A Lesson on Lingo

As a midwife, I occasionally cared for a woman who spoke little or no English, whether she was Phillipina, Cambodian, or Mexican. Although my preceptors and I spoke a little Spanish and could therefore communicate somewhat with the Mexican clients (I’m not being racist—they were genuinely all from Mexico, not San Salvador, Guatemala, etc.), we were out of luck where it came to Tagalog or Cambodian. In such cases, we were forced to communicate through the husband. If, however, the husband couldn’t be there or if we had concerns we needed to discuss privately with the woman, we had trouble. I decided that if I ever came to live in another country where English was not the primary language (which I doubted would happen), even if I were a stay-at-home mom (which I also doubted would happen), I would learn the language.

I’m now a stay-at-home mom and moving to Tokyo soon with my husband and baby because of my husband’s work, so I’ve started working on learning Japanese. Japanese utilizes three writing systems, kanji and the two kana (hiragana and katakana). Kanji, which comes from Chinese, is the writing system with which everyone is familiar, where one or two characters put together represent a word. The kana are also referred to as syllabaries because each character represents a syllable (e.g. “o,” “ka,” “shi,” etc.), so they’re similar to a traditional European alphabet. Hiragana is generally used for words native to Japanese (せいようりんご“seiyouringo” for apple) and katakana for words not native to Japanese (アップル“appuru” for apple).

When Japanese words are written in the English alphabet (“rōmaji”), the English spelling doesn’t always tell you the correct Japanese spelling, so when I study Japanese, I look up the words in my Japanese dictionary to discover the correct Japanese spelling. My textbook referred to “nyuusu” (news or newspaper). I knew this would be in katakana because it is a foreign word introduced into Japanese, but since I typed it in English (“rōmaji”), my dictionary automatically assumed hiragana and brought up にゅうすい (“nyuusui”), which means “suicide by drowning.”

I’m glad I knew it should be in katakana rather than hiragana, or else I would have been writing “suicide by drowning” every time I wanted to write about the news! It’s a humorous reminder of the importance of using correct language, regardless of your sphere, and makes me wonder at the work involved in translating the Bible from the original ancient Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek to modern English! I have great respect for the translators. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Take care, TCB.

This lesson on the importance of knowing and using correct language was brought to you by a humble がくせい (“gakusei” student).



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