Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Language Update

April 24, 2009


Well, Spring is here and Julie and I have established a rhythm at work again. I’ve introduced myself to the incoming underclassmen and have tried to teach them how to introduce themselves to their peers. We feel rejuvenated now that the snow is gone and the flowers and trees have begun to blossom.

With that said, tonight we’re having a low key evening. Tomorrow we’ll be traveling to Hirosaki Park to see thousands of blooming cherry trees lined around a famous castle. Check our blog in a day or two for pictures.

In the meantime I thought tonight would be a good night to give an update on how we’re doing with studying Japanese.

On our last day in Korea, Julie and I talked with our friends about how nice it’ll be to go back to Japan because we’ll actually be able to communicate with people verbally. On our first day back I went to an onsen and tried to talk with an old man. I lasted two sentences before admitting defeat by explaining that Japanese is difficult and that I didn’t understand everything he was saying. I went home humbled. Julie, on the other hand, was able to call a restaurant later that night and order take out entirely in Japanese.

Today we went out to eat at one of our favorite restaurants. It’s a small restaurant and there were a couple people sitting at a table nearby. Their chatter over pasta and pizza was ambient speech babble to my ears. I had no idea what they were saying. Towards the end of our meal I casually mentioned that the other people in the restaurant looked familiar.  Julie countered by saying that they weren’t from Noheji.  Confused, I replied, “Couldn’t they be from anywhere? Even Noheji?” Julie then explained that the people had been talking about what people in Noheji do for fun(“they can go to the big store in a nearby town but if they want to watch a movie they have to go to Aomori…”).  She was able to pick out many details of their conversation as well as the tone (“these are their options”) that indicated they were outside of the Noheji “group.” Here’s the cool part: she wasn’t listening intently. In fact Julie and I spent most of the dinner having our own conversation in English. For Julie, Japanese is no longer incomprehensible background noise, at least some of the time.

So Julie has really impressed me. She’s got a great gift for listening and speaking languages. She’s also too humble to talk about it here so that’s why I’m writing this. Awesome job, Julie.

I’ve discovered I’m not so good at listening and speaking a new language, but I love reading and pattern recognition. I’ve been studying kanji like crazy in my free time at work. With the help of mnemosyne and a fantastic book, I’ve been learning more characters and how the radicals are related to each other. It’s a lovely linguistic puzzle with pictures. One interesting thing I’ve learned (I could name several others) is that the kanji character for fondness is comprised of two radicals: mother and child.

Anyway, although we’ve made some progress, we know we have much to improve upon. In my case I feel like I’m learning things I should have been able to say or read months ago. However, now that we know our strengths and weaknesses, it should become easier to study at home and in the office.



November 30, 2008


We’ve built up quite a bit of immunity to English t-shirts over the past four months.  They’re just not as amusing as they used to be.  However, every once in a while when we go to the store something catches our eye in the aisles.  We thought the sweatshirt we discovered today was worth posting.

I <3 English.

I ❤ English.

Adapting the Lesson

November 27, 2008


In teaching you always have to be prepared to abandon your plans during a lesson. This week I prepared a lesson that included a Thanksgiving warm-up (“What are you thankful for?”), a word search of occupations in English, a target sentence (After high school I want to be a ______ because ______), a bingo game, and a flashcard vocabulary quiz over occupations.

The warm-up, I am thankful for _______ because ________, ate up 30 minutes of the 50 minute period. I was initially pretty surprised but my teachers explained to me that it is difficult for the students to reflectively express thankfulness for something in Japanese, let alone English. They are, of course, thankful and grateful for many things, but rarely would they use an expression such as “I am thankful for ________ because _______.”

This is a great example of how you can learn culture through language. Since language is essentially our tool for thinking, there are cultural goodies embedded within our layers of vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammar.  As I continue to make progress in my Japanese (very slow progress I might add), I gain insight into their culture, too.

Anyway, although it didn’t quite go according to plan, it was a successful lesson.  Oh, and here are some of my favorite responses that the students shared in class:

  • I am thankful for sun because he created the earth.
  • I am thankful for my mother because she fights with me.
  • I am thankful for the sea because it gives me delicious food.
  • I am thankful for my mother because she gave me life.
  • I am thankful for anime because it moved me for the first time.
  • I am thankful for friends because they are kind.
  • I am thankful for my girlfriend because every day is happy and enjoy.
  • I am thankful for the earth because it created us.
  • I am thankful for socks because they make me laugh when made a hole.
  • I am thankful for strawberry because it makes me happy.
  • I am thankful for my friends because they are always friendly to me.
  • I am thankful for erasers because they erase everything.
  • I am thankful for my family because I am grown by them.
  • I am thankful for foods because I need food to live.

A Welcomed Frustration

October 29, 2008


During the first month after arriving in Japan, I was happy to find that I was easily able to concentrate on reading, thinking, or working, even while many busy people were having conversations all around me. Like a song without lyrics or a complicated melody, the sound of people speaking Japanese was a soothing, bubbling background noise to accompany my thought processes.

Lately, to my delight, I have been very distracted while reading a book in a teacher`s office during lunch or while studying Japanese at my own office.   I’m delighted by this because it means that I’m learning! Japanese is no longer a meaningless string of syllables, but a code that my brain is starting to crack.

Even though I cannot concentrate on my Japanese lesson, at least it’s because I’m starting to get somewhere with my listening comprehension.

Julie’s turn

September 4, 2008

Hello everyone! Julie here.

