Monday, June 27, 2005

Lack of rain in Japan, methods for teaching English to our kids, and how I met Yoko Ono, sort of

Something's wrong with Japan's summer. This is supposed to be rainy season, a time of heavy rains that helps the newly planted rice to grow, but so far we've had very little rain and record-high temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius (98 Fahrenheit), unheard of for June. As usual, Japanese companies are putting out many refreshing products to help people beat the summer heat, including new types of ice cream (my favorite is Coolish, a foil pack that contains ice cream that you squeeze out to eat), delicious Asian teas, traditional shave ice, and more. One new product we've enjoyed so far this summer is Water Jelly, basically a fruit drink that contains gelatin inside. It's somehow satisfying to suck the cold gelatin out of the bottle and let it slide down your throat when it's hot.

Every language is unique in some way, with its own interesting grammatical and phonetic structures. In Japanese, there are two kinds of vowels, short and long, and if you ever seen the Japanese family name Sato written as Satoh or Satou, this is because the second sound in the name is really a long vowel, which is often expressed by adding an "h" or a "u" to the English spelling. Back when I taught English as a Second Language, I had a student named Yoko Ohno (whose last name meant "big field"). I made the obvious joke about what a thrill it was to have a famous person in my class and consoled her on the loss of her husband John, but she had no idea what I was talking about. It turns out that the more famous Yoko Ono's last name uses a short vowel, meaning "small field," and in the minds of Japanese, the two vowels are so different that my student never once made any kind of connection between the two names. And so, one of my best jokes of the day fell flat...

Because my family lives in Japan, my kids have Japanese down pretty well, between learning kanji in school and using Japanese on a daily basis. Teaching them English can be more of a challenge, since my kids know I'm pulling their leg when I pretend not to understand what's being said to me in Japanese. One fun game we hit on recently to help force my kids to use English is to take long car trips and play Twenty Questions. The kids love it, and repeating questions like "Is it alive?" "Is it a fictional character?" "Is it something in our house?" helps their English. I also managed to get my kids hooked on the old Schoolhouse Rock shorts, and everywhere we go I've got the songs on my iPod.