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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.

Twitter As a Lifeline

I wrote before that Twitter was like a magic cafe or an eternal, really good TESOL conference, but it can actually be a lifeline in times of disaster.

When the Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan, I was in California, but I was using Twitter at the time, on my @readable account with a lot of Japanese users. Many of them quickly tweeted 地震だ–”it’s an earthquake.” I realized something was wrong when, even fifteen minutes later, they were tweeting things like まだゆれる–”it’s still shaking.”

For people who were and are in a disaster area and are not totally fluent in the local language, the situation can range from stressful to life-threatening. Even being in the Tokyo area (distant from the tsunami and major quake damage), with aftershocks, confusing power outages, train stoppages, and food shortages, is proving a challenge for many people. People who have made a good effort to learn Japanese are still finding that a whole host of new vocabulary is cropping up–planned power outage, aftershock, evacuation, contamination, nuclear power plant, and so on.

For the first couple of days, information from official sources was hard to get (at least overseas) in English–people kept saying to watch NHK World News, but when I turned it on, it was often just a loop of tsunami warnings, or a loop of translated news that I knew to be many hours old. (I knew the news was old because Twitterers like @makiwi, a food writer, and @TimeOutTokyo, an entertainment magazine site’s account, were tweeting live news in English–read about Six 6 Tokyo Tweeters Who Kept the City Informed here. And while NHK World News was behind, CNN and MSNBC and so on were woefully behind, and just so bad overall that I quit bothering with them. Meanwhile, BBC’s radio announcers mangled Japanese place names so badly that I couldn’t understand where they meant, which was pretty useless. While there was some good mainstream reporting later [caveat], I would not currently rely on these news outlets in a crisis where I needed to make decisions.)

During this time, and even (to a great extent) now, if you wanted to get information about things like the current status of the nuclear plants, who could help with emergency translation (seriously–medical experts were volunteering on the spot!), what all those microsieverts and millisieverts meant, where you could get shelter, how you could get from Point A to Point B with the expressways closed, where get temporary medication refills, which train lines were running, where to buy bread and batteries, how to use Google People Finder to check on survivors, who would take English-speaking volunteers, where to get information on cooking with limited resources, how to extend a visa or replace a passport, and so on, you could find the answers on Twitter. And during the aftermath, many of my Japanese friends say that Twitter has also helped them feel less alone, more reassured, and constantly encouraged, despite the stress and confusion. Some people have criticized Twitter for spreading hoaxes and rumors, but those spread by word of mouth, too (and for, heaven’s sake, even newspapers). Critical thinking, asking questions, and checking with reliable Twitterers all go a long way.

People rapidly came together on Twitter to help each other find information, connect users to other users who could translate something or supply an answer, and otherwise assist each other (even outright offering spare rooms to strangers). I noticed people’s lists of followers exploding, and not just those (like @makiwi and @TimeOutTokyo) who were valiantly translating NHK live and otherwise providing information you couldn’t get anywhere else.

Anyway, I can tell you that if I’d been in Japan, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been without Twitter. At the moment of a crisis, of course, it’s better to head for high ground, get under your desk, or whatever rather than checking Twitter (although at least one person was apparently rescued from a rooftop due to Twitter, since he wasn’t able to make a call but could send a tweet!). After that first moment, though, Twitter’s usefulness really kicks in. Disasters of one kind or another–floods, invasions, earthquakes, wildfires, uprisings–can happen almost anywhere. And despite the way we humans naturally tend to think, you’re not immune to disasters if you’re an outsider who is only there for a year or two: without fully-developed family and social networks, high-level language skills, knowledge of your surroundings, a fully-stocked household, and so on, you are probably more vulnerable.

Of course, you can’t necessarily sit there and wait for information to flow in–you need to either already have a well-developed Twitter network or be willing to seek out and find additional useful people to follow (or both). And you need be adventurous and creative in your use of English and the local language to search Twitter for the information you need (and not hesitate to ask people who might be helpful). Two places to start are 1) my Twitter guide for ESL students (simplified, but suitable for anyone, including people who use Twitter but haven’t explored its various functions–hashtags, for example, became very useful for regional information-sharing), and 2) my Twitter lists. To use Twitter lists, click on the name of the list and then the “Following: ” tab at the top. You can choose to follow individual members, who will show up in your Twitter timeline as usual. Or you can follow the whole list, but the members won’t show up in your timeline unless you also follow them individually. To read tweets from the list, you’ll have to go look at the list in your Twitter app or on Twitter.com.

Anyway, sorry for the length, but I hope this is useful to someone (although I suppose it’s better if it’s not, eh?). If you have any questions, let me know–and take care!

