August 2021 JT Blog Bonus Coverage

I am extremely ご無沙汰 with my Japan Times update. I had two articles published at the end of August.

The first — “Make Japanese politics more concrete by training your ears” — was inspired by this little passage I heard on NHK Radio News on June 14 at 7:00pm. I was so surprised I could understand it that I transcribed this passage about the Israeli elections:

ただ、新たな連立政権には中道派、右派、左派、アラブ系の合わせて8つの政党が参加していて、中でもパレスティナ問題をめぐって各党それぞれの立場の隔たりは大きく、政権として一致した政策をとることができるかどうかは未知数です。

For whatever reason, the sounds all just stood out. う and さ do so much work despite each being just a single syllable. It gave me an intense appreciation for all the time I’ve spent doing Japanese, and at the same time it made me wonder what was the best way to communicate this phenomenon to students who are just starting their studies. There’s such an emphasis on learning what the language looks like visually that the importance of the sounds sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

Please also enjoy this introductory paragraph that got lost on the drawing room floor:

There’s something comforting about the infamous English textbook phrase “This is a pen”: It’s so physical and definite, not to mention the nearly one-to-one correspondence with the Japanese equivalent これはペンです (Kore wa pen desu). You can imagine students on any side of the Pacific, desperate to cement their understanding of the language, wrinkling their brows with focus as they stare at a pen clutched in their hand.

So that’s where my mind was when I wrote the article. I think there’s a way to do “flashcards for sounds.” I’m not sure exactly how it would work. Maybe it’s something that teachers could implement as as short activities alongside regular coursework. Drilling sounds. The one thing I remember doing to train my listening was transcribing things that the teacher said.

I also had an article about 敬語 (keigo, polite speech): “Let the verbs do the work when it comes to pronouns and polite speech in Japanese.” Something that clicked for me at some point was the idea that pronouns are naturally built into Japanese speech patterns. Polite speech is pretty complicated, but one thing that’s easy to understand is that certain verbs correspond to people of different social status (e.g. the Emperor gets his own special verbs) and make it so that you don’t actually have to say their names.

And here’s a paragraph that got cut from this article as well:

Keigo is extremely useful in situations that might require you to be a little nosy. For example, if you need to politely ask for someone’s name (either for the first time or because you can’t quite remember it), you can take the versatile verb 伺います (ukagaimasu, to ask/to visit/to go) and use it in a sentence like お名前をお伺いしてもよろしいでしょうか (Onamae o o-ukagai shite mo yoroshii deshoo ka, May I ask your name?).

This will be my last post on this side of the Pacific for a bit: I’m heading to Japan in just over a week! Stay tuned here, on Twitter, and over at my newsletter for any insights I encounter. I’m sure there will be many.

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