The Big Three-Oh!

Two days ago, my outservice students threw a surprise birthday party for me.

One of them had gotten some delicious strawberry shortcake, and they both congratulated me beautifully in English. And the female student, K, said delightedly: "Now you will be misoji too. " (I'd mentioned that I'd be turning 30 soon several weeks ago.) This was followed by the query: "What is misoji in English?"

My trusty Japanese-English dictionary lists "thirty years of age; [a person in one's] thirties" as translations, but in my opinion, they just don't cut it. They fail to convey the apprehension , excitement, and pressure that come with this number. I gave my student the phrase "the big three-oh" off the top of my head in class, and after doing some backup research on the Net, I still stand by it as the best way to convey the nuances of the word in English.

I guess the very fact that I could come up with such an apt translation in English is testament to the fact that turning 30 is a big deal in both cultures. Especially for women. There is a sudden rush to get married among my friends, and I'll be going to a record number of weddings this year.

And now that I've actually hit the big three-oh? Let's just say that it has been the most exciting birthday in years. Reaching this landmark has reminded me of how precious time is, and how I have to make the most of it.
posted by EnglishMaster at 22:37| Comment(4) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする



Happy Girls' Day!

We didn't get around to taking out the Hinamatsuri dolls until about ten days ago, and considering the fact that the dolls are only let out of their box once a year, I felt that they hadn't gotten the attention that is their due.
Plus there's the fact that I don't want those hours of carefully tying hats in place and decorating the seven-tier platform to have been for naught.

And so I've decided to post a picture here to allow my readers to admire them:


For those of you who are not sure about how to explain the dolls in English, they are, from the top:

The Prince and Princess
Three Ladies-in-Waiting
Five Musicians
Two Ministers
Three Manservants (flanked by the cherry tree on the left, and the mandarin orange tree on the right)
...and assorted furniture and goods for the Princess' dowry including a tea room, a palanquin, and an ox-drawn carriage.

These dolls have braved the high seas to accompany our family to the U.S. and back, and I don't think there has been a single year when we neglected to take tthem out and put them on display.

When we were living in the States, we held hinamatsuri parties so that all our friends could admire the dolls. Which is all the more reason why I feel guilty for not having any guests to ooh and aah over them anymore. Although there is less than half an hour to go of March 3rd, at least this blog will allow me to put them on display to a larger audience than my immediate family.

After almost 30 years though, the dolls are starting to look the worse for wear. Some of the delicate decorative touches are starting to flake off, the manservants' eqxuisite costumes have come unglued in places, one of the ministers is missing a tassel for his hat cord, and the red paint adorning one of the ladies-in-waiting's mouths is showing signs of chipping.

I'll probably have to spend some time on maintenance before putting the dolls away for the year, but I can't help wondering how long they're meant to last. Is 30 years too long? Is one supposed to get married, have a baby girl, and invest in a new doll set before the old one goes out of commission? I think I've reached the age where such thoughts get to be more than a little frightening.

There is a commonly held superstition that the dolls must be packed away promptly after the festival, or the girls in the house will have trouble getting married. My mother believes this, and if there is no time to put the dolls away tomorrow, we'll probably cover the dolls faces with tissue paper, and make them face the wall.

So this leads me to wonder: would it be bad luck to keep the picture posted here way after the festival is over? If the picture disappears in a day or two, you'll all know what my answer to that question was.
posted by EnglishMaster at 23:40| Comment(4) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする


A Naruhodo! Moment


Some of my co-workers complain that after listening to mistakes all the time, the start to get confused themselves as to what is "correct" or "natural" English. Those who have been here for a really long time may even get to the point where they aren't even sure what is English, what is Japanese, and what is Japanese-English.
I saw a prime example of this last week.

A representative from an educational publishing company had come to our school to explain how wonderful the new textbooks they had co-developed with us were. Some way through his spiel, he exhorted us with the comment: "You have to give your students that Naruhodo! moment!"

