Pre-intermediate

Hayao Miyazaki wins an award

The Boy and the Heron won the Best Animated Film award. It beat Disney’s Elemental and Spider-Man Across the Spider-verse. The same film also won a Golden Globe. The film is about a boy who meets a talking heron during World War II, after his mother dies. The film is based on the life of Mr. Miyazaki, who also had to move because of the war.

In 2014, Mr. Miyazaki received a special Oscar for his storytelling. He said he was lucky to be able to make films with paper, pencil, and film. The Boy and the Heron took ten years to make because it was drawn by hand. Today most films are made electronically.

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms are a sign of spring. There are festivals in many countries to celebrate the bloom of these flowers. The flowers don’t last long and fall off after a week. In Japan, people have picnics under the cherry blossom trees. This is called hanami.

The US also has this tradition because Japan gave them cherry trees in 1912. The flowers mean new beginnings. Now, people sell things that taste like cherry blossoms, such as ice-cream and cookies. They also watch the weather to see when the flowers will bloom.

 

Wage increase in Japan

Big companies in Japan are giving their workers the pay raises they asked for. Some companies are even giving more than what was asked. 

Suzuki, Toyota, and Honda, among others, agreed to give raises. Those in the retail and food service are also increasing wages. However, it's still not clear if small and midsize companies will follow suit.

Because wages were low, people were saving more and spending less. Now that many will be receiving a pay raise, it's expected that people will start spending more.

Spending and saving money

Money is a tool we use to achieve a goal. Different people have different strategies for what to do with money.

Some spend everything on consumer goods or recreational activities, such as enjoying a meal in a restaurant or going to a cinema. Others are in a situation where they can’t save money at all. They have to live from paycheck to paycheck. Such people are said to be living hand-to-mouth.

Other people save money for a rainy day. They can keep their money at home or in a bank. Still, other people invest their money. They invest in safe places such as properties or precious metals, or stocks of large companies. Some invest in risky places such as cryptocurrencies. They hope to gain a large return on their investments.

The most spoken languages worldwide

There are over 7,000 languages in the world. However, some languages are spoken by a very large number of people.

Over a billion people speak English—mainly people living in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former English colonies. Another billion speak Mandarin. Mandarin is mostly spoken in China.

Nearly 620,000,000 people speak Hindi. It is a language found mostly in South Asian countries such as India.

Over 530,000,000 people speak Spanish, mostly in Spain and Latin America. French and Arabic are spoken by more than 400,000,000 people. French is spoken in France, Canada and France’s old colonies around the world. Arabic speakers mostly live in the Middle East and North Africa.

The true power of a passport

Most organizations, such as the widely recognized Henley Passport Index, believe the strongest passports are the ones that allow their citizens to enter more countries without a visa. They rank Singapore as the most powerful passport in 2023 because it provides easy access to 194 countries.

But is this the best way to decide how strong a passport is? Global Citizen Solutions has developed a more detailed but slightly different approach. The Global Passport Index analyzes how desirable a country passport is, considering the following:

The importance of smartphones

Smartphones are everywhere. People use them in rich countries and poor countries. Sometimes very poor people have smartphones, even when they live in slums. I think that most people understand how important smartphones can be. For example, some taxi drivers would have less business without a smartphone. This is because they can find riders through an app and make more money than just looking for customers on the street.

Phones have changed a lot in the last 20 years. I remember when you could only make calls on cellphones. Now, you can take free classes from top universities. You can record a video, edit it and upload it to social media.  

There are many apps available—over 2.8 million are available for download on the Google Play Store. Apple's App store has more than 1.8 million. Some people use these apps a lot. Research shows that 20% of millennials open an app more than 50 times per day. In general, most people use 10 apps each day.

Artist Takashi Murakami and AI

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has always taken risks with his art. He blends traditional and contemporary styles to create wildly colorful pop art. He is often compared to Andy Warhol, the famous American pop artist.

Murakami has always embraced new technologies, like NFTs and cryptocurrency. So he isn't afraid of AI-generated art. But he does see the harmful effect it might have on artists. In his words:

AI will certainly do damage to technical trades, but I don’t think it will be able to block our ideas. The wackiest ideas, those that even AI cannot generate, will become even more valuable.

The evolution of video games

Video games have changed a lot in the last 30 years. In the 1990s, Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers looked very high-tech.

In 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved was released. It was the first game where a player could explore a limited 3D map. The engine also allowed the player to have different experiences. For example, the enemies acted differently every time you played the same map.

J. J. Abrams & the Mystery Box

J.J. Abrams has created many action and sci-fi films and TV series. A few of the best-known are Star Wars, Mission Impossible III; and the TV show, Lost. Abrams loved magic when he was a boy. He once bought a Magic Mystery Box. For $15, he got $50 worth of magic. He carried the box everywhere he went, but he never opened it. Why not? He finally realized that it was the mystery that was so special. Not knowing what's in the box allowed him to imagine it. Mystery inspires imagination. So the box helped him use his imagination.

Abrams sees today's technology as part of the magic. Without special effects, he couldn't bring his stories to life.

In math terms, you could say:

Mystery + imagination + technology = magic!

For Abrams, magic exists wherever there is mystery. And technology can help us see it.

Changes in the job market

In the US, the labor market is slowing down. Around 250,000 workers found new jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 3.4%, last April.

