“This underarm hair looks authentic, but actually it’s imitation”

Rocket News 24 has a story about a Japanese study guide called, Non-essential English Vocabulary: Words that will never come up in tests. Here is an excerpt from an interview with the author of this study guide, Mr. Nakayama,

“I started back in October, 2011. At the time, I wanted to start a Twitter account, but I decided that if I was going to do it at all, I wanted to offer something a little bit different and original. It was then that I started writing Japanese sentences and translating them into English under the theme of ‘never appearing in tests’ and filling my feed with them.”
It’s certainly an original concept. Browse the study section of virtually any book shop in Japan and you’ll find dozens of near-identical English language study guides, textbooks, test preparation and conversation guides, with new titles appearing all the time as trends change and people start swearing by the latest foolproof method of achieving English language proficiency fast. It’s little wonder, then, that Nakayama-san’s alternative tweets caught the attention of frustrated language learners, and by spring last year the unusual Twitter feed was receiving an average of 100 new followers each day. Just a year after opening the account, the idea was picked up by publisher Asukashinsha, and a book based on the tweets – complete with an audio pronunciation guide recorded by a native English speaker – was published.

To give you some of the flavor of his work, here are a few of his tweets:

gingivitus

missile

vomit

And here is a page from his book:

barbed-wireMany of his tweets (and presumably, much of the contents of his book) are more than a little off-color, as they reflect the earthy and ribald sensibilities of Japanese humor. At the same time, there are several serious points to be made about his work.

First, there are many commonly used words, idioms, and grammar structures that are not found in textbooks for language learners, and will never be on their tests. People take these tests to prove that they have mastered the English language. Yet, without having a background in real English, as it is used in daily life, they may not be competent in English at all. While Mr. Nakayama’s sentences may seem absurd, in many ways, the English he is presenting is more fluent and real than most things found in language textbooks.

Second, it is nearly impossible to store anything in one’s long term memory through rote memorization. However, this is the method most commonly used in Asia to learn English. No wonder people study English for years and still cannot use it in any real way. On the other hand, people do remember words and structures used in context, if that context is remarkable to them. A boring textbook will not help many students, because it does not provide much of anything memorable in so far as context. But if the context is absurd or humorous, if it creates a memorable mental picture, or if it is in connection with a real need, then students will easily remember the lesson target.

I dare say that few English language learners would forget “underarm hair”, “gingivitis”, “missile”, and “vomit” after merely reading Mr. Nakayama’s example sentences even once. If they were on a word list or in a textbook, on the other hand, few English language learners would ever remember them.

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