Wait a minute, I thought. Why did he just throw in a Japanese word? Having flipped through one of neurologist Kenichiro Mogi's books the previous day at Maruzen, I knew that the appropriate English word for such a moment would be an '"Aha!" moment'. Although I kept my expression completely implacable, I was shouting "Don't you mean that we have to give our students an 'Aha!' moment?" in my head.

Added to this was the fact that I found his attitude unbearably condescending. Of course we give our students "Aha!" moments. I 'm not really happy unless I see lightbulbs going off above their heads at least three times in a lesson. And no, contrary to what he preached, I never "dumb down" my English for my students; I have too much respect for them to do that. I think this was the point at which I let myself tune out completely.

I'm sure that guy had no idea that he'd inadvertently slipped in a Japanese word, which makes it doubly scary. Thankfully, none of my co-workers were so far gone as to let that go unheeded; some did not even know the word "naruhodo" and were offended at his presumption that we did.
(Of course, I'm sure he didn't presume anything; he was probably completely unaware of the fact that he'd used a Japanese word.)

But slip-ups like that are not that uncommon. Once, after a New Zealander friend used the phrase "sex friend", I shot him a look and pointed out the fact that he'd just used Japanese English. Not one to be abashed, he said airily: "Oh, yes, I'm perfectly aware of that. I was just testing you."

Until now, I've been relatively immune to this kind of mix-up, perhaps because I associated different languages with different physical locations (English at school; Japanese at home) as a child and learned to use separate parts of my brain for each language.

But today, I found myself slipping an English word into a conversation with my parents by mistake. Although they didn't seem to notice (it was the word "airport", for the record), I'll take that as a warning that I have to be careful, too.
posted by EnglishMaster at 22:20| Comment(3) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする


Letters from Iwo Jima


I'd actually been wanting to see this movie for some time for a
number of reasons.

First of all, I'm passionately interested in WWII history in general, especially since I read Toyoko Yamazaki's epic "Two Homelands" last year. Any film that is set in this era will rouse my curiosity, although said curiosity quickly abates if the film is a historically inaccurate one-sided one, such as "Pearl Harbor" and the numerous recent Japanese films that serve only to whitewash and glorify the war.

Second, I was intrigued by the interview Ken Watanabe gave in TIME magazine, where he talked about the character he portrayed, Lt. General Kuribayashi. I'd read about Kuribayashi in Yamazaki's book and had been very impressed; Watanabe's interview served only to heighten my esteem for this historical figure.

And last but not least, how could I miss all the rave reviews in numerous publications? Not to mention the Oscar nomination.

I knew I had to see this movie on the big screen.

Although catching the one o'clock show today meant putting lunch off until four, it was well worth it (I was having trouble digesting my McBreakfast anyway) as it fully lived up to my expectations.

Clint Eastwood did a remarkable job contrasting the bleakness of Iwo Jima and the poverty of the Japanese homeland against the affluence of California. The sheer wealth of the U.S. is dizzying, even, and one cannot help but be in total agreement with Kuribayashi when he states that it is total madness for Japan to wage a war with this superpower.

A lot of attention has been paid to detail (Were those real Hermes riding boots that Baron Nishi was wearing?), and the movie is probably a great primer for western audiences, like the fact that while the Americans were armed with machine guns, the Japanese only had single-shot rifles; how many Japanese seriously believed that sheer willpower would overcome differences in logisitics; how resources were so scarce that even cooking equipment was requisitioned so that it could be melted down for iron. And as Kuribayashi notes, the Americans were producing 5 million cars a year at that time!
(By the way, those rifles were called 38s because they were 1905 models; 1905 being the 38th year of Emperor Showa's reign. In the movie, none of the soldiers hit the targets during target practice, but who can blame them when they only have 40-year-old guns?)

