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Borrowing Japanese as a teaching aid

Adam Goucher’s post on New things to steal from the Japanese is the impetus for this one. At CAST I gave a lightning talk on borrowing Japanese language as a teaching aid.

Using foreign loanwords is probably harmless enough if you’re using them to jazz up a story, but if you’re going to use them as teaching concepts especially in the sense of you being the teacher and having enough understanding to relay these concepts to others then more care is warranted.

There were a couple of points that I wanted to make in my talk (though I’m not sure how well I did in the five minutes that I had). Firstly, there seems to be some sort of mystic profundity attached to the Japanese language. Pick a common concept and use the Japanese word for it and all of a sudden it’s full of ancient wisdom.

When I first started learning Japanese, everything seemed terribly profound to me too – probably a combination of kanji seeming unintelligible and me watching far too many samurai movies. Being a little older and a little bit more experienced, I can safely say that, like western teenagers, Japanese teenagers can talk for a half hour solid and say ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Japanese language is not necessarily any more profound than your native language. English has some wonderful, seldom-used words that you could choose to bring back into common parlance.

The other thing is that Japanese language is not necessarily as straight forward as it seems. There are many words that do not have a one-to-one translation and many words that have more than one meaning based on the context you use them in. That cool word you borrowed to spice up your new teaching material may have other meanings, than the one you intended, or deeper meanings that you don’t quite understand.

Shu-Ha-Ri is a particular favourite of mine when it comes to borrowed terminology. On the surface, it describes the progression of learning from the novice stage (shu), where you follow an instructor’s directions over and over again without necessarily understanding why (wax on, wax off, Daniel-san); then an intermediate stage (ha) where you begin to explore what your new-found skills mean and how to apply them in practical situations; to an advanced stage (ri) where your learning becomes self-directed and you no longer require a teacher in order to evolve your skills.

Sounds simple enough in concept, right?

Okay, so let’s take a closer look at the three kanji used.

守 – Shu – means to obey, but also to protect or defend.

破 – Ha – means to rip, tear, break or destroy

離 – Ri – means to detach, separate or release

Armed with this knowledge it becomes a little tougher to reconcile each of them into the neat little definition above. To add to this, allow me to make a gross generalisation about Japanese culture compared with Western culture.

I have observed that westerners tend to have a mindset of ‘make me understand, then I will do’
In Japan there is frequently a pattern of ‘do and eventually you will understand’

The ‘do’ part may take several years before understanding arrives. Case in point, I have done kendo for around 18 years. I felt that I had a solid understanding of the basics maybe 6 years ago. Some of my peers would probably tell you I’m still not there yet.

I’m not saying that one way of thinking is right and one is wrong, or that one is better than the other, but that you should understand that these difference is there. They are part of the culture and it has a direct bearing on language and the understanding of concepts such as Shu Ha Ri

Ri may not come to you without many years of effort. It is unlikely that a several week or even several month course will take you from Shu, through Ha to Ri. Not in the most simplistic sense of the term. Got someone telling you that you can be a black-belt from scratch in six weeks? Run far, far away from that person.

As far as teachers go, I would suggest that if you are tempted to borrow from the Japanese, or another language that you don’t speak for that matter, that you spend some time studying the culture and the people and at the very least be aware that your understanding of the term may well be incomplete before you have your students start calling you sensei.

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