Halloween with Foreigners

So after a month-long hiatus, I am back with funny foreigner stories.  Today I’ll share a brief story about how confusing our American traditions can be to foreigners, and how this can often lead to hilarious situations.

Halloween was a few days ago.  I know that some other countries celebrate Halloween, but many do not.  Even though Halloween is portrayed in American movies, many exchange students and other foreign visitors are not fully aware of the way we celebrate this holiday.  This year I heard perhaps the funniest misunderstanding of Halloween traditions by an exchange student.

A friend of mine is hosting a young lady from China this year.  The host family explained to their student the concept of “trick-or-treating” and told the Chinese girl that she could answer the door and hand out candy to the kids that come to the house.  Everyone thought that she understood what to do, but having never heard of Halloween or “trick-or-treating,” the Chinese girl was still confused on the concept.  When the first little boy in costume came to the door, said “trick or treat” and opened his bag of candy, the Chinese girl reached into his bag, grabbed a piece of candy and said “thank you!”  The little boy was so confused he just left.

I just thought this was the greatest story and really illustrates how confusing and nonsensical some of our traditions can appear to visitors from other countries.

*names have been omitted to protect the student*

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Why I am the Way I am: the Shifting Worldview of a 12-year-old

When I was 12 years old, the whole trajectory of my life changed when my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Yokohama, Japan.  Before meeting Mina I had never really given much thought to the way people lived outside of my white, suburban bubble.  The only real exposure to the rest of the world came from National Geographic and “missionary week” at church.  While fascinating, what these two things taught me was that people who don’t live in America live in funny houses, eat funny food and generally have a lower quality of life than we do.  It never occurred to me that someone living in another country might have anything at all in common with me.
Enter Mina.  Mina, the 16 year old Japanese girl who played bass guitar in a rock band; Mina, the Japanese girl who was passionate about baseball; Mina, the girl who lived in a house not too different than mine and went to school like I did and had a pet cat like me; Mina, who went to McDonalds after school with her friends and ate the same crappy cheeseburger than I occasionally indulged in.
While Mina’s English skills left much to be desired, we were able to communicate, play games with each other and learn from each other.  I learned that Japanese kids like the same things American kids do.  They are not all perfect, and they do not all love to study.  I learned that our cultures are different in many ways, but our similarities far surpassed our differences.  And, most importantly, I learned that my entire worldview had to shift beyond my neighborhood because there was a big world out there for me to discover.  Pretty profound for a 12 year old, huh?  Well, I may not have realized that I was learning those things at the time, but I do know that my life was never the same after Mina left.  I found myself asking more questions about the world and developing a passion for travel (a passion that I would not fulfill for a number of years, but nevertheless was there).  My family continued hosting students after Mina, and my husband and have been hosting in our home for years now, too.  My love of travel has continued to grow, and every new country I visit, and every foreigner I come in contact with expands my worldview even more.

There are so many moment in my life that have shaped who I am today, but I really believe that hosting Mina was a pivotal moment in my life and I would have become a very different person had I not been exposed to another culture at a young age.
The moral of the story is this: parents, don’t allow your children to grow up in a bubble.  Find ways to expose your children to people of different cultural backgrounds.  Helping your children realize the fantastic diversity of this world is one of the greatest gifts you can give.  Hosting exchange students is a wonderful way to do this if you are able.  (For information about hosting a student, click here).  But even if you can’t bring other culture directly into your home, there are plenty of ways to expose your children to the world out there.  Go to international festivals; go to ethnic restaurants (not the local Mexican joint where the suburban white folks hang out, but a real, authentic ethnic restaurant- like ones where the English menu doesn’t make sense and most of the diners are foreigners); volunteer with the immigrant and refugee community.  You may have to get out of your comfort zone, but the benefits are so worth it!

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Why Pronunciation is Important

Last week I wrote about the importance of learning correct pronunciation when studying a foreign language.  If you did not read that post, click here to find it.  Today I want to give a more specific, and quite hilarious, example of an English mispronunciation.

One of the things that makes pronunciation difficult is the fact that each language has its own unique set of sounds that native speakers learn as babies.  When learning a foreign language, sounds that are not part of your native language can be very difficult to replicate, as your mouth isn’t trained to make the new sounds.  This is the reason people have accents when speaking a foreign language; the speaker does their best to produce the sounds of the foreign language, but it is very difficult to make sounds that are not a part of the speaker’s native language, resulting in an accent.  For example, the “th” sound in English is not found in many other languages, resulting in a challenge for non-native English speakers.

(I promise there is a funny story coming.  I just need to share the background of pronunciation challenges before sharing the story!)

