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February 25, 2004

John Pereira - The Self Interview

John Pereira

Today we talk with John Pereira, a longtime resident of Japan who has invented a new literary form - the poessay.

"One good thing about interviewing oneself," says John Pereira who interviews John Pereira on the subject of poessays, "is you can speak frankly and expect to see what you've said on the screen."

Q. How did you get the idea for poessays?
Frankly, I don't know. It is all so mysterious. All I can say is that it has something to do with my living and teaching English at the university level in Japan for 25 years. And it probably has something to do with India, where I come from. India, I think, is the bridge between the West and the East. In this regard, it might be easier for Westerners to understand this country if they come to Japan via India.

Q. Could you expand on that?
Well, there is a link between Japan and the Hindu way of life - not, mind you, Hinduism, which is a Western concept and which unfortunately some opportunistic political parties in India are using towards ends which are traditionally anti-Hindu. Now, despite the great diversity in India, there is much in common between Hindu and Buddhist ways of thinking. Most statements made by Buddhists are easily acceptable to and digestible for Hindus. Here is a simple example: you can be an atheist or theist or agnostic and still be a Hindu. That is why I say Hinduism does not exist, that it is not an ideology. All the same, please don't try this with any of the major religions of the world whose origin is in the Middle East. The big difference between India and Japan is in the world of everyday art which has flowered tremendously in every nook and cranny. Buddhist art in India was destroyed by peoples who invaded the country in succession. It is now time to take this art back to India!

Q. How does English in India compare with English in Japan?
Historically, ours has been a totally different experience. In addition, India has thousands of dialects and more than 20 officially recognized languages, which means these languages also have a substantial body of literature. What Japanese need to keep their eye on is the fact that Indians wrote vicariously, with the bogeyman known as "The Native Speaker" looming above their shoulders. Now this has been a disaster for Indian literature in English as Indian sensibilities have all fallen by the roadside. It has only been in the last 25 years or so that the language has matured and come of age. Indians have finally come out of the shadows, and English today is viewed as simply another Indian language. Strangely enough, the American experience has not been much different on one point. Mark Twain had trouble being accepted in Britain and was accused of using bad grammar!

Q. Do you think Japanese children should start learning English at an early age?
I don't think it is a good idea, although lots of linguists will probably disagree and ambitious parents will see it as a shortcut to worldly success. I say this because the first language of any normal human being on this planet is the same and not really a part of linguistic enquiry as it is a language of images, immobile and mobile. The infant's brain processes reality for months and months, trying to make sense of the world, and gradually starts to label these objects as "mother," "okaa-san," and so on. And, since a language is much more than labeling reality, the child's way of thinking is shaped in terms of the language used by the people around him. Japanese parents who would like their children to start studying English before they have acquired fully their mother tongue may be in danger of bringing up a Westerner in disguise or a child who could have an identity crisis at 15. If a child picks up a language naturally, as is the case in multi-lingual societies where there is much in common among the languages in use and way of thinking, then it is of course a very different story.

Q. How important are Japanese teachers of English?
Very. Unfortunately, some proponents of Japanese English, in their enthusiasm to promote an indigenous variety of the language, also promote broken English without the redeeming quality of creativity. Mark Twain has observed that the difference between the light bulb and lightning is tremendous. We need to be careful, for the cure might prove to be worse than the disease.

What I think Japanese teachers can do best, and which people from other cultures simply cannot duplicate, is to draw on the traditional Japanese mind-set and authentically communicate Japanese sensibilities. In the past, Okakura Tenshin and others have been able to do so successfully, without a loss of Japanese-ness in the texts. The challenge, therefore, is for Japanese speakers and writers to become fluent without becoming imitative!

Q. Can you tell us what a poessay is?
While the essay form demands that the writer have an analytical, critical outlook, the poem has more to do with synthesis, creativity. The poessay, a combination of the poem and essay forms, demands both. So, unless a writer has both qualities, it is not possible to write a successful poessay.

Poessays are also minimalistic. This aspect gives the native speaker of Japanese a great advantage as "small is beautiful" or "less is more" is a traditional way of thinking. Having said that, I should add that the majority of university students take to this form as a fish to water, which is in stark contrast to native speakers of English. Why this should be so is begging to be researched although I suspect it is unlikely that a native speaker will undertake this kind of project.

Q. How do poessays go over in the classroom?
I need to make a distinction between feeling comfortable with this form and being able to write a poessay. In my experience, whenever I ask students to write a poessay, about 3% at most do so successfully. But, I can say with confidence that more than 90% enjoy reading and talking about poessays - which are also topics of conversation. Naturally, being able to write a poessay is never a requirement to pass a conversational English course. Now, I'm after these 2% or 3% of students who are obviously brilliant and are in need of a real challenge. As I see it, the way university curricula are designed at present, these students may well not exist. This is worse than murder, and something needs to be done about it if universities in Japan are going to become something more than Skills and Regurgitation Centers. As you know, university courses have become more and more practical in this post-Bubble age since companies have less time and money to train new employees. But, let's not throw out the baby genius along with the bath water.

Q. Are computers useful in teaching poessays?
While the use of computers can enhance language learning, we should be wary of exaggerating their importance. In the teaching of pronunciation, for example, they are most effective as learners can practice with these machines indefinitely until they get it right! In the case of poessays, there is zero advantage. All you need to write a good poessay is a sheet of paper, a stub of a pencil, and a head full of ideas. Students who don't have interesting perspectives, even if their English is good, cannot write a successful poessay, and the contrary is also true: even though the language level is low - and the English used in poessays is simple - students with less knowledge of English are able to succeed. Unfortunately, this does create a problem in the classroom as learners who have received high grades or even high scores on such tests as TOEFL and TOEIC often do poorly. Fluent speakers also fail to come up with good poessays. As a result, advanced learners sometimes feel depressed and low-level students are in heaven. But this is the reality.

Is there anything else along this line?
Yes. Another surprise is that after the poessays have been translated correctly into Japanese, too many of our students are unable to get the keypoint. No doubt, the keypoint is often implicit, so the dictionary is not very helpful, as when we say a glass of beer is half full and imply that it is also half empty. However, when not a single student in your class is able to provide you with a reasonable explanation of the keypoint after translating the poessay into their own language, it is a bit scary. Now, no Japanese teacher of English would be interested in doing research on this problem, as it would fall outside his or her area of expertise.

Is it difficult to teach this form?
Poessays are easy to teach. Use one, two, or three words per line, seldom four. Punctuation is mostly limited to the question mark and, occasionally, the exclamation mark. Line breaks are flexible and indicate rhythm and emphasis. A keypoint is a must, as poessays are opinions expressed in a poetic way. Finally, don't forget to center your poessay.

Well, that's it.

Borderless Marriage
you marry
right woman
your marriage

when you
wrong woman

the girl next door)

your marriage

international or not

John Pereira's EFL Japan Page.

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