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November 13 , 2003
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Turning on to Japanese

By Patrick Tyler
Special to the Gazette

It’s an approach to learning Japanese that makes sense. “If you're going to learn the language, you can't ignore the culture,” said Ted Bonnah, an instructor with Lifelong Learning.

Japanese is one of five conversational languages offered by the Division of Lifelong Learning this fall. (The others being American Sign Language, French, German and Spanish.) The courses are focussed on conversational skills and are available in the fall and winter semester. No testing takes place and formal admission to the university is not required. For more information, please call the Division of Lifelong Learning, 737-7979 or visit the division's Web site at

It’s why he and the students attending his introductory conversational Japanese course share “honourable” rice cakes and tea during class time, have Japanese music playing in the background and share the odd weekend get-together cooking Japanese cuisine.

“Japanese is a high-context language,” said Mr. Bonnah. “What words you use are very much determined by the setting, the people you are dealing with, the subject matter … so it’s important to be familiar with the Japanese culture.”

Mr. Bonnah knows. He spent seven years in Japan, originally travelling there to teach English as a second language (ESL). During that time, he came to love the culture and eventually passed the highest level of the country's Japanese language proficiency exam – which may seem something of a departure for a Newfoundland boy born in Labrador, raised in St. John's, who earned his bachelor of arts in English.

His admiration for things Japanese is obvious in his teaching and he invests great enthusiasm and humour in getting his students to embrace the language. An example of this is his disjointed version of the chicken dance used to teach the numbers one through 10: scratching your body (itchy — one), stroking your knee (nee — two), blowing sand from the palm of your hand (san — three) and so on.

Mr. Bonnah’s students get great pleasure from this and laugh openly at his antics. They also laugh at their errors and applaud each other spontaneously when one of them is particularly adept at picking up a word or spelling. They’re having fun learning.

Their reasons for being in the class range from personal interest to laying the foundation for future work.

Cory, a quiet young man, began his association with Japanese by watching Japanese television shows and movies in their original soundtrack. He’s joined the class so he can learn to follow the film and TV dialogue more accurately.

Karen, a forthright 20-something, is paving the way for an ESL teaching stint in Japan “sometime within the next nine months.” It won't be her first ESL contract, having taught before in Thailand, but it was the Thailand contract that introduced her to Japanese people and the Japanese language and set her on her current path.

“My best friend in Thailand was Japanese,” she said. “And I just loved the people and the language and that's why I'm here.”

Whatever their reasons, they're progressing well, picking up the nuances and subtleties of the language in just their fifth week of instruction. And if they sometimes falter, Mr. Bonnah is quick to jump in with an example of his own learning errors to lighten the moment. Just ask him about his carrot faux pas.

“I was doing a speech in front of 200 people in Japan. I wanted to say, even though we are all different people, we’re all human beings. What I said was that we're all carrots,” He laughs unabashedly at the recollection. Then, in a telling afterthought: “No one said a thing to me.”


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