Be prepared to tell your blood type to Japanese school children

If you a Westerner, when visiting big tourist attractions like the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto)

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Kyomizudera (Kyoto)

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Nara’s wooden temple

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or Himeji castle

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you can be sure to see big groups of Japanese school children. The pupils are there because their schools want them to learn about the history of Japan, in the same way as, for example, Finnish school children visit historical sites in Finland, although, visiting a Russian tzar’s summer house from the 1880s in my home town (Kotka, Finland) as a primary school pupil may not have been quite as spectacular a setting as many of the school trips Japanese kids get to go on. In any case, when the Finnish kids go on school trips, the purpose of those trips is usually increased cultural/historical understanding, but Japanese school children often multi-task. Namely, their school excursions double as an English lesson. Thus, when spotting Westerners they will, usually in groups of 2-6, approach you in a shy manner and ask if they could have a conversation with you. If you agree, what’s coming is however not really a ‘conversation’. You see, their ‘conversation’ consists of a pre-written questionnaire which they will execute in a rehearsed interrogatory manner, asking you several questions one after another and expecting one-word answers. For example:

What’s you favourite sport? (expected answer e.g. Soccer)

What’s your favourite food? (expected answer e.g. Pizza)

What’s your blood type? (expected answer e.g. A) (note that pretty much all Japanese people know their blood type and many of them believe that blood type is one important factor determining your personality. You can read my earlier blog post on the topic here.)

These rather one-directional conversations in which each student in the group asks you one pen-pal type question are quite fun, and the students are very polite, sweet and giggle a lot but needless to say, with pre-written questions and an expectation of one word answers, they come completely unprepared for Western-style conversations. After all, in a naturalistic situation in Europe/North America, whether it is a pub or a school playground, someone walking over to you and firing a series of questions at you would (or should) never happen. Moreover, if you responded to those questions with single-word answers, you would be sending a pretty clear passive aggressive message that you wanted that person to bugger off, right? Thus, the question is: What do these strange ‘conversations’ teach Japanese students about the use of English in conversational settings? An answer might be: not much.

I think students going and chatting with foreigners is a great idea, but for them to be better prepared for oral communication with native English speakers, the manner in which the practise is done should better correspond to real life, non-staged situations.

So, here is an example of a conversation where I’ve tried to provide a more authentic Western-style conversation in which answers are rarely one word long and in which both parties ask questions/give answers.

Student 1: What’s your favourite sport?

Me: Do you mean to watch or to actually do it myself?

Student 1: (doesn’t understand my question)

Me: (decide to go with the sport I like doing most and say) Downhill skiing.

Student 1: (looks perplexed as they don’t understand what ‘downhill skiing’ means)

Me: (act as if I’m downhill skiing)

Student 1: Ahh!

Me: Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: (thought that their turn was already over and is looking at the person whose turn it is to talk to me, thus my question goes unanswered)

Me: (persisting, I point at the student and repeat my question) Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: No.

Student 2: What’s your favourite food?

Me: Hmm, there are so many… maybe pizza or tempura or pasta with wild mushroom sauce. I don’t know. What’s yours?

Student 2: (panics and turns to their friends for help. After a 20 second silence the student manages to utter) Udon.

Me: I love udon too.

Student 3: What’s your favourite Anime character?

Me: I don’t know any.

Student 3: (is confused presumably because they cannot understand that there are people who do not know anything about Anime)

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I assume that at least one reason for Japanese school children preying on tourists for an English conversation is due to old-fashioned methods in language teaching. Namely, many Japanese schools use the grammar-translation method which focuses, well, on grammar and translation. In addition, English in/outputs are done solely or predominantly in writing with minimal spoken interaction (as a linguist whose research areas include first and second language acquisition, I am eager to see Japan adopt more modern approaches to language teaching). Due to the bulk of teaching being translations of texts, most students never really hear English in the classroom. Furthermore, in Japan, foreign TV/films are dubbed and many Japanese youths prefer Japanese and/or Korean music to English music. Thus, Japanese students get minimal exposure to spoken English also outside the classroom. The lack of exposure to English (combined with other factors) has resulted in widespread poor oral competence in English, even in people who have extremely good written skills of English, e.g. doctors, and even English teachers! I am not kidding. I have encountered several native-Japanese English language teachers in Japan who needed a translator to interact with me in English, and my understanding is that many (or most) Japanese students never hear their native-Japanese English teacher use English. I have also had appointments with Japanese doctors who advertised themselves as providing consultations in English,  but when sitting opposite them in the consultation room, they’ve shown me a laminated card asking me to write my question(s) on a piece of paper, show the piece of paper to them, after which they would write a reply.

