookstore and a Chinese vegan restaurant to a Japanese cook-it-yourself chain. Highly recommended. Less than 10 minutes by car. (On the other side of the overpass is the McCarthy Ranch shopping center, which includes typical American restaurant chains, Borders, etc.)
  • El Camino Real’s Korean-American neighborhood (San Francisco Chronicle article) won’t impress anyone from L.A., but has lots of good places to eat, including the pricey meat-extravaganza Palace Buffet (lines during peak hours) and a nice supermarket, Hankook, which has a couple of places to get a snack inside, and a separate building several blocks away known as a “food court.” A very simple drive, about 12 minutes away; no highway (map).
  • San Jose’s Japantown is one of only three remaining in the US; the others are in San Francisco and L.A.This one is small and more functional, but there are still good restaurants, a couple of nice grocery stores, and some really good places to shop. There’s even a traditional tofu maker. Oddly, there’s also an Ethiopian restaurant here, Rehoboth, with a good reputation. About 15 minutes away by car, and I know you can take light rail here because I’ve seen the stop! (Map.) N.B.: On Sunday, they’re having a festival, so it’ll be a good time to come but a bad time to try to park.
  • The Mitsuwa shopping center is worth the 15-to-20-minute drive to reach a mini-complex consisting of the large Japanese supermarket, Mitsuwa, which has a ramen shop, a fast-service restaurant, an anime toy store, and a wagashi (traditional sweets) shop inside. Attached to it outside are a Taiwanese noodle and dumpling shop, another ramen restaurant, a very good sushi restaurant (Tomi), and an excellent Japanese bakery and coffee shop, Clover, that serves Japanese-style “Western food” dinners. Across from Mitsuwa, in the parking lot, is Kinokuniya, a Japanese book/music/magazine/stationery store that sells English and Japanese books, including books on learning Japanese and learning English, art books, origami paper, etc. (Map. You can take 101 for a short amount of the route if you want, but it’s not worth the hassle to me. Also, I think there’s one bus that’s a straight shot here.)
  • Book Buyers, the secondhand book shop I mentioned in this post , often has some ESL books. It’s about 15 minutes away, too. There’s an independent new book shop next door, Books Inc. There are lots of other great bookstores in the South Bay, but Book Buyers stands out because of the ESL stock (which varies, of course). There are various places to eat in downtown Mountain View; just check Yelp. Free parking lots are on various side streets.Map.)
  • If you’re staying as far afield as Fremont or Milpitas, which I know some people are, you can check out my Yelp reviews. (As you can probably tell, I do most of my Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, etc. dining out in my own town, and don’t drive to San Jose for it…)

If you have a recommendation of your own to share, or if you have a question, please leave a comment!

P. S. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter! Currently, a Tweetup is planned for Friday at 6 PM, at the Evolution bar in the Hyatt.

Getting on the Same Page: Book Gifts for Friends and Family

Is it just me, or do friends, family members, and random strangers sometimes make strange assumptions about us once we become English teachers? They may think we support English-only policies, are ashamed of our first languages if we are multilingual, are constantly judging them on their use of English, etc. They may resent us for the positions they assume we take, or they may take those positions ourselves and expect us to join them. This can get pretty awkward at the dinner table. Even if it doesn’t get that far, people often have really strange ideas about English and English teaching (I know I had a few myself before actually starting to study for my certification and MA).

Here are a few last-minute holiday gift suggestions that can introduce the way linguists and language pedagogy specialists think about language to non-specialists in a readable–maybe even enjoyable–way.

