Thursday, August 27, 2009

What's that you say?

This week has been the kids' first week back to school following summer vacation, and in honor of this loss of freedom all of my first-year students are now experiencing the perennial joy of... can you guess it?... Speech contest! Hurray! Loyal readers will recall my previous accounts of this baffling exercise here and here.

Actually, this year they were not assigned to give a speech so much as a recitation. All the students were told to memorize a passage from one of the first few chapters of their English textbook. Ninety percent of the students have chosen the same passage — about how Charles Schultz included experiences from his daily life in his Peanuts comic strip — no doubt because that one is the shortest.

So, over the course of a week, I get to listen to a two-minute passage about this Peanuts comic. Approximately 300 times. Charming.

Notwithstanding the dubious educational value of requiring students to memorize boring segments of their textbooks, I have actually been able to find some redeeming qualities in this assignment.

The first silver lining on this storm cloud is that it has forced me to be more thankful for simple things. Before I could start to feel sorry for myself while listening to the 182nd rendition of a stilted, monotone textbook recitation, I reminded myself that I am just lucky I'm able to hear. See! Things could be worse! I should be happy I can hear my students' speeches. I am Pollyanna.

More seriously though, I have found a way to make the assignment into some kind of a positive, if only for a handful of students. Each class tends to have one or two stand-out students who really kick ass on this assignment. So when those students complete their recitation, I make a big show of calling out "Great job!", and even though I'm sure this is embarrassing, there is no missing the grins they get when they hear that praise. At the end of class I make sure to again point out the students who did well and praise them further, and you can just see them light up. A little praise goes a long way. Suddenly this public speaking task, which I'm sure they ignored all summer and then approached with dread once school was back in session, turns into a nice self-esteem booster for them. And it's at least a little more gratifying for me, too.

The other bright side to all this is the entertainment value in it. Yeah, it is boring to listen to the same dry anecdote from Charles Schultz 300 times, but this particular passage produces a consistently humorous mispronunciation from the students, who often have a hard time pronouncing a soft 'S' sound. They want to pronounce it 'Sh' instead. So instead of "CD", my students always say "She-D". Therefore, today I lost count of how many students recited, "The whole family was shitting around the dining room table" instead of "sitting around the table." Somehow this never gets old. I actually did call attention to this unfortunate mistake at the end of one class, but I don't think the students understood and the Japanese teacher did not translate it for them. Not surprisingly, teaching profanity is a no-no, so I'll just have to let this one go.

Oh well. The funny thing is, I know students have been in my shoes before. I know they've heard me make horribly goofy mistakes with Japanese, too, and they don't feel like they can clue me in. I'm sure they just don't want to embarrass me. I'll just give a few examples:

Japanese Gaff #1: Kowai/Kawaii
In Japanese, kowai (pronounced koh-why) means scary. Kawaii (pronounced like Hawaii but with a K) means cute. If you're not careful, it's very easy to say kowai when you mean kawaii. And when I first got to Japan, I mixed this up. All the time. I am certain that I inadvertently told some students they were scary.

This leads me into my next major Japanese flub:

Japanese Gaff #2: Kawaiso
A while back, Joe taught me that by adding the syllable "so" onto the end of adjectives ending with "i", you add the meaning of "looks". For example, in Japanese the word for "new" is atarashii. So if you say atarashiso it means "looks new." Oishii means delicious. So oishiso means "looks delicious." Excited about this newfound grammar point, I proceeded to practice it in my daily life, saying things to co-workers, students and perfect strangers I passed on the street. In a lot of cases, this involved me telling people I passed on the sidewalk that their babies or dogs were kawaiso — cute. Only problem is, I wasn't saying cute. There's an exception to this rule that Joe neglected to mention. Yes, kawaii means cute. But kawaiso does not mean "looks cute." To the contrary, it means "poor", "pathetic" or "pitiful". For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why people looked at me strange when I called their darling angel sleeping in the baby stroller kawaiso. Perhaps because a perfect stranger was remarking "Oh, your poor baby." Poor baby to have a parent like you!

Joe finally clued me in one day when I asked him why I kept getting odd looks from the old Japanese lady with the chubby chihuahua I like to pet.


Japanese Gaff #3: Hayai/Hidoi
In Japanese hayai means early or fast. Hidoi means terrible. They both start with H, end with I. So of course my mushy brain gets them mixed up. A couple months ago my school had its annual chorus festival in a performance hall downtown. Every class in the whole school rehearses a song and performs it at this event, along with musical renditions from the brass band, guitar club, teachers, parents and so forth.

Around 11 a.m. I ducked out to stretch my legs and found half a dozen teachers sitting in the lobby eating their lunch. Everyone had ordered a boxed lunch to be delivered to this hall. When they saw me they motioned me over and tried to tell me in Japanese that I should go downstairs to retrieve my lunch and eat with them. I tried to ask them why they were eating so early — in Japanese, because none of these teachers spoke English. I pointed at the lunch belonging to one female teacher — the one, shall we say, "big boned" Japanese teacher, a bit of a rare breed considering how slim most people are here — who was trying so earnestly to communicate with me. And I attempted to say in rudimentary Japanese "But you are eating early. Why?" What came out of my mouth though, was "Demo tabeteimasu... hidoi. Doushite?" This produced a wave of confusion as they looked back and forth laughing and chattering in Japanese. I thought that they just didn't understand what I was trying to say, so I kept repeating it, pointing at the fat lady and saying Demo, hidoi! Hidoi! Hidoi! When it was clear no one was understanding I just came out with the English, "But you're eating early!" A couple beats later one of the younger female teachers exclaimed, "Ah! Hayai!" Instantly I recognized my mistake. I'd been pointing at the fat teacher and saying "But you're eating. Terrible! Why?" Say it with me now...

All this is to say, I enjoy my students' silly English mistakes, just as I'm sure they must enjoy my dopey Japanese. We just don't always know how to tell each other.


Om said...

Haha this is one of my favourite of your blog posts ^_^. I laughed so hard when I read your 'early'/'terrible' mistake! I can't wait to do the same :-)

Diane said...

Great post. It's easy to make fun of other people's pronunciation, but somehow we seem to forget our own mistakes ...!