Friday, 23 May 2014

Notes on learning a foreign language.

One of my favourite pieces of work turned in by a student. 

As it’s such a major part of my life right now, both personally and professionally, the various ins-and-outs of second language acquisition have been on my mind a lot recently. The following ideas may already be established and uncontroversial to veterans of English language teaching, but it’s important enough to me that I wanted to write about it anyway.

At the moment, I am effectively unable to speak Japanese. I can read and write in Hiragana and Katakana, the major two syllabic alphabets of Japanese, but have only really just begun trying to read – let alone write – in Kanji, the primary, pictographic method of writing Japanese. When listening to spoken Japanese, I can now usually follow roughly the topic of the conversation, but if and when required to respond, I rarely advance beyond rudimentary (and probably rude) answers. As I live and work in Japan, the language barrier is occasionally problematic, although actually not as much as you might imagine. Curiously, many things I imagined would be difficult (like buying a new camera, or getting a haircut) have proven to be very easy, whereas some things I imagined might have been easy (like buying a bucket of fried chicken) can actually be really quite difficult.  

I bombed out of learning languages at high school; at that point in my life I just wasn’t interested in learning a foreign language. However, at university many of my friends were international students. I was impressed by the fact that they were studying at university level in a second language, and that many of them also had a third or even a fourth language (a friend of mine can speak Lithuanian, Russian, French and English, which I find staggering). This certainly went a long way to kindling an interest in language learning in me, and now that I live there, I know for certain that I want to be able to speak Japanese. Consequently, I’m trying to study at least something about Japanese every day, but between the frustrations of language learning and the rigours of daily life, I find that it’s too easy to burn myself out and ruin my motivation for studying.

A close friend of mine and fellow English teacher who speaks excellent Japanese suggests that while studying might be a useful method of accelerating the learning process, I will ultimately learn just as much through what she calls ‘osmosis’; the absorption of information as a result of constant proximity. I don’t yet know enough about the psychology and theory of language learning to offer a valid comment on this idea, but there are days when I feel like I learn more Japanese from getting drunk with my Japanese friends than I do from banging my head against any number of textbooks. With regards to practising my conversational Japanese, I feel the most useful of activities are either a very casual, volunteer run, free Japanese language class or the time I spend with the members of my band. It’s not because either of these offer a carefully structured, scripted and regulated learning environment in which to practise my Japanese, but rather the opposite. I appreciate these environments because they are real; they are natural, unscripted and unforgiving. In this environment I make a lot of mistakes when I talk, but I am also actually communicating with people in Japanese. I don’t doubt the value of textbook study when learning a foreign language – especially at my elementary level – but at the same time I think I get more out of a five minute chat with a friend than I ever could get from an hour with the textbook.

Conversely, I’ve also noticed much the same from teaching English to Japanese students. The Japanese education system places a lot of emphasis on wrote learning and memorisation, and on the students learning the correct way to speak English. A premium is placed on the student’s ability to accurately recall a series set phrases and use the phrases in an appropriate manner to answer a series of set questions. This has its benefits and its downsides. On the one hand, the students have a pretty large English vocabulary – about 950 words – and a fairly comprehensive theoretical comprehension of English grammar by the time leave high school. The downside of this method is that the students are rarely required to employ much creative or lateral thought, and as a result they often struggle to make the connection between the English they are studying and the real life scenarios in why they can use it. Unfortunately, the students rarely get the opportunity to deploy their English naturally, and many of them may never get the chance to. This is a major function of my job as an Assistant Language Teacher – to provide the students an opportunity to interact with a native English speaker, and to provide the English classroom with a model of what good English looks and sounds like (at least as far as a Scotsman can hope to accomplish this…).