There are no good guys or bad guys in the movie. Some men are stubborn, some men are narrow-minded, some are just plain ignorant, but they are all trying to do their jobs. Like any great war movie, it tells us that men are not evil, only war; that war is dehumanizing but some men somehow manage to hold onto their humanity.
In this sense, my favorite character was actually Ito (played by Ryo Kase, who stars in another hot movie: "I Just Didn't Do It").

Watching a movie like this forces me to ask myself: How would I react in such a situation? Would I be able to hang on to my ideals and my humanity, or would I be swept along in the madness like the rest of the crowd? I am not confident that it would be the former. And as evidenced by the recent natto craze, the Japanese people as a whole are easily led by the nose.

Another point that struck a chord with me was how antagonistic the other officers are toward Kuribayashi, who has seen more of the world than they have. Although xenophobia is (for the most part) no longer much of an issue, I believe that this suspicion of people who have lived, studied, or worked overseas, is still prevalent in the minds of many Japanese. Even in my father's company, there was a clear dividing line between those who had stayed in Japan for their entire careers and those who had been posted overseas. There may be curiosity, interest, and even respect, but "returnees" are still considered "different" in a culture that prides itself on its homogenity.

Which, I suppose, is why the scriptwriter decided that Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi, another English-speaking, well-traveled Japanese officer on Iwo Jima, should be friends. This, I personally found to be a little jarring. Would a general who insisted that he have the same meal as the lowliest private really befriend a colonel who cantered around on his horse for fun while his men were hard at work?
(A quick check on Wikipedia confirmed that the two had definitely not been buddies.)

One final detail that upset me slightly was the sloppiness of the Japanese subtitles. Most of the movie was in Japanese, so there were subtitles for only the brief snippets of conversation that were in English, but many of the ones I couldn't help glimpsing were wide of the mark.
Because I tried hard not to look at them too much, I don't remember any of the mistakes clearly bar one:
In one scene, one of two American soldiers who are guarding two Japanese POWs says (of the POWs) "They're sitting ducks." However, the subtitles twist this into "They're gonna shoot us," (since the POWs are unarmed, one can only suppose that "they" refers to the rest of the Imperial Army) which turns the situation on its head.
The other errors may not have been quite as bad, but couldn't they have paid this great movie a little more respect?
posted by EnglishMaster at 00:38| Comment(0) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする



One of my pet peeves at the moment is the prevalance of electronic dictionaries in the classroom.
Almost every student (even the beginners) seems to have them, and if they see or hear a word they don't know, or don't quite have the vocabulary to say what the want to say, the lids go up, and busy fingers go to work.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against electronic dictionaries in general. I use one myself (as I detailed in a previous article), and I find them very useful, if used properly.

And I can understand how they're probably a must when one is struggling to read and write English at work.

But are electronic dictionaries (or even dictionaries in general) really essential in conversation classes?

I don't think so.

First of all, you have a living, breathing dictionary right in front of you. I.e., the teacher!
The logical thing to do if you don't understand the meaning of a word is to ask. Not asking, and jumping straight to the dictionary sort of implies that you don't trust the teacher.
(Although, I admit, perhaps not all teachers are worthy of trust.)

A good teacher should be able to explain new words in such a way that a student with even the most basic vocabulary can understand their meanings and how they're used.

If you aren't satisfied with the explanation, by all means, go to the dictionary. But the dictionary should be your last recourse, and not your first.
And this probably won't be necessary unless you're doing some really advanced material.

Going to a dictionary first can, in some cases, actually hamper understanding, since it can be difficult to see which meaning is appropriate for the context in question. I often see mistakes in translation in students' books, and I delight in getting them to realize that perhaps their dictionaries are not so reliable after all.

This is actually good training for real life. You can't really afford to pull out your electronic dictionary and tap away at it in the midst of a party or negotiation, can you? Not if you don't want to be rude.

And asking the teacher directly is actually a good way of gauging his or her abilities. A colleague who used to work as a consultant once told me a story about CEO who asked, at the end of a presentation, "So, what's GDP?" Apparently, he really wasn't familiar with the term, but it could have been a test, since even a roomful of highly-paid, extremely bright consultants had trouble coming up with a good definition on the spot.

