Questions Kids Ask

Question from a 4th grader at lunch:

Um, in the place that you were born, like, how many of the people there have iPhones?
About half.
Oh, ok.  Thanks.

Question from a junior high student:

Excuse me, may I ask you a question?
How many Japanese words do you know?
Ummm, five thousand.
Ok, thank you.


Reencountering English

It’s common to hear Anglophone expats joke about how their English has gotten worse while living in Japan. It seems a rather silly notion, and certainly based on the criterion of simple grammatical accuracy, their native English proficiency likely remains unchanged. However, research has shown that the acquisition of a second language can affect one’s first language in a few ways. Our grammaticality judgements of ambiguous first language sentences can be influenced by our acquisition of second language grammar. For example, if I encountered the sentence “Joe drank the medicine,” I might have less of a problem with it than an English speaker, since in Japanese you use the verb for “drink” with all types of medicine – both solid and liquid. A monolingual English speaker might either want the sentence to be clarified by more detail, or by the use of the more generally applicable verb “take.” It is likely that the sentence will be more acceptable to a native English speaker with Japanese as a second language.

Personally, I find myself topicalizing sentences a lot more in English than seems normal, probably because Japanese is a language that frequently topicalizes the “main idea” of a sentence. For example, I might say “The bank over there, I went there yesterday” instead of the more natural “I went to that bank yesterday.” And considering that sometimes I cannot recall utterly ordinary words, or find myself saying incredibly odd things to friends and family.

Well, it seems that it goes in the other direction, too. On a trip back to the US this spring, I found myself constantly enraptured and drawn in by the ordinary conversations surrounding me. I could understand everything people were saying, but what they were saying and how they were saying it seemed new and shiny to me, like you feel when you’re in a completely foreign place. The juxtaposed feelings of being once again “home” in your native language, and being shocked by the newness of that language conspired to create a surreal kind of anomie.

It was so strange, in fact, that I took notes on what I was hearing. I wrote them down verbatim. I still think they are fascinating:

TSA ID checker guy

“Well that used to be a winery. And there was a grove of apricot trees before that.”

Frizzy hair girl on jetway boarding plane:

“…And I’m so terrified of people watching me in the freezer.”

Delta flight attendant:

“Would you care for a choice of peanuts pretzels or cookies?”

Guy on his cellphone in downtown Boston:

“Yeah I just wanna travel I wanna do some shit.”

Lady on her cellphone in downtown Boston:

“Yeah you know Sally has wanted to meet up. And she saw the thing. You know who she is. I think uh, I think she’s like a million miles a minute.”

Guy on the Boston T, mumbling into a headphone mic:

“What do you think? Do we have a solution to this or do we have to do some deeper thought?”

Little girl In Brooklyn:

“My BMX, my decision!”

Older man on the street in NY, talking to a woman in front of a supermarket:

“This stuff won’t kill you; What’s in there will fuck you.”


Thank Your Teachers

A few weeks ago an ALT friend posted on Facebook asking for advice on how to deal with uncooperative homeroom teachers who do not actually team teach with him. We have all known these teachers. Some of them grade papers while the ALT tries to run the class, some stand or sit in the back of the classroom, starting confusedly at a copy of the lesson plan that they are supposed to be teaching.

If you’ve ever been an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, then you know vast the difference is between a helpful, cooperative teacher, and the deadbeats. My friend’s post struck me though, because he is what you might call a professional ALT. He has roots in Japan, he takes his job seriously, and he has a lot of experience in international English education. But even with these resources to bear, he still faces the same problem which plagued me as a first year ALT. Of course, it is not his fault, but it made me realize how hard it is to instill positive teaching practices in teachers who have little experience with English or who simply allow themselves to succumb to the fears of difference.

It also made me realize how lucky I am to have teachers with whom I have developed healthy and positive teaching relationships. Of the 30 or so Japanese teachers that I work with, none of them cower in the rear of the class, none of them are so rude as to grade papers, and although the level of interaction and classroom control varies, across five schools, I am lucky to have no issues even approaching this level.

So after all three of my elementary classes this morning, I thanked each teacher personally as we walked back to the classroom. I realized that in acclimating to Japanese culture, in which uniformity and equity are social norms, I have forgotten how to really show true appreciation. These teachers deserve to have some cookies baked for them, for being professionally and socially proficient enough to work with a person who is an intuitive expert in the subject material, but also perform the role of primary teacher. It really can’t be easy. So thank your JTE’s the next time you have a great class. Maybe other teachers will catch on and learn.


