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Essay

Word association

By Samantha Loong

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I like the Japanese language. Sure, it's one of the more difficult ones for native English speakers to learn, but there are things about it that are pretty efficient.

For example, the workplace greeting "Otsukaresama desu" doesn't exist in English, but it's a nice way to acknowledge the hard work someone has put in. However, as useful as many Japanese expressions are, sometimes my students get too focused on how to translate them directly into English. And it's this reliance on direct translation that can make life difficult for people trying to learn another language.

Direct translation is useful for a lot of words, but many phrases just can't be translated in this way. The worst is a word-for-word translation of expressions — something you still find on many online translators. You can see this in badly translated English menus and signs, where someone didn't bother or couldn't afford to ask a professional to have the language checked.

My students often give me good examples of why direct translation doesn't work. They may say "It takes away my fatigue," which is grammatically correct, but sounds very strange indeed. What they probably mean to say is "I find it relaxing." The other day, a student was trying to explain a word to me by saying "fall ball" repeatedly. I can usually work out what my students are trying to say but this time I was stumped. A fall ball? Like, a formal social dance during autumn?

Eventually, I figured out he was trying to explain otoshidama, which literally sounds like "fall ball." Instead of directly translating it, he should have tried to associate the Japanese word otoshidama with English words like "money," "New Year's Day," "give" or "children." That would have led to the English translation "New Year's money."

They were incredulous. "What?! That's so easy!" they all cried.

Word association is a very useful and powerful technique. I recommend it to my students to help them explain a word. And it helps students think in another language — which is much faster than a literal translation or looking up a word in a dictionary. It's even better if the association is something personal. Some of my students were having difficulty remembering the action "fall asleep" until one of them associated the word with a colleague everyone knew. "Mr. Ono!" he shouted, and everyone laughed, as they knew exactly who always falls asleep during meetings.

Like anything, using word association to break the habit of direct translation takes patience and practice. But it's a useful skill to have, as you keep everyone engaged and involved. Nothing kills a conversation quite like looking up the dictionary app on your phone. Give it a go and watch your vocabulary grow.

言葉の連想

日本語には便利な表現が多いが、それらを英語に直訳しようとするとうまくいかないものだ。それよりも元の表現から連想される言葉を使って意味を伝える方が伝わりやすい場合もある。

The Japan Times ST: January 12, 2018

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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2018年6月29日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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