Sunday, 31 May 2009


Mizuho, who lived next door to us in Japan, was a concert pianist who had studied in Vienna for a dozen years. Almost every night, we could hear her playing. The notes would come wafting through the summer breeze, passionate and intense, as refreshing as a waterfall spilling over rocks. After a long day at work, it soothed our headaches and calmed our frayed nerves.

One day, I happened to run into Mizuho's mother. "We love hearing Mizuho play!" I told her.

She looked nervous. "I hope it's not too loud -- it isn't too loud, is it?"

I shook my head. "Honestly, it's so beautiful, it could hardly be loud enough!"

"You're sure it doesn't bother you? Because if it does, we'll get her to stop playing so late--"

"Please don't!" I said hastily. "We love hearing her play!"

She smiled nervously; she didn't look convinced.

"You're so lucky to have a daughter who plays so beautifully!" I gushed. "We'd do anything to get ours to play like that!"

Mizuho's mother shrugged. "She's always enjoyed playing," she murmured.

I smiled and shook my head at this. My husband and I had our work cut out for us getting our daughters to practice.

"I can imagine how much work you put into getting her to that level," I ventured. "Just pushing her to practice must have been a full-time job."

She stared at me. "I never put any work into getting her to practice at all," she said flatly.

"Really?" I could hardly believe this.

She tilted her head. "Do you know, I used to beg her to go outside and play with her friends? She just wouldn't leave the piano alone!"

Now I really couldn't believe it: She sounded -- and looked -- aggrieved.

"I'm serious," she persisted. "She would hole up in the house for hours, playing the piano. Her friends would come by, wanting her to go out and play with them -- but no. She had to play the piano. We were so worried about her!"

Over the next year, I got to know Mizuho, and she confirmed what her mother told me. "My parents used to threaten to shut the piano on my hands!" she said. "But they couldn't stop me."

A few months before we left Japan, we were given tickets to one of Mizuho's concerts. She was incredible.

I work with a woman I will call Güzin. Although Güzin isn't a native speaker of English and has never lived in an English-speaking country, she speaks English so well I assumed that her family must have started her learning the language at an early age. Somehow I got the idea that they had enrolled her in one of those high level English language nurseries, or perhaps hired an English-speaking nanny for her. When I asked her about this, though, she laughed.

"I taught myself when I was a toddler."

"Come on -- you couldn't have!"

"I did," she insisted. "My parents both worked. They left me at home all day and I found these English language tapes they bought for my older sister, who wasn't the slightest bit interested in English and never used them. I was bored all by myself, so I put them on. And that's how I learned English."

"God, your parents must have been thrilled!"

"Not really. My mother tried to stop me from writing it. She thought I was too young."

Güzin can speak English for hours on end. She doesn't stumble over words or have to ask what people mean. After seventeen years in Japan and endless, exhausting study, my Japanese is close to her level of English.

Some people, it seems, are just determined to learn no matter what.


A Paperback Writer said...

I remember your writing about the pianist once before. The playing must have been incredible.
Your anecdotes illustrate very well a concept I try to hammer into my students' heads every year: the learning is up to the student. I remind them that I am a good teacher and we have good books to use, but that you can drown a mule before you can make him drink. And, in reverse, even if a student has a poor teacher and lousy materials, if that student is truly determined, that student will learn.
I had a 12-year-old reading and understanding The Count of Monte Cristo this year. But Ihad plenty of others who wouldn't push themselves to finish something as easy as A Series of Unfortunate Events. (The requirement was to read a book a month -- no page limits were set. I did talk to the Monte Cristo boy frequently to make sure he was getting it.)
I've taught (among every other level) gifted kids for 20 years, and I've seen amazing stuff: a boy whose family could not afford a computer -- so he built one himself, a Peruvian boy who learned enough English in a year and half to move into my gifted class, then win the honor of having the most points of all the kids who played in the National Academic League that year (he's graduating now -- as valedictorian and with a scholarship to major in chemistry at the U of Utah), etc.
I whole-heartedly agree with your post.

Kim Ayres said...

Some are determined, and some spend thier lives just winging it. I fall largely into the latter category...

Vijaya said...

Oh, yes! I love to meet kids like these ... I've taught in different capacities for many, many years now, and it is truly a pleasure to work with kids like these. It doesn't even feel like work ..

angryparsnip said...

