Friday, 21 November 2014

The Tori and the Tamago

Recently I ran into a dilemma that hasn't been faced by the British public since 1948. For about a week I hadn't been able to hear out of my right ear. I assumed mother nature would do her thing and unblock it without  too much human intervention, but I was beginning to lose hope. Usually I would have rang up the local Doctors and gotten an appointment, but even the easiest task becomes 5 times more complicated when you throw the Japanese language into the mix. I don't even know if GP's are a thing here, and more importantly the NHS isn't here to pick up the check. With pay day just out of arms reach, I had to decide which was more important: beer money or hearing.

The Last Sentence is a Joke About Blocked Ears

After making a quick pros and cons list, I realised I could put this off no longer.  The deafness had evolved from a blockage to a dull ache and constant ringing noise, both of which are dangerously close to the symptoms of an ear infection. My students as always were doing their best to avoid speaking English, but even when they did I couldn't hear them. On the flip side I had mastered the phrase "mou ichido, kudasai" (Once more, please), although saying it 50 odd times a day was getting a little tiring. Every cloud has a silver lining, but that doesn't mean it's gonna stop raining. Sometimes you've got to face the facts, grab an umbrella, and stop stretching metaphors.

I swallowed my pride and came clean. There is no subtle way to communicate with people who do not share the same language as you. I tried to tell the teacher next to me in the staff room, but it suddenly became a group exercise of "Guess What the Silly Gaijin Wants." After much pointing, a quick game of charades, and consultation with the not so trusty Google translate, I managed to explain the problem to the gathered crowd. People cheered. Kyōtō and Kōchō-Sensei high fived. "Naru hodo" echoed round the room. At least I think that's what they said.

Let's Listen!

I am now learning a whole new language for the first time. Being able to say "J'adore la bibliothèque" after 5 years of French at school does not count. Considering there are 3 different alphabets, I thought the difficult part would be writing and reading. However I'm 66% of the way there already. With two done in four months, I should have Kanji down by Christmas.

What has proved difficult (and last week impossible) is listening to Japanese. It isn't until you leave your mother tongue that you realise how fast native speakers talk. And how little they separate out words. I was going to complain about the speed of the Japanese language, but realised its true of all languages and their native speakers. Time is money, and the faster we can communicate what we want to say, the better we are doing it. In theory.

It's also something I find fairly difficult to study. I've downloaded all the NHK's free podcasts (which you can find here) and been listening to them in the car. It hasn't really worked though. Other than the giggle every time the host Michelle Yamamoto says "program", I keep realising half way through that I haven't been paying attention and I've got no idea what government propaganda has been playing for the past 10 minutes. I have a sneaking suspicion that without actually taking part in one to one conversations with Japanese speakers, my listening wont get any better. Except my Japanese isn't good enough to have a one to one conversation. What came first, the tori or the tamago?

Now I have gained a little empathy for the plight of my students, I have been trying to speak as clearly and slowly as possible while still sounding relatively natural. I'm never quite sure what speed to speak to teachers though. There is a fine line between considerate and condescending.


Back to the cheering Elementary school teachers. The school nurse took the reigns and set me up with a doctors appointment that very afternoon at an ear, throat and nose specialist. Which is a thing that exists  apparently - an Otolaryngologist. I tried to teach it to my kids but they told me I kept pronouncing it wrong.

Considering the only form of communication I had with the Otolaryngologist doctor was a questionnaire with questionable English translations,* everything went smoothly. On top of being able to hear again, it only cost as much as a trip to Mac Donald's. Plenty of money left for beer: an all-round victory for international relations.

Things are great now. It was like the first day with a new pair of glasses, but for my ears.** I'd forgotten what it was like to hear things clearly. The students still refuse to speak, but at least now I can hear the wind rustle through the trees after I ask a question in class.

* One of the options was "Ear exploded". If that had happened, I wouldn't have waited a week to sort it out. Hopefully.

** No, I did not have to get a hearing aid.

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