L’chaim! To life! Louis Levi 1925-2010

Writer(s): 
Jack L. Yohay, EFL Coordinator, Seifu Gakuen, Osaka

The great teacher and prodigious communicator Louis Levi, whose 11 years at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University followed a 1960s sojourn at Sakura no Seibo Junior College in Fukushima-ken, died this past 14 June at age 84 in Alnwick, Northumberland, UK, where since 1991 he had lived in retirement, generously sharing his literary talents, his enjoyment of the arts, and an enormous sense of fun, fuelled by a crisp morning mix of muesli and, later on, crisp, chilled white wine. Much of that sense of fun had to do with Louis’ immense appreciation for and pride in the English language. While delighting in pointing out odd, at times “atrocious” turns of phrase in print, he nurtured its development in the minds of his students, insisting on rewrite after rewrite, much as his long-time TWCU colleague Kobayashi Yuko (1991) imagined that a traditional British grammar school master would do. According to Ms. Kobayashi, he refused arbitrarily to base a pedagogical point purely on the notion of “native intuition”; as if he were an accomplished physician doing teaching and research in medical school, he would take the time to pursue the issue at hand, look things up, and perform his own rigorous analysis. He was like a doctor, examining and prescribing remedies for his “patient” learners. Professor Levi (who never even hinted at his exalted qualifications) demonstrated his scholarly powers of analysis in a seminal paper, “Talking of ‘If’” (1983), using 183 examples drawn almost entirely from popular writers, mostly of mysteries, without idiosyncratic styles, and observing that in all instances the inter-personal function of the “if” clause is more important to the discourse than the ideational content. His “A Narrative Function of the Past Perfect” had appeared (as it were) in 1982, preceded by “English Written and Spoken,” in which he points out, “Speech tends to be treated as if it were conversation; and conversation seems to be regarded as the interchange of greetings and the idle chitchat of an empty day. There seems little sense of the use of speech for such purposes as explanation, instruction, persuasion, and narration.” He goes on to recommend that initially the syntax of written material presented to learners be the syntax of speech, arguing for the instilling of “oracy” as a complement to literacy. Following graduation from Cambridge University in 1946, Louis secured a teaching-of-English certificate at Queens College and soon embarked on 12 years with the Colonial Education Service, which took him to Nigeria, Singapore, Malaysia, Fukushima-ken, Israel (Hebrew University, University of the Negev), and Papua New Guinea. He obtained an M.A. at Cambridge in 1961 and later a Ph.D. at St. Catharine’s. For 11 years he would walk in the rain under his “brolly” to the drolly-named Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, where after all he helped educate many a woman. During this time he presented at several JALT national conferences and served as My Share editor for The Language Teacher in 1988. His letters-to-the-editor published in newspapers in Japan and Britain revealed a deep concern not only for the English language but also for a number of social causes. The Biblical role of the Levi as teacher and spiritual example is to lead and thereby accompany others back to their spiritual purpose. Louis enacted this role with verve and dedication. As his Alnwick friends Jane O’Brien and Francesca Mackay express it, those of us privileged to have known Louis will ever remember one who “jostled a lot of molecules”, the gentlest of listening ears and the most loyal of friends, a truly good and gifted man who enriched our lives in so many ways. Zikhrono livrakha: may Louis’ memory be for a blessing. References Kobayashi, Y. (1991). LOUIS LEVI 教授のご退任にあたって (Louis Levi-kyouju no go-tainin ni attate). (On the retirement of Prof. Louis Levi). Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. Retrieved from Levi, L. (1982, March). English written and spoken, ibid. Levi, L. (1982, September). A narrative function of the Past Perfect Tense, ibid. Levi, L. (1993). Talking of ‘if’, ibid.

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