The Road to Independence

This has nothing to do with English learning…

Today, I went to Kamakura for an appointment. The station was really crowded.
At peak tourist season (with a festival taking place on the Kamakura shores,) crowds of people were walking steadily towards a narrow stairwell, BUT  at a snail’s pace!
There were all walks of people around me. Foreign tourists, local (Japanese) tourists, locals (like me, going to a lesson), children, families… everyone was very respectful of one another to make sure that there was no dangerous pushing going down the stairs. It was a bit frustrating, as I was already late for my appointment, but I kept calm and did not try to push ahead. 



In front of me, near the rail, a small boy of about 3 or 4 was walking slowly down by himself. At first, I was “Hmm. Who is he with…?” Then I immediately saw in front of him, his mother, carrying their second newborn looking ahead, walking step by step with the crowd. The boy was concentrating, being careful of each step. His mother was not looking even glancing behind her to make sure her boy was okay, which surprised me, but there was one tiny gesture that stood out to me.


私の左に、レールを小さいでで掴んで慎重に歩いている, 3・4歳くらいの男の子がいました。”一人かな?大丈夫かな?”と母性本能動き出した。よく見ると、彼のすぐ前に赤ん坊を前抱っこして、ぞろぞろ階段を降りている女性がいました。


I thought for a second that perhaps she was not his mother and looked around for someone near him who might be lost in the crowd. Then I looked down and saw that the woman in front of him was holding out her hand behind her, right near the boy’s head. The boy wasn’t trying to take her hand. He just seemed to concentrate on his walking, on the stairs, no desperation or hurriedness in his motions to catch up with mom right away. Ahh, I get it.



Of course, this was my interpretation, but I felt like this mom was being brilliant in letting him be “independent,” letting him do his thing even in this scary crowd of people. At the same time she was letting him know silently that she was there AT ALL TIMES. He knew she was there. She knew that he knew that she was there. And that was all they needed to get through this simple activity of going down the stairs at a crowded station.



What a beautiful small (natural) gesture between mom and child going through the process of “growing up” and learning to be on your own. We are alone. And yet there is always something in the wings to help. Heck, ”I” was ready to jump out to help if this boy had a hard time. Moms… I believe most moms want to help guide their kids into independence. At the same time, we are the first to jump out and want to protect them from hurt or danger. It’s not easy to know how to balance the extremes. 

This one mother’s gesture (as interpreted by me) was another sign how parents instinctively know how to let their children “be” while being there on the wings when duty calls. 


P.S. By the way, although I have not raised children in other countries, I can’t imagine this happening in a huge city overseas. Perhaps this is permissible because we are in Japan. Anywhere else, one would be afraid of a child being taken and would be seen as negligence. この行為も日本ならではのことかな、とつくづく思います。残念ながら、他の国ではこのように子供に「任せる」は(いつも見張ってない行動は誘拐の恐れがあり、)無責任と解釈されることもある。

Words, Words, Words!

What does it take to learn a new word? 

I just worked with one of my Junior High School private students. She has been learning English at school now for 1 and a half years, 3-4  hours a week. She still cannot converse in simple sentences like, “I like pizza with tuna fish.” but she seems to catch on  how sentences work. It’s hard to tell what she does and does not know. Most of the words I ask her the meaning of she does not know. Wow. simple words like “brush” or “work” or “grandfather.” Where do you start at this level without resorting to ramming random words according to categories like “family” and “verbs” and “school activities?” without boring them?  

In my years (since the 1990’s) of teaching English to people of all ages  here in Japan, i have found that students remember words that they have strong connections to. 

Of course, right? 

My son loves camping. He now knows all kinds of camping equipment words! Many of which are beyond my native English vocabulary! Uhh. I haven’t been camping in over about 20 years, so…. no. I’m not going to take up brain space until I need to.

When babies learn new words, notice how they become obsessed with that “one” or “two words” they are “working on.” Recently learn what dogs look like? All of a sudden they are noticing dogs all around them! The more they connect with the word, the more they “see” it, and voice it. 

Totally irrelevant, but when I’m thinking about getting new shoes, all of a sudden, I notice how cool everyone’s shoes are (and how dumpy-looking mine are…sigh.) 

For my super beginners. I start with objects. I don’t go to sentences. Not even the “I am happy” sentences.
The verb changes and transitions depending on who or what you are talking about will scare most insecure students away. 
No. I start with “dog” “cat” … and only things they see around them. 

How you slice and dice that new word? (because it’s pretty boring…. yikes!)

The black dog,
the thin dog,
the thin, hungry dog,
the barking dog,
the two-tailed dog at the park, 
the two-tailed dog chomping a steak at the park with a four-eared pig

Adjectives, verbs, prepositions are introduced, one by one, without scaring students away with conjugations.

All nouns need an article (a, an, the) or something to replace it with (like my, his, their, etc).
These rules rarely change with the number of objects or time frame.

The subject is not yet “doing anything” but the description of that subject is certainly cool and not boring (depending how colorful you can make that particular subject.) 

Another reason why I start with learning how to elaborate on nouns. 

In Japanese, the subject is rarely part of a spoken sentence. So Japanese speakers tend to leave out the instigator of sentences. 
Whether the subject is spoken or implied, the characteristics of the subject– whether it singular, plural, animate, inanimate makes a difference in how the rest of the sentence is formed. This makes for many easy mistakes in English.

