Category Archives: Japan

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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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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