Thursday, December 02, 2004

Learning Names and Language

What follows is a list of the names of the 23 ni nen sei (8th grade) students in one of my twice-weekly, elective English classes.

8 of the names below belong to female students; the rest are boys’ names. See if you can pick out the girls’ names...


How’d you do? There are ways to detect gender as you get more familiar with Japanese, but it’s still damn tough. And my pronunciation is way off on a few, which of course elicits laughter anytime I try and say some names. Notice that I have a Hiroshi and a Hitoshi. I have two boys named Tomoya and two boys named Yasuto.

The list of girl names starts with Mayu and goes thru Maiko. Many female names end in ~ko. So I have 8 girls in the class.

Add two more obstacles to my trying to learn my students’ names:

1) Subtle differences in pronunciation are a big deal sometimes. It’s not just like Americans named Willem vs William or Kirsten vs Kristen, or Katy vs Kate. Those are still identifiable as male or female names. But a common boy name here is Yuuki and a common girl name here is Yuki. I’ve called a few boys here Yuki, without elongating the U sound, and it gets howls of laughter from his classmates and in one instance a well-deserved glare, since I’d just made him a girl.

2) When I ask Japanese kids their name by saying “What is your name” in either Japanese or English, the response is always lightening fast and most often said in the traditional Japanese style of last name (or family name) first followed by the first name. So I would be Harris Jason, or John Lennon’s wife would say her name Ono Yoko when speaking with other Japanese people. When I ask the kids their first name, they often looked puzzled or stare back blankly, since all their teachers generally refer to them by their last names.

I’ve been making a real effort to at least learn the names of the teachers I interact with on a regular basis, but I’m a visual learner when it comes to remembering names, so I need to write them down. But I feel bad asking teachers to say their name or spell it after 4 months of being here. I know my main teachers at my Jr. High because I see them almost everyday, but I’m still meeting some of my Elementary teachers for the first or second time, and anytime they send me a lesson plan or other document their name is always written in Kanji, which makes it really hard for me to decipher.

I’d like to learn more of my students’ names, especially at my Jr. High, but it’s really tough. The chances of me remembering a child’s name at one of my 5 elementary schools is even more remote. And the ironic thing there is that many of my Elem. kids love rushing over to me and blurting out the only English phrase they really know by heart, which is “My name is ~~~~.” I just smile and say “Nice to see you again” or “Genki desu ka” which is “How are you?” in Japanese.

You want to know the hardest thing for me right now in regards to learning written Japanese? Let me offer an example:

Here^%\sentence++hasmanywords#@$it andallrunstogether^&*youunderstand

The above sentence is almost unintelligible. Well that’s kinda like learning Japanese. They put no spaces between words, so you just have to learn particles and markers for word separation. They often use no punctuation, so no periods at the ends of sentences, no commas, no question marks. They do have a form of quotation marks. They use and intermix three different writing alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. The symbols above represent Kanji. Even when I can decipher some sentences, there are still tons of Kanji I can’t read, so there are little holes in my sentences. Add to that the fact that in a Japanese newspaper the text is meant to be read from top to bottom and from right to left, and you can see some of the difficulty I’m having with the written language.

But I persevere. My speaking abilities are definitely getting better, and my confidence in the classroom after four months is far greater than when I first arrived. Of course, much of that vocab is classroom specific stuff like “Mo ikai” which means “one more time” or “suwatte” which means “sit down” or “joozu desu nee” which means “well done” or “really good.” I’m still struggling when I go out into the Japanese community, but it gets better with each passing day. My ability to understand what is being said TO me is much better, but I’m still having trouble articulating what I want to convey without resorting to English.

I just turned in my first Japanese test in a correspondence course offered thru the JET organization. It was fairly easy for me, as I have at least studied Japanese a little bit in college, but I still had to look some things up (it’s an open book test), so that was disappointing. I have to set aside more time to study in the evenings.

That being said, I’m gonna turn the computer off for a while and try to get some other things done, like the dishes and some laundry and maybe I’ll even listen to my Japanese language CD while I’m doing these tasks.



Emily Watkins said...

Well, I got the three 'ko's, and I recognized Megumi as a girls name. *sigh* Four out of eight ain't bad.

And I'm right there with you on the massive lines of hiragana. It's so medieval! I've found some little kid books at the 100-yen store that are nice in that they put spaces between the words. Even those can be difficult to translate, though, cos my fancy, expensive Canon Wordtank G50 is made for Japanese people, and thus contains (as far as I can tell) only the infinitive forms of the verbs, and not any conjugations. So first I have to figure out *that* a given word is a verb, then I have to guess what its infinitive form is. In a way, kanji is almost easier. Actually, furigana is the best: I can use the hiragana to look the words up, and use the kanji to confirm that I've got the correct translation.

Emily Watkins said...

By the way, your longrunonsentence is what's messing up the formatting of this page now; you might want to consider inserting a space somewhere in there.

Jason H. said...

Thanx Em - fixed it.