Language Myths is a bit of a Linguistics FAQ or “Mythbusters: Linguistics Edition!” in book form, with articles on different topics by different linguists. This is really great for addressing those long-held, “commonsense” beliefs that most people have about language, and can really clear the way for meaningful conversations with your friends and family. Essays in it include “Double Negatives Are Illogical,” “TV Makes People Sound the Same,” “Black Children are Verbally Deprived,” “America is Ruining the English Language,” “Some Languages are Spoken More Quickly Than Others,” and lots more. It’s meant for intelligent laypeople. Most of the topics will be familiar to you; my TESOL coursework covered most of the topics (but not every point). I don’t totally agree with everything that every author writes, and the readability/interestingness varies, but that’s the nature of an anthology like this. I wish they’d publish a sequel, but at any rate, highly recommended.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left, by the outstanding linguist David Crystal. This book uses both history and analysis to show why people who are truly educated about linguistics are rarely the same people frothing in the opinion pages about the decline of English. He has a distinctly British viewpoint (Strunk and White barely make an appearance) and makes a couple of errors regarding American usage, but nearly all of his points apply to American English-language punditry as well as British. Without resorting to Language Log (which I love, but is a little too in-depth for casual readers), this book can explain to your friends and family why you may not be a fan of the English “experts,” like the late William Safire, whose cranky and usually wrong-headed pronouncements they probably expect you to endorse. If you read it, you’ll probably learn a lot too–I didn’t realize how many centuries these specific patterns of nitpicking and name-calling had been going on, or how broadminded Shakespeare was about regional dialects of English compared to other writers!

For people with more specific interests:

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English is an extremely interesting history of how English wound up in its rather odd condition. It’s sometimes a bit rambling and repetitive (it seems to be based on lectures), but still fascinating. Of course, speculation about the origins of English are open for debate, but McWhorter’s theories make a lot of sense. He has an interesting perspective because of his academic background, specializing in the study of creole formation, which I think may help him approach the apparent conflicts and paradoxes in the early history of English in a more fruitful way. And, of course, he has the necessary academic/linguistic chops that popular writers like Bill Bryson are lacking, so he doesn’t repeat unfounded nonsense about other languages in order to prove English’s uniqueness. (I don’t recommend giving anyone The Mother Tongue, because it’s full of things that are not just academic speculation, but outright falsehoods and inaccuracies.) Highly recommended, but not for readers without an interest in the history of English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is one of the only usage guides recommended by the folks over at Language Log. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive; it tells you what the rule is and what people actually usually do and why. It has plenty of real examples, not made-up sentences, and discusses controversial usages and discrepancies between US and British tendencies. (Note the 5-star review by Geoff Pullum if you click through to the Amazon page–that’s the linguist Geoff Pullum.) Handy for teachers and non-teachers alike. Note: this is mostly for looking up words that tend to cause grammar, spelling, or other usage problems; it’s not a general grammar or writing guide.

All of the above good books for ESL and EFL teachers too, of course–you’ll just be more familiar with the background info, and maybe a little impatient when some of the authors use simplified vocabulary to avoid using technical jargon.

I’ll add all of these to the Bookstore link on the right so that you can find them later.

(Sorry for the lateness of this post–I had my own holiday gift-giving time crunch!)

Open Mailing Lists

I’ve had a request for a post on the topic of free, open mailing lists (MLs). Many teachers are not members of organizations such as TESOL, for one reason or another, and so don’t have access to the MLs and online discussion groups provided by these organizations. MLs can be extremely useful–you get new ideas, colleagues to help you when you have a question, and sympathy when you have problems, without the cost of going to a conference or joining an organization. Everyone should join at least one or two MLs! So, here are some that don’t require any kind of paid membership–all are free. (This list does NOT include everything! If you know of a particularly good mailing list that isn’t included, please leave a comment.)

Many MLs function as discussion groups that allow for all members the ML to ask questions, give their opinions, etc.

One-way mailing lists are like newsletters: sent out for you to read, not as a forum for discussion. However, you can often respond or ask questions by e-mailing the author directly.

  • Tomorrow’s Professor, hosted at Stanford, sends out posts twice a week on a variety of general academic topics. Many posts relate specifically to American higher education, but others are relevant to any kind of educational or educational leadership situation. (They’ve recently added a Tomorrow’s Professor Blog where discussion can take place.)
  • World Wide Words is a newsletter-style ML about the history and usage of English. Not strictly relevant to teaching, but fun for language-lovers.

Mailing lists used to be more popular than they are now in these days of blogs and RSS, but not everyone is familiar with how they work. Here’s a little information to help you get started or improve your ML experience.