Welcome to America

The experience that one has when encountering a faceless organ of the state really depends on the manner and tone of the actual human face you interact with. I return to the US about once or twice a year, and have had a wide range of experiences. Sometimes the border control agents are very friendly, chatting about their day, or mentioning their own Japanese experiences when I mention where I live. Other times they simply follow their script. Usually the script seems pretty boring, almost basic to the point of inanity.

When I flew back into the US this May, I had a rather odd interaction with the border control agent in Los Angeles. Here’s the content of our entire exchange. I’m confident that it is word for word, since I wrote it down immediately afterward:

Why were you in Japan?

I live there.

What do you do in Japan?

I teach English.

When is your birthday?

June 6th, 1984

Have you ever lived in New Haven, CT?


Welcome to America.

Have you ever lived in New Haven, Connecticut? My initial reaction was that the guy thought I looked familiar and wanted to make sure he knew me or not. But would he insert such a personal question into an official transaction of information? And if it was a legitimate question, what is the connection? I’m still amused by the seeming pointlessness of the exchange. I gave all of the right answers, but I have some new doubts about the relevance of the questions asked at our borders.


An Interview with Myself

Today I dropped by the town hall and found a letter on my desk from a university in Tokyo, written on fancy letterhead. It was a request to complete a survey of ALTs. It focused on ALT’s experiences in and attitudes toward teaching English in Japan, and intended to help improve English language education in the future.

I intended to answer the survey online quickly and be done with it, but while answering it, I soon realized that I actually had some strong opinions and very specific answers that I wanted to share. It ended up taking me nearly 45 minutes to complete. I decided it would be a shame if my written responses were simply swallowed up into the survey, rather than used for personal reflection or even as a conversation starter among ALTs (who probably have also received this survey.) Considering that my written responses are my own intellectual property, I thought I would republish them here:

What do you think are your strengths as a teacher of English in Japan?

I have a realistic attitude toward what is possible with only 35 hours of team-taught instruction per year. Yet I am independent and forward thinking in the lessons that I plan for students and the materials that I use to introduce them to English and foreign cultures.

What aspects about your culture or country do you teach to students?

Simply reading storybooks from your own country can be a useful activity, since it allows students to make both active and passive connections to different ways of expressing emotions and humor, structuring a story, and even styles of drawing.

In planning of classes, what do you think is important to discuss with JTE’s?

It is very important for each to know what each person’s responsibilities are for preparation, and also important that those responsibilities both be shared and co-evaluated between teachers.

What do you find advantageous in teaching with a JTE?

It allows students in the classroom to see a realistic model for their own use of English. ALTs may be good pronunciation models, great ambassadors and introducers of culture, and great friends to students, but it is unrealistic to think that the students will ever attain native linguistic or cultural proficiency. The JTE is the only member of the teaching team who can be a practical role model for students.

Please write freely any comments you have about your relationship with JTEs.

I think it is important to develop personal relationships with JTEs. While I believe in a separation between work and personal life as much as possible, it really does make a difference to socialize with JTEs. It is one reason why I strongly believe that ALTs should remain at as few schools as possible and make only one school visit per day. “Downtime” in the teachers’ room is not downtime – it can be used for meaningful interaction between ALT and JTE. Conversations that I have had during this time have actually been one of the greatest sources of useful and innovative lesson ideas during my tenure as an ALT. Ideas come much more naturally in casual conversation than in planned meetings.

What are the reasons for your using Japanese in class?

Very rarely for classroom management (perhaps if the JTE is out of the room for more than 5-10 minutes) and also sparingly used to develop metalinguistic awareness about a teaching goal.

Please write freely any comments you have about your relationship with students.

Since every teacher has problems with students, I felt it would have been dishonest to write that I did not. That said, the problems are few and typically dealt with easily and nearly always confined to certain groups or individual students. I find it’s typically an easy matter to deal with problems, particularly when you have the support of a JTE.

What suggestions do you have, if any, that might help improve English education in Japan?

Expectations need to be set higher. Elementary students do not need to be babied by avoiding phonics and spelling, but they also do not need to be graded in order to make them “learn.” Hours of instruction need to increase. The job of ALT needs to be professionalized, both via hiring policy/pay and the responsibility taken on by ALTs themselves. There need to be more ALTs in schools – one in each elementary school would do wonders for students, the support of JTEs, and for the ALT’s own work satisfaction by being able to feel like they are an insider and a member of a team who share common goals. The list goes on, but these are the points that I see as being realistically accomplished within my lifetime.

Do you have any memorable episodes in your interactions with your students in and/or out of class?

