Students of Japanese are often Japanese-as-a-second-language (JSL) cavemen. JSL cavemen live a mostly pleasant existence of blissful ignorance, using a devolved form of the language as best they can. However, JSL cavemen are not total ignoramuses — their thick hide can be penetrated by awkward social encounters, notably by laughter.

The first time I went to Japan, I was a JSL caveman, and I was interning at a propeller company in Okayama. I did market research for the company’s ceramics division, which used propeller design software to make luxury ceramic lighting for new houses (which seems very Japanese somehow).

The division was small, so there were morning meetings every day, and I was charged with delivering a short explanation of my activities, which sometimes included accompanying my supervisor on sales calls.

One day, after a trip to Kyoto, I stood, presented omiyage (お土産; souvenirs) that I’d purchased and said, “Kono omiyage wo Kyoto kara tsurete kimashita (このお土産を京都から連れてきました; I have accompanied these omiyage from their souvenir stand in Kyoto to this meeting).”

I’ve purposefully stilted the English translation of that phrase to make it seem odd, because that was the effect in Japanese: The small group burst out laughing. My JSL caveman self stood there not knowing what he’d done until Kubo-san, the buchō (部長; division chief), said, “Daniel-san, omiyage wo motte kimashita desu yo (ダニエルさん、お土産を持ってきましたですよ; Daniel, you bring omiyage, not accompany them).”

At the time, the experience was tsurai (辛い; painful); I’d spent the morning commute practicing what I would say, only to shippai suru (失敗する; fail). You might even describe the feeling as a daishippai (大失敗; huge failure) or with the compound zanpai (惨敗; stunning defeat/setback), which combines the character for cruel or harsh (惨) with the one for defeat (敗). But I carried on like a good JSL caveman should.

It has been more than 10 years since that moment, but I’ve never forgotten it, nor have I misused motte kuru and tsurete kuru, the former of which is used to “bring” or “carry” items and latter of which is for “bringing” or “accompanying” people.

I was (and still am) this JSL caveman, and I’ve realized that being laughed at is a harsh but incredibly useful learning experience. That initial pain of embarrassment can do one of two things: Send JSL cavemen deeper in the cave or force them to evolve toward a higher level of understanding about the language.

Four years after that incident I was teaching English in a small town in Fukushima Prefecture. By that point, my language skills were much stronger, but I still found myself being laughed at by both adults and children alike.

Every Friday, the secretary of the junior high school where I worked would ring my number in the English office and say, “Amai mono dō desu ka? (甘いものどうですか; Would you like a treat?)” I headed down the stairs to her office where she, the groundskeeper, the school counselor and I would eat kintsuba (金鍔 or きんつば), azuki-bean- or custard-filled shortcakes sold frequently at festivals and known elsewhere in Japan as imagawayaki (今川焼き).

One day I was telling them the story about how I nearly killed a tanuki (狸; Japanese raccoon dog) driving through the mountains in our rural town. “Hotondo koroshimashita yo (ほとんど殺しましたよ; I nearly killed it),” I said, trying to imply that I thought I’d been able to swerve in time because I hadn’t heard a death squeal or a splat.

Kanada-sensei, the secretary, laughed in her high pitch laugh and mimicked what I’d said: “Hotondo koroshita no? (ほとんど殺したの?; You almost completed killing it?)” I’ve added “almost completed” to emphasize her perception of what I said. The adverb hotondo and the use of the Japanese past tense, which indicates the completion of an action rather than an action that happened in the past, effectively meant that I had found the tanuki, beat it to within an inch of its life and then, mercifully, deigned to let it live. That sharp embarrassment made me realize my own mistake this time, but I didn’t know how to fix it.

After a short negotiation with Kanada-sensei, we decided that what had really happened was this: Koroshi-sō ni natta (殺しそうになった; It appeared as though I was going to kill it). There is still Japanese past tense, but it is with the verb naru (なる; become), which implies that I had been put in a situation where it looked like (implied by the verb stem koroshi plus ) I would slay the tanuki with my vehicle.

Even more embarrassing than that was the time I got up in front of a class of fifth graders and said the word “boobs” a dozen times.

I was trying to teach English phonics, and to do so I used shi-in (子音; consonant) and boin (母音; vowel). Every time I said boin, I could hear giggles coming from the boys, but I had no idea why. The principal was supervising that day, and he even had to yell at the students to quiet them. But he didn’t explain anything to me, perhaps out of fear of embarrassing me. It was left up to me to figure it out.

I stood in front of the class and said the word one more time, and that’s when I saw one of the kids cup his hands under invisible breasts on his chest and jiggle them: Boin was the noise that boobs make when they jiggle! I’d effectively stood up in front of the class and said, “Boob jiggle, boob jiggle, consonant!” Pretty funny, if you ask me. And not something I’ll ever forget.

Be careful not to let your emotions send you back into the cave. Laughter is the best medicine to evolve your language.

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