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Kuraku naranai uchi ni, yama o oriyō.

(Let’s descend the mountain before it gets dark.)

Situation 1: Eric Sere and his girlfriend, Yuri, are on a mountain.

ゆり: あ、もう3時だ。そろそろ行かなければならないね。

エリック: うん。暗くならないうちに、山を下りよう。

Yuri: A, mō san-ji da. Soro-soro ikanakereba naranai ne.

Erikku: Un. Kuraku naranai uchi ni, yama o oriyō.

Yuri: Oh, it’s already 3 o’clock. We should get going.

Eric: Yeah. Let’s descend the mountain before it gets dark.

The terms うちに and 間(あいだ)に can express measurements of time and are used in the structures XうちにY and X間にY. The latter is used with portions of time that can be measured by the clock while the former can also be used with periods of time that can’t be measured specifically, like the period before it gets dark in Situation 1. To sum it up, XうちにY means to do “Y” while the situation indicated by “X” (a nonpast verb or adjective) continues:

子(こ)どもが寝(ね)ているうちに、仕事(しごと)をしてしまおう。

(I’ll finish my work while my kids are sleeping.)

ラーメンは熱(あつ)いうちに食(た)べたい。

(I want to eat the ramen while it’s hot.)

When “X” is a noun, the structure used is XのうちにY:

学生(がくせい)のうちに、いろいろなところへ旅行(りょこう)に行(い)ったほうがいい。 (It’s good to travel to various places while you’re a student.)

The structure X間にY can be used in place of XうちにY, but implies a measurable amount of time. And, if you omit に, it gives the nuance that action “X” continues for the duration of “Y”:

日本(にほん)にいる間に、富士山(ふじさん)に登(のぼ)るつもりだ。(I plan to climb Mount Fuji while I’m in Japan.)

スミスさんは日本にいる間英語(えいご)を教(おし)えていました。 (Ms. Smith was teaching English [during the time] while she was in Japan.)

Additionally, when the verb represented by “X” is in its nai-form, like in Situation 1, it indicates the speaker’s anxiety, which is why Eric doesn’t say, “明(あか)るいうちに山を下りよう” (Let’s descend the mountain while it’s bright).

Situation 2: Mrs. Okubo’s younger sister, Eriko, comes to visit and her niece Mariko greets her.

まり子: おばちゃん、こんにちは!

えり子: まあ、まり子ちゃん、しばらく会わないうちに、大きくなったね。

Mariko: Obachan, konnichiwa!

Eriko: Mā, Mariko-chan, shibaraku awanai uchi ni, ōkiku natta ne.

Mariko: Aunty, hello!

Eriko: Oh, Mariko! You’ve gotten big in the time I haven’t met you.

The “XうちにY” and “X間にY” structures can also be used when “Y” changes while “X” continues:

この一週間(いっしゅうかん)のうちに/間に京都(きょうと)の紅葉(こうよう)が見頃(みごろ)になるでしょう。 (It’ll be the best time to see the autumn leaves in Kyoto within this week.)

Bonus Dialogue: Continued from Situation 2. Mrs. Okubo (Yoko) and Eriko are talking about Eriko’s baby, Ayaka.

えり子(こ): まり子ちゃんは、ピアノか何(なに)か習(なら)っているの?

洋子(ようこ): ううん、特(とく)に何も。えり子は、あやかちゃんがもう少(すこ)し大(おお)きくなったら、何か習わせるの?

えり子: うん。子どものうちにいろんなことを習わせたいの。英語(えいご)とか、楽器(がっき)とか、スポーツとか。早(はや)くその子の才能(さいのう)を伸(の)ばしてあげられるでしょう?

洋子: うーん、どういうのが向(む)いているかわからないけどね。

えり子: でも、子どもは楽(たの)しく練習(れんしゅう)している間に、上手(じょうず)になるみたいよ。

洋子: そうねえ、それも大事(だいじ)だけど、私(わたし)は小(ちい)さいうちにできるだけ遊(あそ)ばせたいなあ。自然(しぜん)と触(ふ)れ合(あ)って、自分(じぶん)で考(かんが)えることができるようになってほしい。ところで、料理(りょうり)が冷(さ)めないうちに食(た)べてよ。

えり子: あ、そうね。 じゃ、いただきます。

Eriko: Is Mariko learning piano or anything?

Yoko: Well, nothing in particular. When Ayaka grows a little more, will you get her to learn something?

Eriko: Yes. I want to get her to learn a lot while she’s a child — English, musical instruments, sports and so on. You’re able to develop a talent much quicker as a child, right?

Yoko: Hmmm, but it’s not easy to tell what she will be good at.

Eriko: However, it seems like children get better while they are having fun practicing.

Yoko: Yeah, that’s also important, but I want to let my kids play as much as they want while they’re still small [young]. I want them to have contact with nature, to be able to think for themselves. By the way, we should eat before the food gets cold.

Eriko: Oh, that’s right. Well, bon appetit.

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