However, few jobs are hiring at the moment. Employers are looking for highly skilled individuals and cutting unnecessary jobs. Some of the industries hiring are professional and business services, health care, leisure, and hospitality. There is also high demand for specialized construction contractors and food service experts. Professional and business services had the biggest increase, adding 43,000 jobs. Employees in this industry made an average of $40.20 per hour.

Gen Z: trouble in the workplace

Gen Z employees have many advantages in the modern digitalized workplace. They are used to remote working and can usually choose their work conditions.

But it can be hard for them to communicate and behave correctly amongst others. That’s because they might not have any experience with casual situations and interactions other generations were exposed to in a physical workspace.

In the past, these circumstances helped young employees understand how to behave, work together, and network. For example, a casual exchange of ideas by the water cooler or an office seating arrangement helps us know who is more available or understand the chain of command.

As a result, inexperienced Gen Z workers are great with specific tasks they can do alone but struggle to understand the work environment as a whole. Unfortunately, that means they are not given the chance to develop leadership qualities.

The do-nothing man

Shoji Morimoto is 38 years old and lives in Tokyo. He has a unique job: people pay for his companionship.

Morimoto charges 10,000 yen per booking. People have hired him over 4,000 times in the last four years. He has nearly 250,000 followers on Twitter, and he finds most of his clients there. He also has many repeat customers.

Morimoto's job is to be wherever his clients want him to be and to do nothing in particular. For example, he once went to a park with someone who wanted to play on a see-saw. Another time, he visited a train station to wave goodbye to someone. However, Morimoto doesn't accept every offer. He refused to move a fridge and refused to go to Cambodia.

Morimoto's job is his only income, and he supports his family with it. He sees about one or two clients a day.

Wilson the tomato plant perseveres

When I was a kid, my father had a huge vegetable garden. He taught me how to plant and grow vegetables from seed to harvest. One year I decided to grow a tomato plant. I named it Wilson after a song I liked by Livingston Taylor.

Well, Wilson had a couple of serious accidents along the way. First, his pot fell off the shelf when he was a seedling and he crashed onto the floor. But I picked him up and put him in another pot, and he survived. Then our horses got loose in the garden, and one of them stepped on Wilson and squashed him flat! All that was left was a little stem. My dad was sure that was the end of the story. But I put stem-Wilson in a pot and he quickly grew back and returned to the garden. At the end of the summer, he gave us lots of big, healthy tomatoes.

Live shopping, then and now

"Live" shopping is trending right now. For many young people, it may seem like a new thing. But it actually started in the US in 1982. The Home Shopping Network (HSN) started a cable channel to sell goods on live TV. Other shopping channels followed, and they still exist today. Hosts show clothing, home goods, jewelry, etc., in real time (not pre-recorded). Viewers can call in and buy whatever is being shown.

Now it's on the internet. Most major retail companies have set up live shopping channels on their websites. And smartphones mean you can tune in any time, anywhere. Social media sites are another platform for live shows. Stores are trying to recreate the in-person shopping experience with real-time chat and shopping "parties" with friends.

Learning English with "Friends"

Many successful English language learners use television shows to learn.

Sitcoms (situation comedies) are especially popular. And, without a doubt, Friends is the most popular one. It has easy-to-understand English, familiar situations, and lovable characters. The show ended in 2004, but it's still one of the most-watched shows on streaming channels.

Elif Konus, from Turkey, used the show (among other things) to learn English. Now, she is an English teacher and has written English lessons based on "Friends" episodes. She even used the learning technique for her Master's thesis.

Celebrities such as Kim Nam-joon, the leader of the South Korean pop group BTS, have used Friends to learn English.

Visuals: average height increases

People today are taller, on average, than their ancestors 100 years ago. This is true for every country in the world.

The data shown below is based on a global study. It reports mean height for adults by year of birth, from 1896 to 1996; in other words, people who had reached their eighteenth birthday from 1914 to 2014.

Please look at the graph and discuss it with your teacher.

The Songkran Water Festival

If you go to Bangkok during the Thai New Year in mid-April, you might get splashed with water. This is because the Thai celebrate New Year with a water festival called Songkran. It is a holy festival where people bless each other with water. So, in Bangkok, people with water guns take part in huge water fights.

People of all ages take part in Songkran. You should be careful when refilling your water gun since older folks might pour ice-cold water down your back while you’re not looking. The good thing is that it’s very hot in Thailand, so the cold water feels refreshing. Some tourists join in the fun. Others don't. For those who don't, the best place to be is indoors. Anyone on the street will get splashed with water, even if they're driving. Throwing wet powder on each other's faces is also an important part of the festival!

What a fun way to spend New Year!

The Enchanted Forest

Hidden on the north coast of California is a stand of very unusual redwood trees. Salty winds off the ocean break the trunks, but the trees keep on growing. New branches grow straight up from the broken trunk. Since the trunk is tipped over on its side, the tree ends up looking like a candelabra. After generations of this cycle, the trees have become twisted into fantastical shapes.

Redwood conservationists say they've never seen anything like it anywhere else. It's become known as the Enchanted Forest. Thankfully, the twisted trunks and branches have saved the trees from being cut down. Lumber companies need tall, straight trunks, so even though the old-growth forests around them have been destroyed by logging, the Enchanted Forest remains.