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Sunday, April 15, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Eyeballing a personal language coach


Upon first meeting my wife-to-be, my entire future flashed before me. Already I could foresee this girl as my life partner, the mother of my children and the person I would wrestle with for legroom in the kotatsu.

Yet there was one twist I could not predict: That this cute woman, to whom I would pledge my utmost devotion, would soon become the object of my utmost dread.

That being -- a teacher of the Japanese language.

To understand these feelings you have to realize I hail from that linguistic wasteland known as the American Midwest, where people hear rumors of other languages, but don't really believe them.

"Folks in Japan talk American, don't they?" once quizzed an overweight uncle as he adjusted his beer belly, a remark that plumbs the depths of my cornfield upbringing.

Still, my high school and college both offered an array of foreign tongues, which most students picked over like they were choosing from roadkill.

Girl: I tried a little French last term and it wasn't bad. I mean, I didn't get sick or die or anything.

Boy: Whatever you do, lay off the German. It's got an aftertaste that lingers all day.

Me, I took Swedish, mainly because I have a fondness for the way the Swedes say "Yah!" and also because the instructor promised all students an A. For some reason, after nine months of study the only Swedish term I could readily remember was the word for "eyeball." (It's ooga.) Not the best conversation opener, but what the heck, I got an A, didn't I?

Then, upon taking a job in Japan, I was splashed with reality. The world had higher communicative standards. Before starting work, I would have to endure six months of intensive language training in Tokyo, in a class where no one spoke "American."

Yet, how hard could it be? I purchased a Japanese phrase book, memorized the word for "eyeball" and told myself I would gut it out.

The first lesson was the last time I heard English. "Can anyone here speak Japanese?" the school principal asked the nervous crowd of would-be learners. "Yah!" I raised my arm and told him I knew the word for "eyeball." He then divided the room into classes of beginners: blood-red beginners and my group, blood-red beginners with no brains.

In the subsequent six months I managed to locate my brain, but not before it was tweaked and ratcheted every which way possible. Not only did I have to sweat through three hours of tense Japanese each morning, at night I had to pore over grammar books when all I really wished to do was to pour myself over my bed.

Meanwhile, I am certain my instructors stayed up late filing their teeth. Ice-faced women who never ever blinked, who would pop their knuckles as I bungled their nonstop questions.

The day those six mad months ended was the happiest day of my life. That is, until 21/2 years later, when I married.

Japan had worn pretty well during my months of study, and now I had a cuddly Japanese wife with whom to share my life. And, I might add, a live-in translator as well.

Then, ever so slowly, my precious wife evolved into a language teacher.

It began with coffee and cake lessons for local foreign wives. When this expanded, my bride joined a certification program. Next she got a job at a school.

And then there she was, slapping together work sheets on our dining room table. Rehearsing pattern drills for causative verbs. Peeking into the mirror to test the pointiness of her incisors.

"It must be marvelous living with a Japanese teacher," a British friend laughed. "Someone to correct your each and every mistake!"

"And I need that," I laughed back, all the while thinking, "Just like I need a kick in the high notes."

My two home languages consequently became English and Mumblish -- a nearly silent form of Japanese that my wife could barely hear, let alone correct.

Still, it grew impossible to escape her routine of lesson planning, a nightly regimen that revived chilly memories of my own six months' study. Memories she would further jolt by asking me unnerving questions, such as "Most of my U.S. students have the attention span of a hamster. Why is that?"

Or, "Mr. Brown can't see the difference between wa and ga. How did you get it?"

"Wa and ga are different?" I gulp to myself and then hem my way into an answer, which I break off at the first distraction, proving hamster-skills can be useful.

Yet, early on there came a time when I had to tell her: "I know my Japanese is crummy and I realize I should study, but this is our home. I don't want to have to measure every word I say. Just let me bump along. I may not make sense, but at least I'm happy."

She sucked her breath. "Why, I'm not going to fix your Japanese! If I did, I'd be scared to try my English!"

A bit of teacherly wisdom to which she then added: "Besides, that's why we have kids. They get to slash at both our second tongues."

And so the pressure fell away. Once again I could put my anxious study days to rest.

Still, I sometimes wonder . . . Does my Japanese communicate anything meaningful at all?

"Believe me," she strokes, striving, like any good teacher, to rub me with confidence. "Nobody -- nobody -- can say 'eyeball' like you."



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