Monthly Archives: January 2012

Just Because: The Eloquent Misuse

“How can I refuse, such an eloquent misuse of a phrase.” Idlewild

I always thought that it would creep up on me like a slightly balding panther, stealthily, sneaking, claws primed to strike and slash away a crop of young, thick hair from my growing brow. Growing brow, I prefer that phrase to gradually receding hairline. It proffers more of a sense of victory than the defeatist linguistic equivalents of retreat.

Yes, there was always going to be a point of no return when it came to turning into my father. I figured in my teenage years that it would be the day I finally received the sort of hairline that the Japanese playfully refer to as resembling Mt. Fuji. Inevitably the attack arrived, but as it turned out, my father’s influence on me has shorn through linguistically rather than in a follicle sense.

Well so far at least.

It is a phrase wielded with ease by parents everywhere when the exhaustion of offering yet another explanation is too much to bear. At other times it’s just the quickest way of stating that something ‘is’ and won’t be changing simply because your adolescent mind is unable to fathom that the logic at work isn’t about to shift at your request.

“Because.”

Children have daily experience with, “because,” adults; not so much. As such, explaining this concept to an adult requires a touch more finesse. Sometimes I can offer a reason for a way of phrasing something and other times the mind simply boggles and I have to um, ahh, well, etooo (Japanese for um) and anoooo (Japanese for ahh) my way through a thicket of hedging to reach my point.

That point being, that I’m afraid it’s just the way it is. We ride on a train, on a bus and in a car. I know how ridiculous it sounds to a foreign listener and I sympathize but even if I knew the etymology of every jumbled bit of English language I can’t always translate it into Japanese. Even if I could I probably can’t tell you why most of the time because even linguists haven’t the faintest.

Inevitably, the final roadblock is socialization. All those times that everyone is told “because” in his or her youth has only served to hardwire in a certain fashion of thinking. So when that hardwiring comes into contact with the ancient foundations of a language, itself a tangle of roots and branches long untouched by a gardener, well it has a little problem coping sometimes.

In practical terms there is such a thing as correct way to say something, yet the nebulous nature of language means that it may not always remain that way. The beauty of language is that it is alive, it evolves and adjusts to its surroundings, bends and flexes in delightful new ways that thrill the poet and leave the pedant aghast; often one and the same person.

Sadly, many of my students tend to fall into one category or the other when they are dealing with English. I have students of all levels who take great delight in the peculiar logic behind idioms. Others who question why they simply can’t lean on their stock phrases for every situation.

In these cases my decision to tell them “because” comes down to the degree to which their freedom with, or lack of interest in the nuance, of the English language is likely to lead them into trouble or embarrassment.

Now, English, unlike Japanese, is an international language. As much as it may pain me to say it, it does not belong to England. It left home long ago and has grown up perfectly fine without its parent leaning over its shoulder. So I try to tell my more advanced students not to worry, that their phrasing, so long as their meaning is clear is perfectly valid, it’s their English and they can use it generally speaking, however they like.

Then a different problem rears its head,

“But teacher, we want to say it like a native speaker!”

 

 

Sentimental Sake:The Perils of a Late Night Beer Run

Every time I buy beer at precisely 9:55 in the evening I feel nostalgic, almost wistful. I begin to think about all the things I’ve done with my life, the myriad of things I’ve dreamt about that I haven’t even begun to get close to.

I start to plan and plot the months and years ahead. I make promises to myself. I challenge myself to do more with my time here in Japan, to take risks, travel and throw myself into the culture, to spend my money on something innately Japanese, to save more money for the day I eventually go back to England.

All these things pile up around my head as I make my way to the checkout, hand over my points card (it’s the second Japanese economy), exchange pleasantries with the staff who now know my face well enough to smile and bow from three tills away, hand over my cash, drop the six pack of Japanese lager into my reusable shopping bag and make my way to do the door wondering why all Japanese supermarkets have to play the tune of ‘Old Lang Syne’ at closing time.

Then I open my first can and forget every single resolution I just made in the ten minutes it took me to walk to the supermarket and back for a few beers after work.

Until the next time I’m greeted by an alcohol free fridge at least…

Nyaaaa-go: a Tale of Mice and Capital Punishment

“Nyaaa-go!” Screamed the slightly portly, middle-aged man dressed as a cat, his brightly coloured t-shirt somewhat detracting from his fearsome countenance. “Nyaa-go,” repeated the three women dressed as mice in a slightly higher pitched tone who then promptly collapsed into well-rehearsed giggles.

This was the opening act in the auditorium at the local International Friendship Fair.

The moral of said story, at first glance, appeared to be quite simple; if you’re a mouse and you meet a cat that says, “Nyaaa-go,” start running as fast as your wee little mouse legs can carry you.

Evidently, having missed this advice from the mouse teacher earlier in the play this performance wasn’t about to be about the savage mauling and devouring of three little mice as a hundred or so children looked on in terror as prop blood squirted from the stage, tiny mice bodies twitching in the spotlight.

No this was much lighter Japanese fare. The motto essentially being, if you overload your unknown foe with kindness, in this case more fruit than he can possible carry, you will have successfully prevented them through your excess of gift giving from snapping your tiny mouse bones. Saved from your ignorance by sweetness. I took it to mean, if a stranger offers you sweeties, offer them a whole advent calendar and there’s no way they’ll do anything untoward to you, that’d just be rude.

As the tale of the practical, moral-phobic mice drew to a close it was time for the high school debate teams to take the stage. Obviously, with this being the International Friendship Fair, one cute event would just roll into the next.

So the ‘The Death Penalty in Japan’ it was.

Actually, this was why I was in the audience. Specifically the front row, feeling probably about half as nervous as the eight teenagers on stage who were about to take to their feet one by one to debate for and against a moral quandary that would no doubt send there heads spinning in circles. Not because of the ethical aspect but rather the fact that it was all to be delivered in English. Hence my presence as a judge. Not an especially well titled one mind you.

“We have ______ san, the Principal of _________ school, then ___________ a undergrad at___________ studying English and finally… Matt!’

My nerves and embarrassment of that particularly stunning introduction aside, I should relay something to you just to give a sense of how nerve-wrackingly difficult this event would be for the kids.

One day, having spent the past three hours studying Japanese in a coffee shop in town I strode into my local bar feeling far too pleased with myself for the short lived burst of effort and energy in a more studious direction. Immediately I was met by the following sentence from a non-English speaking Japanese friend, “Masshu, Masshu, according to this Russian newspaper aliens are coming to Japan next year!”

Awww bollocks.

I hadn’t the faintest idea how to even begin discuss a subject like this in Japanese. I know the words for Alien, UFO and space but I certainly can’t discuss the finer points of alien abduction or conspiracy theories in Japanese.

So now think about these kids. Yes, if they are taking part in a National English Debate Competition it’s fair to say they’ve been born into a certain amount of privilege. Yet that doesn’t lessen my sympathy for the task they faced. Some of these kids were still clearly streets ahead of their fellow teammates; due to time spent abroad or international parents some kids could run linguistic rings around the others. Though inevitably it would all boil down to their own hard work, as our judgement was to be based largely on the strength of their arguments, not linguistic merit.

Now even if one or two teenagers particularly stood out due to their linguistic prowess I was thoroughly impressed with them all. The argument alone is hard enough but finding the words to express oneself eloquently in another language is incredibly tough. To do so in front of a crowd is brave and admirable.

If I had been similarly confronted by this situation as a teenager or even now I think my response would be the same.

Just shout, “Nyaaa-go” and make a dash for stage left.