I will not go into any detail in relation to the language teaching in Japan or what pedagogical steps might be helpful for the Japanese educational system to improve their students’ oral communication skills in English. But what I would say is that if you are in Japan and encounter groups of pupils in tourist attractions, please have a chat with them, if not to provide the students with an opportunity to practice their English (whether you go along with the interrogatory style or make it more interactive is up to you) then maybe for the little gifts/messages they usually give you for your time. Below there are a couple of sweet hand-written messages that I have received for participating (regardless of the fact that the pupils got a slightly more Western chat than what they were after).

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Is that Finnish that I am seeing in Japan?!

In many countries, it is common to use foreign words or phrases in advertising, to create an interesting, quirky or trendy image for your product. Japan is no different. Over here, a Westerner can recognise familiar Western words that are used as shop/restaurant names. This is the case especially in trendy parts of the city, and the language predominantly used is of course English.

However, as a native to Finland, I’ve been over the moon to notice that several shops/restaurants in Osaka also have Finnish names! This, as silly as it might sound to a native English speaker, makes a Finn exclaim with delight. After all, Finnish is by no definition a world language spoken by the masses as a native language or taught as a popular choice as a second language. In fact, it is only spoken by about 5 million people native to Finland and is taught as a second language only in its neighbouring countries (if even there), and thus, we practically never see Finnish words used outside Finland (other than maybe in places like Rhodes or Fuengirola i.e. particularly popular destinations amongst Finnish holiday makers).

Intriguingly, I don’t think there is any obvious Finnish connection when Japanese shops choose their Finnish name. I mean, the reason why they have Finnish names is not because the owner or their spouse is Finnish or because the bulk of their customers are Finnish (given that the Finnish community in Osaka is miniscule and only a handful of Finnish tourists visit Osaka). I think these shops have Finnish names just because it is trendy to use Finnish!

Here are some names that I’ve come across in Osaka:

 

A bakery/clothes shop: Pesä (‘Den/Nest/Burrow’)

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A café that specialises in pancakes: Pöllö (‘Owl’)

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A restaurant: Keitto Ruokala (‘Soup Canteen’), It might be worth pointing out that even though the name might suggest otherwise, this restaurant didn’t serve soup, nor did it look like a canteen.

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Hairdressers: Alkaa Täältä (‘Begins from here’)

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Clothes shop: Olohuone (‘Living room’)

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Before I finish this Finnish post, I might just need to add that even though it is wonderful to see Finnish in Japan, the Japanese do not always get their use of Finnish right. Here’s an example of something on the wall of a stationery and life-style shop in Shinjuku in Tokyo. A cardinal mistake in my opinion!

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To lie or not to lie

Girl with a choice near the forked road

I’ve noticed that my husband, who is British, and I, a native to Finland, have somewhat different ideas about saying how things are, talking about things with their real names, or lying in the name of politeness.

To give you an example:

My husband and I were having a date night and headed to a newly opened restaurant in Brighton in which we hadn’t been before. We walked in, sat down and the waitress brought us a jug of water and the menus. We looked through the menu which (a) listed items that were more expensive that we expected and (b) listed nothing that we wanted to eat (it was all bit too trendy in a bad way for us, for example ‘cod cheeks’ and ‘blood and egg’). My husband and I were discussing our options when the waitress returned to take our order. After a few seconds of silence, I plucked up some courage and while visibly squirming in my seat said in an extremely apologetic tone: Erm…I’m so sorry but we are not impressed with your menu. And we stood up and walked out.

Once outside, my husband turns to me and expressed his embarrassment in relation to the extreme level of rudeness that I had displayed in the restaurant. I was gobsmacked. To me, my approach had been polite, we didn’t want to eat in that place and we had to get out of there. What should we have done?

His view was that it was impolite to say that we didn’t like the choice in their menu. He thought our options were (a) just to order something and spend our evening there (regardless of the fact that that cheeky and/or bloody experience would have set us back by about £100) or if we absolutely could not force down the gory-sounding food (b) under no circumstances should I have said anything about the appeal of the food but lied along the lines of:

Hmm, you know we’ve just remembered that we’re actually meeting some people somewhere else. So, sorry, but we have to leave.

To him, the latter of these would have been the polite way to get out of the situation, but to me this feels extremely impolite because it is an obvious lie. A lie that we know and the waitress knows and we know that the waitress knows and the waitress knows that we know that she knows. Thus, that statement in my opinion would imply that the waitress is stupid enough to think that a (sober) adult couple had forgotten a prior engagement whose existence they recall the minute they’ve read through the menu. When I questioned the politeness of this practice, my husband told me that he thinks that that is how the world works. But I think that is just how England works.

I think it is interesting to think that different cultures might view this in such different ways. What do you think? What would you have done? Would you have (a) given honest feedback in a polite or impolite way, (b) given dishonest feedback (friends waiting in a different restaurant), (c) done something else or (d) you don’t give a shit about cultural differences maybe because you voted for Brexit and/or Trump.

Learn 10 words in Japanese/Finnish in less than a minute

 

My acquisition of Japanese over the past year and a half that we’ve lived in Osaka has been painfully slow, which is rather embarrassing given that I am a university professor whose expertise lies in first and second language acquisition. I keep on telling my Japanese students of English the old phrase that is used predominantly by inactive, overweight, chain-smoking, recreational drug using, alcoholic doctors (and in this case also struggling psycholinguists):

‘Do as I say, not as I do.’

My poor attainment of Japanese is a result of

  1. me having been extremely busy with work, being a single parent 6 months of the year, and spending my free time trying to hunt for fabric toothbrush bags for the kids’ post school lunch oral hygiene sessions or trying to establish in the local supermarket where the hell they keep their hummus, halloumi and quark (I’ve finally discovered that apparently nowhere)
  1. me finding many Japanese words quite difficult to remember, due to the fact that they resemble none of the languages that I know at least the rudiments of (Finnish, English, Swedish, German, Spanish, Russian).

You see, one thing that seems to help second language learners to learn new words is if they can associate the new word with a word that they already know, for instance, if the new word sounds like another word in their vocabulary.

The fact that some languages are historically related means that those languages share many same or similar words. For instance, the word for a very young child in English, German and Dutch is baby and thus, learning the English word baby is easy for a German/Dutch speaker. Finnish and Japanese are not amongst the languages that are historically related to English (although some English loan words do exist both in Finnish and Japanese).

Finnish and Japanese are not related to each other either and thus Finnish and Japanese do not share many (if any) words that have the same/similar pronunciation and meaning, like baby does in English, German and Dutch.

However, in terms of the syllable structure, i.e. how the language breaks words into smaller units (syl-la-ble), Japanese and Finnish happen to be similar. A typical syllable in Japanese and Finnish consists of one consonant (e.g. k, p, s, t) followed by one vowel (a, e, i, o, u). This means that there are quite a few words in Finnish and Japanese that are pronounced (if not completely identically due to different word stress patters or slightly different articulation) in a very similar way. In the midst of my busy schedule, thanks to these cross-linguistic coincidences, I have managed to pick up quite a few words in Japanese, namely the ones that are pronounced more or less identically to Finnish words, as I’ve only had to associate the Japanese meaning to, essentially, a Finnish word.

So, if

  1. you are a Finnish speaker and want to learn some Japanese with minimal effort or
  2. you are a Japanese speaker and want to learn some Finnish with minimal effort

it shouldn’t take you more than a minute to learn the list of words (and their meanings) in Finnish/Japanese below, given that you don’t have to learn the word itself, e.g. KITA, you just need to memorize the meaning of KITA that you didn’t already know (NORTH if you are a Finnish speaker, and JAWS if you are a Japanese speaker).

If you are an English speaker, unfortunately you’ll have to do the work of actually learning the words below and the two meanings associated with those words (one in Finnish, one in Japanese). Maybe this is only fair, given that you have the advantage of learning hundreds of words in a numerous language easily (because many languages have adopted words from English into their vocabulary, or English has adopted words from those languages). However, the list below will give you a great opportunity to do ‘multitasked’ language learning and learn two new words (one in Finnish and one in Japanese) by just memorizing one lexical item. Since it is not obvious to a non-Japanese or non-Finnish speaker how to pronounce the words below, English spelling (hopefully resulting in near enough correct pronunciation) is given in brackets next to the target word where needed.

I know there might not be any English speakers out there who would be tempted to learn Finnish and/or Japanese (as these aren’t exactly the most useful languages on the planet). But if you are a fan of order, raw seafood, long awkward silences, relatively introverted people (at least in comparison to your typical American) and/or drinking sessions that end up in pretty much everyone in the group comatose, you would probably love it in Finland and Japan and should you choose to relocate to these lovely places, the words below might come of use.

 

 

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Photo credits:

Schuh.co.uk – Shoes

Debenhams.co.uk – umbrella, invitation

Wickes.co.uk – tap

thetelegraph.co.uk – market place

theguardian.com – pile, sweeties

free-photos.gatag.net – barrel, bird, squirrel, twig, sky, jaws

Wikipedia.org – Myth