Continue reading Open Mailing Lists

Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

A basic principle of any form of teaching is that a teacher should avoid asking students to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. Dr. Sarah Nielsen, the head of my MATESOL program, always put this into practice by joining us during in-class reflective essays. Most models for extensive reading programs similarly encourage the facilitator of the ER session to sit down and read too. With that in mind, and being fairly well convinced of ER’s claims, I set out to find some graded readers for my current target language, Japanese. (See my previous post on tadoku, or extensive reading, in Japan.)

The bad news for me was that there appears to be only one series for Japanese learners, unlike the many that are available for English learners. The series is レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reberu Betsu Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarii, which I’d kind of translate as Leveled Japanese Extensive Reading Library). The good news is that they’re fairly interesting, with a variety of illustrative styles for each little book, and they come with audio. They’re currently up to 3 sets (“volumes”) with several different levels in each set. Each level comprises a slipcase with several thin paperback books inside.

The cover price for the first level set, which is five short books, is 2300 JPY–about $21 USD at the current rate, including an audio CD with all of the stories. I bought it from Kinokuniya in San Jose, though, so the price was $32 plus tax. You can read about the books at the publisher’s website (some English; click around to get to samples) and at the website of the nonprofit group behind the series. (Unfortunately, the English version of the latter is temporarily disabled for Firefox users.) I’m so glad somebody’s working on rectifying this lack of Japanese-learning materials, and I definitely recommend the series.

A few weeks I sat down to read the first book. It’s a couple steps up from “see Jane run,” but not a lot. It’s very simple and (thank goodness) below my level. Even then, I learned a new verb and got some good review on kanji that are rarely put into beginners’ materials. Much to my surprise and amusement, when I got to the end, I suddenly thought “I’ve finished my first book in Japanese!”

Well, that thought is kind of silly–the writing is totally oversimplified and fairly inauthentic, the book is only a few pages long, and it’s easier than what I should be reading anyway. Right? I mean, it’s not even a real book. But, somehow, I still got that brief flash of accomplishment. That’s worth something! That feeling itself is one of the reasons why easy, fun reading can be such a powerful tool for language learners.

Later, I’ll write about my continuing attempts to use the series, and how it’s helping me with both my Japanese and my teaching. So far, I’d say the experiment is a success. However, I wonder what I’m going to do when I run out of books at my level, since there are so few texts available for anyone who’s not already at the high-intermediate level.

Many of you are also language learners, so how about it–do you try to practice what you preach? I know I have clients whose enthusiasm for self-study puts me to shame. I’m trying to be more like them!

Medical English Resources

I’m looking for free online medical English resources for an advanced client who may look for work as a pharmacist in the Tokyo area. He already has much of the scientific and medical vocabulary, so it’s the colloquial vocabulary and cultural aspects that we’ll be working on for the most part. Of course, my perspective is American, and I mostly know about what Americans expect to happen in a pharmacy. I have a slight knowledge of what British customers are used to, and no idea at all regarding the expectations of Indian, Dutch, Hong Kong, and other customers who may well find it easiest to speak English in a pharmacy. So we’ll work on clarification and repair strategies as well.

Searching Google for relevant websites hasn’t been very fruitful, because there are so many low-quality commercial websites, language schools, etc. However, I’ve found a few:

EnglishMed has been the richest resource so far because of the cartoons. The animated dialogues are amusing and a good chance for my client to hear British English. My only problem is that I really wonder whether British pharmacists actually behave this way, or whether his attitude is there to add comic relief to the dialogue. From my perspective he sounds a bit rude and off-putting. I wouldn’t go back to this guy… Still, Flash-based cartoons like this are a great way to make dialogues more interesting for English learners, and I hope I can learn to make them myself someday. Other than the cartoons, the exercises are too generic or obscure (gap-fills using Ovid quotes?) to be helpful to my client.

Hospital English seems to be under construction. I found the medicine flash cards useful; the pharmacist sections less so.

YadaYada English has a dialogue, some phrases, and some vocabulary for pharmacy interactions.

Really reaching, I found a couple of dialogues (1, 2) at ALC.

Talking Medicine is a pay site. The modules available as free “samples” (with registration) are not relevant enough to my client’s situation for me to consider paying for any of the other modules.

