Last month I listened to Reverend Kakihara from the Tacoma Buddhist Temple speak at a Lenten series in my church. The minister, born in Japan, described his faith beautifully and I learned many things about Buddhism, especially about Jodo Shinshu Nishi Hongwanji Buddhism which he practices.
At the same time, watching his mannerisms and listening to his speech patterns felt like a step back to an earlier time of my life. My career in English as a second language began with hundreds of Japanese students who came to Western Washington University in the early 1990’s in the Asian University America Program (AUAP).
I assisted in ESL classrooms as a university student,. After classes, my conversation partners made me sashimi and served me green tea in a formal ceremony. I learned about the three writing systems of the language, the alphabet sounds and even managed a limited vocabulary with words like really, you’re welcome and thank you (not too hard since “Domo Origato, Mr. Roboto” was popular not too long before my college days).
Most of all, I got the chance to see Japanese young people experiencing a radically new language and culture, something I better appreciated when I went on my own brief adventures.
Japanese Tidbits from the UCLA Language Project
- Japanese is a language isolate, meaning it is not easily related to any other language
- Japanese uses three writing systems: kanji, katagana, and hiragana. Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and has thousands of characters. The other two systems are more similar to the English alphabet (although not related in the slightest) because there are limited letters that represent specific sounds that can be rearranged to create words.
- Japanese is a subject-object-verb language rather than the subject-verb-object order of English. “I give money” would translate to “I money give” in Japanese.
- Japanese marks the adjectives as past or non-past similar to the way it works with verbs.
- Japanese does not mark nouns as singular or plural.
- Matsuo Basho was one of the innumerable famous Japanese poets.
I don’t have any Japanese students today but I’m lucky to still have a few connections with my former students and friends. And as hard as the language is to learn for English speakers, it can be done.
Here’s a video with English subtitles of a college friend from the days when I worked with AUAP students. Marci went on to master the language, is now living in Japan, and convincing students like Noriko to come to America to study. (Marci starts at 00:51.)