Priming: an appetizer for the mind

Posted on August 29, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized |

First I please let me apologize to everyone who has been waiting for a new post. I had some computer troubles but maybe it’s OK now.

Next, I want to say thank you very much to everyone who joined the first English workshop in Harajuku. Everybody was very nice, and good at sharing their opinions and asking good questions.

For me one of the most interesting parts of the workshop was the discussion about “topic”. I said that my feeling was that English changed subjects more quickly and easily than Japanese, and someone quickly pointed out that it probably depends on the person. I agreed, and we decided to try an experiment.

We sat in a circle and tried to have a very free ranging conversation. I mentioned the phrase “that reminds me”, and asked everyone to just say anything that came to mind. Everyone did a very good job of keeping the conversation moving, with very little common topic. I was impressed. The conversation felt a little bit different than a conversation between native speakers though. I think there was more respectful space than native speakers usually have. People politely waited for the speaker to finish speaking and then introduced their own topic. I thought everyone in the group showed that they could enjoy using the skill of “that reminds me” thinking comfortably.

Now I want to share a small secret. The secret is about something called priming.

In the workshop there was one clear example of priming. We moved our chairs into a circle, and at first we were a little too close together. I noticed people become nervous so I asked to move the chairs a little bit closer (of course that was VERY uncomfortable) then we opened up the circle a little wider. But the energy (atmosphere? feeling?) in the circle was still uncomfortable so I tried an exercise in priming…

An appetizer is a small dish served before a main course. The purpose of the small dish is to prepare your palate, to get your body ready for the food that is coming next.

Priming is a way of preparing someone’s mind for something.

For example, when students in an experiment smelled cleaning liquid they were much more likely to clean up after eating a cookie than students who didn’t smell the cleaning liquid.

In the circle in the workshop I asked a question like “What is the most relaxing place you have been?” and the atmosphere changed very quickly.

For the first half of the workshop I read some ideas about cultural differences and we talked about them. I was hoping to prime the participants to think about language and culture in a certain way. My goal was to create an atmosphere where people could become more comfortable and confident thinking like native speakers.

I don’t know how successful I was with my goals, but I was very happy about the conversation, participation and flexibility of the participants.

I hope you will come next time when we explore rapport, building a bridge between you and the person you want to share your feelings, opinions or information with.

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cultural differences in Japanese and English

Posted on August 7, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Some people say there are some very interesting differences between English and Japanese which can be felt deep into the culture.
For the past few years I have had the opportunity to teach, coach and work with many very intelligent people in many fields. Many of my Japanese students and clients say interesting things about English and culture. One thing that many people notice is that English likes to be systematic and “logical” where Japanese is more fuzzy and less clear.
English likes sentences to have a clear subject, verb and object, and the sentence is supposed to contain the whole meaning of the communication. Japanese, on the other hand, often doesn’t clearly state subjects or objects at all.
In English the speaker is responsible for making the listener understand what the speaker means. In Japanese the listener is responsible for trying to feel out what the speaker wants to say.
In English the result of the communication is the most important part of the communication, but in Japanese the process of sharing communication is often very important.
In English speakers are expected to have strong opinions which they can support through arguing. In Japanese everyone is supposed to share an opinion.
In English intonation can change the meaning of a sentence completely. In Japanese the social situation influences the meaning of the words.

In Japanese people usually share a topic, which is clear. In English speakers are free to jump from topic to topic.

English is a language of persuasion, arguement, power and personal opinion. Japanese is a language of harmony, sharing and deep sensation.
Many Japanese people tell me that they feel much more free to express their own opinion in English. On the other hand many non Japanese people often learn a few words of Japanese very quickly because English isn’t good at expressing certain feelings the way Japanese is.

My opinion is that Japanese and English are very different in some very basic ways. And maybe, to become fluent in English means to learn how it feels to be an English speaker.

My goal is to help people understand how to feel the flow, power and beauty of English and maybe even appreciate the beauty of their native language even more.

