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.