Shitsurei desu ga...

Posted on December 10, 2005 | evankirby

Sometimes the implied meaning of words can be very different from the stated meaning.
A friend of ours in Japan, on a recent visit to the offices of another company, asked the receptionist, "Kobayashi Hiroko, onegai shimasu" ("Please get me Hiroko Kobayashi"), only to be told, "Shitsurei desu ga..." ("Excuse me..."). Thinking that she hadn't been able to catch the name of the person he was looking for, he repeated himself. She laughed a little, and said "Onamae wa nan desu ka?" ("What's your name?").
In this case, the Japanese phrase "Shitsurei desu ga" (literally, "it's rude, but") implied something like "Excuse me for being so rude, but who should I say is asking for her?" This is just one of the many situations in Japan where just being able to understand the spoken words is not enough - to communicate successfully, you have to understand the cultural background, and hear the unspoken words as well as the spoken. This is a major part of our approach at GenkiJACS (the "C" stands for "Culture"!), and the reason we offer a cultural component to all our courses. Words alone are nearly meaningless - cultural context, it could be argued, can change everything...

If I'd just been two inches shorter, it'd all have been so different

Posted on December 07, 2005 | evankirby

One of the hardest things for students of English as a second language is the subjunctive mood, especially talking about what might have been. Just look at the grammar of the title of this post: If I had been X, Y would have been Z. And that's with the simplest of all verbs, "to be"! Because of this, many non-native speakers will simply avoid saying sentences with the subjunctive in them, as there's just no time to get the grammar right when speaking... Another result of this is that many students of Japanese avoid using the subjunctive even when speaking Japanese.
However, the truth is that in Japanese, sentences about what could have been are extremely easy! For example, a current advert for a Japanese newspaper shows a serious-looking student, and the caption "If I hadn't read the newspaper, this would have been a pretty boring day." In Japanese, "Shimbun wo yomanakattara, kyou ha taikutsu na ichinichi datta." Transliterated to English, this is something like "Newspaper (object marker) if don't read, today (topic marker) boring day was." The fact that the speaker did read the newspaper and so this wasn't a boring day (i.e., that the sentence is expressing what could have been), is all held in the suffix "ttara", "if". If we change just that part, for example to "node" (meaning "therefore"), the meaning of the whole sentence changes: "I didn't read the newspaper, so this was a pretty boring day." ("Shimbun wo yomanakatta node, kyou ha taikutsu na ichinichi datta.")
Isn't that simple? Notice how much the English changed between those two sentences, for comparison. It's often hard for native speakers of English to grasp the simplicity of this sentence pattern, and we see students trying to make sentences that are as complex as the corresponding English. But there's really no need! Sometimes simple really is best.

Be careful of the word "toru"!

Posted on December 03, 2005 | evankirby

Tonight, a quick Japanese tip from our head teacher, Rie. As everyone knows, Japanese is very different from English, and one of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that expressions in English can also be used in Japanese:
When I used to go out with this guy from U.S., we often went for a drive in his car. He was so sweet that he always came to pick me up after work. However, he didn't know how to say "I'm coming to pick you up!" in Japanese. He used to say "ore ga kuruma de tori ni iku yo!" ("I'll come and take you."). Can you imagine what we feel like when somebody says that? The word "tori" is only used for taking objects, not people. I used to feel like I was a thing- "mono". Everytime he said that I asked him back "Then where do you want to put me?"
I don't know when he learned the right word for it, but now he says "ore ga mukaeni iku yo!" ("I'll come and get you"). Much better!
Make sure you don't make the same mistake! "toru" is for objects, "mukaeru" means to pick someone up, or come and get them.