Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vocabulary Building

I went to the store the other day to get sugar. Yes, I know, evil and all, still, with my insta-coffee in the morning, I like sugar. I'd had lunch in the cafeteria before, and asked one of my students how to say "sugar" (sato) so I was reasonably well prepared. The thing is, while I may be able to SAY sugar, I can't recognize it in the packaging. There are several sorts of small white crystals in plastic bags in an aisle, and unlike milk cartons, there's no picture of a cow or something equally helpful to help me know between, say, milk and sake (which can also come in a carton that size, though it's usually in a different aisle of the store).

Happily, a store worker was working on the aisle, so I excused myself and asked her, in my best, though lame, Japanese, where the sugar is (because I don't have the vocabulary to ask which of the packages is sugar). She gave a smile, and showed me, and then said, beautifully in English, "sugar."

I thanked her, apologized again, and smiled back.

My illiteracy scares me. (Would "illiteracy" be the right word with kanji, even?)

Salt, as I learned after, is "shio."

I remember when I was fairly new in the Peace Corps, going to a dry goods store and explaining that I needed the thing to gives light from electricity because I didn't know how to say "lightbulb." No one teaches you to say "lightbulb" in your intro class, but that's a word you really need! ("Foco" was how the shopkeeper said it, though I understand "bombilla" is used more widely.)


  1. I'm 6000 miles away from my books, but I strongly recommend a book called *Japanese Vocabulary [Organized by Topic, or something like that]*. It's basically a small paperback full of word lists (English-Japanese), arranged by like things. It got me through my first year there.

  2. Haaaaaaaa I once made banana bread the same way here, which is something no one has ever had. It smelled so delicious and all, and when I pulled it out and served it, someone said, "Oh, I didn't expect it to be salty. I thought it would be sweet."

    Yep - same problem. I had used about a cup of salt instead of sugar. It was one of my finer culinary moments.

  3. My very short time in Japan was the one time I felt like I could understand what illiteracy must be like -- I had trouble navigating and shopping, and felt extremely limited in my options. Luckily we were traveling a fair amount and didn't need to buy supermarket staples!