So you shouldn't really need an English-Japanese dictionary.

You shouldn't really need a Japanese-English dictionary, either.
If you don't know the appropriate English word, just paraphrase!

Let's say you're speaking in Japanese, and you forget the word "uni" (sea urchin). Do you panic and start wishing that you had a dictionary with you? Of course not! Maybe you'll say something like "What's that really expensive orange-yellow stuff you put on sushi?" And your friends will probably respond with "Do you mean 'uni'?"

Paraphrasing is a great technique because it makes you focus on the vocabulary that you DO have, rather than the vocabulary you don't have and wish you did. This is what "thinking in English" is all about.
However, practice is required if you wan't to be able to do it smoothly. And the classroom is actually a great place to practice, since teachers are used to guessing what students actually want to say, and can help you work on good techniques to explain what you're thinking. Why squander that opportunity by whipping out your dictionary?

And again, Japanese-English dictionaries can give you quaint, outdated, or otherise outright wrong words for a certain context. The other day, a co-worker told me about a student who took one look at his face, tapped away at her dictionary, and triumphantly proclaimed "You're fatigued!"
Apparently, her dictionary didn't see fit to tell her that "tired" was far more appropriate than "fatigued."

Many people CAN funtion without their dictionaries if so required.
Once, when I was reviewing reported commands in a lesson, I said "Don't use your dictionary!" to a student simply because I wanted see if he could rephrase my sentence correctly as "You told me not to use my dictionary."
However, he thought I was serious, and drew back with a start every time his hands subconsciously (practically an addiction, at this point) reached for his dictionary. And although he struggled a bit in the beginning, he did fine. The next time I taught him, he smiled and put his dictionary away the moment I walked into the room. (Weaning people from their dictionaries has become something of a minor hobby.)

So, next time you go to a conversation class, LEAVE YOUR DICTIONARY IN YOUR BAG AND PUT YOUR BRAIN TO WORK!
posted by EnglishMaster at 12:50| Comment(3) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする



Two days ago, I finally got my new toy---a Canon Wordtank G70.

To be honest, I did waver until the last minute between the G70 and the SR-E10000 from SII. Had I read tanton-san's glowing endorsement before going to Bic Camera, I might have bought the Seiko instead.
However, what's done is done, and I'll have to live with my choice.
And I'm actually quite happy---so far.

I'm not that happy with Bic Camera, though. I ended up paying 17,000 yen more than the lowest listed price on kakaku.com, and the salesperson refused to give me a discount. Either I've lost my touch, or they've become stingier. (Or maybe it was because I was buying "the most popular model")
I did manage to wring a small concession out of them: I got them to include a small case for the dictionary for free. Although it looked clunky and unappealing at first, I'm now grateful for the extra padding it offers. And it's actually much nicer than the other, more expensive cases they had on sale.

Back to the dictionary.

The pros:

I love Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary (5th edition). I tried looking up some words I'd used earlier in the year on an interpreting job, and they came up immediately, complete with helpful hints on usage. Amazing! This is going to make translating so much easier.

I also love the English-Japanese Collocations Dictionary (the Eiwa Katsuyou Dai-jiten). Although I rarely have trouble figuring out which words go together, it's nice to have a dictionary back up my instincts.

There are nifty little icons on the screen for "phrasal verbs" and "idioms", which give me lists of just the phrasal verbs or idioms for a particular word. Great for planning lessons.

The "stroke order" function on the Kanjigen Kanji Dictionary is pretty cool, and has managed to draw gasps of appreciation from my friends. Unfortunately, it's limited to only the most basic of kanji; for example, it couldn't tell me the stroke order for "牽".

The jump function can be quite useful, since it lists entries from all the dictionaries that are available. However, it can be cumbersome if I already know which dictionary I want to jump to.