In order for teachers to teach well, they need to know what students already know and bring to the classroom from their own homes, individual experience, and culture. Teachers also need to know what students can already do. For an ALT to be able to know these things and use that knowledge effectively, they need to listen, which depends on time and strong teaching and community relationships. Once they have a good understanding of this, they can make appropriate connections to students’ lives, and also challenge students with things they can’t yet do. Trying new things together is often the only way for real learning to happen. A teacher should learn along with their students, especially in the case of JTEs.

A good example of what I consider “real learning” happened in a Skype class that we conducted in a 5th grade elementary class with a 5th grade class in America. Each class presented their weekly class schedules in English, and made comparisons between the different school days and lesson times. At the end of the lesson, the two classes played a gesture game, in which one side of the Skype session acted out an activity from a school subject, and the other class tried to guess what the subject was. An “Aha” moment occurred when the class in America acted out reading a book to represent English, or “Language Arts” as it is called in North America. Our students immediately understood, but they shouted out “Japanese” which they had learned for kokugo, the native Japanese term for Japanese language study. They were confused at first, but soon realized that the “kokugo” of America is indeed English. Not only was this an amazing “light bulb” experience for them, but it was a real learning experience for me, because it helped me better understand the kinds of assumptions and misunderstandings that students are prone to make when learning a foreign language or culture, but that I would never have predicted by myself.

Do you have further comments on any aspects of your work as an ALT?

The job of an ALT is one that is shaped enormously by the person who fills it. It’s also one that can very quickly become either unbearably frustrating, or unbearably boring. I think that a significant burden falls on ALTs like myself to expand the role of the ALT in Japan so that we are used more effectively, as well as to constantly try new things so that our lessons improve over time. Maintaining a positive attitude toward this end is key.


Why You Shouldn’t Use The Internet to Translate Japanese

Original Japanese:




BING!’s translation:

Good morning.

Lake Saroma 100 km towards, and you guys do the best. Today Saroma ( 4/22 snowed a 9 cm snowfall from last night.

Saroma Saroma 100 km to town also contestants are practicing to please. 6/30 5:00 Kamiyubetsu Town start until two months little is.

Google’s translation:

Good morning. I have everyone working hard towards Saroma 100km.

I estimate 9 cm in snowfall from last night Saroma (April 22) of today. I I see your figure that is practice those who are competing in Saroma 100km in Saroma town.

5:00 Yubetsu town start the 30th June is the month to little or two later.

My translation:

Good Morning. People who will be running the 100km Saroma Lake Marathon are training hard these days.

Today in Saroma (April 22nd) we had 9cm (3.5in) of snow accumulate overnight. Even now you can see the competitors in the ultramarathon practicing in and around Saroma.

Only 2 more months until the start in Yubetsu Town – June 30th at 5:00am!


An Elegy for Toby

I wrote this very quickly in the moments after Toby’s passing.  It’s just sort of a way for me to process the news and deal with such a loss.  I don’t mean to offend anyone with my beliefs or my perspective.  But this is how I knew Toby.

The mountains in Toby’s backyard.


My friend Toby passed away about an hour ago. He was injured in an avalanche almost 36 hours ago and was in the hospital undergoing surgery. I’m not really sure what to do. I’m hours away and it’s still hard to believe.

Toby was older than me, old enough to be my father – a fact that I would tease him with often while we were hiking or working together.  Of course, on the mountain, in a kayak, on a bicycle, and especially on skis, he could kick my 28 year old butt without much thought or effort.

I came to respect Toby greatly, in some ways looking up to him as one might a wiser older brother. I always had dozens of questions for Toby – he seemed to know more about life than I did, and I wanted to know what his secret was. I can’t express how fortunate I was to befriend him.  Toby’s relationship with Japan was long, but I only met him three years ago, both of us barenaked in a hot spring bath on the shore of Saroma Lake. In the changing room, I chatted with him a bit, and later found him on Facebook. A few months later, my wife and I dropped by his amazing handbuilt strawbale house with a nice bottle of Alaskan port wine. Leaving his house that time, my wife Yoshie hit me in the shoulder and shouted “build me a house like that!”

I really can’t think of many people who had the breadth of life experience, natural life skills, and openness and greatness of heart than Toby. He was one of the few people who had hundreds of Facebook friends who were all actually his friends. I considered myself really lucky to be friends with someone like him. After the disasters in Japan on March 11th, 2011, Toby went down to the area, just days later, to help rescue stranded animals.

I didn’t know him when he built his house, but he inspired me to do something like it. I still have one of his straw bale house books on my bookshelf. The night before his accident, I stopped by his house to drop off some craft beer and other Costco shopping. He wasn’t there, but had left a key hidden for me. He had two bags of freshly roasted coffee beans waiting for me, one still wide open to let the beans breathe. Only his three cat “children” were there to greet me. I regret now that I wasn’t able see him face to face.