Please take a moment ….

dousojin by me

Please consider donating to ongoing relief efforts in Japan. Many people in the northeastern areas still do not have access to sufficient food and other supplies, and those coastal villages were not wealthy to start out with (fishing and farming villages disproportionately inhabited by the elderly). I donated to Second Harvest Japan (also accepting volunteers in Japan). TimeOutTokyo has more suggestions about how people both inside and outside Japan can help, plus things you can buy, including music.

If you’d like to read more about the situation, I recommend the posts at Global Voices. They’ve translated posts from Japan into a variety of different languages (e.g., Onagawa, the Hometown I Once Knew.)

Anyway, thank you for reading this, and take care wherever you are (and remember to prepare for whatever disasters tend to strike your part of the world–even if you’re just living there for a year or two!).

Deskwarming 2011: 19+ Things to Do

Heiwa elementary school by ajari

If you’re deskwarming in Korea or Japan, and you’re all caught up on lesson-planning, here are some ways to make the most of your time. (Of course, some sites might be banned at your school, but you never know.) I’ve never been in this position myself, but many teachers wind up spending time at their desks for a couple weeks (or more!)–no classes, no students, and few responsibilities (at least, if they’re experienced lesson-planners). It’s a little hard to imagine, but I’ve heard about it from several friends, and who knows, maybe I’ll experience it someday.

Anyway, I dug through my links. I decided to mix the links together, just as I might want to mix the use of my time–professional development, taking a break, and so on.

  1. Play the beautiful, dreamlike games at Orisinal.
  2. Find lesson plans, activity ideas, current research, and lots more at Free Online Journals.
  3. Learn how to use Skype, Ning, wikis, and more for you or your classroom via short videos at Learn it in 5.
  4. Create an account and edit/contribute to Wikipedia, Wikitravel, and Simple English Wikipedia. Don’t know where to start? Try fixing up the page for your hometown or current neighborhood, translating an article that only exists in the local language, or editing a TESOL-related topic.
  5. Set up Anki according to the vocabulary-teaching principles that you know, and study.
  6. Try the novel-like, grown-up versions of “choose your own ending” games at Choice of Games.
  7. Finally get around to joining that professional organization in your area or seeing what they actually do.
  8. Watch those TED Talks that you’ve been meaning to (with subtitles, even).
  9. Read about fascinating things on Metafilter and the endless international help column of AskMetafilter (see orientation if you get distracted by in-jokes sometimes used on the site).
  10. Improve your CV and your chances of getting that next job/getting into that PhD program by submitting an article/activity/etc. for publication at an online journal (yes, it’s the same link as above, but it’s worth saying!).
  11. Play the devilishly cute, misleadingly simple games at Eyezmaze Games.
  12. Start a Facebook fan page for your English program (get permission!), blog, etc.
  13. Get started on Twitter, which can be a great source of support for English teachers, and join me (my multi-post Twitter guide for English learners mostly applies; find people to follow via my lists).
  14. Finally start that blog about your adventures overseas, or the local restaurants, or your hobbies.
  15. Find a site like Just Hungry, Maangchi, or Cooking with (the) Dog (Youtube channel; video starts automatically) to learn to cook like a local.
  16. Get pulled into the underlying threads of fiction at TV Tropes–if you’re not sure where to go, look up a favorite TV show and wander around from there.
  17. Watch streaming media in Korean and Japanese to improve your language skills will entertaining yourself: Crunchyroll, MySoju, Drama Fever, Viki, and relevant searches on Youtube and Veoh (e.g., for example.) Whether the content is legal or ethical depends on the site and content, plus your location and perspective.
  18. Set up Google Reader and add the blogs you want to keep up with (check my sidebar for great ones like The Grand Narrative and English Raven), web comics, etc.
  19. Read fiction–from classics to cutting-edge sf, there’s plenty online. Try my list of free fiction bookmarks for more. (And if you skip the one fanfiction link, you’ll miss “No Reservations: Narnia.”)

Lots more things to do at my timewasters tag on Delicious.

If you like any of these or know of some better ones, pass them along…

(Not responsible for your boss walking in on you while playing Grow!)

Post-Holiday Link Roundup

I wasn’t able to post here during the holidays, but I was somewhat active on Twitter. Here are a few links that I shared that may be of interest to you, rewritten a bit for context and easier clicking.

