At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Limits of Language

I've been avoiding my blog lately.  I apologize for those of you who are regular readers.  It's been a very busy month since school started again.  Also, I have taken on some really big projects outside of school that have taken me away from writing here.

Cupcakes as metaphorical apology
First off, the school year is going well.  I love the new students.  They're actually higher level than the class last year and are attempting to really impress me with their English skills.  It's awesome to have your kids show gumption rather than hesitate or shy away from using the English that they already know.  I told them they're not allowed to use できない , 難しい, or 英語分からない in my classroom.  If they want to express those sentiments, they must do it in English...not in Japanese.  This year, the JTEs are no longer allowed to teach their classes in Japanese.  MEXT has handed down an imperative that all English classrooms be taught solely in English.  What a gauntlet that's been thrown.   I feel bad for the JTEs, because they are required to teach grammar, writing, and reading completely in English.  While most of them have decent English skills, they are not native speakers, nor have they spent extensive time in an English speaking country that would give them the native fluency needed to teach at this "all English" level.  That being said, I do think that in order to learn a foreign language, one must be immersed in that language to an extent that the use of the native language is less than the use of the foreign language.  MEXT really needs to consider requiring English classes every day for students starting from Kindergarten until their final year of high school.  My Oral Communication class - which focuses primarily on speaking and listening to native English - meets with each class only once a week for 50 minutes.  This is not enough.  Yet, there is no way that I can teach them twice a week when I have 11 classes with 40-42 kids per class.  It would be extremely taxing on myself as well as the JTEs, who are also teaching them grammar, etc in a separate English class.  I don't know what Japan can do to change its stance on the humanities.  It has openly embraced mathematics and science as the fundamental subjects that are of utmost importance to the society (and the USA does this as well).  Additionally, I do believe there is a hesitancy to incorporate another language into this culture (the same way the USA hesitated on Spanish).  Language does change the fabric of a society, because the perception of reality is framed by the language(s) we speak.  The Japanese are very slow and cautious when it comes to change.  I don't blame them, but I don't know what it will mean for the future of Japan in this world.  

Now that I've waxed poetic on applied linguistics, I want to recommend a poetry book I have been reading called "Mouth:  Eats Color - Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, and Originals" written by Sawako Nakayasu with Chika Sagawa.  Sagawa Chika is one of the first modernist female poets of Japan and lived only until she was 24 years old.  She died in 1935 from cancer, but her work was prolific and her poetry is breathtaking.  The translations that Sawako Nakayasu has done of Sagawa's work are fantastic.  I can't recommend this book enough to anyone interested in the intersections between languages, especially in translation, and the ability to unravel meaning and exactitude via the intricacies and limintations of language.  Additionally, Sawako Nakayasu is an amazing poet and her own work is worth examining.  I have just ordered her recent book,. "Texture Notes," so when I get a chance, I might write more on Nakayasu's work.  Until then, check out her translations in English of Chika Sagawa's poetry here and Nakayasu's website here.  

Since I feel like I'm always coming up against the limitations of my language abilities, in English, Japanese, and German, the three languages I have studied and speak (to various degrees...), I think about how these limitations (and abilities) profoundly affect my reality.  When one does not have the words which to name something, how does one speak of it?  To oversimplify a complex topic (and from my perspective), one speaks with the body and with sound, perhaps not articulated sounds.  Movements, gestures, express the idea, concept from one language to another.  That's why I've been so interested in movement theater and dance.  As a person who writes in the poetic form, I want to explore that limitation.  It's not a's been explored, but it's still very interesting territory for me.

Speaking of movement and dance, I just found out I'll be teaching an Introduction to Physical Theater in Naha City starting this summer.  I'm very excited to do this!  When I get the information from the organization that's hosting my class, I'll post more about it.  It'll be really fun and if you're in Okinawa, I hope you can join.  It's open to anyone, regardless of whether you've ever done theater or not, or whether you speak English or Japanese.  Since it's physical theater, I'll be using methods such as mime, clowning, simple dance phrases/choreography, and how to incorporate words into the physical expressions we'll be creating.  But mostly we'll spend time playing games and learning how to express ourselves freely, despite the limitations of language.  Good times.

Have a wonderful Golden Week! <3

What reality?


  1. Hello! This may be inappropriate because I imagine you have quite a large following, but nevertheless, I would like to nominate you for a Liebster Award:

  2. Hi! Thanks for the nomination! I am sorry I missed your carnival event. It slipped my mind until now. I hope you host another one, as I would love to participate. I'll definitely do this Liebster Award. It's so kind of you to nominate me for this. I really appreciate that you've reached out as one blogger to another.

    Thanks again!

  3. Hello. I just found your blog and opened this entry, and I liked it quite a lot.
    I just wanted to write a comment when I saw your paragraph about teaching English only in English and I wanted to say this.
    I grew up in Lithuania, here we have English lessons for ten years in a row, from the elementary school to highschool. Since the grade 9 I sucked at English, I really did. And when the grade 10 started, we got an English teacher, who encouraged us to speak English and, most important, //try// to speak English until the very end in the lesson, without using anything else to express the words we don't actually know in English. I just wanted to say, that, at first, it was very hard. Yet it got better and better, and we had a challenge to move on, and try better. It was very hard at times, sometimes to understand what a teacher had in mind by saying this or that, and sometimes try to make a definition of the word we don't know, but when we are allowed to use our own language besides English, it not also helps but lets you make up excuses and stop learning so hard.
    And yes, since I experienced this, teachers, that teach this way, has to be very, very fluent in English.

    I can't wait to read more of your blog :)

  4. Hi! Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I appreciate feedback about this topic, especially from someone who learned English as an second language. I really want to help my students. I enjoy teaching them and they seem to enjoy Oral Communication class. The thing I've noticed is how often the teachers still translate things into Japanese, which I think is really really bad for the students. Yes, they get the information and understand quicker, but I think they become very reliant and sort of programmed to always assume that English will be translated into Japanese for them. It's really a shame that the teachers are doing this to the students. I do believe it will hold this country back in the long run.