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Understanding Linguistics: Follow the bagel (Pt. 06/12)

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I will never forget the first time I had to teach an English as a second language class to an all-Japanese audience. When I walked into the classroom, it was barely 8 in the morning, nobody paid any attention to me. I wasn’t used to this kind of welcome, everybody looked away from me as if to say, what does this guy want? Who is this guy? It was a clear-cut case of having myself some ice to break. No biggie. Been there. Done that. Plenty of times. That’s what I thought.

It turned out that breaking the ice with the Japanese meant entering a whole new dimension that interpreted the parameters of life according to a different measuring stick. A different way to think, starting from the position of the verb at the end of a sentence. Something that made expressing themselves verbally in English extremely difficult for them, although at writing, they were very good.

I challenged them any way I could, but then again, I myself was being challenged, up against a set of values and customs that I found were not very productive when used to acquire a foreign language. The result was that I ended up many times attacking the habits of my students, trying to get them to see that, in order to speak English well, they had to become a little less Japanese.

As a matter of fact, I had met Japanese people before, in Beverly Hills, at Humphrey Bogart’s old mansion, owned at that time by Madame Kawasaki. I had been the private instructor of one Kentaro Isobe, a college bound student with average abilities, but a perfect subject for my linguistic research and applications. He had a good disposition, was a little shy, but good-looking and therefore willing to entertain conversations with young American women. He was attending a Junior College at that time. He had plenty of chances to practice his English.

However, I was now facing not just an individual, but a whole group in a formal setting, in essence, a tiny subset of an entire nation. It soon became clear that reliance on the textbook was not just expected, but almost sacralized. I was to learn that among the Japanese the figure of the teacher could never be conceived of without that of an accompanying textbook. It would have been unthinkable. I would catch them drawing quick ideograms in the air, mentally translating English words they weren’t sure about. I formed the impression that, for the members of some major Asian cultures such as Japan and China, language and text were in a sense united as one.

That was obviously a major hurdle for a conversation class. I had to do something. Something that would really grab their attention. I still relish the memory of seeing the expressions of shock and dismay on my students’ faces when without any warning I took my copy of the textbook and tossed it nonchalantly in the wastebasket! I was teaching a lesson, and I had a purpose, of course, besides that of clocking them on the head with my culture and getting their attention level up.

Their culturally mandated reliance on the written word was in this case nothing but a hindrance, something they had to become aware of and figure out a way to manage. The purpose of my class was to get them to speak in English, make conversation, go out and do all the things they needed to do, which obviously included talking to other people. Could they see themselves doing that while constantly consulting a book? Indeed, the ultimate purpose of the class was to get rid of the book.

You’ve got to get up in the morning and go out and have pancakes! I would tell them. You’ve got to eat hamburgers with salad and blue cheese and ketchup with fries. Some Korean student told me he had fish soup for breakfast. Is that true? Do Japanese people do that too? You have fish soup in the morning? You have fish soup for breakfast and you want to speak English? No way! Eggs and bacon, my friends. Eggs and bacon! And toast.

Language is obviously related to memory; emotionally charged memories, such as for example eating a delicious meal, create the prerequisites for optimal language recall.

Talking about breakfast, when a friend of mine from Europe recently visited the US, he fell in love with bagels, a household American breakfast bread. He never forgot bagels, and he never forgot how to say bagels either, not even after he left. Last time I talked to him, I taught him how to say bagel with cream cheese. He was very happy. Follow the bagel, man. Follow the bagel.

Originally posted 2013-11-15 15:32:38.

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