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The Monoglot

November 6, 2015

I have been studying Japanese on my own off and one for the last several months with mixed results. I have increased my vocabulary quote a bit and I am able to read a couple hundred kanji characters, but I have very far to go. This past week I started attending a Japanese class for residents of Setagaya-ku and I am already seeing the benefits of having a place to practice the things I have been learning and to learn new things with a group of other beginners. Part of the frustration of learning a language (for me at least) is the fear of saying the wrong thing or saying something incorrectly. Also I have a horrible ear for Japanese so if I try and talk to anyone they usually have to repeat themselves a few times. It’s just not fun. In the classroom we are all on the same level…sort of.

There are about fifteen people in my nihongo class and I am the only American. Which means I am probably the only person in the room who only speaks one language – there is a Canadian who may or may not speak French. The class is taught in English, and other than my friend from the Great White North, English is not the first language of anyone else in the room. In our small classroom we have the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Ivory Coast, and Djibouti all represented. That last one was a lot of fun to try to say in Japanese.

If you have ever taken a Japanese class before then you probably understand why I know where everyone is from. The first lesson involves everyone introducing themselves – their name, where they are from, and what they do for a living. Our very energetic sensei even had us come up to the world map in front of the class and point out our where we came from, feigning ignorance to the location of even the most obvious of countries. She even made us find Nihon (Japan) on the map for her.

And during even this simple introductory class I learned a couple of things. The first thing I learned is a new word for “teacher”. Thanks to Hollywood, I think most people  know the word sensei, but that is used mostly when talking about or addressing another person. When you tell people what your profession is the word for teacher is kyoushi. There were probably a few other new words during the two hours, but that is the one that stuck with me.

The other thing I learned in this first class is that all of my previous studying has sunk in – at least a little. The sensei was teaching us a response phrase to give a negative answer to a question and the phrase she taught us was ja arimasen. As an example:

Question: Kanadajin desu ka (Are you Canadian?)

Answer: iie, Kanadajin ja arimasen. (No, I am not Canadian.)

She went around the room asking questions and after thirteen other people answered with iie, <something> ja arimasen she got to me. She asked me if I was a Canadian and I responded without thinking, “iie, Kanadajin dewa arimasen.”

Dewa arimasen is the more polite form of ja arimasen and I said it flawlessly, but she hadn’t taught us that yet. I immediately corrected myself, but she said it was OK because they mean the same thing and wrote it on the board for everyone.

The person next to me responded to their question with ja nai instead of ja arimasen which also means the same thing, but is a little less polite. I’m pretty sure the student next to me answered without thinking, as I had, and just knew the phrase ja nai from living here, but her answer was not written on the board. The sensei gave a funny face and told us we shouldn’t learn it that way. “It’s not so good.”

 

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