The emphasis on accuracy irks me somewhat. Whilst I don’t doubt that major mistakes in the student’s understanding need to be corrected so that their fundamental understanding of the way that English functions is not flawed, I also feel that such a devotion to correctness - and the student’s consequent fear of being ‘wrong’ – mostly serves only to stifle the student’s willingness to experiment and be creative with their English. I think this is unfortunate, because one of the wonderful things about English is how ‘incorrect’ your English can be and still make sense. Just look at the enormous variation in the ways that English is spoken across the globe, and try to tell me that there is one ‘correct’ way to speak English. When my students talk to me in English, they spend a lot of time second guessing and correcting themselves, even though I understood perfectly well what they were trying to communicate (usually asking me if I have a girlfriend and do I like karaoke). Think about it this way: the manner in which we think is directly influenced by our mother language. Japanese is a profoundly different language from English, and consequently, a Japanese person’s train of thought is likely to be very different to that of a native English-speaker(citation needed). Rather than making Japanese students of English jump through hoops, bend over backwards and climb mountains to get them speaking correct (American) English, I think it would be far more productive to accept that Japanese English will always have its own idiosyncrasies. I expect nothing less of my own Japanese, no matter how good I get at it.

To round this post off, here’s a slightly more light-hearted observation that has been fascinating me recently. Learning an entirely new writing system whilst studying Japanese has enabled me to think about the concept of written language much more distantly than I ever could with English and the Roman alphabet.  I’ve been captivated by the way that the written word – arguably this species greatest achievement – is ultimately, objectively, just a series of meaningless squiggles. When I learned my first Hiragana character, , I was struck by the notion that whilst this very simple set of marks (three strokes of the pen) meant nothing more to me than the sound ‘ah’, it formed the first part of extraordinarily complex system of squiggles through which we could record human thought. Considering that I was four or five years old the last time I learned a written language, I think I had just come to accept that the written word was inherently meaningful. In studying Hiragana, I began thinking that writing systems are actually inherently meaningless. A very curious feeling. Although that feeling is starting to fade again now as I make more progress learning to read and write in Japanese, every time I run up against and impenetrable wall of Kanji I am again struck by the notion that while I see a series of very intricate, but otherwise meaningless drawings, the people around me are seeing thoughts and emotions.  

Sunday, 30 March 2014


Okay, I'm back. The period of time between now and my last two posts has been inexcusably long (especially considering that I left it on a cliffhanger), but I've decided to keep continue writing now.

So, why has it been so long since my last post? Well, to be honest, I just didn't really know what to write about. Or more correctly, I wanted to write about everything. Moving to a new country and beginning a new job in a new city, literally everything seemed worthy of writing about. When combined with the fact that I've basically been busy since I got here, wanting to write about everything has meant that I have written about nothing.

However, life has started to calm down a little now, and I'm starting to better differentiate between what in Japan is genuinely interesting and what is simply novel. So I will try again at writing about life here.

I live in a city called Kagoshima. It's a fairly large city in the south of the island of Kyushu, which places it way in the south of Japan. A bustling port, the city is home to about 600,000 people who are spread over a curiously narrow area owing the topography of the area. The city is convenient and interesting, with a great variety of interesting things to see and do. Before I came to Japan I was worried about possibly needing to own a car to get around, but in reality the public transport around here is so good that it simply hasn’t been necessary. There is a tram stop literally on my front door that services most of the places that I need to go in the city, and for those places not near the tram lines, there is an extensive system of buses, trains and even ferries with which you can get about. 

The settlements upon the island of Sakurajima are also considered part of Kagoshima city, though it's a little difficult to tell where Kagoshima city ends and the smaller nearby cities start as they are largely connected by nearly unending suburbs. Sakurajima is by far the most striking feature of Kagoshima city; the whole island is a large and highly active volcano. I'll talk about Sakurajima in greater depth later, but suffice it to say that living in such close proximity to something with roughly the same destructive potential as a nuclear bomb is one of the few novelties that has yet to wear off. 

In summer, when I arrived, the temperature was (for me) extremely hot and humid, and although the autumn months were comfortably temperate, the winter has actually been surprisingly cold (even coming from Scotland, a country not exactly renowned for its hot weather). It’s starting to get warm again now, but I can’t say for sure when the temperature will reach the nigh on unbearable levels it was at when I first arrived. 