Since it has both a British English and an American English Dictionary, it can be fun to compare the two, especially since this can be done by an ingenious function called "search all dictionaries". The two look suspiciously similar in most cases, though, and the Oxford English Dictionary (Br.E.) does have notes on American English Usage.

The cons:

The layout of the keyboard is far from intuitive. I had to look in the manual to figure out which keys controlled the "page up" / "page down" functions. Also, there are no one-touch keys for the collocations dictionaries, which I plan to use quite often.

The Japanese thesaurus is not as good as I expected. It offers a short explanation of when to use which word, but no comprehensive list of synonyms and antonyms. I actually think the Japanese thesaurus from Shogakukan (included in the SR-E10000) is far more superior. Oh, well...

The stylus is relatively easy to use, but I still get nervous about poking the screen with it. And having to take it out and put it away each time I use it can be a drag.

The "Comprehensive Dictionary of Collloquial English" is absolutely useless, for me at least. I looked up "get to", but the only definition they had was "to arrive at." Whatever happened to "start work on"? And "get to first base" was described as "to finish the first phase of something." The authors of the dictionary were apparently unwilling to explain how the phrase is used by American teenagers to talk about relationships.

The verdict:

75% (for now)

I haven't figured out how to use all the functions yet, and no doubt this gadget will grow on me.

However, I can't help but be reminded of one of my favorite jokes:

Q: Why is a computer like a man?
A: Because as soon as you commit to one, you realize that if you had waited just a little longer, you could have had a better model.

posted by EnglishMaster at 14:48| Comment(4) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする


Lost and Found

This morning, I woke up to discover my wallet lying on the floor at the foot of my bed.

The same wallet that I'd given up for lost the day before.
The wallet that I was so sure I'd lost, that I'd cancelled all the bank cards and credit cards I'd kept in it.

Better safe than sorry, I'd told myself, even though I balked a little when told that reissuing my credit cards after cancelling them could take up to three weeks.

And now, I realized, it had all been for nothing.

The wallet lay on the floor as if mocking me.
And not eight inches from the pile on the floor where I'd upended my bag in my frantic search for it the previous evening. Had I simply overlooked it? It just didn't seem possible.

Resisting the urge to kick it, I took picked it up gingerly and took it downstairs to show my mother.

She was remarkable calm about it. "Flew back in the night, I expect, " was her take on the situation. "You had that charm on it after all, didn't you?"

Yes, the charm. I'd tied a little charm in the shape of an owl on to my wallet, more as an anti-theft device than anything else. The bell inside it jangled loudly whenever I touched it (my co-workers teased me about sounding like Santa Claus) and I'd thought it a great deterrent for any would-be thief or pickpocket.
(Which was why I'd been doubly upset the previous night. I was so sure that no one could have nicked it)

"Which shrine was that charm from, anyway?" she asked me. I could no longer tell, the name of the shrine having rubbed off the back in the months since I'd attached it. "You got it for me, remember?" I asked. That seemed to trigger her memory. "Oh yes, that one was from the Amano-Iwato Shrine. No wonder it was able to fly back on its own; that shrine houses a powerful god." Then she added, "This was a warning. Don't keep your wallet lying around in the cloakroom at work anymore!"

I really don't know what to think. Unlike my mother, I'm not really a believer. Had I simply left the wallet at home, and then overlooked it when I got home? Had the thing really flown home? Had some zashiki-warashi hidden it from me as a lark? Are such things possible anyway? Or was this simply a sign that I was overworked, exhausted, and in dire need of a vacation?

The only thing I know is that I won't be buying anything for a while on Amazon, at least not until I get my credit cards sorted out again. (I wonder if I'll still be able to hang on to all those miles I earned.) I probably won't be going shopping for clothes either, since I dislike carrying around a lot of cash.
And maybe I'll follow my mother's advice and take to carrying my wallet around with me at work.

posted by EnglishMaster at 02:09| Comment(3) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする




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