Some people are just "Naturals" I have artist friends like that.

Also, Thank you for such an interesting blog you have inspired me to start mine.

Bish Denham said...

Some people have a natural bent, talent, gift. It's like the desire to excell in a particular area is built in.

My father was like that.

In my husband's family there was a man named Jeremiah Curtin who claimed to know over 70 languages! His gift took him around the world where he was able to get various peoples to accept and trust him. They told him their folk tales and legends which he translated. There is some controversy over just how well a job he did, but his work with American Iniands and the Mongols of Russia is still very interesting.

The world is blessed to have people like your pianist.

Charles Gramlich said...

I was kind of like that with reading. My parents tried and tried to get me to stop reading so much. Too bad I can't make a lot of money with it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My step-daughter is this type of learner; immersing herself into whatever goal catches her focus. In high school first it was French, then Japanese. Her Junior year of college she attended college in France, learning Japanese!

Three years devotion to any one subject seems to be her limit, though. After three years in Japan she came home and hasn't had use for her Japanese language skills since. After she had her first child, she spent three intense years as a stay-at-home mom, devoting every moment to the child, when she decided to start a business.

She has been working 6, sometimes 7 days a week at her business now. It is very successful, even in these tough economic times. I attribute this mostly to her tenacity which she applies to everything she pursues.

The business now is coming up on the three year mark - she just announced that she is looking for someone to buy the business from her.

Me, on the other hand - I have the attention span of a cat.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I've heard the saying about leading a horse to water, but not the bit about being able to drown him before getting him to drink. How true this is! I once had a professor who claimed that a really motivated student could probably learn English from the Yellow Pages, whereas a bright but unmotivated person could have the best resources in the world, but still fail to learn. At the time, I assumed this was an exaggeration, but after years of teaching, I am utterly on board.

I'm glad you've seen this too. As I tot up my students' final points, I must remind myself that even a hardworking teacher can't do much with someone who won't put in the effort.

Kim -- I wing it too! I get where I want to go by sheer dogged effort, not the cool determination of the naturally gifted. I like to tell myself it means more to me...

Viaja -- I've hardly ever had a student who combined a determination to learn with natural genius, but you are so right: with students like this, you don't really feel like you're working. Right now, I'd settle for people who simply wanted to learn.

AP -- I seem to know a lot of people like this too, and they can be as inspiring as they are tough on the ego! I'm glad that I've inspired you to start your own blog -- I love your photographs.

Bish -- When I'm done with this term, I'll have to look up Jeremiah Curtin. I know that Daniel Tammet and other savants have this gift of being able to acquire many languages in very little time. I'm always skeptical myself, but I've seen documentaries about people like this that thoroughly amazed me.

Charles -- Your experience reminds me of Roald Dahl's 'Matilda' -- probably my favorite of Dahl's stories for kids. We've known kids like this -- whose parents are entirely anti-academic, but who love books and go against their parents' wishes to read and learn. So sad when you consider all the parents who would actively encourage and support this, but good for you!

Robert -- Funny that your step-daughter got most of her Japanese in France, but I developed most of my reading fluency in Japanese when I lived in the Netherlands; I was staying in a place where books in English were few and expensive, but Japanese manga and other books were plentiful. Necessity was the mother of invention and boredom was the midwife.

When someone like your step-daughter sells a business, I always wonder how well it will do after it is out of her hands. People see only the success and profits and not the hard work it took to achieve these.

Kappa no He said...

Now that is inspirational. I'm a lot like Kim, I wing it. Totally trying to change that part of my personality.


Anne Spollen said...

This happened to me with reading. My parents worried that I would grow up weird. God, they were so r right.

Nice post!

adrienne said...

What great examples of strong desire. I've been more of a dabbler, and often wish I had one clear passion.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- I've winged it all my life too. Only recently have I realized just how much time I've been wasting, but better late than never, right?

AnneS -- We're all certified weirdos here too. Wish I'd know that being weird was really a GOOD thing, way back when....

My mother was forever dragging me away from books too and I do the same thing with my kids. There was never any fear that my parents could discourage me from reading and that's the way I feel about my kids -- confident enough of their continued interest in reading to interrupt them. I've got to do something to get a hand taking out the trash...

