Translate the untranslatable

Students try to explain Japanese words that don't have any simple English equivalents.

Submitted by Jake W

November 8, 2019

Estimated time: 30-40 minutes

This is an activity I made for a conversation class I have with adult students. We had a chapter in the textbook about asking for clarification of new words. I thought it would be interesting for students to try and explain Japanese phrases and cultural concepts in English.

First, I passed out the first sheet to every student in the class and had them get into groups of 2 or 3. I cut the items on page 2 into small cards and gave each group a different set of cards. I asked them to think about someone like my brother, who has visited Japan but doesn't speak Japanese. How would you explain this word to him without using any Japanese words?

I had them discuss the words in their groups for 10 or 15 minutes, then asked them to present their ideas to the full class. The structure of this is very flexible, of course - you could do things like have the students say the English description and guess which Japanese word they're trying to explain, or have them act out a situation where a person would say it, or whatever other idea you can think of.

I would say that students need to have a fairly high English level and some cross-cultural awareness to do the activity well. Mid-level to advanced high school students could probably complete it, especially if they know an exchange student or another person who they're familiar with that doesn't speak Japanese at a native level.


Sign in or create an account to leave a comment.