Actually, I haven’t found a good book either, but a very kind soul in the ELT World Japan forum is sending me one that’s only sold in Japan. I’ve seen a few medical vocabulary books, aimed at first-year medical students, which may be worth a look, but nothing’s jumped out at me so far.

Of course, the reason I’m not just making up my own dialogues is because what native speakers imagine to be a typical interaction or speech act and what actually makes up a realistic, common interaction are often two wildly different things. But since I’m having trouble finding resources, I have to admit that I’m kind of tempted to just lurk in my neighborhood Walgreen’s and take notes!

I’m sure I’m missing high-quality websites, because it’s just so hard to find them among all the questionable commercial pages. If you have anything to recommend that’s relevant to a pharmacist, please leave a comment. Thanks!

Amazing Online Dictionaries: ALC FTW!

I’m back from my “vacation”–I think I need another one to recover from it. Oh well, on to the topic at hand!

Most EFL and ESL teachers have a few students who rely too heavily on their electronic dictionaries. These dictionaries are limited, and don’t include critical information such as the tone of a word (complimentary? sarcastic? insulting?), formality, etc. Example sentences are usually taken from standard college-level dictionaries, and are context-free, artificial, outdated, and/or too difficult to understand. Slang words, internet jargon, etc., may not be included at all. As a result of these shortcomings, students often do themselves more harm than good when using these dictionaries (much as I used to somehow always pick the most archaic, no-longer-used character out of my dictionary when I was doing my Chinese homework).

Sometimes a dictionary is really necessary, though, because some words are extremely difficult to explain. A client of mine from Japan and an American translator friend alerted me to an amazing online Japanese/English dictionary at ALC. The ALC website offers lots of other things, including Japanese-learning tools, but the dictionary is its “killer app.” Type a word or phrase in the search box toward the top, and click the button just to the right of it.  If you get your query with a red line of text, ALC doesn’t have it, but otherwise, you should get a list of results. If you see a yellow arrow in a blue sphere, that means you can read that example in a longer context such as a short article or dialogue. This is much more useful than the contextless sentences we usually find in learner dictionaries.

The functions and aspects of ALC I use the most are

  • Multiple examples for difficult-to-grasp slang and casual language such as “Guess what?
  • Extended dialogues using the target word, which can be useful for teaching interaction patterns (see this pharmacy dialogue) and simply for context
  • Translations for net slang and other items that don’t occur in standard dictionaries, such as FTW. The entry even notes that it’s often used ironically!

Why is it so good? Well, the source dictionary for ALC is Eijiro, a translator’s dictionary project. Other translators were able to add to and refine its contents in a wiki-like fashion. You can read about it at’s “The Story Behind Eijiro”. Popular though Eijiro may be with professional J<->E translators, the majority of my clients and Japanese friends didn’t know it existed.

I’m not fluent in Japanese yet, so to make sure that the definition I’m pointing at is the correct one, I use the Rikaichan add-on for Firefox to confirm the approximate definition. (Later, I’ll write a post about why I think TESOL professionals should use Firefox. I wrote one around a year ago on “Five Reasons for English Learners to Use Firefox,” but I need to update it for educators and for Firefox 3.)

The biggest drawback of ALC’s dictionary for me is that it’s aimed at Japanese speakers, and it may be hard to use for anyone who’s not fluent in Japanese. Another drawback is that a very small number of the examples contain slight grammatical errors; however, the vast majority of the examples are both accurate and authentic. Most of the errors I’ve seen strike me as the kind that are often written by highly fluent Japanese writers of English, so they’re not critical.

Even if you aren’t able to use ALC yourself, though, I recommend passing it along to your Japanese students, along with a demonstration of why it’s useful.

My question for you is this: Do you know any similarly wonderful online dictionaries for other languages? If so, please leave your recommendation and I’ll compile them into a future post (with credit and a link to your website or blog, naturally!). Much appreciated!