In the Japanese language there is no “l” or “r” sound.  Instead, there is a sound that is like a combination of the two, a sort of “soft r.”  Native Japanese speakers have a very difficult time pronouncing the “l” and “r” sounds in English, and they often use the two letters interchangeably.  Many times when my Japanese friends wrote my name in “English” they wrote “Sala” instead of “Sarah.”  This R/L pronunciation difficulty is where we get the term “Engrish,” referring to the funny misuse of English by native Japanese speakers.  There is a hilarious website dedicated to English mishaps- check it out here!

One of my favorite “Engrish” stories from my time in Japan came when I was on the Kwansei Gakuin University cheerleading team.  My university had one of the best American Football teams in the country, and when I studied there, American-style cheerleading had recently become a big fad at the football games.  Having been a cheerleader in the USA, I decided that joining the KGU cheer team would be a great way for me to keep up my skills and make friends.

Because we cheered for American Football, the cheerleaders in Japan did their best to emulate American cheerleading.  Many of our dance moves and stunts were taken from cheerleading movies and footage of cheer competitions on ESPN.  A few of the cheerleaders on my team had even been to California to attend cheer camps and learn from American cheerleaders.  In order to be as “American” as possible, we often cheered in English.  This in itself was quite comical, as the translations of the cheers were never very good, and when combined with the Japanese accent made the cheers utterly unintelligible to a native English speaker.  The best English cheer mishap, however came in written form.  As we learned new cheers, the captain would pass out a sheet with the English cheers written down for the team to learn.  This particular cheer was meant to rouse the crowd into joining us in repeated clapping of our hands.  Because of an unfortunate L/R mishap on the part of the captain, I was handed a piece of paper that said:  “Crap! Crap! Everybody Crap!  Ret’s All Crap Together!”   Somehow I managed to keep a straight face, but this remains one of my favorite stories from my time as a cheerleader in Japan.

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The Problem with Foreign Language Education

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people learn a foreign language the wrong way.  If the purpose of learning another language is to be able to effectively communicate with people of another culture, the most important thing you can learn is correct pronunciation.  Don’t get me wrong, grammar is important, but if you can’t pronounce “baño” no one is ever going to be able to direct you to the bathroom, even if you conjugate correctly.

Think about this: when you learn your native language (English for me) you learn by listening to people speak that language.  Your parents don’t sit you down as an infant and make you learn how to conjugate verbs.  As a child you learn language by observing those around you.  You learn words by repeating things you hear.  When babies start to speak, the emphasis is on vocabulary and pronunciation.  Parents know that their child will not be understood unless they can correctly pronounce the words they are learning, and to this end most parents spend countless hours working with their children on their pronunciation as they begin to speak.  There are even speech therapy classes for children who can’t properly form the sounds of their language.  When you learn your native language, grammar isn’t taught until you have built your vocabulary and can correctly pronounce the words.

So why do we learn our second language so differently than we learn our first?  So many language teachers focus so much of their attention on grammar, and students rarely get the opportunity to practice conversing with native speakers of the language they are learning.  I believe there are a few reasons for this.  First, schools and standardized tests put so much value on grammar, and teachers have no choice but to teach to the expectations of the administration and standardized testing.  Second, most foreign language teachers are not teaching their native language.  Let’s face it- very few Spanish teachers in the USA are native Spanish speakers, just as very few English teachers abroad are native English speakers.  The foreign language teachers themselves speak the language they are teaching with a definite accent, making it difficult to help their student with correct pronunciation.  Don’t get me wrong; there are some incredible foreign language teachers out there doing an excellent job of teaching a language that is not their first.  I had a fantastic Japanese teacher in high school who put so much emphasis on listening and conversation, and I credit my success as an exchange student in Japan to her exposing me to native speakers through movies, music and conversation with the Japanese exchange student at our high school.

The problem with learning grammar only comes when you go to a foreign country and attempt to speak the language you have been learning.  I have worked with so many exchange students who arrive in America with excellent grammar, but who can’t speak English.  They have learned how to read and write nearly perfect English and can correct the grammar of American students, but they can’t carry on a conversation because they have never learned to pronounce the words they can read and write.  Because they have never heard English spoken by a native speaker, they don’t understand the words we are saying, even if they do know the vocabulary.  They can read and understand the words written down, but they can’t understand the same words when spoken by a native speaker because they are not used to the correct pronunciation.

Years ago, Berlitz Language had a great commercial illustrating the importance of listening to native speakers when learning a language.  Even if you’ve seen it before, watch this short video- it cracks me up every time!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yR0lWICH3rY

So what can language teachers do to help their students achieve maximum proficiency in a language?  In my opinion, the best thing to do is replicate the conditions under which you learned your native language.  Full and complete immersion in a foreign language is the best way to learn.  Teachers, find ways to expose your students to native speakers.  Watch movies, listen to music, bring guests into the class to speak to your students in that language.  Even if your students don’t understand the majority of the words in the movies, they are being exposed to native speakers and learning the cadence and sound of the language.  Never underestimate the power this has on language acquisition.  Take your students on field trips to the International District, or visit a Hispanic or Asian grocery store and require them to speak with native speakers.  Utilize the foreign exchange students in your high school, or the parents and grandparents of your students who have immigrated here and are native speakers of the language you are teaching.

