Humor Day gives foreign language students a laugh as they learn

February 21 2008

Understanding a Japanese comic strip takes more than just being able to translate the words. This became clear rather quickly to Mikiko Nishimura’s second-semester Japanese language students at Indiana State University as she held up a strip featuring two little girls and a petite bird.

“First thing, do you know what direction to read this comic strip?” Nishimura asked the class, which was participating in the department of languages, literatures and linguistics’ Foreign Language Humor Day on Feb. 20.

Starting with the four vertical boxes on the right, and then moving to the boxes on the left, the students began to grasp the point of the comic strip, and learned something about Japanese culture as well.

“Language and culture are very tightly connected,” Nishimura said. “I try to interweave cultural aspects into the class to help the students better understand how we Japanese live. This helps them understand our language better.”

The comic strip -- which features a small pet bird that emits a very deep sound instead of a traditional chirping sound, chagrining the little girl who just bought him �-- taught the students about the Japanese love for sounds and word play.

“We don’t use adjectives and adverbs like you do in English,” Nishimura told the class. “Instead, we like to use a sound, and say it twice in front of the word it’s describing, or in place of the word.”

For example, a Japanese person may say the sound of a knock on a door -- “kon-kon” -- rather than say the word for “knock,” Nishimura said.

To put the newly learned principles of word play and sounds into practice, the students divided into groups of three and tried their hand at writing a comic strip in Japanese.

A loner turtle and social butterfly were the stars of the comic strip created by Melissa Lytle, sophomore criminology major from Paris, Ill.; Shawn Gregg, sociology graduate student from Ball State University; and Molly Cummings, freshman communications major from Terre Haute.

Lytle explained, “The butterfly is asking the turtle if he wants to play and he says yes, but he is taking a long time to get to where the Monopoly board is set up, so the butterfly is bugging him.”

Since the word for “turtle” in Japanese is “kame,” and that sounds like “coming” in English, the students drew a bubble over the turtle’s head that says in Japanese, “I’m kame, I’m kame.”

More than 500 students in 100-level language courses -- including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Spanish -- learned how to understand humor in the language they are studying as part of ISU’s participation in the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ celebration of February as Foreign Languages Month.

“Part of the purpose of Humor Day is to help students realize that learning another language reaches beyond vocabulary lists and verb memorization,” said Lisa Calvin, associate professor of Spanish and coordinator of basic studies for languages, literatures and linguistics. “Knowledge of another language opens doors to another culture, to another way of looking at the world. This step in cultural understanding is a valuable asset in the job market and in an increasingly global community.”

Students in Elizabeth Juarez-Cummings’ second-semester Spanish class were treated to a famous Argentinian comic strip �-- Mafalda -- whose main character bears an uncanny resemblance to Juarez-Cummings herself.

“What do you think'” she asked her students as she removed her glasses and placed a big bow in her dark-brown, bobbed hair -- which is Mafalda’s trademark style -- and pointed to a picture of the comic strip star hanging above her.

The class laughed and clapped to indicate that their teacher was indeed a dead ringer for Mafalda.

Jennifer Chrisman, a junior French teaching major from Terre Haute, worked on deciphering the Mafalda comic and observed that humor is something universal.

“I’ve studied French, and now Spanish,” Chrisman said. “There are universals in the human experience, no matter where you are in the world. There are family problems, problems of racism, but there are good things too, and humor is one of those.”

Chrisman, who is new to the study of Spanish, enjoyed the special day devoted to an appreciation of humor in a foreign language.

“It’s hard when you’re just a second-semester language student, to understand a lot of what is said and written,” Chrisman said, “but you can always catch a few words in a comic strip, and that makes me feel good about my overall understanding.”

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PHOTO: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: Japanese Comic Strip

CAPTION: Molly Cummings, freshman communications major from Terre Haute, tries her hand at writing a comic strip in Japanese during the Indiana State University department of languages, literatures and linguistics’ Foreign Language Humor Day on Feb. 20. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

PHOTO: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: Spanish Comic Strip

CAPTION: Jennifer Chrisman, a junior French teaching major from Terre Haute, gets help from Spanish instructor Elizabeth Juarez-Cummings deciphering an Argentinian comic strip named for its famous star, Mafalda. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

PHOTO: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: Mafalda

CAPTION: Spanish instructor Elizabeth Juarez-Cummings bears an uncanny resemblance to the star of a famous Argentinian comic strip character, Mafalda. Juarez-Cummings brought copies of the comic strip to class for her students to translate as part of Foreign Language Humor Day at ISU. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

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CONTACT: Lisa Calvin, associate professor of Spanish and coordinator of basic studies for languages, literatures, and linguistics, Indiana State University, 812-237-2363 or lcalvin@indstate.edu

WRITER: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or kspanuello@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

More than 500 students in 100-level language courses learned how to understand humor in the language they are studying as part of Foreign Language Humor Day.

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