Unable to Understand Independence


Please step into the ‘wayback’ machine with me as I recollect my ignorance of three years back. I was working for a private school, but we had picked up a contract to teach at an elementary school. I thought it would be fun to tell the kids about the Fourth of July. (The class must have been on Friday, July 2nd) If I get energetic, I might check to see exactly which grades I was teaching that day.

My knowledge of Japanese was fairly low at that point, so I spent a lot of time nosing around in dictionaries to find words like shokuminchi (植民地) – colony – and dokuritsu kinenbi (独立記念日) – Independence Day – to prepare for my presentation. I was careful to write the kanji characters down on my notesheet along with the readings in case I couldn’t remember all of them.

Carefully writing each of my vocabulary words down in kanji and in English, I walked the kids through a brief history of the late 18th century in America. As I was teaching a class of second-graders (if I remember correctly) the vice-principal spoke up and said, “They haven’t learned those characters yet.” My thinking had been simply: Japanese words are written in kanji; my students are Japanese people; I will write in kanji to make life easy for them. Oops! Kanji are learned progressively: 80 in 1st grade; 160 in 2nd grade; 200 each in 3rd and 4th grades; 185 in 5th grade; 181 in 6th grade; about 600 more in junior high; and 3 or 4 hundred more in high school.

Shokuminchi uses kanji learned in 3rd, 4th, and 2nd grades. Dokuritsu uses 5th and 1st grade characters. Pretty much no student in 2nd grade would be able to read the characters I wrote on the board. My simple thinking hit a few bumps in the road. Furthermore, these jukugo (熟語) – compounds of characters – are not necessarily taught in the same year the characters are learned. Much like a kid in America might know the words ‘law’, ‘combine’, and ‘volume’ at an early age; but, they probably wouldn’t know the term “Law of Combining Volumes” until high school, or college(, or never).

The class was a success, but I have since learned to be a little more careful about assuming the students will know something simply because “it’s Japanese”. This is true at the junior high and in adult classes as well, since I learn a lot of jargon for shuji, tenkoku, photography, and such. The average person in America might very well, not know ‘vexillology‘, ‘acroterium‘, or ‘keystoning‘. Sometimes I enjoy using a challenging word in front of the junior high kids, since they seem occasionally want to put down the teacher by throwing around slang words that I don’t know. Hopefully, this encourages them to go study.

In closing, it is preferable to talk about my ignorance from Independence Day in 2004, simply because there is an implication that I am more enlightened now. If I wrote about the ignorant things I do now, then everyone would realize my current state.


2 Responses to “Unable to Understand Independence”

  1. sunkissd1 Says:

    I can see how you would’ve made the assumption back then since American kids learn the alphabet at once, not progressively.

  2. びっくり Says:

    Thanks for being so supportive, but I had to learn my alphabet in pieces between 1st grade and 9th grade. The first year was rough after learning only ‘a’ and ‘t’. Not too many words there. After learning ‘e’, ‘r’, and ‘n’ in second grade, I was off to the races. 😉

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