Being somewhat closer to the equator, I’ve also had to get used to there being less differentiation in the length of days (and the lack of daylight saving time). Simply put, in summer the days felt shorter and in winter the days felt longer. Generally, the weather here is very nice when it’s nice and pretty awful when it’s bad. There have been days when the temperature has ranged from very cold in the in the morning to very hot in the afternoon, and from very sunny to suddenly very wet.

Kagoshima is, generally speaking, a very nice place to live. As a busy port city, I wouldn’t say that it is beautiful in the more traditional, European sense of what makes a city beautiful[1]. However, it is energetic, colourful and vibrant, with plenty of green spaces. Furthermore, the city’s backdrop; the plunging wooded mountains of the Japanese countryside, the turquoise blue sea and the hulking presence of Sakurajima are nothing if not impressive. As would appear to be par for the course with many Japanese cities, Kagoshima is clean, safe and easy to live in.

I live very near Tenmonkan, which is perhaps the main shopping street in Kagoshima, close to the train stations, city hall, the Sakurajima ferry port and is surrounded by many very fine restaurants and bars.

There is much more to say about Kagoshima (especially its history), but I will wait until later and give these things their own blog posts. Until then,

Here are some more pictures. They are far from technically good, but I feel like they capture a little bit of what Kagoshima is like:   

[1] Kagoshima actually reminds me a little of some of the Southern French cities that I have visited, though I couldn't say exactly why. 

Saturday, 12 October 2013


The ground, as seen from the air. If I remember correctly, we were somewhere over northern Russia at this point in the flight.

The eleven hour flight was a really bizarre experience. It's by far and away the longest period of time I have ever spent travelling in one sitting. The weirdest thing of all was that we were pushing through numerous time zones and were effectively chasing the rising sun (this seemed absurdly poetic on the plane), meaning that it never got dark outside the plane. At what was about 11 o'clock at night (for us), until about 6 o'clock in the morning, the cabin lights were all dimmed and the blinds were closed, but it was blazing sunshine outside the aircraft. I tried to sleep during this time, but the cabin kept alternating between far too hot and far too cold, and I was just too restless. Many people just went to the bar at the back of the jet and drank a lot of tiny whiskies, but I didn't fancy dealing with a hangover on top of jet lag, so none of that.

Obviously, my first experience of Japan was Narita Airport and immigration. This was interesting for me but would probably be unspeakably boring to read about, so I’ll skip to my first real experience of Japan, which was Tokyo. Driving from Narita to the JET programme orientation at the Keio Plaza, a massive and opulent hotel in the Shinjuku district in Tokyo, was an eye opener to say the least.

Tokyo is really big. Not just big in the way that a big city like, say, Paris or Berlin or even London is big - it’s massive on a scale that’s really difficult to understand. To put this into perspective, let's briefly consider London, the most populous city in the European Union. London’s urban zone has more than eight million people, while the Greater London metropolitan area has 21 million people (more than four times the population of Scotland). The entirety of London covers 3,236 square miles. Tokyo’s urban centre - by comparison - has nine million people and is divided into 23 “wards”, each of which are governed as individual cities. The entire metropolitan area is home to more than 35 million people, and covers 5,240 square miles. It is the world’s largest urban economy, has a spending power equivalent to almost $1.5trillion, and contains twice as many of the world’s largest companies as the next nearest competitor, Paris. Tokyo’s restaurants have won significantly more Michelin Stars than any other city.

