But this method doesn’t work with a tomato.

It was my second year of college, in ’90 or ’91, and I sat at a desk in a classroom with maybe a dozen other students of second-year Japanese. The first year, the class had been much bigger, with a good 30 or 40 students. But the workload was heavy, and the grading tough. The enrollment had been whittled down.

The teaching methods were pretty old-school, with textbooks that were probably from the 50s. We did a lot of in-class drills.

That particular day, we were learning the expression “to use something as something else.” (“X to shite Y o tsukaimasu.”) The instructor gave us some examples. He picked up two pencils, and held them as if they were chopsticks. Hashi to shite empitsu o tsukaimasu, he intoned in his booming fluent-but-American-accented Japanese. “I use pencils as chopsticks.” Then he asked for more examples from the class using the construction.

“Use a rope as a belt,” someone might have said. “I use a book as a tray,” someone else might have offered.

I really can’t remember what examples my classmates came up with. Because as I sat there, I needed all of my concentration to contain the urge to giggle. The one sentence that popped into my head was: Nihon de wa, naihu to shite te o tsukaimasu.¹

In Japan, the hand is used like a knife.²

I’m sad to say that I was not called upon to share my example. I was relieved at the time, as I had not yet released my inner goofball. Also, it’s hard to say how the very serious instructor would have taken my contribution. Especially had it been accompanied by uncontrollable fits of giggling.

¹ Google translate helped me arrive at this:
日本 で は ナイフ として手を使います. There was once a time when I could have written this sentence without looking it up, but that day has long passed. Also, I only wrote Japanese by hand. I would have had no idea how to type any of it!
² The actual wording from the 1978 Ginsu commercial is: “In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife.”

6 thoughts on “But this method doesn’t work with a tomato.

  1. I’m so glad you have now released your inner goofball! Thanks for making me giggle!
    Also, wow! I didn’t know you had studied Japanese. My friend Liz (who first introduced me to your blog)’s son is in first grade in a bilingual Japanese immersion class, despite having no Japanese heritage. I think it’s really cool, but of course, it’s tricky since Liz cannot help him if he is having trouble.

    1. Yeah, taking Japanese was a big part of my undergrad experience for the first couple of years. I loved it. There are probably a few more posts I could write about it.

      How cool that your friend’s son is in a Japanese immersion class!

  2. OK, I give up. Why were you learning that expression? Is it a common one in Japanese? Do people learn to compare in ESL classes?

    (In my Russian class we repeated nursery rhymes while bouncing a basketball. I’ve forgotten nearly all my Russian but those rhymes!)

    1. I didn’t have the impression that the expression was a partiuclarly important one. To be honest, Jennifer, we learned a lot of largely useless crap in that class. There were lots of constructions/patterns we learned. This was one of many, many, many. I suppose it was because Japanese syntax is so different, but I know plenty of other foreign language classes focus on idioms. I haven’t really studied much second language acquisition, so I’m not sure whether this type of material is particularly helpful. It strikes me as outdated, though.

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