Pride as a Thinker

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The reason I take lying with statistics so seriously is that it offends my pride as a thinker. To use facts – things that are, in isolation, wholly true – to deceive, misusing them to paint a deceptive picture of a larger situation, is to manipulate and render actual logic useless. By putting garbage in, one gets garbage out, even if the person making the conclusion is behaving perfectly logically… but is unaware of how irrelevant the raw material for the logic is to the actual question.

That such lies are used to promote public policy doubly offends me, for it is not simply a matter of insulting my intelligence, but wasting money that is badly needed where it will do actual good.

Statistics can tell us a great deal about the world, but they can be used to horribly deceive in two ways: a) not recognizing their limits, and b) willfully applying statistics to the wrong questions, ones they were never designed to answer.

If you want an argument treated with respect, you have to be honest and lay your cards on the table, and ensure that you are speaking in a manner that is consistent with the truth.

Note that if the persons concerned had simply argued that the economy is being stimulated by unemployment checks, I would have simply agreed and moved on. It is the argument that these checks are the best money for job creation available that is completely bonkers.


My Writing About Zen

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The best summary of what I’ve written about Zen is at Zen: Life Made Simple at the hyperlink. You can also find the Zen for an Uncluttered Life feature at Technorati. For this and other commentary, you can visit the Learn Out Live Blog also.

The idea behind all this is to promote Education for Better Living, the idea that the more we know, and the less tangled what we know happens to be, the better off our lives will be, both in terms of bounty and enjoyment.

Having said this, I am in no way a formal teacher (or even student) of Zen; good luck finding a Zen center in rural Nova Scotia. My years of living in a small-time place have helped concentrate my mind on issues of simplification and mental clarity, and I like sharing that with the world, but this is the pursuit of the Zen idea, not Zen the religion. Then again, I firmly maintain that Zen was never something that belonged to monks alone. If it had, it would never have been part of the background of Japanese society.

Japanese tutoring: Taking stock

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(This post uses a little bit of Japanese text. If your browser can’t handle it, my apologies. Most will, but I’m not using images as a work-around this time – it’s of interest to actual learners or Japanese literate people, not everyone and anyone.)

Hi, it’s been a while. Instead of blogging, I’ve been using what “free” time I had to pound out Japanese lessons for my online tutoring for . Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

After a few weeks of putting together more material, and testing my kanji teaching in the field, there are a few things I can report on.

#1: Yes, Grammar Mattered

Some grammar is indispensable for learning Japanese that is useful in the classroom and in real life. What I taught was the abridged version: pronouns, sentence structure, proper particle usage (a poltergeist that haunts many students well beyond the beginner level), a thorough and representative sample of verb conjugation, and enough other vocabulary to keep things fresh and provide a lot of opportunities for katakana and hiragana reinforcement.

Yet an anecdote my regular student told me today, in the context of previewing the next class (which will focus on asking, and being asked, questions such as ‘What is your name?’ etc.), that he had been taught the following formulation in the cafeteria of a residence he was living in by Japanese language school students sharing the same residence:


I was using kanji for the pronoun “watashi” at the start only but “namae” for name would be 名前 in kanji. Anyway, this reads akin to, “I name is” or “Me name is.” The correct version is below:


My name is ___”

I’m above pointing fingers, but I feel a non-casual sense of relief that I started teaching this guy before he’d been “taught” too much stuff that would have had to be unlearned later.

2. Kanji Are Concepts, Not Letters of the Alphabet

Lately, I’ve been using a term I call “kanji logic.” For example, “four” plus “corners” equals “square” in Japanese: 四角. This isn’t something created with an “alphabet.” It’s something that comes from blending two concepts together to form a further concept. This is how the language gains its richness and depth.

3. Kanji Are Indeed Best Learned Visually

By the end of today’s review lesson, my student was seeing that the “dai” in “daigaku” (college, the ‘big school’) is the same kanji for ‘ookii’ (‘big’). That’s right. That’s exactly how it is. Showing different looks to reinforce the same kanji worked. These are the neural pathways that will lead to long-term success.

4. Like Leading An Army, Ask What Can Reasonably Be Delivered

I didn’t expect my student to remember everything and get everything right for this review lesson. That would not have been sane or productive. What I expected was a) for him to seriously think his way through and give his best effort, which he most certainly did; b) to make tangible progress towards remembering things he’d seen a few times before, which he most certainly did; c) to learn, inch by inch, the thought process behind the language, which he was doing just fine.

Conclusion: Results Not Perfect, But Still Excellent

After I finished my “basic Japanese” unit, which overall did a fine, fine job, I was at a loss for a short bit of time. I tried to introduce vocabulary that would be useful for the EJU (a test for entry into Japanese-language universities, which is this student’s long-term goal), but my student found the content to be above his level. Now, why did he think of this in terms of “his level”? That’s because he was studying vocabulary “at his level” on and so forth. Well, fine. I decided to stop trying to re-invent the wheel and started teaching things from lists directly (but with 3 to 4 times the depth), conjugated verbs like “hanashi” (to speak) and “motsu” (to hold) rather than just the kanji themselves, spread to more of the “Kyouiku kanji” (the grade school kanji taught in accordance with Japanese Ministry of Education guidelines), and I kept things focused.