As impressive as these figures are, they’re also kind of meaningless. It’s really difficult to understand just how big Tokyo is until you go there. When you’re in London, for example, you might know that you’re in a very big city, but London itself doesn’t necessarily feel any larger than a lot of British cities. In most of London, the buildings are fairly short by modern standards, and the architecture is neither significantly more grandiose or modern, the streets are not any wider, nor significantly more busy than any other large British city. In London, I think that you have to go to one of London’s distinctly “very big city features” before it starts to feel like the very big city it is (such as the Shard, Oxford Street, Kings Cross Station, etc.) By comparison, Tokyo felt immediately and obviously like the enormous city that it is. The drive from Narita AP to the Keio Plaza left me in no doubt that we were entering a vast city. As you enter Tokyo, the road rises up off the ground (a “highway”, I suppose), and starts to thread its way through the city, between huge skyscrapers and massive residential blocks, above village districts and parks, through tunnels, across rivers, and between other raised roads and railways. Maybe it’s because we have nothing like it in the UK, but driving through Tokyo on this raised road was quite literally a matter of driving into the future.

Some pictures:


Unfortunately, being on a moving bus is not conducive to taking the best of photos, but try to imagine having never been to Tokyo before and then driving over, under and through miles and miles of this kind of cityscape. It really is like a set piece from Bladerunner.

The view from my room in the Keio Plaza hotel. The building with the twin towers is the Shinjuku Municipal building. Impressive, no?


The Tokyo above ground train system is really cheap and convenient,

Although the JET programme orientation was pretty intensive and time consuming, we did have a day off to explore Tokyo. Luckily, from Shinjuku, it's fairly easy to reach many of the major tourist calling points of Tokyo using the above ground service, and really very cheap too. From Shinjuku, you can just buy a day ticket and jump on and off the circular JR line, along which most of the points of interest can be reached on foot.

So, first port of call for me was Shibuya, and Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya Crossing is the busiest intersection in the world, and handles an absurd amount of pedestrians - something like a thousand every two minutes. It's also a scene from numerous popular movies. You know that bit during the third Fast and the Furious film where the main character being chased by the Yakuza guy drifts his car through the incredibly busy crossing and the crowd magically parts to let his sliding car through? That's Shibuya Crossing.

In Shibuya.

Tokyo is full of shops you wished existed where you live.

The juxtaposition in architecture is often crazy, and yet somehow it works. Something I expect I'll talk at great length about is how the Japanese seem to have an innate sense of the aesthetic.

Whilst I was in Shibuya, I had lunch (ramen noodles) in a lovely little noodle bar, which was my introduction to food in Japan - relatively cheap and so often delicious. I also caught an open air gig - it would seem that stuff like the often happens in Shibuya. I can't remember the name of the band, but they were okay - lots of really upbeat J-Rock.

In a lovely little Shibuya noodle bar with my friend Josh - note the Japanese phrasebook. It was indispensable in Tokyo, as I managed to forgot all of the Japanese I had learned to that point.

Open air gig in Shibuya. I can't remember the name of the band, but They were pretty good.

Next visit was to Harajuku. Harajuku is pretty much the fashion centre of Tokyo, and so deserves a visit in and of itself. However, the reason that I went to Harajuku was to see the Meiji shrine. The Meiji shrine was raised to commemorate the emperor Meiji and his wife, the empress Shoken, whose reign on the imperial throne heralded the end of the feudal shogunate and the beginning of modern Japan as an industrialised world power. Not a lot of people know this - I think a lot of people associate Japan with a long imperial history, but the emperor of Japan was only reinstalled as the ruling power of Japan in the last 150 or so years. Before that, the feudal shogunate ruled for hundreds of years.

Harajuku, the fashion district of Tokyo.

Crossing from Harajuku to the Meiji shrine park.

The Torii at the entrance to the shrine.

It's pretty big...

These are barrels of Sake that have been donated to the shrine.

Approaching the Meiji shrine.

