I like the sort of teachers who are able to tease their students, just a little. That sounds slightly cruel, but I mean the certain gentle, fond kind that’s impossible to explain but is unmistakable in action. And also universal – I adored the teachers who could do it to me through elementary, even in high school. They’re the ones I’ve stayed in contact with, the ones who – to be a total cliché – are still my friends on Facebook.
We’re teaching the first years basic introductions, including the phrase “Nice to meet you” and “Nice to meet you, too.” The latter is confusing since it contains two to/os, pronounced the same but spelt differently – it will only get worse when we come to that third on the numbers page. My students - even my coworkers - like to complain how confusing English is in that respect, never mind how their entire kanji system is based on dual pronunciations.
So we go over the phrase nice and slow, pronouncing each word, having them repeat, asking if they know the meaning. This is a bright and outgoing group of students, so at least one student will have a guess even if it’s not quite on. I’m assisting K-sensei here. He’s quite laidback so I have to work a bit at him to figure out what his expectations are for me and what his plans are for each day’s class, but he’s got a dryly humorus manner that the kids enjoy.
I asked them, “What does ‘meet’ mean, in Japanese?”
A pause while some look at the vocabulary at the back of the book. Unfortunately the publishers decided to include ‘meet’ only as part of the phrase and not (at the first-year level, at least) its individual meaning. ‘See nice’ it reads.
One student hazards, “meatball?”
“Niku?” in Japanese, meat.
Sensei and I smirk slightly at each other. It’s an understandable mistake, but no less adorable for that.
He writes meet and meat on the board in a column, the way we do when we’re making sure they get the difference between something. The way we did the week earlier with B and V, M and N. So they know this pattern.
“Now listen closely,” he says, and gives me a nod.
I point at meet. “Meet,” I say, and they repeat after me.
I point at meat. “Meat,” I say, and they repeat after me.
“Can you tell the difference?” he asks, and they groan in protest.
“Ehhh? Can’t tell at all!” “One more time!”
“So Emily-sensei will say one, and you guess which it is.” This is a game I’ll love to play when they know enough vocabulary – symbol and simple, so on. We string them on a few more minutes, pretending distress that they can’t hear the ever so obvious difference in pronunciation between meet and meat.
“You don’t get it? Oh no! This is very important! What if you try to say “nice to meet you” to someone, and accidently say, “Nice to meat you”? How embarrassing would that be!”
Finally K-sensei grins so hard his eyes water, and says, “The difference is…” ominous pause. “There is no difference, they sound exactly the same. You don’t need to worry about getting the pronunciation mixed up.”
The students object loudly, I make sure they all note down the different meanings, and we move on. Sure it was a little bit of a detour, but I would bet you that none of these students will get meet and meat confused again. Nothing like seasoning a lesson with some humor to make it memorable.