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Saturday, April 5, 2003


In a second tongue, mistakes are nature

I taught all of Japan English yesterday. At least it seemed that way. I started out in the morning teaching 3- and 4-year-olds and ended teaching 75-year-olds.

The first class was the kindergarten. We were practicing the sentence pattern "I like but I don't like ." Mari-chan, who likes kittens, started out. "I like kitchens but I don't like dogs," she says. Next was Yuta-kun's turn: "I like fishing but I don't like fish."

Next we practiced saying our age. "How old are you?" I ask Tomo-kun, who looks just like his older sister when she's squinting.

"I'm 4 years old," he says.

"No you're not!" yells his sister from the other side of the room. "You're 5!"

Tomo-kun becomes quiet and looks at the floor.

"How old are you, Tomo-kun?" I ask again.

"I'm 4 or 5," he says.

Next was 4-year-old Makoto-kun. "How old are you?" I ask.

He holds back his answer, clearly not wanting to make the same mistake Tomo-kun had made. Finally, he looks at me and says, "I'm 11."

Next I give a handout with pictures and English words on them. But the students don't know the alphabet yet, let alone how to read English words, so we just do listening exercises. "Tree," I call out, and all the children circle the picture of the tree.

All except 3-year-old Remy-chan, that is. Instead of circling the pictures, she circles the English words next to the pictures. I fully expect her to take over teaching the class next year.

After the kindergarten, I got into my spaceship and traveled to the other side of the spectrum: the Rotary Club. It's a known fact that as you get older, English words and phrases regroup themselves in the brain. When you're older, English hangs out in the same part of the brain as nightmares, names of ex-lovers and other things that are best forgotten but are somehow not. As a result, tapping into this part of the brain can sometimes bring undesirable results.

In addition, the Rotary Club prefers "free conversation," which means that we can cover up to 50 topics in one class, often all at the same time. Mrs. Sueyoshi starts off the class by asking me, "Is that your nature color?" pointing to my hair.

Nature color? I frantically try to process all the possibilities: Nature green? No my hair is not green. Nature: birds? rivers? Ohhh -- suddenly it hits me. "Yes," I say, "this is my natural hair color."

Next, Mr. Sato starts talking about a new type of material on the market. "The material is very sick," he says. Sick? Torn, faded, gauze? Ohhh. "Thick," I say.

We're two minutes into the class, and now Mrs. Sueyoshi brings up medicine and research. She wants to talk about current developments of a particular type of cancer, but doesn't know the name of this cancer in English. She looks it up in her dictionary.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tanaka says, "Mrs. Suzuki wanted me to tell you that she is absent today because she has left for Hawaii yesterday."

"Oh, Hawaii -- wonderful!" I say.

"Yes. She should be laid on the beach by now."

Mrs. Sueyoshi has now located the English word for the particular type of cancer in her dictionary and announces, "Cancer of the 'back passage!' "

Back passage? Back door, emergency exit, alleyway -- ohhh. "You mean rectal cancer."

Finally, another 45 topics later, the class comes to a close. I tell them I'll be absent next week because I'll return to my country for a short visit.

"Oh, good luck," says Mr. Sato. Retire me to your parents."

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.

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