“We’re going to drive to the football game at nine tonight,” I said to Ayumi, explaining our plans for the evening.
She cocked her head and gave me a quizzical look.
I tried again. “At nine o’clock, we will drive to the football game.”
She shook her head. Wakarimasen. I don’t understand.
I paused, rephrasing the sentence in my mind. “Tonight, at nine o’clock, we will go to the football game.”
Wakarimasu! She understood. “Oh! Okay,” Ayumi said. “I am happy!”
This summarizes the structure of my conversations with the Japanese exchange students who have visited Springfield. I was introduced to the concept of cross-cultural communication when I traveled to Japan in 2009, and loved it so much that my family has hosted three Japanese students since. Though every day of these hosting weeks requires unusual effort to talk with these English learners, I believe the process is a fulfilling challenge rather than a frustrating one.
Speaking with my Japanese friends impressed upon me the importance of listening in conversation. Even though I am fluent in English, listening to how the exchange students use words and formulate sentences gives me insight to their knowledge of English and helps me improve how I communicate with them. What words do they already understand? Do declaratory statements always translate better than subordinate clauses? An idea is rarely understood the first time it is spoken, but I enjoy figuring out how I can say it so it makes sense to the student. When an idea is successfully conveyed, it is a triumph for both of us: the student of English comprehended a fluent speaker, and I comprehended how the student learns English.
Conversing with the Japanese students also furthered my understanding of our different cultures. I realized Americans’ tendency to exaggerate and the Japanese’s generosity during an uncomfortable situation in which my Japanese friend tried to give me her camera. I had to change my initial exclamation “I wish we had that camera in America!” to “Because it is from Japan, it is cool.” In another instance, the common English phrase “I will miss you” did not translate into Japanese, demonstrating the Japanese culture’s restraint from public display of emotion. Evaluating these simple phrases helped me begin to build an understanding of a universal knowledge base. Trying to explain oneself and understand the other person expresses respect, a virtue both cultures revere.
Though my conversations with my Japanese friends consisted of basic words and simple ideas, I believe they are fulfilling because they demonstrate what a conversation was meant to be. Two decades past the establishment of the “me” mentality of the 1980’s, today it is more common to have “intersecting monologues” (Rebecca West) than a meaningful discussion. Speaking with my Japanese friends allows me to “hear twice as much as [I] speak” (Epictetus), the cradle of civilization’s definition of a conversation. I look forward to more opportunities in which I can learn from conversation, be it in English or a different language.