日本語は難しい!or Language Learning IS Cultural Learning

(Nihongo wa muzukashi!)

OR

Language Learning IS Cultural Learning.

 

In October 2007 I gave a talk for 14 Japanese elementary school teachers. Almost all were homeroom teachers. Most only teach with their ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) once a month. The information was basic: Effective Teaching Methods and Useful Conversation Methods for Elementary Schools, but toward the end of the workshop something a little more interesting came out.

 

I asked the teachers in groups of 3 and 4 to think of phrases that they think are the most important for the ALT to know. Some groups choose phrases for talking about lesson planning, some phrases to discipline the children. But the most popular phrases were overwhelmingly phrases we don’t even have in the English language!

 

One group choose 戴きます ( itadakimasu), which is an expression of thanks before meals. They also thought ご馳走様 ( gochisosama) or ご馳走様でした ( gochisosama deshita) was important. You say this after meals and it means roughly “thank you for this feast”. Wow, I thought. That is a strange thing to choose, especially as it has no bearing on teaching. But I realized that many ALTs eat lunch with the students, and this is something very polite that the students are taught to do. As the teacher, the ALT should set a good example by also doing it, even if it is something they will never use in the classroom.

Though I could understand their choice of that phrase, I still thought it very strange to be the phrases they had chosen as the most important for the ALT to know. But that was just the tip of the iceberg; the next two groups were much more interesting!

 

The next group called me over while they were working on their phrases and asked me, “What does yoroshiku onegaishimasu mean?” Well, that’s a difficult one. Depending on the situation the meaning changes and we don’t have that same kind of phrase in English.

 

よろしくお願いいたします ( yoroshiku onegaishimasu) most literally means “please treat me favorably,” but I am not sure that the translation really does it justice. It is a part of Japanese culture and how to use it is often baffling to foreigners. If you use it when you meet someone for the first time is means “nice to meet you”. In other situations, for example when a student hands you a paper to check, it means “please help me”. Shortened to just お願いいたします ( onegaishimasu) it means please, but in a much politer sense than 下さい ( kudasai). The situations in which to use these expressions are varied. They are often times in which we would merely say, “thank you very much,” in English.

 

The final group also shared a few expressions that I was surprised at, and yet my first supervisor taught me one of them in my first few weeks in Japan. お疲れ様でした ( otsukaresama deshita) is what you say at the end of the day, and it means “thank you for your hard work; thank you; that’s enough for today.” お先に失礼します ( osaki ni shitsurei shimasu) means “excuse me for leaving the workplace before you.” When you are leaving the workplace at the same time as everyone else you can say otsukaresama deshita, but if you are leaving before them, as most ALTs do, you should say osaki ni shitsureshimasu. And this is surprisingly important for good workplace relations.

 

These phrases which really don’t have a direct translation into English were what these teachers felt were the most important things an ALT (an by extension, a foreigner) should use. They felt that these expressions are so important that to not use them is rude and strange. For good relationships with Japanese teachers they told me that ALTs should use these phrases; it is a way to bridge the gap. The use of these expressions is so ingrained into the culture that even teachers who have the experience with travel and a fluid grasp of English, who know that we do not have these expressions in our home countries, feel that these phrases are vital to healthy workplace (and potentially personal) interaction. If teachers who know about our cultures feel that way, imagine how Japanese people with a tenuous grasp of English and little to no experience of worldly travel must feel when we don’t use them!

 

What I learned from those teachers on that day was that language learning is not a matter of simple translation; so many things in Japanese do not translate adequately into English. Feelings that I’d had for a long time were clarified. To learn Japanese and to exist well in this culture is not only about learning the language. To just learn the words does not make you fluent. But to learn to use these phrases in the way as a Japanese person would; that is true fluency. Even falling short of understanding, your attempts will not go unnoticed by those you interact with here in this land of the rising sun.

 

がんばってください!

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