Saturday, December 05, 2009

Slip me some skin...

Following on from last week’s post, my singing voice has been severely tested this week, as I inflicted Little Boxes on every class from Tuesday to Friday, with generally pleasing results. I think if we do this as a warm-up exercise at the beginning of every class, it will have the desired effect i.e. to get the students more in tune with the cadence of the English language. I have been scouring the WWW for suitable song lyrics and will introduce one every month till the time comes around for the TOEIC torture-chamber again. However, if my notion is correct, I expect it will be less of a torture-chamber in 2010. As we only have a couple of weeks left before the end of this term, and Christmas is coming, Felix Bernard’s 1934 Winter Wonderland will get an airing next before we call it a day for 2009.

Another thing I tried this week was watching a VHS video movie clip, with Japanese subtitles, to see if there was good correlation between what was said on screen and what appeared at the foot of the screen. It turned out that there was, after a fashion, in that the students could understand what was going on on screen but they were generally unable to catch what the English words were, even after several repetitions. This seems to be because of elision, or syllable omission, which native speakers do as a matter of course when speaking naturally.

The clip I chose was from the 1987 movie Good morning Viet Nam, which made Robin Williams into a star. This movie is set in Saigon in 1965 just as the Viet Nam ‘police action’ is about to escalate into a full-blown conflict. At about 1.17 the main character (Adrian Cronauer) first tells an outrageous falsehood, then resorts to bribery in order to persuade the Army EFL teacher to allow him to take over the class, so he can get a chance at dating the Vietnamese girl in white. In Japanese subtitles the soldier’s response is gojiyuu ni, which means ‘feel free’ or something like that. However, what he actually says is “ ’sallyurrs – yuugaddit” (It’s all yours, you’ve got it). The rest of the clip shows how the new ‘teacher’ is then hopelessly out of his depth as he has no idea how to proceed. He eventually has to confess that he is not a real teacher but achieves a measure of success, and popularity with the students by teaching them Harlem street slang. As he says, in the real world this is probably somewhat more useful to them than the hackneyed phrases the ‘real’ teacher was trying to teach, even though they were grammatically perfect.

I think it is unlikely that the TOEIC test is ever going to test for knowledge of phrases like ‘slip me some skin’ or ‘groovy’, but it does use lots of natural spoken English in its listening sections. There are a lot of examples of elision in this short clip, which I was able to exploit and I hope will be useful to my students, especially for TOEIC.

Full marks to those who noticed the subtitles are in Chinese not Japanese, but I’m sure my main assertion holds true.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


This is the first time I have had the inclination to update this blog in over a year, which is a pretty shambolic state of affairs. No excuses to be made, I have simply been very busy with proofreading/translation work to the extent that the deriving of pleasure from writing became almost impossible.

A possible reason for the return to the blog was that I have recently returned from the annual JALT (Japan Association of Language Teachers) conference, which this year was held in the city of Shizuoka in the Tokai district. I went up there by overnight bus in order to be there bright and early and not miss anything on the first day. The JR Dreamliner had reclining seats so I was able to catch a bit of shut-eye this time.

The first thing I noticed on arrival was that Mount Fuji was clearly visible in the distance, so a photo record was obtained. Seeing Japan’s sacred mountain so clearly is a relatively rare occurrence and we were lucky enough to have this happen twice over the weekend.

As always the conference was a very lively and stimulating affair with all kinds of things going on by day and by night. I came away with some good ideas for improving the TOEIC scores that my students get, just by altering the focus of what we do in class. The Test Of English (for) International Communication causes no end of grief every year, first in preparing for it by doing practice tests and (usually) later when the scores are released and little to no improvement has taken place. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hammer and Humiliation’ method. However, after taking in some thought-provoking presentations during the conference I decided to try a separate tack to see if we can achieve better results. After all, in the relatively rare case that a student does get a better score than the previous year, s/he generally becomes a happier person and is thus easier to teach—so there is instrumental motivation for me there too.

We have been singing in class this week, which met with some consternation at first, but ended up very positively. It has been shown in linguistic research that singing helps learners grasp the cadence of a language in ways that other methods fail to do. The song I chose was the late Malvina Reynolds’ marvellous ‘Little Boxes’ of 1962 which I loved as a child of eight or so, but which gradually took on a deeper meaning over time...

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

Little boxes, little boxes

Little boxes all the same

There's a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky

And they all look just the same

And the people in the houses all went to the university

Where they all were put in boxes, little boxes all the same

And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers and business executives

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry

And they all have pretty children and the children go to school

And the children go to summer camp and then to the university

Where they all get put in boxes, and they all come out just the same

And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family

In boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same

There's a green one, and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one

And theyre all made out of ticky-tacky

And they all look just the same

So now there is a whole new word in circulation around here–‘ticky-tacky’. The OED entry for this word credits Malvina Reynolds as the source of the word which is quite an achievement, to change the language with just a song. Someone once called it ‘the most sactimonious song ever written’ but I don’t think so. It’s a healthy thing to be able to laugh at ourselves as we beaver away in our little boxes at home or at work. It remains to be seen if this singing will improve the students grasp of natural English, but even if we’re going to hell in a bucket at least we’re enjoying the ride.