By Naoto Sato
When I was in my first year of high school, I read a book entitled “Think in English” by the late Dr. Toru Matsumoto, who had earned national fame as the instructor of “NHK English Conversation Program.” In the book, which I read in one sitting, Dr. Matsumoto advises, “Don’t translate English into Japanese. Try to understand English in English.” This came as a great shock to me, because I had always thought that unless English was translated into Japanese, there was no real understanding. At the same time, however, it was true that I had felt it was a nuisance to render every English sentence into Japanese.
At any rate, I took Dr. Matsumoto’s advice very seriously and decided to train myself to understand English without translating it. This proved to be much tougher than I had thought. It was because I had fallen into the habit of converting each and every English sentence into Japanese. In the book I mentioned above, Dr. Matsumoto emphasized the importance of “experiencing” English in order to cultivate the habit of thinking in the language. For this purpose, I started keeping a journal in English. At first I wrote mostly about the day’s happenings, but soon I wanted to express my inner feelings and thoughts. This turned out to be much more difficult than writing such simple things as “I got up at six thirty” and “I felt sleepy in today’s social class.” I felt a great need to enlarge my vocabulary so that I could express myself better.
Dr. Matsumoto suggests in the “Think in English” book that we read a lot of books written in plain English. Following this suggestion, I devoured quite a few, mostly novels. Every time I finished reading one, I wrote about it in my journal using many of the words, phrases, and expressions used in it. I did this without thinking in Japanese.
Another thing I did in order to develop the ability to think in English was to talk to myself in the language from morning till night. For example, when I happened to find a new store, I said to myself, “Hey, look at that new stationery store. I think I’ll go in and see what kind of stuff they’ve got.” When I was having a hard time with my math homework, I complained to myself, “Mr. H gives us too much homework. I don’t want to do it, but he will be mad if I don’t get it done.” I know this activity strikes you as bizarre and even foolish, but personally I really enjoyed talking with myself in English about many different things. After all, back then I did not have any friends or teachers to practice speaking English with.
The reason I have mentioned parts of the process that led to my habit of thinking in English is that I believe that writing English haiku goes a long way toward cultivating that habit. Mr. Hidenori Hiruta, who played a pivotal role in establishing Akita International Haiku Network, reinforced my belief, saying: “When you write a haiku in English, you should not think in Japanese. If you come up with a haiku in Japanese first and then translate it into Japanese, it does not work. You have to think in English from the very beginning. First form an image in your mind, and try to express it in English— without the help of your mother tongue. In other words, you’ve got to be able to think in English to compose English haiku.”
To be truthful, I am a complete novice when it comes to writing English haiku, and I know it will take me a long time before I can get to a point where I can produce decent haiku, whether in Japanese or English. One thing I am sure of, however, is that my initiation into this new activity will help me further enhance my ability to think in English or, better yet, to describe the shades and nuances of meaning of words in English. I am grateful to Mr. Hiruta for opening up an entirely new world for me.