Thursday, February 25, 2010

First Year Genki Spirit

I’ve been accused fairly recently of still having “that first-year genki spirit.” Well, accused is a fairly strong word and it makes it sound like being genki is a bad thing. Genki just means energetic and lively, high-spirited, and stuff like that. We have a lot of fun with the fact that in one of my classes, there is a kid named Genki, who also happens to be a genki kid. I’m glad he is; it would really suck to have to make jokes about the fact that he isn’t genki despite his name.

Anyway, the first year genki spirit is apparently the stage of JET life in which you still feel like your job makes some kind of difference, where you feel like all your efforts are not in fact wasted.

But to me, the more time I spend here, the more I feel like it’s important for them to import native speakers to help teach English. Mikan-sensei once straight up told me (when I said, “I’d like to do a little phonics work for like five or ten minutes each class,”) that Japanese teachers of English don’t know how to teach phonics. And with good reason.. they grow up with a language that does not differentiate between L and R, and not between TH and S, either, and to some extent, Z and J, and it doesn’t have the “er” sound and.. all kinds of other things.

I noticed it so profoundly the other day in my 4th grade class. The teacher there used to intimidate the hell out of me. He always participates and tries to help, which is great, honestly, homeroom teacher participation is essential, but they aren’t trained as English teachers, and he’s the product of a system that says a child whose name is pronounced Shota is Romanized Sôta.

There are a couple of different systems of Romaji, but I naturally like best the one I was first taught, which basically is, each Japanese character can be sounded out in English letters. There is no “si”.. the reason so many kids call the letter “C” by the name “shee” is because in the syllables, which for k go “ka, ki, ku, ke, ko,” for s go “sa, shi, su, se, so.”

When I first got my letter of JET placement and it said “Sisou” I remember saying, “Holy shit, Mom, I think they’re sending me to China.”

The other thing that happened in that class was a continuation of the epic struggle to get kids to differentiate verbally between “Tuesday” and “Thursday.” It turns out, Thursday is the hardest word in the world, because it combines that weird-ass TH combination in conjunction with the elusive “ER” sound no one is used to pronouncing. Dammit, Thor. The kids see a day that starts with T and has a U somewhere in the middle and spit out “Tuesday” every time.

Katakana-ized, it comes out saazday, which is at least recognizably different from chuusday (which is how we English speakers tend to pronounce “Tuesday”), but I hate falling back on the katakana, because the whole point of me being here and being adept at English phonemes is to teach them how it really sounds, not how it approximately sounds.

Still, I ask myself, if a sympathetic listener heard them say it, would they understand the word? That’s what I have to come back to.

It also took on striking hues when I asked my students at all levels to spell words like mat, sad, Sam, sat, etc. I said MAT and they said macch(i)? and I said MAT and they said matto? and I said MAT! and they said matsu?!

(head shake) …Mat.

Even my third-years (9th grade level) were doing this. Because you know that ka, ki, ku, ke, ko? For “t” it’s even worse: ta, chi, tsu, te, to.

They don’t understand the alphabet as its own unique thing, although they can sing the song and put the letters in order and they can draw the graphemes. But I know that understanding takes time. They only see the alphabet in relation to Romaji. Earlier on, my third graders (as in, 9 years old) hadn’t started learning Romaji yet. So the teacher explained that they couldn’t yet write their names in English letters.

Which makes the third grade and younger my richest unspoiled-by-romaji-learnin’ group.

The trouble is, secrets like there is a whole new world of sounds with this foreign alphabet are slow to dawn on people, or at least they were on me. Ancient Greek was a little like that. But even Greek is pretty close to my home alphabet. It’s hard to imagine that some language system uses sounds yours doesn’t. That there is more out there than you know or use or would ever need if you just stuck to your one language. It’s hard especially for a kid to see outside the structure of their world.

I know that takes a long time to sink in. So I don’t expect to make a difference in English learning overnight, or in one month, or in one year, even. Give me a couple of years, and some kids who really want to know something, and magic will be made.

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