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Learning the nuances of language, culture

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Japanese exchange student Risako Hayashi and correspondent Joanne O’Leary.

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Japanese exchange student Risako Hayashi and correspondent Joanne O’Leary. Photo Store

This summer, my husband Jeff and I are hosting a Japanese student through the University of Winnipeg’s homestay program.

Lisa (her Canadian name), is a 20-year-old student from Tokyo. She will live with us until January while she attends English classes at the University of Winnipeg.

The last two months have been a learning experience for all of us.

I have become very aware of the nuances of language. There are many expressions that we naturally use that can be very puzzling for a student learning English as an additional language.

The other day Lisa explained that she sneezed while in a shop. A woman responded with"Gesundheit!"

Our student had no idea what the woman said, why she had said it, and what the appropriate response might be.

We explained that,"gesundheit" was in fact a German word meaning health, that it was often wished upon a person who had sneezed, and that an appropriate response would be "thank you".

Lisa informed us that this custom does not exist in Japan.

We have had some lively discussions about expressions such as "stubborn as a mule", "skinny as a toothpick", and "standing out like a sore thumb".

Lisa is also baffled by the Canadian use of the expression, "eh".

Jeff and I laughed when we discovered that "wedding dress" is "wedding dress" in Japanese (pronounced with a Japanese accent). The word, "cake" remains "cake" in Japanese as well.

Besides the nuances of language, there are the cultural differences. Lisa had much difficulty trying to cut Italian sausages with chop sticks. She was also surprised that most people dress very casually here.

My husband and I have learned a few facts about Japan, as well.

We learned that Tokyo is a concrete city, and that we are blessed with much greenery and nature here in Winnipeg. We recently had brunch with Lisa and her friend at Prairie 360, the revolving restaurant in downtown Winnipeg. The girls were amazed by how green the city is. It truly is an urban forest.

We have also learned to appreciate green tea and have discovered green tea cookies and ice cream. Jeff and I have learned that the Japanese eat sensible foods and portions, and are appalled by our "supersizing" of drinks and food portions

Lisa studies hard and is serious about learning English. She explained that it is important to speak English in order to get a good job in Japan.

Jeff, Lisa, and I anticipate many new and humorous adventures in both language and culture over the next few months. What a delightful learning experience.

Joanne O’Leary is a community correspondent for Riverbend.

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