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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.)

“Tadoku” Means Extensive Reading

TESOL professionals with training in communicative language teaching methods often complain about the state of foreign language teaching in Japan, where grammar-translation, usually called 訳読/yakudoku is still the dominant method. Yakudoku, though, is not the whole picture, even if it sometimes seems that way. In fact, various Japanese groups are working to supplement or replace this outdated way of teaching with more modern teaching approaches.

One technique that has active, passionate supporters in Japan is 多読/tadoku: extensive reading. Extensive reading is something I’ve been very interested in ever since I read Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading (2nd ed.). The research on extensive reading matches my experiences: reading a lot for fun increases your vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing skills in your first and subsequent languages. The key for second language learners is that they should read books that are easy to understand, so they can enjoy the story while painlessly acquiring language patterns.

This approach has caught on with many educators around the world. I was really pleased to discover that the Extensive Reading mailing list has several active members who are working in Japan, including both Japanese and non-Japanese educators. There are several good websites in English and in Japanese about ER in Japan, including this overview of ER in Japan by Furukawa Akio.

It was through one of the ER ML members that I found out about 英語多読完全ブックガイド [改訂第2版]/Eigo Tadoku Kanzen Bukkugaido Kaiteigai 2/Complete English Extensive Reading Book Guide. This book has about 12,000 book titles in it, organized in several different ways including level and genre. It’s an amazing resource, and I’m totally appalled that there is no equivalent resource published in English. I’m still learning Japanese, so I can’t take full advantage of this book. However, book titles are given in English, and the reading levels are listed numerically, so the most essential information is understandable. All you need to do is look up the level of a few books with which you’re familiar, check the ra and then you have a baseline for how their system works.

The books selected include Oxford graded readers, children’s classics (from Dahl to Rowling), nonfiction, and some adult fiction. There’s quite a variety represented in the 12,000 titles! Some even have short excerpts exactly as printed in their books, which is a great way to get a feel for a book. Don’t you wish we could get something like this in English? (Publishing companies, are you listening? A translation of this book or a whole new book along similar lines is something that countless English teachers would love to get their hands on!)

I do recommend this book, but with the obvious caveats. I had to buy this book through mail order from the Kinokuniya in San Jose, and it was only cheap by comparison to textbook prices. If you want to get a little more information about the book, let me know in a comment and I’ll try to scan a couple of pages to give you a better idea of what it’s like. I’m currently out of town, so it’ll be a while before I can do that.

(Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes in the Japanese in this post. More later about how I’m trying to practice what I preach when it comes to my own learning of Japanese!)

English-Teaching Zombies

No, no, not me and my mentor-teacher after we graded a stack of 30 multi-draft essays–we’re talking about a videogame. English of the Dead is not a joke, but an honest-to-goodness game produced in Japan for all those gamers who would like to work on their English and destroy a few zombies.

You can even try out the demo yourself: Flash demo of English of the Dead! Wait for it to load. If you want to hear sound, click on the “No” symbol labeled “ON” in the upper right corner (how nice that it defaults to silent, if you’re in the office!). Then click on the bottom of the two screens displayed on the DS. When the zombies pop up, click on the correct English word to fill in the gap. Unfortunately, you may be at a disadvantage–my Flash doesn’t display the Japanese translation correctly, so I missed one due to two possible answers.

This probably isn’t the most pedagogically sound piece of software in the world, but if it’s entertaining and keeps a user interested in learning English, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. At the very least, it gave me a laugh, and I hope it amused you, too.

Japan is actually pretty serious about educational games. The DS is a perfect platform for this, because it’s very portable, has both button and stylus input, and is popular with people who’d otherwise be considered non-gamers. (It’s also relatively inexpensive, and I actually really recommend the DS Lite for English teachers who need to blow off some steam, particularly those who commute on public transportation. More on this later–and no, Nintendo’s not paying me! I spent my own money on that Wii.)

If you are dying (HA!) to know more, DS Fanboy has all of the relevant posts collected under a tag.

(N. B.: A quirk of DS Fanboy–besides the noninclusive blog name, darn them–is that links to external sites that are the main point of a post are hidden under the “Read” link at the bottom of the post.)