Sorry I’ve been so blog-shy for the past month. I’d like to break that trend starting…


My Job

While here in Japan, I’ll be working at the Kamikita Education Office, based in Shichinohe, a small community near the center of Kamikita County.  This office has a first and second floor.  The people working on the first floor are educational professionals and past teachers who help students (and their parents) plan their educational path.  The second floor workers are past teachers, principals, and financial experts who counsel and mentor the teachers in the area and also manage finances.  I work with the group of people upstairs.

My office

My office

My desk

My desk

“But I thought you worked in a school?”

Although my employer is the Kamikita office, the biggest part of my job is to visit the junior highs and elementary schools in two communities in Kamikita County.  I will be teaching in three elementary schools and one junior high in Noheji, and four elementary schools and one junior high in Yokohama, a small coastal town about 45 minutes from Noheji.  I am only at the office on the days that I do not have a school visit.

While at the office I have plenty of time to plan out my school lessons, work on side projects from teachers in Kamikita, practice Japanese with my coworkers, and catch up on all of my internet needs (except for Facebook because my work computer blocks it).

Everyone in the office has been really friendly and curious towards me. They like to practice their English with me (which is much better than my Japanese) and often have little tidbits for me related to teaching or to living in Japan in general.

For example:

“Japanese students arevery shy. It will be difficult for you.”

“The students only see igloos and the white bear when they think of Alaska.  Show them what you see when you think of Alaska.”

“You’d better prepare your own chopsticks.”

“Drive slowly; it is better.”

School Visits Thus Far

I’m nearing the end of my first week of visiting schools.  I’ll be averaging four school visits per week. So far this week I’ve visited a junior high on two separate days, an elementary school the next day, and then tomorrow I’ll visit a different elementary school.  It’s nice to get a taste of the pace I’ll have to keep for the next three months or so.  My schedule slows down a bit starting in January.

Taylor gave you a good description of the lesson format that I tried out on my first class.  I was with a group of energetic first year students at a junior high in the area. The night before I had been really stressed out thinking that the students would be intimidating and that my whole lesson might not go as planned.  Although I did have to alter the lesson as I went along, I no longer have any fear of smart mouthed kids who try to foil my lesson.

I have two main reasons for this:

  1. They speak Japanese 95% of the time, so I can’t tell if they are trying to coax me into furthering their disruption.  I just act like they are going right along with the lesson, and we all keep moving right along.
  2. They are little children.  They aren’t that scary.

The elementary school students have a really hard time controlling their curiosity when I visit. I have found that the younger students are very curious about me and are not embarrassed to try out their English, but they don’t have very much vocabulary to work with.  What happens in this situation is one of two things: 1. They start blurting out question after question in Japanese or 2. They say all of the English phrases they can think of, even if it doesn’t quite fit in with the conversation.

My favorite out-of-place comment came from a 4th grader.  While passing him in the hallway, our conversation went something like this:

He shouts to me, “Hello! How are you? I am fine. Thank you!”

I was on my way to another class, so I said while walking quickly, “Oh good! I am fine, too. See you!”

He was not happy that the conversation was ending so quickly and so responded heartily, “I love you!”

A quick, “Thank you!” was all I could think of to say.

The older students know their numbers, their colors, and other basic adjectives, but they are much more shy and do not seem to care very much about learning English. It’s been a bit of a challenge. If the student can figure out an interesting topic to bring up using the basic English that they know, they will get into the lesson.

This happened during one of my introduction lessons. I talk about my favorite animal, which of course is a whale, and the students all think it’s weird and interesting that I worked as a guide on a whale watching cruise. About 10 minutes after I finished my talk with this one particular class, we were in the middle of a lesson about colors. The students were asked to name things that are a certain color.

“Green, green, what is green?”

The students respond, with a lack of passion: “Grass. Tree. Leaf. Wasabi. Cucumber.”

Then, one student, catches my eye and says loudly, “Green Peace! Green Peace! Green Peace!”

Yep, he got a sticker for that one.

Fire Drill

I was able to observe a fire drill at the elementary school that I visited earlier this week.  The drill involved a “Safety Place” flag that was my duty to hold, smoke machines, and a large canvas chute that allowed two teachers and three students to safely make it out a third story window to the ground.  The end of the chute was thrown out of the window and anchored to the ground about 25 feet away from the building.  It was steep! Five people safely made it down while the whole school watched standing in rows outside.

I wish I had a picture.

Everyone in Japan carries a small hand towel on their person at all times.  This is used for drying hands, as most public restrooms to not provide towels.  The students all held their hand towels over their faces as they made their way outside.

Toyota Starlet

It takes about 40 minutes to drive from our town, Noheji, to Shichinohe.  I’ve had to ride the bus to the office everyday, which means getting up very early in order to catch the bus at 6:48 a.m.  Yuck.

The bus stop near my office

The bus stop near my office

Riding home from work
Riding home from work

That will end today, though.  This morning I met with a car dealer who is handling the exchange of a 1995 Toyota Starlet from a past ALT in the area to me.  Starting at 4:00 p.m. today, I will be able to legally drive in Japan.

English on Japanese t-shirts

August 19, 2008

Here are a few favorites. Look for the full Flickr set during the first week of September.

How to learn new words

July 30, 2008

Aside from using the JET Japanese textbook, a Japanese-English dictionary, and enrolling in Japanese classes, you can also download a few free memorization programs on the web.  They essentially work like flashcards.  The difference is that the program was developed based on how you learn.  If you miss a word or character the program will come back to it precisely when you need it.  It’s a spooky brain science algorithm.

For Mac, we recommend Genius.

PC?  Try Mnemosyne.