Before you can approach the shrine, you have to clean yourself - you wash your hands and mouth at a public bath. This sounds a bit unhygienic, but you don't swallow the water when you wash your mouth. Now, you can't take photos in the shrine itself, but basically what happens is you walk to the shrine (the building on the right in the above photo), offer some yen to the donations box, bow twice, clap twice, make a prayer/wish, and then clap once more. The shrine is very quiet and peaceful, even on a very busy day (like the day I visited). Whatever your opinion on religious beliefs (or imperialism), I think it would be difficult to deny that religious sites are so often extremely quiet and relaxing. I enjoy them, and the Meiji shrine is no different - it's particularly nice to have access to somewhere like the Meiji shrine in the midst of an otherwise extremely busy and very noisy city like Tokyo. Which brings me the next of me Tokyo destinations: Akihabara.

Whilst Harajuku might be the fashion district of Tokyo, the intended demographic of shoppers in Akihabara is literally the opposite. Akihabara is the video game district of Tokyo, so by default, the video game capital of the world.

Eight floors of Sega and a pretty young girl dressed as a gothic maid. Welcome to Akihabara.

Whilst Harajuku and the Meiji shrine is quiet and reserved, Akihabara is mad. Noisy and bombastic, it encapsulates so many of the modern Japanese stereotypes. The Sega building pictured is eight floors of crazy arcade games, whilst Pachinko (Japanese pinball, massively popular) halls are ubiquitous, riotous and deafening. My personal favourite find in Akihabara was a tiny vintage video game store. It stocked games and consoles dating right back to the dawn of video gaming history from just about every conceivable system and format, all immaculately catalogued and packaged, and priced very reasonably (at least when one considers the prices that rare video games and consoles in mint condition command outside Japan). The shop even had a tiny corner with a chair and some consoles set up to try games. Magic.

There can't be too many places in the world where you can make the dominant feature of a seven story building a poster of two robots beating the snot out of each other in space. Akihabara is one.

Akihabara was the last place I got to visit in Tokyo (short of wondering around Shinjuku near the hotel looking for a bite to eat) before leaving for Kagoshima. As I left Akihabara, I saw a cat and her kitten sitting on top of an information board, wearing polkadot neckties, watching the hustle and bustle of Akihabara, and looking utterly at ease with the world. It seemed so utterly typical of what popular culture had made me expect of Japan that I could only only take it as a good omen.

So, having only been able to spend a few short days in Tokyo, what do I think? Well, two or three days definitely isn't enough to see very much of Tokyo, but I think that it is long enough to at least begin to form some kind of understanding of what Tokyo is about. Tokyo is a crazy, fascinating place. Massive beyond understanding, incredibly diverse, and shot full of things to do see and do, there can be no doubt that Tokyo is a spectacular city, and a testament to the ingenuity, creativity and hard work of the Japanese people. However, I spent a lot of my time in Tokyo feeling totally overwhelmed, and a lot of that time wrestling with massive jet lag. So I'm not sure I enjoyed it as much as I might have. But then, I'm simply not used to places of that size. Back home I live in a village of 200-or-so people, so it's difficult not find to Tokyo intimidating. With that said, I definitely want to visit again, especially when I'm not jet-lagged or shackled by obligations.

After the orientation was finished, we then dispersed to our respective prefectures and ultimate destinations in Japan, where we would be living and working. For me, that meant another plane ride; this time, to Kagoshima city.

Waiting to board our flight to Kagoshima.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Beginning.

On the third of July, as the Boeing 777 I was sitting on rotated off the tarmac at Heathrow airport, I suddenly remembered something one of my friends had said to me. Sitting in a pub in Aberdeen two months previously, I had been telling him about how I had been accepted to work as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Programme, and that I would shortly be moving to the south of Japan to teach English to school students. He said “that’s brave”. We then got very drunk, and I forgot all about that conversation. Having remembered that discussion just as the plane was taking off, I had an eleven hour, one way flight to Narita AP to contemplate what I was doing, where I was going and why it was “brave”. As one of my new JET colleagues pointed out, I had committed myself to living and working in a country that I had never visited before, whose language I couldn't speak, whose culture I had only really experienced through stereotypes and various popular arts, and to doing a job that we had very little information about and in which I had little or no practical experience. I suppose that is pretty “brave”, if not outright stupid.

