Friday, February 17, 2012

The Richness of Language

The past two weeks I've been teaching an intensive English course to Japanese university students. The end of the course culminates with pair presentations. Since we were six classes we divided into three groups. That means two classes were combined in order to have enough of an audience to watch each presentation, since three presentations go on at the same time in the classroom.

I taught an intermediate level group of students. I had an odd number of students, so one group was composed of three students, two girls and an older gentleman. They chose onomatopoeia for their topic. It was a tough topic but very fascinating. In the first part, my student, Mr. Y., talked about a famous Japanese poet and author, Kenji Miyazawa. He pointed to the fact that this poet's works contain very rich onomatopoeia in Japanese, but when translated into English, the sounds get lost. Japanese is filled with short onomatopoeia sounds that we simply do not have an equivalent in English. For example, sura sura means slippery, kira kira means sparkly, and beta beta is sticky. I sat down with my students at lunch and sure enough their conversation was peppered with such phrases.

Another group from the other class chose to present on the topic of English idioms related to cake and dog. They used such idioms as "Every dog has his day," or "It's a piece of cake." Interestingly enough, when they asked the Japanese students if they could think of similar types of food or animal-related idioms, the students had trouble coming up with any. One of the presenters in this group is SriLankan. He stated that in his language they also have similar expressions. The students pointed out at the end of their presentation how important it is to study idioms because they really can offer insight into a country's culture and it is also a sign of how fluent a person is in a language.

I'm a teacher, but there are times, too, when I become the student. I walked away from both these presentations reminded by how rich the English language is and how critical it is for writers to really think about the word choice to convey the full meaning of whatever scene, dialogue, or setting we are trying to create. While English may not have the wide range of onomatopoeia expressions that Japanese does, it does have very colorful and varied idioms that can give added depth to a story.

Today was the last day of the course and I feel happy. My students learned from me and I learned from them. It doesn't get better than that.


  1. To me, writing is like teaching, so I understand where you are coming from. I get my good citizen fix by being PNWA's literary chair. It'll be a challenge this year as my computer crashed and I lost a year and half worth of material.

  2. Ouch! That hurts. Some of my original writing is lost for the same reason. Anyway, what does PNWA stand for and what do you do as literary chair? Sounds rather interesting.

  3. Great post Gabriella- I know for myself, I often forget how wonderful and telling words can be. And for writers, it's telling what words or terms a culture doesn't have as much as what they do have.

    Great post!