Thursday, April 26, 2007


The finer points of Japanese grammar further obfuscated (unnatural selection at work in the classroom)

As part of my renewed determination to grapple with and subdue the Japanese language, I've been taking three freebie classes a week recently: one in Hirakata on Tuesdays, one on Friday morning in Makino (where Wes lives) and the one in Bentencho that I've been going to for over six months.

Tuesday night is always a bit of a lottery- there aren't really enough teachers and I haven't had the same ones twice in a row since I've been there. Thankfully, the ones I have had a couple of times- Nishimura-sensei and Motomura-sensei- have been pretty decent. This week, however, was a debacle.

Once again faced with a dearth of teachers, the bird in charge paired me up with a Thai student who's studying at pretty much the same level as me. No problems so far, except we got stuck with an absolute disaster of a teacher. Let us call him Darwin.

Here's the thing: all of the people who teach me are volunteers. Unlike me, they don't make money out of language teaching; they just do it for whatever reason. This guy was evidently one of the unfortunate few who see it as a great opportunity to exercise their shite English on the more tight-fisted members of the Japanese-learning community. Darwin-sensei, it turns out, was at the bottom of this particular barrel, being enthusiastic but incapable in the delivery of English.

Example: where Nishimura-sensei might have said "kore wa riyuu desu ne" whilst breaking down a sentence, Darwin-sensei busted out "Dis... Reason!" stabbing his finger emphatically at the appropriate clause in the sentence.

When a glow of realisation failed to spread over my face, he got a bit flustered. In fact, I was giving him the ice grill (VMM) for two reasons: firstly, I was perfectly familiar with which part of the sentence was the goddamn reason and having it bellowed back at me by a monkey in a shirt wasn't bringing me any closer to knowing which of the four provided (and damnably nuanced) words for "because" I was meant to cram into the gap in the middle of the sentence.

Secondly, poor old Thai-jin to my right didn't understand English at all, so the debauched old goat's abysmal "attempt" at an explanation was about half as much use to him as it was to me. And half of nothing isn't much.

When I asked him, in Japanese, to explain or give an example, in Japanese, of how we could distinguish between various kinds of "because" he muttered something about "umaku setsumei dekinai" which I shall (un)charitably translate as: "I can't speak Japanese either. Somebody please throw me in a furnace."

Even more aggravatingly, a girl who'd taught/chatted with me a few weeks previously was assigned to our table to watch this senior (older) instructor at work and it must have made her think long and hard about whether she actually wants to become a teacher herself. Despite being young and bright, she wouldn't stick her oar in unless he directly asked her for assistance, which he was unlikely to do as Japan is not really a society in which old men listen to young women.

Fortunately, I found out that if I pestered Darwin enough about the differences between similar words, he'd bod off to ask the counsel of some teacher who wasn't too young and female to be of use. On these occasions, Thai-jin and myself would have about 90 seconds of getting genuine help from Doris Day.

The girl herself was smart enough, but hadn't really been around proper teachers enough. Thai-jin asked about the word wazato (meaning "on purpose"; I learned this the hard way, during my third week in Japan). Doris Day, rather than blaring at him in stunted English, told him in crisply-spoken Japanese that it meant the opposite of "by chance." All good, except, of course, that he didn't understand that one either.

Time for Dan with the stick-man art. I sketched out a quick picture of a concerned-looking juvenile stick man, with a football and a broken window.

"This is not wazato."

I sketched another, more delinquent-looking stick man throwing stones at a window.

"This kid is a shitty bastard. This is wazato"

Thai-jin was delighted with this and humbly declared me his teacher, which made me feel more bad than good; I hope that Doris Day will be versatile enough to add stick-man art to her teaching repetoire in future. I think Darwin's going the way of the dodos.

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you bring up the word "dodo" and i have to think of that "hof." dude, you won't like me when i'm angry.--vmm
Now I think of it, that's a word which would definitely improve any language, especially Japanese.

Hof demo ikanai?
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