If you have any feelings, opinions or intuitions about this topic, or any other topics please feel free to share.
Or you are welcome to send me an e-mail at benjamin.uhc@gmail.com

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Linguistic Intuitions

Posted on July 28, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Linguistics is the study of language.

Intuition is an interesting word. It means knowing something without learning it.

For example, a mother suddenly gets a feeling her child is in danger, and she rescues her child just in time. In linguistics intuition means how a native speaker knows if a word is used correctly or not. It is the feeling that a word or phrase is comfortable or strange.

My Japanese is often very strange. Sometimes I can feel it. Sometimes I don’t know why people look at me in a strange way after I say something. My intuition is that intuition is the key to being a good second language speaker. Of course first you have to learn some basic vocabulary and grammar, but then you need to be able to feel the difference in nuance between different phrases.

I am always looking for better and better ways to develop better linguistic intuitions.

If you have any feelings, techniques or hints for developing linguistic intuitions why not share them? We are looking forward to sharing our intuitions with you.

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Cultural differences #1: Where is your mind?

Posted on July 28, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Everybody is a human being. We all need water, air, food, a home and a community of people to belong to.

So how can people from different cultures experience the world so differently?

If you ask an American where his or her mind is they will point to their head. For most western people this question is a “no brainer”. Meaning the answer is so clear you don’t even need a brain to know it. Of course mind is in the head. Where else could it be?

Maybe this is because for modern western people thinking = mind. Some people even say brain is the hardware and mind is the software. Other people say mind and brain are the same thing.

So I was very surprised when many of my Japanese friends pointed at their chest when they said “mind”.

I still am not sure exactly what “mind” means in Japanese.

In western culture people often have the feeling of “being torn between their head and their heart”. It means they have to make a decision between what they think is right and what they feel is right. In English we can also “be of two minds” about something, which means that we have very complicated feelings about it.

We can also tell somebody to “mind their own business” which means to leave us alone and stop trying to understand something private. I think that is the same mind as in the idiom “minding the store” which means to watch, or to take care of the store. But if you ask someone “would you mind talking quieter?” and they say “Yes I would mind!” it means they don’t want to speak more quietly.

And sometimes we “change our mind”, which means we change our plan or opinion about something.

Sometimes Japanese people who speak English as a second language make a mistake and use the idiom “I changed my mind” to mean “I had a change of heart”.

I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing your feelings and thoughts about mind. Where is your mind? What does it do?

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Why I study English…

Posted on July 25, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

I am a native English speaker, and I teach English as a second language. When new students meet me for the first time they are sometimes surprised to learn that one of my favorite hobbies is studying English.

Me: I enjoy studying English.

Student: No. Really?

Me: Really.

Student: Aren’t you a native speaker?

Me: Yes. Student: Why? Why do you study English?

I guess it sounds funny, but I have always been very interested in communication. As an actor I had to learn that there is sometimes a secret meaning behind words. In English there is also a rich tradition of public speaking, debate and word play. I also coach people in high level communication, where words, grammar and other parts of communication are very important to success.

One important part of the history of English are the ancient tools and techniques of using grammar to move the hearts of your audience. This study has recently started to become popular again, and even here in Japan Barak Obama’s speeches were a best seller. I wonder how many people who bought them understood why they were so good.

For me English is a kind of Martial Art, a little bit like Kendo. I know people who have been studying Kendo for longer than I have been alive. Nobody thinks it is strange for a person to continue to study something traditional for a very long time. But I guess many people study English because they have to study, not because they love to study. I think loving something makes a big difference.

I always enjoy learning something new or surprising about English. Since I am a native English speaker, of course I can understand a wide range of English. There is also a lot of English I can’t understand, and some English I will never be able to understand. I will never speak English the way a Lawyer or a Doctor writes English, for example. And as an English teacher many times students say “may I ask you a simple question?” and then ask a very simple but very difficult question. I love that.

So if you have any simple questions, please feel free to ask me anything.

If I can answer, I will be happy to.

And if I don’t know the answer it will be a great chance for us to learn together.

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