Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snuck Sneaked In

Fill in the blank with the correct form of sneak. Don't think too much about the question, just write your natural response:

Everyone in the house was sleeping, so he _________ across the yard. [sneak]

Some of you (or most of you, considering how much of this blog's readership comes from people I know personally) may have gotten this brief survey in their e-mail last week. The issue came up in my advanced junior high school class when we were reading about a nature photographer who snuck up on a baby lion to get the perfect photograph. The wording was a source of confusion for one student, who checked her dictionary to find that "sneaked" or "snuck" were both acceptable, the former listed as "more formal." This sounded wrong to me, for I, as a native speaker of English, would never use "sneaked," and told the class as much.

The matter bothered me, so I did what most eikaiwa teachers would never do: I looked it up. (Or did a quick Google search, if you want to get technical.) A majority of what I found seemed to agree that while "sneaked" was the original past form of "sneak," "snuck" had more recently become acceptable (though some people, like Jennifer Garner below, strongly argued the contrary).

I was curious to see if more people agreed with Jennifer Garner or me, so I sent out the survey. Roughly 80% chose "snuck" as their past tense form of choice, some strongly, and some through great deliberation. (A few did the same Google search I did, or discussed varying situations in which they would use "snuck" or "sneaked," and I did not count these in the final results.) My trusty Random House dictionary says that, "SNUCK has occasionally been considered nonstandard, but is now so common that it can no longer be so regarded."

Students come to me to learn common English for social situations and practical use. They want to express themselves, understand what they read, and speak natural English that will not cause them shame or embarrassment. I would never correct a student who used a past form of "sneak" that I didn't agree with, just as I would never correct a student who used "hopefully" to refer to a future wish, or who used "their" as a gender neutral possessive pronoun. These are mistakes that millions of native English speakers make every day, and that all but the strictest of grammar critics would brush aside in natural conversation. Occasionally I have students whose English is good enough to understand and appreciate such finer subtleties, but for the rest there's no point in correcting errors that don't sound brutally jarring to the average gaijin.

Monday, December 13, 2010

In Which the Author Recounts his Experience Taking the JLPT, and Promises Yet Again to Blog More Frequently

I have a set pattern of advice I impart on fearful Japanese people before they take standardized tests:

1. Get a good night's sleep
2. Eat a good breakfast
3. Don't be nervous

After taking the JLPT, I can now confidently add a fourth entry to this list:

4. Don't daydream before the test

I was not at all nervous before the JLPT; I actually worried more about finding the test center than about my ability to pass. I arrived on an early train and sat in the Gakuin University courtyard reading Jessie's book on hikikomori (more on this later) while crowds of East Asian students flipped through test prep books and cheerful Brazilians posed for group photos. I was the only white person in the test room, and also the oldest, the majority being Brazilian middle-school students wearing a mix of neon and black. I read, reread, and attempted to understand the hiragana instructions on the blackboard, and watched the test proctor, a nervous woman who did her best to make her Japanese easy to understand, shuffle awkwardly around the room. She was assisted by a college kid who carried in the test booklets and watched over the room without doing very much. He wore a jet-black suit with a loosely-knotted pink tie and dirty tennis shoes that betrayed an obvious unfamiliarity with the post, a welcome break from Japan's usual flawless appearance.

I had arrived just before noon, and there must have been some rule about starting the test at exactly 12:45 because the proctor spent a grueling ten minutes staring at her watch while we waited with the test booklets in front of us. I used this opportunity to think about the book I'd been reading, silently make fun of the college kid's sneakers, look forward to other weekend plans, work some transitional issues out of a story I'm writing, think about women I'd like to sleep with, and worry about whether I'd remembered to turn off my cell phone so that I was shocked into action when the proctor finally gave the signal to hajimete. It had also been so long since I'd taken a standardized test (eight years by my count) that I'd forgotten the importance of speed over thoroughness. I wasted a lot of time in the Vocabulary section mulling over pieces of sentences that had no bearing on the actual answer, and deliberated over questions whose solution I could only guess at. I was surprised when the proctor called time and collected our answer sheets: I still had two questions to go.

That turned out to be a good thing because it showed me that this test, even though it was the lowest level, was still a force to be reckoned with. Success wasn't going to come easily. I spent the remaining two sections locked in a state of intense concentration, especially during the Listening section, which required me to reorient myself to a new set of instructions every ten minutes. (The whole test, by the way, was in Japanese, with nary a hint of English to help us figure out what to do.)

Maybe that was the challenge I needed to sharpen my focus. It occurred to me during the break that I've been taking the easy route too often lately, and that having a challenge again made me feel good. And why have I been avoiding challenges the past few years? Post-college burnout? Fear of failure? Massive derailment without a set structure to guide me through life? Or is it just plain laziness?

I'm pretty confident that I went on to smoke those second two sections, but even if I don't pass, that moment of enlightenment was reward enough. With the test out of the way I've been free to get things squared away for Christmas (which gets a lot more complicated when there's excessive mail order shopping involved), and when that's finally over with, I'll be able to focus on some other writing projects, both fiction and pieces for this blog. More on those projects later, but for now, I assure you that I will be posting more often, for serious this time.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

No Ticket

Just as I feared (i.e. predicted), my entry ticket for the JLPT was not delivered to my work address because, in a massive display of Japanese adherence to labyrinthine regulations, my name was not printed on the mailbox. This is entirely my own fault for not understanding the directions clearly (Travelers Tip: Understanding rules will get you far in Japan). I can't even make the excuse that I didn't see the part about marking one's name on the mailbox, since there is clear evidence of my having retyped it as part of a previous blog entry.

Fortunately, a co-worker's well-timed call to the Testing Center yielded me with a freshly-faxed ticket and vaguely-printed directions to the testing center at Yamanashi Gakuin University. In return, I agreed to decipher the loopy script of a letter from her elderly Australian host father. I wish I could say the latter task was as successful.

Wish me luck tomorrow.