How do you say it in English?
Yesterday's English phrase in a couple of my classes was "How do you say _____ in English?" A simple, straight-forward and useful expression. The problem is, since language is shaped by environment, there are some things in Japan for which there is not an English equivalent.
In my first class, the Japanese teacher pointed out various things in the room and asked me how to say them in English.
Japanese teacher: (holds up a student's ruler) "How do you say monosashi in English?"
Me: (smiling and the kids, wishing I was anywhere but there) "It's a ruler."
Japanese teacher: (holding up a dictionary) "How do you say jisho in English?
Me: (continuing fake enthusiasm, wondering why I spent 4 years studying French litterature to do this all day) "It's a dictionary."
Japanese teacher: (removes a plastic sheet from a student's book) "How do you say shitajiki in English?"
Me: (suddenly looking uncomfortable) "Ummm, ummm, it's a plastic sheet thing-y that you put under a sheet of paper to make it easier to write? I don't know, we don't have those in America."
And I felt incredibly stupid, although it's not my fault the Japanese are so anal they need to carry around plastic sheets to make their writing neater. I may or may not own one of these myself, and it may or may not have cute monkeys on it.
Later on in the day, I was talking to an older Japanese woman about the yellow dust that was filling the air. I had assumed it was pollen, but it turned out to be yellow sand from the Gobi desert. Who knew?
"So anyway," she said, "what is the English word for yellow sand that comes from China?"
"Ummm, I think you just have to say 'yellow sand that comes from China.' Why? Is there a Japanese word for that specifically?"
"Yes," she answered. "It's kosa."
So I learned of the shortcomings of the English language yesterday. But outside of Japan (well, East Asia maybe) why would one need to talk about shitajiki and kosa? By the way, if there is in fact an English word for shitajiki, could someone please tell me what it is?