Twitter in Print

Thanks to the recommendation of author and Twitterati star Mayumi Ishihara, my Twitter account for English learners (@readable) was featured in a Japanese business magazine. I think it’s still on the stands in Japan–look for the 9/21 issue of 日経ビジネス Associe. On page 98, Ms. Ishihara introduces a few Twitter accounts and hashtags that can be useful to Japanese learners of English. She’s the author of a recent popular book on using Twitter to practice actually using English, so I was really pleased that she liked my account enough to recommend it to others. I enjoy being in touch with international English learners via Twitter–as a US-based teacher (at the moment), it’s an interesting way to get in touch with the concerns of learners in EFL situations.

Twitter for English Language Learners (and Teachers)

At CATESOL this past weekend, @blythe_musteric gave a great presentation about how teachers could use Twitter. Later, there was the very first CATESOL tweetup (a meeting of Twitter-users, often at an event), featuring @blythe_musteric, @pearsonlongman, @rogerdupuy, @joemcveigh, @leejeylee, @compellingtalks, @ohsanderella, @talkclouds (me), and possibly other people I’m forgetting.

During @blythe_musteric’s session and later during the tweetup, I mentioned that, particularly in Japan and Korea, English-language learners are using Twitter as a self-study tool. I have another Twitter account, @readable, which is for ELLs. I use it to post relatively simple tweets on topics of interest to English learners, links to news posts, and links to self-study tools. Eventually, I started seeing posts from my readers using the hashtags #twinglish (Twitter+English), #eigodewa (“as for English…?”), #engtwit (English+Twitter), and #kor_eng (Korean+English). Putting a hashmark (#) in front of a word makes it clickable; when you click on it you see everyone’s tweets using that hashtag, I was impressed by how many users there were experimenting with English and chatting with each other in a second language.

Some of my followers’ (connected users) responses about why they are using Twitter in English (minor mistakes corrected for one user by request; others exactly as written):

@[anonymous]: 1) Expect to meet people from all over the world and share ideas or talk with freely 2) Need to practice English regularly
@oxwinter: That’s because… I learned English at school, but few opportunities to use it here, Japan. Twitter gives us that opportunity.
@akaSEANJUNG: in ma case.. it’s just 4 fun. tryin to not to forget how 2 use…too.
@noelsora: It’s a good tool for driving me to to think in English.

As I mentioned at the conference, I also discovered some Japanese ELT professionals, including teachers and publishers. In particular, @MakotoIshiwata and @mayumi_ishihara do a good job using Twitter with ELLs. @Makoto_Ishiwata is actually Mr. Makoto Ishiwata, the president of Kaplan Japan. He’s written a great short post about how Japanese learners of English can benefit from using Twitter: “Suggestion: three easy steps for the Japanese to start tweeting in English.” He writes about the difference it made for him years ago when he began to think in English, and feels that Twitter can help Japanese English learners, who study English at school in an artificial way, start really thinking and communicating in English. He says that “Twitter is easy to use. The limit of 140 words is a great plus for English learners too because they don’t have to think too seriously before typing. Above all, we can share what we tweet. We can start communicating with each other. We can make new friends, including people from abroad, when we tweet in English.” (Actually, a lot of that goes for teachers, too…) Check out his post.

@mayumi_ishihara is Ms. Mayumi Ishihara, an English teacher and author. I’ve seen one of her previous books, 『英語で日記を書いてみる』Try Writing a Diary in English!, at my local Kinokuniya. She has a new book coming out in May, 『Twitterで英語をつぶやいてみる』Try Tweeting in English on Twitter! (Oh, Japanese book prices…it’s only ¥735–about $7.80 US–and it’s 200 pages!).

Both of them regularly interact with their followers in English, and their/our followers interact with each other, too. I don’t think Twitter is perfect for learning English–for one thing, there are certain grammatical structures that I just don’t even use because they take up too much room. I’m not sure if @mayumi_ishihara will address this in her book, but I hope so. [EDIT: Another drawback is that many of the English-teaching accounts that post vocabulary and so on are regularly sharing information that is archaic, useless, or downright incorrect or ungrammatical.] You also have to deal with learning abbreviations such as w/o, b/c, wknd, and so on. There are also some differences in Twitter culture between most of the fluent English-using Twittersphere and the English-learning Twittersphere: #twinglish users usually use RT in replies, not just retweets (like forwards), leaving a truncated piece of the original tweet at the end of their reply; they’re generally not familiar with things like Follow Friday/#FF; they often send a reply to thank people not just for following them but even for responding to them; and so on.

