Jota Ishikawa’s Views of the World
Part One: Methods of Evaluating English Skills Based on My Experiences
Dean, Graduate School of Economics and Faculty of Economics (until March 2015)
Looking back, I have lived in Canada for seven years, and in the US and Australia for half a year each. Living in the English-speaking sphere for a total of eight years might give people the impression that one is completely fluent in English; however, it was simply not the case for me. For one thing, I was already 26 years old when I started living overseas, and for another I do not have much of a sense of language. “Speaking and Listening” was always a huge hurdle for me, and remains so today. To be honest, I was not that good at speaking in Japanese either. When I was in elementary school, talking on the phone was always the last thing I wanted to do.
I had planned to obtain a Ph.D. at an overseas university, but this meant I needed to take the TOEFL. Back then, a minimum score of 500 was required to enter an undergraduate program in North America, 550 or higher for a graduate program, and at least 600 for a graduate program at a top school. On my first attempt my score was a little higher than 500. I tried to take the TOEFL a few more times, but could not reach 550 because of my relatively low marks on the listening section. After a few attempts, I decided to go to a TOEFL preparatory school. The tuition for the school was rather expensive, but it paid off — I managed to clear 550, but was unable to reach 600.
Nevertheless, I received admission offers from several universities in North America. Moreover, I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to study abroad, and entered a graduate school in Canada. However, at first I did not understand what other people were saying in English. Realizing that my English was not very effective, I became depressed. Later on, I found out that a professor whose English I could not understand was from Scotland, so his accent was quite strong. However, since my English was not good enough to tell the differences between American English and British English, I got discouraged wondering why I could not understand the professor’s English very well.
By the way, Canada is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Thus, Canadians use the British style of spelling, but their pronunciation is close to the American style due to their geographical location. Moreover, interestingly enough, there are almost no regional accents within Canada, except for those of people who are immigrants or have French as their mother tongue (although I have heard that there are in Newfoundland). This makes a good contrast with the US.
I recall an interesting episode. It was in the second semester of my first year there. I had trouble understanding an American professor who taught microeconomics since he talked quite fast. As I was chatting with some Chinese students after class about how hard it was to catch what the professor said, a Canadian student joined our conversation and completely agreed with us. No sooner had I felt relieved at the prospect that “wow, there was not really anything wrong with my English,” I realized that the student who had spoken was a French-Canadian whose first language was not English. In this regard, the student was not so different from us, international students.
I recall another episode, from when I was a fourth-year there, I believe. I was discussing some economic issues with one of my classmates from Hong Kong (in English, of course). Since there was an American professor next to us, we asked him what he thought about our discussion: he responded, “What! Were you two speaking in English?”
I completed my Ph.D. in my fourth year, and stayed on at the university for one more year as a post-doctoral fellow. I taught a few courses, too. Being in my fifth year there, I was able to handle English to a certain degree, but I was worried if my students could understand my English during lectures. When students came to my office with questions during office hours, I would ask them how my English was, to which many replied, “Not bad.” However, it cannot be denied that they likely concentrated on listening to me since they knew that I was not a native speaker of English. By the way, most of the students who came to my office to ask questions were diligent and their grades were good. On the other hand, among the students who had poor grades, there were always some who blamed a professor’s English for their grades.
I personally believe that the best method to evaluate one’s speaking skills is talking to young children around early elementary school age and seeing what kind of reaction they have. Children do not try to carefully focus on listening just because the person they are talking to does not have English as their first language. We cannot use any difficult terms or complicated expressions, either. If the child does not understand what we are saying, they just shrug their shoulders and throw up their hands, the pose indicating they’re at their wit’s end. If you become able to talk to children without any trouble, your English conversation skill must be excellent.
The best method to assess one’s listening skill is checking whether or not you can laugh at the same scenes as the audience does when watching comedy shows (so-called situational comedy, or sitcoms) on TV. Laughing at the same time as others is not as easy as it sounds. Sense of humor also differs to some extent depending on your cultural background, so what you laugh at might be different – however, this is a very easy way to check your listening skill. As it happens, my favorite sitcoms are “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” A couple of years after the end of the broadcast of “Cheers,” I had a chance to visit a bar in Boston that was supposed to be the stage for the sitcom. That brought back a lot of memories. I heard that “The Cosby Show” was based on Bill Cosby’s real experience of raising children; watching the show made me realize that he is a true genius of comedy. “Everybody Loves Raymond” coolly and comically depicts the various issues between husband and wife, as well as between wife and mother-in-law. Some of the episodes are quite realistic, making it harder to laugh unabashedly. “Night Court” and “Friends” are also excellent sitcoms. Whenever I fly, I am always glad to find such sitcoms among the programs available on the airplane. Speaking of comedy, the British “Benny Hill Show” is also an excellent program; unfortunately, however, it cannot help you practice English since it does not contain any lines.
Having made many efforts to improve my English, let me tell you the simplest but most practical method of evaluating your English skills: getting together for drinks. If you have no trouble understanding what people are saying and can talk to them as you drink, then you can be confident. Perhaps I am just trying to justify myself getting together for drinks, though. Anyway, if you have already reached the legal drinking age, give it a shot!
Originally published in Japanese in University Hub Haneda Airport (UHHA) Special Column.