Wat’d You Just Call Me?!

Entry from: November 2010

This is a story about something that happened to me while teaching my 5th graders about taste.

First you should know a little something about Japanese adjectives. They end in い which is pronounced the same way you say the letter ‘E.’ But this last syllable gets dropped very often to add emphasis. For example the adjective for sour is すっぱい ‘suppai’ but when said with emphasis it often comes out as すっぱっ ‘suppa.’ [Don’t mind the little っ as it simply signifies a glottal stop in this case] Other examples include:

spicy: からい – からっ (karai > kara)

delicious: うまい – うまっ (umai >  uma)

sweet: あまい – あまっ (amai > ama)

expensive: たかい – たかっ(takai > taka)

I spent the first half of class introducing spicy, sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and no flavor. My patern was simple. Show a picture. Ask, “What flavor?” And have the kids answer. After doing this for a while my kids had a good handle on the material so I started to speed it up and pull out new pictures.

Kenji sensei says, “What flavor?”

5th grade class says, “sour”

Kenji sensei says, “What flavor?”

Most 5th graders say, “sweet” while many others shout, “ama!”

Kenji sensei says, “What flavor?”

5th grade boy in the front row, right in front of me, before anyone else had time to answer yells out “NIGA!”

As you may have guessed, にがい ‘nigai’ is the Japanese word for ‘bitter.’ This particular veggie is known for being very bitter. I could tell that little boy who yelled out “bitter!” in his native tongue had crossed paths with this bitter veggie in the past. What makes this event even more memorable was the silence that surrounded “NIGA!”. You see ‘bitter’ is usually harder to say than all the other flavor words starting with ‘S’ so when I pulled out this picture, while everyone was trying to recall the english word for ‘nigai’ one boy was quick to answer in Japanese, very loud, and very clear.

“Did he jus….?!” I thought to myself as I stood frozen in the middle of my stride.

Talk about being bitter. But honestly, more than that I was amused. I couldn’t help but let out a burst of laughter. The boy’s innocence overcame any possible urge I had to react any other way. I had one of those ‘Only in Japan’ experiences that us ALT’s know all too well.

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