Friday, July 20, 2007


When you're a language teacher, you spend a lot of your time introducing new words to your students. On rare occasions, you find that your students will introduce new words to you. I'm not talking about learning Japanese words but about English words that I've never heard of before.

One of the reasons you tend to hear "new" English words is that most students are working out of dictionaries that haven't been updated since the turn of the previous century. They poke at their electronic dictionaries to find the English for a Japanese word they can't express (or refuse to express) in simple English and out pops some antiquated or obscure word that even your Grandpa wouldn't use.

Another reason is that the dictionaries give awkward translations in lieu of multi-word accurate translations. Most bi-lingual dictionaries seem to have been written by the same type of people who teach high school English in Japan. That is, the type who aren't actually fluent in the language that is their livelihood and never double-check their understanding but mainly draw their information from research sources who had little better knowledge of the language than they do. A good example of this is that the Japanese word "tokucho" is sometimes found to mean "characteristic" in dictionaries but a better translation would be "distinguishing feature". You find that students often mis-use "characteristic" because they are substituting it for situations where they'd use tokucho.

One of the obscure English words that I learned early on was "antifebrile". I also learned it's brother, "antipyretic". Unless you're a doctor or involved in medicine in some fashion, these aren't the sorts of words one tends to encounter. However, the Japanese seems absolutely obsessed with taking their temperatures and the doctors equally obsessed with doling out medication for even a hint of fever so it's not uncommon for a student who has made his or her semi-weekly trip to the doctor in a panic over a "fever" to mention that he or she was given antifebrile medication. (Yes, I exaggerate, but just a little. ;-) )

This evening, I learned another new English word from one of my students, gurnard. My student was telling me about her weekend activities and how they were affected by the typhoon. On Saturday, a barbecue had been planned by one of her friends. He was going to grill steaks, shrimp, and various tubers on a grill set up by the sea or a river but the rain put the kibosh on his plans for a scenic locale. The barbecue, which was also a 32nd birthday party for one of the attendees, was held despite the heavy rain. Everyone crowded under the cover of his car's parking space and spent 10 hours eating, talking, and, mostly, drinking. I guess that standing in a parking space for the better part of the day is bound to inspire copious amounts of imbibing.

While my student's Saturday was plagued by the typhoon, her Sunday was enhanced by it. One of her friends works at an expensive hotel in Yokohama and the hotel had planned a weekend of festivities for its guests including fireworks. The expectation was that a large number of guests would appear there and patronize the restaurants because the fireworks could be seen very clearly from this particular hotel. The typhoon caused the fireworks to be canceled and a high turnout at its restaurants was looking rather unlikely.

With a ton of expensive food, particularly fresh seafood, ready to rot in the pantry, the hotel employees were encouraged to call friends and family to come in and chow down for a 50% discount. My student enjoyed a multi-course meal at an Italian restaurant which included gurnard and so I learned another new English word from a student.



any marine fish of the family Triglidae, having an armored, spiny head and the front part of the pectoral fins modified for crawling on the sea bottom.


Miko said...

That's funny, I never would've guessed the meaning of the word "gurnard" correctly without checking the meaning! By the way, nowadays I'm swift to explain to my students that some words (or phrases) are generally used in conversation, whereas others are used only in writing. Until I started telling them so, they had no way of making the distinction, because as you note most dictionaries don't do so. They *really* appreciate my inside knowledge, especially since I also explain frankly that if they use those dictionary words in regular conversation, they'll look like idiots. Please don't be hesitant to do the same, they'll love you for it!

Shari said...

Miko: I already do tell them what tends to be written and what tends to be spoken. I also tell them what things are technically grammatically correct English but never actually said by people in everyday conversation.

Since the Japanese are so rigid about rules, they tend to furrow their brows and look troubled about such subtleties because I think they feel that they've just made a "fair play" and you've called them "foul." ;-)

Thanks for your comment!