September arrived in style today, with a cool breeze, insistent rain, and clouds cuddling the mountains. I like the sharp-drawn demarcation between seasons, and to be honest after two months of Hiroshima summer I’m ready for autumn. Just don’t call it ‘fall’ like half my students do.
To be honest, it’s not been the easiest week. When you’re not sleeping too well, work eats you up with exhaustion, and I’m still missing everyone back home like hell. Since Obon, I haven’t really had much chance to go out and meet more people. Socialising has stalled, and I’m not practising my Japanese enough to seriously improve. My wanderlust has mutated into stay-at-home-in-bed-on-my-laptop-playing-online-scrabble-lust, which is a far less noble (but let’s face it, equally common) emotional state.
All said, I’m deep in the ‘walking in the rain with sensitive indie music’ phase of abroadness at the moment. Nothing beats listening to American musicians singing about living in England and missing America, while living in Japan and missing England. For what it’s worth, Mildenhall is a masterpiece of music, nostalgia and storytelling, and is alone enough to justify the second incarnation of The Shins. If you’re reading this, some new music tips and suggestions would be much appreciated- I could do with fresh music to listen to.
Toying with the idea of online dating for the first time, I tried taking a Tinder picture at the art gallery, to show I’m cultured and whatnot. The result wasn’t wholly encouraging. Besides my wet hair (from the aforementioned rain), I shot for ‘sensitive-serious’ but ended up looking kind of alert yet harrowed, like I hadn’t slept for two days and had just seen a mass shooting. Back to the studio…
Anyway, nobody but nobody wants to read a blog about the things I haven’t been doing. But I have been teaching. So let’s talk about that.
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I’m mostly based at the suburban branch school of Itsukaichi, which only opened its doors three months back. Like a lot of workplaces in Japan, it’s kind of tiny. Square footage in the city is at a premium, so the office and lobby are more or less the same space. The décor is pretty good- all warm pastels and wood panels, which is a nice change from the flaking cream paint and prison bars of ZigZag Education (sorry, current detainees; you are missed greatly).
The same one-minute promotional video plays on repeat in the background, mind- a woman thanks her friend for a recommendation, a teacher and student practice ‘th’ sounds, a disembodied voice warbles that life is beautiful. I sometimes imagine all of the actors in the clip are trapped in the TV and forced to perform the same scene ad infinitum, like in that Black Mirror episode.
I’m generally the only teacher at Itsukaichi, which is… sometimes intimidating, and occasionally a bit lonely. It’s certainly been a crash course in solving problems and improvising quickly with limited resources. Every now and again you find yourself doing something truly insane, like remixing Saria’s Song from The Legend of Zelda- Ocarina of Time by singing obscure land mammals to its tune. ‘Okapi, okapi, a mandrill, an alpaca, capybara, capybara. A tapir, a tapir, what has my life come to and why am I here?…’
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At NOVA, I generally teach conversational English, except at the highest levels. We train and grade students on five skills. Comprehension, Vocabulary and Pronunciation are relatively straightforward; Accuracy and Fluency might sound similar, but they’re actually not. Accuracy refers to students’ ability to use grammar correctly, put words consistently in the right order, and to get things like comparatives (more/less than) and prepositions right. Fluency is a different beast; it’s all about producing long sentences that make sense, sustaining a conversation, and expressing opinions with evidence to support them. For example:
Accurate but not fluent
S: I have been to Iceland. It was cold. We ate lots of strange foods.
T: Where do you want to go on holiday next year?
S: … … … I will go to Morocco next year.
Fluent but not accurate
S: Last year, we gone to Iceland, which exciting so we could try lots of weirdly foods, but my husband didn’t like. Did you been ever to Iceland?
T: No, I can’t say I have, but it looks stunning. Where do you want to go on holiday next year?
S: I wonder, but maybe Morocco will be enjoy?
At lower levels, at least, the two are slightly negatively correlated. You can probably imagine why: if you can say more, ask more questions and form longer sentences, you multiply your opportunity to make mistakes. You can probably learn quicker, too! At least, that’s my impression.
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Our adult students are grouped into five levels, called Levels… say it with me… Five through Nine. 5 is the beginner level, while level 9 students can enjoy reading English literature, and understand or infer the meaning of allusions and idioms with some confidence. A plurality of students at Itsukaichi are level 6, but we have students at all different levels. Lower level classes spend more time on drilling punctuation and practising common conversations, while higher levels move towards making arguments, speaking to different audiences and understanding native English sources.
All levels can be fun sometimes, but if pushed I’d have to say I prefer the higher level lessons. You can talk about Bible references in news articles, critique Nimbyism and argue about whether boycotts are effective. You can teach people to slander their neighbours, and explain the emotional significance of that photo where Princess Diana was on her own at the Taj Mahal (I can’t get distracted with this right now, but look up Mumtaz Mahal). You can even pore over the subtext of why some rando journalist is being rude about Melania Trump, although to be honest the subtext, and often actual text, of any story related to Melania is ‘Her husband is a colossal fuckface man-baby with nuclear launch codes and the world’s least convincing tanning regime.’
Levels 5 to 9 were originally named one to five, but they were changed to make room for the kids’ lessons, which are referred to as… Class 5, 4, 3, 2b and 2a. Checks out. Kids’ lessons, to put it in CV-speak, have been ‘challenging’ for me so far. I’m not the world’s most adamantine authority figure, and I have a bad habit of visibly laughing when someone, say, successfully pelts magnets across the room into a drawer instead of putting their book away.
I have to be a bit careful about how much I say about teaching. Obviously I’m the representative of a company, and company loyalty is a big thing here still. I think I can comfortably I say I enjoy the job, although it’s pretty full-on; I teach forty 40-minute lessons a week, and there’s not much time for reflection. The social situation is less than ideal at the moment, but I’m working on it. Hopefully I’m gonna be out tomorrow night, at least.
Till next time, with a brimful of satogokoro,
From our correspondent in Hiroshima.