I also worked on introducing adverbs and adjectives more and how to deal with them… but in the context of using kanji to make things not stay just a wall of kana. (My student wanted a change of pace from that, and that was fine with me.) I’m going to slow down the kanji a little to focus on color nouns/ adjectives and “questions” for the next lesson, and similarly for the near future, reinforcing more of what’s been learned rather than get too hasty.

I mean, it’s only been a month, and I’ve already taught this guy stuff that puts him on, in many cases, an equal or better position than people who’ve been learning in a regular classroom for a whole year. That’s progress.

Oh, one last thing…

5. Information Overload Is Indeed Best Avoided.

That’s really the key to this whole process. I’m doing my festina lente bit, breaking things into distinct pieces, not overwhelming the student, asking the questions that can be fairly responded to and make the student think without crushing him, and creating a lot of visible progress that the student feels in his bones and brain cells. Thus, by explaining things slowly, and slowly repeating a lesson or two or three later, the material slowly becomes learned. Once learned, rather than simply memorized, it becomes retained much, much better.

The main question now is spreading these successes outward and doing it for more people. I mean, I had to develop A+ lesson materials through individual effort alone, nailing down explanations for things which are, I think it is fair to say, poorly explained in much of Japanese language education.

The successful stuff is 10 lessons comprising “Basic Japanese,” four Kanji-oriented lessons, and one Kanji review lesson (which was a big hit too). It’s a start. I didn’t begin this process to be second best… and I feel like I have not compromised. My theories are being validated and my teaching is working. Now I’d like to rinse and repeat for a lot more people.

Look at it this way, though. If you can’t teach a complete beginner from scratch in an effective and efficient way, how do you expect to teach everyone else, former pro translator or not? It’s not just what you know – it’s what you can explain in plain English (and Japanese).

My Japanese Teaching Method

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Cool stuff and vocabulary & trivia on both ends of the spectrum, alternating between the two, but regularly crossing and re-crossing the fundamentals, including grammar, thus placing the grammar in context.

Does it make sense to you, presented in this way?

Tales of the Japanese Language: Uso

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The scene: A young man named Akira is on a couch, being spoken to by Mina, a small blond with hair in some sort of pigtails. Akira only recently recovered from some significant amnesia.

She asks him, “So, you remember our promise, right?” He replies, “Mm? What promise?” Though the details are not exchanged at this juncture, in many Asian dramas, such a promise would be, for instance, I will always protect you, I’ll marry you when we’re older, that sort of thing.

Mina, deeply embarrassed, concedes that his lack of recall cannot be surprising, as he only just regained his memory about other things. and shifts away from the subject and prepares to leave. At this point, Akira sticks out his tongue to her.

“Uso.” (Over-pronounced, it sounds like us-so.)

A miffed Mina promptly begins beating on Akira’s head, drawing ows and yelps from the latter.

“Uso” is a word that, like many, has different possible readings in practice. The plainest reading from a dictionary will be, “lie.” In other words, a lie. The next reading, “a falsehood,” is simply a different version of a lie, but said in a slightly more diplomatic way.

For “uso” to be a complete sentence, there are two hidden, unstated components: the subject (Akira’s memory loss) and an existence verb (to be or not to be, that is the question). A complete, ridiculously elaborate version (with alternates) would read: “(What I said/ how I acted just now) (was) a lie/ false/ untrue.”

However, language is not about the equivalent coughed up by a dictionary; it is not even about what we might call the literal meaning. While “uso” certainly not true, an untruth, it is spoken here like an interjection. As such, we must look at not just what it says, but what it means.

In this context, what Akira could come off more like, “Just kidding.” However, typically “joudan da” would be used in that role.

Akira’s words could come off more like, “Fooled ya’.”

Perhaps we might even read it as, “Sucker.”

Thus, Mina immediately – and correctly – begins whacking Akira’s head, looking quite annoyed in the process.

(Source: “Dance in the Vampire Bund, episode 3)

Learn Out Live

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Learn Out Live is a recent effort by tutors who were flailing about on a failing education site to create a central online headquarters for streamlined, efficient provision of one on one tutoring services to students via Skype. Classes are 10 Euros for 45 minutes. I will be taking over the English department and will be founding an upcoming Japanese department from scratch.

A promo video for the English department is below.

One Must Learn Before One Can Teach

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Okay, looks like I just lost a 1400-word post because.. something messed up. I’m not impressed, so I’ll make this really brief.

All that interferes with teaching must be stripped away.

A teacher must learn about students from every interaction to better serve their needs.

One-way communication with a smiling face is just as useless as one-way communication without one.

Hearing without listening is not a substitute for genuinely listening.

To teach with a relaxed feel but wind up teaching more than anyone expects is to master presentation. This is to teach calmly, but in haste; “festina lente”.

“The way” is to prepare the mind, and then to empty the mind of prejudice and preconception to re-open the self to real and present circumstance.

The “sage on the stage” is, for all teaching save university lecture halls, a straw man of no applicability. The problem is not teaching too much; the problem is teaching too little. This can only be solved through direct action.

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