Thursday, August 19, 2004

Speechifying and the language barrier


I gave my little speech in front of the assembled town council and the Taisha town Mayor. They had a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) there to translate my English section of the speech, but they really responded well to the Japanese section and appreciated the effort I put forth to write it all out and practice it. I'm comfortable speaking in front of crowds and have no problem engaging an audience, but the nerves of speaking a language I'm still a complete novice were apparent. About 40 people were standing in front of me in a medium-size meeting hall, but since I'm taller than just about everyone I meet, I was able to look out over the crowd and establish some eye-contact.

After the speech, my supervisor (Utani-san), the JTE, the Mayor and his aide and I all adjourned to the Mayor's office and sat down for another chat where I spoke mainly thru the JTE, having him translate my observations and questions. More talk about what sports I like and what San Diego is like, etc.

The language barrier in general is pretty severe. I certainly should have studied more during my one year of Japanese classes at UCSD, since I'd be reaping the benefits now. I can form some simple sentences and know some vocabulary, but imagine a foreigner coming up to you and saying things in their own language and expecting you to understand. When I'm out by myself shopping or taking the train, etc. I accomplish a lot by pointing and hand gestures and I get by with a few key words, but it doesn't feel like I'm communicating. For instance, I finished a role of film and I want to drop it off at the developers, but I have to look up all the words I need (when will I get them back, two sets of prints, etc) before I go and if the clerk asks me a question I don't understand we could end up standing there for minutes until he decides to proceed.

At the same time, you'd be amazed at how much stuff here is written in English. The bus that I take to the train station has a sign in Kanji and in English, so I know I'm getting on the right bus. All the stops on the train are marked with signs in both Kanji and English. You see English on t-shirts and in company logos all the time, but sometimes in makes little sense. There is this phenomenon called Engrish, which is a term describing the Japanese adaptation of English words and phrases, sometimes with hilarious results. I'll try and post photos of some examples when I can.

And many people speak a little English, which helps tremendously. Even if they don't speak it back to me, I can tell that some of them understand me in a small way when I ask a question in English, and I can generally get by. Hopefully I'll find someone in town that will help me study Japanese, cuz it's a bear to study on my own.

I have signed up for the JET sponsored language course, but it's a correspondence course thru the mail, but every bit helps.

The biggest drawback is not being able to read simple stuff that you take for granted, like the directions on food packaging on how to cook something or the buttons on some of my appliances. My katakana (the Japanese alphabet reserved for foreign loan words) skills are not as good as I had hoped, as a few of the characters look identical to me. This katakana alphabet is used for all types of things, and the hiragana alphabet, which I know really well, is not used as much since it's often replaced by the more difficult Kanji characters.

Check out this katakana chart to see what I'm talking about:
Look at the katakana character for "so" and "n" - they often come across in print as nearly identical, as do the characters for "tsu" and "shi."
So Olympic swimmer Brendan Hansen's last name could be read ha-n-se-n with katakana or as ha-so-se-so if I'm not reading carefully.

As for reading Kanji, that's just gonna take practice, repetition and time. I know about 100 right now, and I'm gonna a get a Kanji-a-day desk calendar to practice even more. When it comes right down to it, speaking is more important than reading, so I'll try and concentrate on my communication abilities.

Oddly enough, one of my JTEs has said that he doesn't think I should speak any Japanese in front of the kids I'll be teaching, because as soon as they know I understand Japanese they'll resort to it as a crutch instead of speaking English with me. I understand this in principal, but was hoping my classes could be somewhat of a two way street at times, where I could learn some Japanese as my students are learning English. We'll see.

I've had some frustrations trying to communicate with Utani-san on even the most basic level. I was expexting some mail yesterday from the Bank here that is going to help me transfer money back to the states. I couldn't remember if I had them send the info packet to my home address or to my work address at the BoE. So I asked Utani-san if I'd received any mail that day. He couldn't understand at all and my vocab is so limited I couldn't remeber the word for to receive. Even after we got back to the BoE and used some dictionaries I couldn't really make him understand that I might be getting some mail sent to the office. We both just gave up and luckily the package arrived at my home later that day.
And I feel like a 3rd grader every time I try and speak Japanese. I enjoy the complexity of the English language and always expressed myself with a diverse vocabulary, but in Japanese I'm reduced to the simplest expressions and conjuctions. This all just acts as inspiration to study my Japanese even more dilligently.

I'm heading over to Matsue on Friday, the 20th to hang out with a 3rd year JET named Tim, who's originally from Tasmania, Australia, and we're going to see Spider-Man 2 at the local multiplex - my first Japan movie going experience.

My next post will be a catch up post encapsulating the past 3 weeks, so I can bring this up-to-date and start posting about daily topics as they happen.

I stayed up late last night, past midnight, to watch Ai-chan play her ping-pong match against a South Korean opponent, and she lost, 4 games to 1. The South Korean player was better, but Ai gave it her best.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wOOt internet connection is working!!!!!!
sorry i haven't responded to any of your stuff so far but, the internet server thingy wasn't working for the longest time =(
understand how you feel about the language barrier (that what you called it?) cause i get the same problem in my homeland, tho i'm prolly slightly better off =). You'll get used to japanese, immersion is the fastest way to learn a language
that's also the reason you should only teach your student ppls in english, then they learn faster YaY!!
so hope to contact you later and have fun
i'll try to catch up on your posts
see if you still know your acdec ppl well enough to guess who this is =p