Adrienne -- I think some of us are just born to be jacks of all trades. I'm very much one and although I too have wished for that one clear passion, I enjoy having a variety of interests too. I doubt I could change even if I wanted to...

Robin said...

If only my own dimwits had a passion for learning. They only seem to have a passion for video games. And a passion to escape me crawling up their butts. So sad. At least they're cute. At least to me. But I have early cataracts.

Eryl Shields said...

I envy anyone who has found something they have a talent for and who love doing it enough to put in the time and effort needed to become really good at it. I guess these two women never felt they were working, they were just doing what they liked to do; for me that's sitting in the garden with a glass of wine and a fag!

Jacqui said...

I do think some are just determined. But I also think sometimes when we push, we just push them away from whatever we're selling.

kara said...

and some people just have some crazy ass talent. i bite my thumb at them.

Carolie said...

Amen, Mary!

I can't fathom the thinking of my fellow Navy spouses who've lived in Japan and haven't learned at least hiragana and katakana, if not some kanji. I lose sleep viewing "just one more" Photoshop tutorial, and can't figure out why my husband doesn't find it as fascinating as I do. I used to learn the names of eighty school children at a time, twice a week, while teaching Living History (mostly as a survival measure!)

And brother has tried to explain the rules of his favorite role-playing game over and over, and I simply can't grasp them. My husband has despaired of ever teaching me how to use his Xbox (fancy video game system). And American football? Incomprehensible!

You're exactly right...motivation = learning.

I teach English to various students, mostly with very good English skills already. Yet Morinaga-san, who knows far more about English grammar than I do simply can't be bothered to remember the difference between "he" and "she" or how to use articles. And Kaori, one of my dearest friends, started out as one of the least skilled in English, yet now surpasses all but my very best students.

If I teach Kaori a new word or phrase, she uses that word or phrase properly and consistently after only ONE explanation. She delights in new terms like "wishy-washy". It's like teaching a class the formula 2 + 2 = 4, yet only Kaori grasps the concept of addition and realizes she can apply the knowledge to other numbers and other sums.

Is Kaori smart? You bet! But so is Morinaga-san. The difference is not in ability or intellect or skill, but in motivation.

A Paperback Writer said...

all teachers must remind themselves over and over again that they must do their part of the job -- the teaching -- and that they cannot do the students' part of the job, which is the learning.

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- My kids have a passion for watching Korean/Japanese soap operas and sit-coms. You could put them in a room with many dozens of others and they'd come out way ahead in this skill every time. (I wonder why I don't feel happier about that...?)

Eryl -- Amazing, isn't it? Put me in a comfortable chair with a small supply of chocolate, a stack of books and some classical music in the background, and I'd feel just the same myself. Too bad no one will come to watch me turn pages...

Jacqui -- My kids certainly did need pushing to practice the piano and they tell us now that they're happy they WERE pushed. But these two women managed to do what they did despite being pushed the opposite direction. That's what I marvel at.

Kara -- Me too! And I shake my fist (just a little) at the sky and wonder why I got bypassed...

Carolie -- An X-box? I get cold shivers just thinking about them!

Learning how to use articles is probably the hardest thing in English for learners whose native language has no article system, so I generally don't make much of a fuss about that. But learning the distinction between 'she' and 'he' is crucial and Turkish students struggle with this one (and all pronouns, in fact) every bit as much as Japanese students do.

And yay for Kaori making such progress! I had a Chinese student like her once. I told her ONE time that 'womb' and 'tomb' rhymed, whereas 'comb' was pronounced differently, and from that moment on, she never forgot.
Then she wanted to know what 'ostensibly' meant; I told her and was delighted to hear her use it perfectly after that. No WAY can I do this in Japanese!

APW -- I know this, but I need to be reminded. It wouldn't hurt making it more explicit for my students. Maybe I ought to have a T-shirt made up with those very words as captions to a before/after cartoon: a middle-aged woman pulling a thirsty mule towards a lake in one frame, then the same woman standing over the same mule, drowned, in the next...

Anonymous said...

It is remarkable how determined some people are to learn. But reading this reminds me of something a boss of mine once said, "You don't have to smart to be successful, but it helps." It sounds like Mizuho is not only determined but also highly intelligent. That's a powerful combination.

I'm so glad that I've discovered your blog. It really is a pleasure to read.