TESOL-related news

Where do you get your TESOL-related news? An easy way to keep up with big and small stories is to check’s Headline News Ticker for Teachers. This “news ticker” collects links to all kinds of English-language online news articles and blog posts. Although they generally link only to English articles, the coverage is truly international. In fact, if you’re an ESL teacher working in an English-dominant country, TESALL is a good way to get the big picture about the English-teaching and English-learning situations in other parts of the world. I think it’s important for us to be connected to the larger English education world, since it can help us understand our students and better understand our colleagues. (Okay, some of the stories are funny, too, or just downright strange.)

You can subscribe via RSS or check the website, and catch up on everything from crime to language policy. Note that the articles linked are from a variety of sources, so you may need to look for other sources to verify a particular news item. Ads are also mixed in. But where else can you get headlines about the Portland celebration of the birthday of the first foreigner to teach English in Japan, the move to teach English to first graders in Bahrain, and teaching English and Taekwondo together–all on one page?

Blogroll: Cognitive Daily

Cognitive Daily is another blog I recommend. Generally, Greta and Dave Munger’s posts serve to introduce a piece of psychological, sociological, or neurological research and interpret it a little (the comments are sometimes very enlightening, as well). Because they cover many aspects of cognitive science, there are often posts that relate to teaching or learning language. Just a few days ago, they posted a guide to teaching with Cognitive Daily, which is essentially a list of some of their best posts by topic. Handily, this includes TESOL-relevant categories such as learning and developmental language, as well as “nearby” categories like memory (e.g., test-taking and memory) and social psychology (stereotypes, discrimination). They have many more relevant posts, though, so as always, I recommend subscribing and checking out the archives.

I have a bit of a background in this kind of thing because my mother’s master’s degree is in social psychology, but generally, I just think it’s fascinating–even though it often just shows how much we don’t know about how our brains work!

P. S. I’m sorry for the delay in posts. I’m preparing to go out of town, and there have been a lot of complications. I hope I’ll be able to post while I’m away.

Blogroll: Language Log

I’d like to introduce some of the links in my blogroll, the list on the right of blogs and blog-like websites. One with which you’re probably already familiar is Language Log. It’s so well known that I hesitated to write about it, but if you haven’t seen it, you’re really missing out. Most–not all, but most–of the TESOL professionals I know really enjoy playing with, learning about, and arguing over language. Language Log is a wonderful source for all of those activities. It’s a collective blog written by a group of distinguished authors, including Geoffrey K. Pullum. Most are linguists, and they bring a charming combination of academic expertise and honest crankiness to their posts.

Language Log is straightforwardly descriptivist. The writers talk about language as it is used, not as it is imagined to be. If you cling to particular rules from Strunk and White in the face of centuries of usage evidence, you may very well find yourself offended. Other than that, though, I think there’s something from everyone, from very abstract linguistic theory to amusing yet practical notions such as the Cupertino effect.

The Cupertino effect is a great example of how Language Log is more than just brain candy–I have actually used this notion to great effect with the students I tutored at CSUEB. The Cupertino effect is what happens with users are too submissive or too inattentive to their spellcheck programs. Sometimes a word that has a spelling error or a typo (cooperatino) is interpreted by the software as most likely to be another word entirely (Cupertino), even when human users might think that the intended word (cooperation) is much closer to the misspelling and should have come up. As a result, UN documents are full of bizarre references to Cupertino, the small California town where Apple, the manufacturer of the laptop I’m typing on, is headquartered.

Telling this story sometimes really makes it clear to students that they absolutely cannot rely on spellcheck to suggest the right answer every time, and that they must look at the suggested replacements and actively choose the right one. Just telling them “Don’t rely on spellcheck!” doesn’t seem to work very well, but based on repeated sessions with the same students, telling them the Cupertino effect story does work.

Language Log also does a wonderful job of deconstructing language myths, bringing your attention to funny comic strips, and challenging the conventional wisdom. Occasionally, they’re saucy or rude, but I usually love them all the more for that (even though I don’t always agree with them). Still, I guess the first Cupertino effect post is my favorite Language Log post, because it’s been so useful to me. What’s yours?

If you’re new to Language Log and want to catch up, it’s been around for so long that it can be daunting to dig through. Check out the Categories section on the bottom right for some of their most important topics.