So, I guess that alone is reason enough for the existence of this blog. Basically everything here is new and profoundly interesting for one reason or another. I am surrounded by things that fascinate, amuse, startle, confound, infuriate and upset me - often in equal measure – on a daily basis. Both for posterity and the sake of others, I feel like I have a responsibility to record them. But, I think it's important to bear in mind that Japan, the Japanese language, and Japanese culture and traditions are famously impenetrable to foreigners (particularly those from the West), and I don’t want this blog to be read as an attempt to deconstruct and explain what life in Japan is really like. Partly, that’s because such an exercise would be largely self-defeating; even if I did truly succeed in "understanding" and integrating myself into Japanese society then I would no longer have a reason (and likely, the motivation) to write about what it’s like. It is also partly to do with the fact that not all of the major changes in my life that have prompted me to write this blog are to do with my now living in Japan. For example, this is the first time I have lived outside of the UK for any extended period of time, and I would probably be writing about my experiences regardless of which new country I was in. Moreover, I have newly begun a job where I will be working as a high school teacher, an experience that I’m sure will - in and of itself - provide more than enough material to write about.

So really, I’m going to try and simply keep a record of my life whilst I am in Japan, the contents of which may or may not be uniquely or explicitly Japanese in nature. I’m a very keen amateur photographer (or at least, a very keen terrible photographer), so I will try to balance out the massive blocks of prose with as many photographs as possible. In an effort to keep some semblance of structure and frequency, I’m also going to try and post a series of recurring, themed pieces (most likely on mad things my students say and weird things I've found). I’m learning Japanese at the moment, and although I’m a long, hard struggle away from being anywhere near conversationally proficient, I will eventually try to duplicate as much of this blog as possible in Japanese, in case it might also be of some interest to Japanese nationals.

One thing that - at least for the moment – I’m not particularly interested in discussing are my reasons for leaving the UK (or for being in Japan). If I do start with that personal motivation stuff I’m likely to descend into my usual pseudo-intellectual, ranty nonsense, and I’d rather not go there (as much as I’m sure that most people would rather not read it). Furthermore, at the moment I’m trying really hard to avoid the negative aspects of culture shock (homesickness), and one way of doing that (though slightly callous) is to simply not think about home too much. So enough of that crap.    

I will say this though: the months leading up to my departure were very weird, particularly after I received the final confirmation from the JET Programme that I would indeed be moving to Japan. I don’t want to write too much about the application, interview and selection process for the JET Programme in the UK as loads of people have already written about it in far greater detail than I have (or can). Instead, I think it will suffice to say that the application process to be a NASA astronaut can’t be too much longer or more complicated than that of the JET Programme. When it became apparent that I was definitely going to Japan, I felt really strange. Not as nervous as I thought I would be, and maybe not as excited as I hoped I would be. Rather, I felt very detached and distant. Various commitments (such as my job and my friends) all of a sudden seemed rather meaningless and took a back seat to otherwise meaningless activities (such as buying stationary and underwear, and cancelling my Graze account). Unusual and unique experiences such as travelling to London to learn Japanese and attending cocktail parties at Japanese embassies started to feel far more real and tangible than the utterly mundane and expected events of day-to-day life. It's also worth noting that even right up to the date of my departure, I had received really very little information about my placement. In retrospect, now knowing what to look for, I think that I might have been experiencing some kind of premature culture shock. Which is pretty cool, in a mad kind of way.

Now, I’m going to try and keep my posts relatively short, which is something that I’m generally pretty bad at. So for the moment, I’ll end here having explained what the purpose of this blog is, and how I intend to write it. In the next few posts, I'll write about my initial experiences in Japan and my new hometown, Kagoshima city. Then we'll get to the good stuff, like talking vending machines and active volcanoes. Until then. 

So, my name is Roddy Macfarlane. I’m 23 years old, I come from Scotland and I live in Kagoshima in Japan. Pleased to meet you x


Next stop, Japan...