I don’t think the differences between other modes or registers of English and Twitter constitute a deal-breaker. Every mode and medium is different, and I’ve noticed that many ELL twitterers use it to share other recommendations for input, such as TV shows, books, and websites. No one is trying to learn English solely from Twitter that I’ve heard of. [EDIT: And the problem with the useless, archaic, and ungrammatical/incorrect teaching accounts is also quite true for many textbooks and commercial texts sold overseas and in the US, as well. It’s not just an online problem.] Learners in countries such as Korea often feel starved for spontaneous, unstructured English input, and Twitter provides that, even if it’s not perfect. It may require access to a phone or computer, which is a time-and-money barrier that makes it somewhat less useful for the average ELL in the USA, but for East Asian learners with extensive access to sophisticated cell phones, it’s a cheaper and more flexible alternative or supplement to expensive English lessons.

I’ve had some great conversations with my followers. We’ve discovered cultural misconceptions about beer and weather, made jokes with each other, commiserated about everything from procrastination to language study, and helped each other with grammar and vocabulary (since I’m studying Japanese myself).


[EDIT: Overall, I think Twitter is a useful additional tool for English learners, particularly EFL learners and others with limited access to spontaneous English interaction, authentic English input, and an English-understanding audience. It contributes to learner autonomy, lowers the affective barrier, and promotes the idea of English as a tool for communication rather than an abstract object of study--goals that many teachers struggle with even partially achieving.]

What do you think?

Life/Learning Skills

cereal from morguefile.com

As you can probably infer from the science links on my sidebar, I’m interested in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and so on. I enjoy reading about issues like how sleep and nutrition affect your ability to remember, react, and make good judgments. Unfortunately, many of our students (well, and many of us!) have bad habits that have a negative effect on learning and thinking. Aside from issues beyond their control, many of them could do better and don’t. They don’t know these things affect their learning, or they don’t care. I’m not sure which it is, and I’m never really sure whether students are likely to react positively to a teacher bringing up lifestyle issues in a class or a tutoring situation, particularly when it’s an ESL teacher and not a biology teacher!

Prolific English education blogger Larry Ferlazzo has bitten the bullet, though. Check out his post “‘Will Sleeping More Make Me Smarter?’ — A Lesson I’m Trying This Week,” in which he’s decided to actually tackle the issue of lack of sleep among high school students, a population that’s especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation and especially prone to it. I like the way he’s approaching it, and I think he has the potential to reach at least a handful of students who may be staying up voluntarily (or thinking they have to stay up in order to study more, but studying fruitlessly).

One of the issues I’d like to approach with my clients and students is that of nutrition. I’ve actually tackled it briefly once, with a group of students who were studying for the GRE when they were not at all ready for it. Since it wasn’t possible to bring them into a high GRE score range using conventional methods in the short period of time I had with them, I tried to give them as many peripheral boosts as I could. (Any port in a storm!) One of the tips I gave them was the advice to get in the habit, right away, of eating a breakfast with protein and fiber every day, and to not go to the exam hungry. I haven’t revisited it with students since then, but there’s lots of research indicating that I should.

I found out via Danny Choo’s website that less than 10% of the Japanese population regularly eats breakfast. Of my Japanese friends who do eat breakfast, a typical example is a piece of white toast and a cup of black coffee, which is not really “brain food.” (By the way, Choo is the Dancing Stormtrooper of Youtube fame.) Choo linked to a Ministry of Agriculture program trying to encourage Japanese kids to eat breakfast, with tons of statistics showing that not doing so increases agitation, decreases motivation, lowers test scores, and so on. I don’t know if the program is working, but that kind of information tends to be more impressive to many people than just finger-shaking and repeating “It’s good for you!” So I suspect I need to dig out the studies I’ve read before and boil them down to something easy to understand. The only thing is that I’d like to do it without focusing too much on grades and test points, because that is really not the point of language learning. But if that’s all I can find, that’s all I can find.

However, I don’t want to come off as trying to “mommy” my students and clients. That’s not going to be received well regardless of whether it’s the teens (naturally resistant to mommying) or the forty-somethings (who wouldn’t like being mommied by someone younger than they are). I also need to be careful to not make this a matter of “my way is better than your way”–although to be fair, Japanese people used to eat breakfast more than they do now. And the old-school Japanese breakfast of fish and miso soup and so on is pretty good brain food: much better than toast and coffee. I won’t be telling them that, either, because people never like to hear some outsider lecturing them about their own culture! So clearly, this needs to be handled very carefully if I decide to tackle it…maybe with a reading and discussion exercise, or something.

Anyway, have you ever gone into this territory with your students or clients? What did you talk to them about–sleep? Nutrition? Time management? Something else? How did you handle it? How was it received? I’d love to know. Or do you think this is simply hands-off territory, even if sleep, nutrition, etc. can increase long- and short-term memory retention, reaction time, and other neurological processes strongly related to successful language learning?

