The Age-Old Question

by allisonkujiraoka

I taught a new group of students this past Thursday, twenty-two high school seniors.  Since it was our first class together, I had them make a few questions for me in English, which they then used to practice a little speaking.  When I do this activity with my Japanese students, one query inevitably surfaces: How old are you?  Sure enough, less than halfway through the classroom a girl asked me my age.  In recent years my stock answer has been, “It’s a secret.”  This time around, in the few seconds I hesitated a boy from the back of the room called out, “Eighteen!”  We all laughed, and I said, yes, let’s go with that.  Eighteen it is.

Whew, dodged the bullet, I thought.  And then the girl at the other end of that row came out with, “How old are your brother and sister?”  Drat.  I had already told them I had a younger brother and younger sister.  “Very smart,” I mused.  “My brother is two years younger than me, and my sister is four years younger.”  They gave up after that, resigned to staring and trying to determine how many miles I have on me.

Since I anticipate this subject from the get-go, I incorporate it into the activity that follows.  I give the students cards with questions and responses that they have to match (“What do you do?” goes with “I’m a systems engineer.”)  Each set of cards has ten question or statement cards but only nine response cards.  The students work together to make pairs and find a lonely, unanswered “How old are you?”  card left over.  Why do you think this one does not have a match?, I ask them.  Usually at least a few have heard the spiel before:  A language is part of a culture, and as such there are certain rules that apply in one but perhaps not in another.  What is considered taboo to mention here may be germane elsewhere in a different tongue, or vice versa.

Age is a vital determinant in how one Japanese addresses another, rooted in the Confucian tradition of respecting elders.  Children are made keenly aware of their relation to upperclassmen and underclassmen, and these denotations follow them beyond graduation.  Jo still refers to people he went to school with as “Upperclassman, ” “Classmate,” or “Lowerclassman.”   Greetings, forms of address, verb conjugations–all of these must conform to a pattern shaped by the relative age of the speakers.  At least, this is what a language textbook might say.  In practice, everything depends on context and relationship:  everybody in our family, including my sons, calls my husband’s sixty-something-year-old uncle “Yoshibo-chan,” a childhood nickname that stuck.

By the same token, students should know it is inappropriate to ask a teacher her age, especially during the first class meeting.   My reason for not answering the question is more a matter of principle than an aversion to revealing my age.  I am obviously older and in a position of power, so the need to establish one’s status is nonexistent.   I’ve had many a student use English obscenities in class over the years, something they’ve picked up from foreign music or movies.  For them, it’s just a word or phrase, a collection of letters and sounds with no emotional connection, void of context.  I’ve come to think that “How old are you?” is similar–something from a phrase book that is grammatically correct but culturally unsuitable.

Native English teachers like myself tend to be prized for our pronunciation, something the Japanese have a hard time replicating even after years of study.  I have had “teaching” jobs here that entailed my reading vocabulary words or lines of dialogue aloud so that students could repeat after me.  While vowels and consonants are indispensable, they alone cannot carry our communication.  They instead must be borne along by the rising and falling of our voice, the waving of our hands or shifting of our eyes, and all the other minute clues that add up to a cohesive message.  I’d like to think that in my small corner of the ring I can combat the misconceptions (All Americans love guns and carry 24/7) and shed some light on the unwritten rules of English.  Oh, and stay forever young.