When I lived in Japan, getting comfortable with speaking the language meant suffering more than a few embarrassing moments!
It reverts you back to caveman status, grunting one-word responses. It makes you feel like a baby, hearing unfamiliar words constantly buzzing around you, listening, listening, ever listening, trying to gradually unlock the intricacies and patterns of communication. You become a child in an adult world, too young or too inexperienced to join in the game.
When you work up the courage to throw yourself under the bus, either out of a sense of adventure or pure necessity, some hilarious results can ensue.
My Canadian-Korean friend, who went to Japan with me, was lost after getting off at the wrong train stop in Tokyo. She put together enough newly learned vocabulary to ask, “Where am I?” (Doko desu ka?) in Japanese … or so she thought. What she was actually asking was, “Is this an octopus?” or “Are you an octopus?” (Tako desu ka?) She realized she had been making a mistake when the tenth person she asked was just as confused and mortified-looking as the first.
My first amusing mistake took place on a ski lift. I was sitting on the chairlift with a Japanese friend and I wanted to break the awkward silence. She couldn’t speak English and I had very little Japanese. I saw some rabbit tracks in the snow, so I decided to say that it was a rabbit. One simple letter difference and instead of usagi I said unagi, which means “eel.” I am sure there are few eels slithering through the snow!
I have asked my brother-in-law if his “garlic” hurt instead of his “muscles” after we had just finished a golf lesson at the driving range. That was hilarious, but my most embarrassing mistake was after I had lived in Japan for a few years and was much more confident in my language ability. It was my first day leading the morning homeroom meeting at the junior high, as the homeroom teacher was ill. One of the students was absent due to an appendix operation so I wanted to let the students know that he was in the hospital and would be away. Instead of nyuin I said ninshin—which, unfortunately for my male student, meant he was pregnant. I became famous for that little blunder.
I had many more mistakes—too many to count. However, I never let it deter me in any way. I knew that it was more important to be brave, occasionally silly and try to express myself, rather than to be shy or afraid of making a fool of myself. Eventually, my endless scribbling of new words in my notebook and embarrassing linguistic faux pas were worth it. On that note, I bid you a welfare … I mean, farewell (that was an English mistake my best friend from Japan made!) and hope your pursuit of learning another language is just as bumpy and laughable as mine was.
SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe