Friday, January 23, 2009

The Language

I think about language most of the time. Not only because I teach. In fact, less so because I teach. Mainly because I have to communicate with people who understand less than the totality of what I am trying to convey. Here is a conversation that I had yesterday (In Japanese):

Them- What does "Yum" mean?

Me- That something tastes good.

Them- I thought that was "Yummy."

Me- It's the same thing.

Them- So I should say "Yum" instead of "Yummy"?

Me- You can say either one, although they both sound childish, neither one is wrong.

Them- My dictionary says "Yum-yum."

Me- I guess people say that too.

Them- But it isn't right?

Me- They are all OK. They just sound like a little kid.

Them- So I should say "Yum" then?

It is debatable that English has the largest slate of words to choose from amongst world languages. Some make the argument that it does. I would make the argument that it offers a larger vocabulary than Japanese. This might just be because I am a competent English speaker and a moronic Japanese speaker. I might be trapped in a glass cage of my own ignorance. It seems to me, and it has been argued before that speaking English is making choices between words with slight differences in shade and nuance. We have Old English, French and Latin mixed in with many other sources. We can say Kingly, Royal and Regal (From the English, French and Latin, relatively.) They are basically the same words but carry different values. Values that matter. One of my favorite Simpson's bits is Grandpa declaring, " Your dad used to be as smart as a monkey. But then his mind started gettin' lazy, and now he's dumb as a chimp." It is very hard to explain why this is funny, but I think most people understand the very slight difference in these words which mean, essentially the same thing. Playing with these words is a skill. To a very large degree, I feel that this form of humor is completely lost on Japanese people. In my eyes, Japanese is an endless quest to say the right thing. I say this as someone who loves Japanese and enjoy learning it. But it doesn't seem to value the same subtlety. In English, good comedians are usually the ones who have a good sense of choosing the correct word for the situation. In Japanese, comedians are usually ones who are good at repeating the same thing. Over and over. Of course, there is creative language play in Japanese. Puns are well loved. But puns are something different from word selection.

I mainly bring this up to point out one of the reasons it is hard to teach English. I find myself telling people everyday that what they were taught is wrong isn't necessarily wrong, it is just not so much in favor in some circles. I think that most people just give in and say that the rules are the rules. I will keep laboring on, trying to get them to do their own thing, but it ain't taking.

1 comment:

knox-villan said...

I am struggling enough in Intermediate Spanish II...I am extremely impressed and jealous of you for having the brain and interest to be doing what you are doing.

attempting to silence the voices in my head.