Again, I’m not saying to scrap grammar completely, but students should feel comfortable conversing in the language they are learning (even more comfortable than they are conjugating)!  Because isn’t the purpose of learning another language the ability to effectively communicate in that language?

Foreign language teachers:  I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  What do you do in your classroom to expose your students to the correct pronunciation of the language they are learning?  Students:  do you have a foreign language teacher that stands out?  What did they do to help you learn to communicate in the foreign language?

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Reflections on 9/11

Today is September 11th.  Eleven years ago today everything changed.  Our country entered what will forever be referred to as the “post 9/11” era.  America became forever aware that we have enemies who are willing to die in order to see our country fail; enemies who hate our way of life so much they will to go to any lengths to kill as many of us as possible.  I really hate using the words “us” and “them” in the context of talking about Americans and other culture groups, but in this case I can’t think of more appropriate words.  9/11 really marked a clear case of “them” wanting to destroy “us.”  September 11th not only changed the way we see security and air travel, but it also plunged us into a war that is still going on 11 years later.

I am often asked, as most of us are, where I was on September 11th.  Short answer:  I was on an airplane.  Yes, you read correctly, I was on an airplane on September 11, 2001.  I left Seattle on September 10th to travel to Japan to study for a year.  I landed in Tokyo on September 11, and have a 9/11/01 stamp in my passport.  With the time difference, I had already left the airport before the planes hit the twin towers, and was on the bullet train to Nagano completely sheltered from any breaking news.  I distinctly remember getting to my host family’s house and taking a bath.  While I was in the bath my host brother, Kazu starting yelling at me that “a plane hit a house” (at least that’s what I understood with my limited Japanese at the time).  I couldn’t understand what was so urgent, so I came to the conclusion that this must have happened in our neighborhood, because he was so upset about this plane crashing into a house.  I got out of the bath quickly and ran down the hall to find out what happened.

I will never forget standing there in the hall catching a glimpse of the tv and watching the planes hit the towers over and over again.  Even though my Japanese was decent at the time, I really felt in that moment that I didn’t understand anything.  I couldn’t keep up with the commentary on the Japanese news.  I had never learned the Japanese word for “terrorism” or “attack” and I had no idea what was going on.  I know that everyone watching these terrible events in the States felt hurt, confused and angry, among many other emotions.  I didn’t know what to feel, because my language skills weren’t good enough for me to figure out what was going on.

One of the wonderful things that happened after the attacks was the camaraderie of the world.  America was shown so much love and support from all corners of the globe, and I experienced that love and compassion first-hand.  For the first week I was in Japan, I was the “American girl.”  The Japanese people were so wonderful and supportive and quick to offer their sympathies.  I saw Japanese people who were so desperate to offer any support they could to our country, and didn’t know how, so I became the representative of the United States to the people of Nagano.

Sometimes I feel like I missed out on the most important event in recent history because I was out of the country.  I didn’t get to experience the amazing coming-together of the nation that occurred in the aftermath of the attacks.  I wasn’t around to take part in the national unity that our country experienced.  But I did get to experience the amazing love and caring of the people of Japan, who felt so much compassion for us and needed a way to show it.  For the love and support I received from the people of Japan, I will be forever grateful.

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 Welcome to my…

Welcome to my blog!  I have so many funny stories through my work with foreign exchange students that I’ve been saying for a while now that one day I will write a book entitled “Fun with Foreigners”. Well, it’s highly unlikely that I will ever motivate myself enough to write a book, but that leaves the question of what to do with all these stories that are dying to get out of my head.  The only logical answer is, of course, to blog.
My purpose in creating this blog is not only to share funny stories, though there will be plenty of those, but also to offer my observations of humanity as witnessed through my experiences with young people from around the world.  I truly believe that the purpose of foreign exchange is to learn from one another and exchange culture in a way that brings us all closer together.  Yes, there are plenty of cultural misunderstandings and “lost-in-translation” moments that make for funny anecdotes, but more importantly is the underlying fact that we are not that different from those living on the other side of the world.  Young people have great hopes and dreams, and their family and friends want to see them achieve those dreams.  As cliché as it sounds, the more we try to understand each other and share life experiences with people from different cultural backgrounds, the richer our own lives become.
So, once again, thanks for checking out my blog and for joining me on this adventure!

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September 10, 2012 · 1:01 am