Thanks for your reply. Let me answer your questions.
First, I would like to explain why I took a lot of exams. Of course I value what I have in my head more than pieces of paper certifying my exam results, and of course I wanted to improve my English. I believe passing English proficiency exams without improving your English is meaningless. I took a lot of exams, not because I wanted to get certificates, but because I wanted to use those exams to discipline myself. Taking an exam is like taking part in a marathon race; that makes you prepare for it. From 2004 to 2007, I took part in the Teganuma Eco Marathon for four years in a raw. It is a half marathon race held in late October. Each year, I started jogging three months before the race and stopped it after the race. Last year, I didn’t sign up for it, so I didn’t jog at all. I’m not taking part in it this year either, so I’m not doing any exercise now. I know jogging is good for me, and I know I feel good when I go jogging. Since the beginning of January this year, I’ve been telling myself that I should start jogging from next week, but I haven’t started it yet. Probably from next week. Anyway, the point is lazy people like myself need to put ourselves into a situation where we have to work regularly. For me, signing up for a marathon race helps me go jogging regularly and signing up for an English test helped me study regularly. In addition, exams can be used to motivate ourselves. When you practice English, sometimes it is difficult to see any improvement because it is a gradual process. You study every day but you don’t see any improvement, and then you will probably lose your interest, depending on the level of your intrinsic motivation. If you take an exam, you will see the level of your progress. If you pass an exam, you will be happy and that will boost your motivation.
I’m not well-disciplined and I don’t have a strong will, so I needed outside help like taking exams to keep my study going. I admire people like you who don’t need that kind of extra push to study steadily.
You asked me about my approach to studying English. When I was taking English courses leading to the Cambridge exams, we used exam preparatory books in class and I learned a lot from them. However, our teachers always emphasized that studying from preparatory books would not be enough to pass the exam and they always encouraged us to read as much as we could outside class. So I did. I used to spend one hour every day reading a newspaper and checking unknown words and phrases with Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary. I learned a great deal from that. I also read novels. Back then, the Cambridge exams had set books that we could choose to write about on our composition paper and talk about in our interview test. The school I attended had a course for it so I took it. Reading novels was fun and I liked it very much. I even ended up taking a two-year English literature course for EFL students, which was also designed for another exam, by the way. You see I’m very exam-oriented.
So, I know working on test preparation materials alone is not enough to acquire English and I agree with you that reading real English is important for language development.
You touched on what I said about real-life usefulness. Let me elaborate it a little. When I said “something useful in real life”, what I had in mind was those business people who have to deal with email correspondence in English at work. Nowadays more and more people have to write emails in English and a lot of people have difficulty in doing so. This type of email is usually formulaic. Once you have learned a certain patterns, you can write business emails easily. Perhaps you don’t consider it as “real writing” but if they have acquired this kind of skill, it will make their lives easier and they will be very happy with it. That’s what I meant by “useful in real life.”
Having said that, however, I understand what you want to say. I agree with you that learning English is more than learning fixed patterns and prescribed answer keys. There should be something more profound in learning activities.
I like you story about a girl writing her blog in English.
Say, there's a girl who doesn't have high TOEIC scores but write well in English on her blogs, though only 100 or 200 words a time with some minor grammatical mistakes. She posts her English entries more than three, four times a week, and you know from the way she writes you can tell she doesn't translate her Nipponese drafts into English.
I agree 100 % that this is a very good writing practice. I wish my fellow TOEIC bloggers do the same, like writing blog entries in English three or four times a week. It doesn’t have to be long; 100 to 200 words would be sufficient. That would be good for their English. In fact, some of them have separate English blogs already and write in English regularly. I hope more bloggers will follow them.
As for my TOEIC Vocabulary in the News series, ah, well, I’m sure my readers practice speaking and writing individually. They listen to a news report, summarize it, and give opinions in front of their computers. They just don’t want to show their responses to other people.