(Also, what IS the term for these factors? I’m sure there is one, but I can’t seem to remember it, and no one on Twitter seems to know, either. Google only gives me “out-of-school factors,” which doesn’t seem right. I’d like to make a tag once I figure out the term!)

Low Pay, High Qualifications

I’m working on a post about English-related books you can give as gifts. However, I just had to post this cranky message first.

I just took a look at the current issue of Ohayo Sensei (a new one should be out in a couple of days). OS is probably the best source for non-university teaching jobs in Japan.

Recently, there have been multiple job postings in which schools are proposing to offer salaries of ¥220000-240000/month for positions requiring experience, TESOL certification/CELTA, and/or a MATESOL/DELTA. (I’m pretty sure I saw a rate of ¥180000 in an earlier issue.) In recent years, the standard rate for eikaiwa (conversation school work) has been ¥250000 with no qualifications besides being a native English speaker. (We won’t get into that practice at the moment, or the thorny issue of the pay differences between local and foreign teachers.) And ¥250000 was considered low by the people who’d taught in Japan during the bubble economy glory days of the 80s. But okay, the yen is very strong against most currencies and the demand for classes in Japan is dropping…and maybe employers are aware of the awful teaching job situation in places like the USA…

No, I still don’t think it’s OK. I don’t think professional teachers with experience and certifications/degrees should be earning the same thing as completely new, untrained nonprofessionals, period, let alone less.

And keep in mind that in Japan, employers very rarely pay for housing. They may arrange it so you don’t have to pay the “key money” (nonrefundable gift) and deposit, or they may subsidize your rent, but the above positions do not have low pay because they also have free rent. I checked.

Please don’t apply for these jobs.

Just as it’s important for language students around the world to get the message that they should demand professional teachers with language-teaching training … employers need to get the message that they cannot expect to hire professional teachers and pay them as though they are not professionals.

There are other jobs out there; if you have a certification, apply to them. If you have a master’s, explore JREC.

Seek out a reasonable salary level, and even if you are in a situation where you don’t really need a decent salary, don’t aid in lowering the bar for everyone else.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

You never know where a one-on-one lesson will wind up. Last week, an attempt to help my youngest student (who’s in high school) get started on a paper wound up with an excursion into the world of open source and alternative software. N-chan’s laptop runs a Japanese operating system and a Japanese word processor, and it’s a bit of a disaster trying to set up papers the way her teacher requires them to be set up. As is to be expected, the teacher is quite rigid about things like spacing (1.5 lines), margins (1 inch), font sizes, etc.

However, N-chan’s word processor is set up for A4 paper and Japanese spacing conventions. We’ve tried to fix things before, and it kind of worked, but not very well. To my surprise, even line spacing is a kind of cultural idiom. In Japan, apparently, it’s done by entering the total number of lines one can fit on a page at that spacing. This makes sense, but our attempts to convert from A4 to 8.5 by 11 and then to 1.5-spacing didn’t work out. Maybe if I could read Japanese better, I could have found a way to switch it to American-style line spacing, but no luck. As a last resort, I suggested downloading the English version of OpenOffice.Org so that she could simply work in English. (I prefer NeoOffice, but she doesn’t have a Mac.) She got permission from her dad to download it and install it, and it seems to be working out OK so far. When she clicked to download it, it detected her Japanese OS, so I first had to force it to download the English version (which it proceeded to automatically download from the “nearest” server at KAIST in Korea! Oops!). Then we had to change its settings to use inches instead of centimeters, again because the installed program detected a Japanese OS. I felt compelled to tell her “Inches are not better than centimeters–actually, centimeters are probably better than inches, but your teacher is going to give you instructions in inches. So we need to use inches.” (When I’m telling a student that she needs to stop using something that she’s used to and start using something else, I feel that it’s critical to point out when it’s NOT because the previous way was wrong.)

After that I showed her where to set up the margins (OOO defaults to .79 inches for some weird reason) and line spacing. Next week I’ll make sure it’s still running smoothly for her, because now that I know there are interesting differences like how line spacing is calculated, I’ve realized it’s not just a matter of looking in the right place to find the setting you need to change. I knew there were vocabulary differences–for example, another N-chan’s father told me that Japanese word processors use a verb that means “paint” rather than “highlight”–but now I’m curious about all the deeper differences.

Anyway, helping students download and set up a free word processor such as OOO or NeoOffice may be a good idea if their native-language version is causing problems with their assignments. Have you ever tried this?