So, while whatever loss Toby’s passing is to me, one of many, many friends, one who had the pleasure of knowing him for only a short part of his amazing life, the loss is far, far greater for his brothers, his wife, and all of those who, luckier than I, have known Toby much longer.

Lastly, let me say one thing.  As humans, it’s in our nature to assign meaning to events. We want life to be meaningful; a meaningless existence is a deeply frightening thing to consider. Toby died doing something that he loved, something that without doing, he would not truly have been alive, not really have been Toby. I am not a backcountry skier, but I have been up with Toby in the snowy mountains of the “deep north,” as he called it, just as Ross was when Toby had his accident. He was a different person up there – happier, goofier, and a maniac on two skis. He loved Japan, and Hokkaido, and the mountains in his backyard. His community will be set back by the loss of someone like him, someone who was the nexus of so many friendships and connections. In a truly just world, Toby’s passing should have never happened. He deserved to fulfill his dreams in this stage of live, open his business, introduce people here to good beer and good coffee, and live on to an old age with his many friends and beautiful wife. So the fact that he died doing something that he loved doesn’t make anything better. It’s not comforting. But it does at least mean something. Toby talked to me before about the possibility. He had made some sort of personal peace with it. What this means is for each of us to interpret in our own ways as we deal with the tragedy. But I know it would have meant something to Toby.

Update: Toby did know it would have meant something to him. That card wrote his own obituary back in 2008:

Toby Weymiller, a man who followed his dreams and was always passionate about making a difference, passed away in the mountains on(insert date), just as he had hoped.

Toby loved nature, the mountains, his family and his friends. He always thrived for the ultimate balance with all of these passions and his dying wishes were to tell everyone, “Thanks for the memories!” and “Thanks for all the support over the years!”. In lieu of flowers or donations to charity (although he always encouraged donations to charities), Toby asked that you all go outside, sit down, breathe in that fresh air and take a few minutes to remember him. Toby asked that you smile and laugh as you remember the good times you shared with him. Toby says that even though he is not visible to the eye, he is still very alive in spirit and you can find him often when you go out into nature and especially up into the mountains. Toby said he is waiting for you to come visit him there.

Toby is survived by many family and friends, all of which he loved dearly. You can go to to see more about Toby, including pictures and videos, as well as his family and friends. Toby wrote this obituary himself back in 2008 and his final word to all if you is “Namaste”.

This is one of my favorite memories of him, the day we hiked up to the hut at Ashibetsu-dake two summers ago. We stopped at a stunning series of falls for a break:


Graham Gephart’s blog post in honor of Toby at


Sōgōteki-na gakushū

This is a term that one encounters in any reading of or experience in the Japanese education system. For years before the introduction of “foreign language activity” instruction, my English classes at the elementary level were taught as part of the sogotekina gakushu time block. Sogotekina gakushu means something like “synthesized study” or “general studies” but is more accurately and lyrically translated as “integrated learning.” Students are encouraged to make connections from their studies to their environments, their lives, and the world around them. Some activities done as part of this time in my elementary schools include studies of fish in the nearby lake, and other activities within the community. This video, produced by the Pearson Foundation, gives a good, if uncritical, view of this part of the national curriculum.

The larger website from which this video comes is actually rather interesting.  Produced for the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) it focuses on those countries and states that performed well on the international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). I’m not sure I am in agreement with how much attention the test results garner in the media, but the videos themselves make for an interesting look at the successful education systems of different countries.


Election 2012 at SJHS

The 2012 election is over and done, but there are some extra results I should add to the public record.  Saroma’s 9th grade class mock-voted a week before the election, after watching several commercials from both candidates and watching excerpts from their convention speeches and the debates (they greatly enjoyed the moment in the second debate in which the two candidates confront each other with some tension in their voices).

And here are the results:

✔ Obama 45 Romney 3 Undecided 1
91.8% 6.1% 2%


English, Made in Japan

This post has been slowly fermenting in my drafts folder, waiting futilely for me to add enough to it to make it publish-worthy.  But I think I will simply publish it and make it a work in progress.  If you have any interesting bits of wasei eigo (Made-in-Japan English) please leave a comment and I’ll add it to the post. Dumb puns and other wordplays are equally accepted.  I’m not really interested in attested (dictionary) words here but more in the creative usage that people casually bring to life in their daily lives.

Vice Principal – “Half Middle President

“Ok, kids, this fruit starts with ‘water’ and the second half is the name of a fruit we’ve already learned today.” – Waterpeach!

What’s the opposite of hungry? – “uphungry!

LamentableRamen, taberu? (ラーメン食べる?)