車を洗った。Kuruma wo aratta. This sentence is perfect in Japanese; the subject is implied and need not be mentioned to make sense. 
In English, it translates as, “Washed the car.” This is the opposite of TMI. Not enough information. Japanese implies that the subject is I. or inferenced by the rest of the context. Of course, you may do the same with English, as an informal declaration for yourself when you are asked (for example), “What did you do?”
“Me? Washed the car!”
or when ordering someone to “Wash the car!” in present tense.

This linguistic difference is one of the first things that seem to “trip up” my students when they are trying to converse freely. (as opposed to answering test questions or doing drills–which they are often quite good at doing.) 

Since they are digging through their own emotions and unrehearsed answers (that are very attached to their Japanese way of perceiving the world), the “subject” of a sentence simply does not occur to them as easily. 

I often stick to the “nouns” and ways to describes them for a good 3-6 months of lessons (depending on how often I see them) ! 

They learn new words that are “relevant to them”  and learn how to describe them in interesting ways, with interesting verbs, adjective and adverbs, without worrying about switching things about constantly.



More later!  

Why English?

Thank you for this chance to connect with you  through English learning.  We might not have met if you were into golf, or oil painting or jazz dance, since I’m not interested in those activities! You were drawn to this skill we call “language,” (and more specifically,) the English language, and now I can  get to know you. And I am grateful.


Let me tell you a secret. (This is not good advertisement for me, since I TEACH English ….) Ready? I don’t care if you can speak English or not.
No, really. I don’t!
I don’t even care if my own kids (who are raised in Japan) can speak English or not. I know it would be “nice” for them to be able to speak to their cousins who live in Hawaii, or maybe expand their future opportunities by speaking the international language.

But what I really look for : Are they enjoying the “self” that picks up the new skill? Does the learning process delight them? If the answer is “yes” or “maybe, with a little help,” then I want to be there for them!

I would never force a child to learn the violin, if they did not like the process of learning how to play.

I recently started playing the violin again after 25 years. I am not a good violin player. And even after 10 years of playing, I never got good. But even as a child,  I LOVED the process of learning how to play– I would keep at it for hours for the one or two beautiful notes that would occasionally sing out from my tiny violin.

It may be the same way with learning languages.
Look beyond WHAT we are learning and ask,  “Am I enjoying the process?”
Your “beautiful note”might the time you shared a smile with the English-speaking Canadian woman who thanked you for showing her how to get to Tokyo . Our powerful yet invisible connection to one another comes in and out of view because of your processing of all manners of learning, including new languages.

I’m here to help you love this magical process of language learning.
I want to help students see beyond the “benefits,” beyond the “what’s-in-it-for-me” reasons for language learning?

In my lessons, I try to move past the practical reasons and methods of learning. — I enjoy peeking under the “reasons for learning”lid, and celebrating the “person who IS learning.” 

So, how are you doing in your learning?

Are you feeling the thrill of new understanding?
Are you feeling the lovely tingle of connection to your fellow humans when you catch the deeper meanings of their words?

Language is but one gateway to deeper communication
But funnily enough, sometimes it blocks us/ shields us/ blinds us from seeing our common humanness.

As a teacher, I would like to see language for what it is:
Not a goal, but a cool by-product of something deeper, the lovely results from experiencing the “joy of learning and connecting.”

These are the thoughts that I have been exploring today.

How do you connect?

What does it mean to connect? When do you know that there is one? And why do people (when they claim to have connection) feel it BOTH WAYS — when there is absolutely nothing physical connecting one being to another? And aren’t there times when the connections feel stronger… and then less so? What’s going on there, I wonder?

In a coaching session  with fellow “coursemate,” Peter, (he was coaching me) we talked about connection. It was our first time talking one on one, outside of the course we had both been taking for a couple of months. I knew he was a nice guy but I was a teeny bit afraid that there was a chance we would not “connect.”

So he got me thinking after the call. (It turned out to be way longer than we both had planned– so much to share, it turns out!)

It made me think, “Isn’t it interesting that we notice the “un” connectedness of connection — as if we were standing with pockets of void around us until we decide to acknowledge and/or embrace one another’s existence?

So does this connection come and go? Is it “there” one minute, then “not there” the next?

“Ummm, we never really connected.”

“The connection wasn’t there, you know.”

“Let’s connect sometime!”

Maybe we’ve talked about people we weren’t comfortable with or talked to people we planned to get together with later on. Is connection really just the act of two ends meeting (as is implied in the lines above)?

Peter slipped in this observation ever so casually when I whined a bit about not being able to catch up with how more experienced a friend was. He suggested that it was not trying to get on the same level with people; people who have more “knowledge” or more “experience” or more “understanding” that is “making” the connection stronger. The moment that we realize that “we are the same person,” not higher or lower, older or younger, or more or less “qualified” — that we feel and reveal the connection that is and has always been there. Strong. Steady. Unwavering. Not more “present” today or less “present” yesterday.

So if we are neither plugging into or unplugging from one another. That’s a pretty cool thing to know. If it’s just a matter of not being able to see it all the time. That’s also a good thing to know. It’s easy to know (well, relatively easy) that we are not our “money” or our “car” or our “family,” even.

But how are we when comes to fundamental values like “love” or “trust” (or the virtue of “connecting” with people, even?) Can we say the same? Am I not my values? That’s what makes me, ME, right? or maybe not. 

Values. Are they not also “outer coats” that we were told (with the best of intentions) protected us from the cruel elements? Are they not just that — “coats” to protect us. They are not the ME — the “being” that remains intact no matter what coat we are wearing.

Does it make more sense to think that we are unconnected beings trying to connect, or that we are connected beings that are tricked into feeling that we are not?

This is the concept that I am turning over in my mind today.