Lost in translation: children’s health exams in Japan

I was reading this post from a fellow translator about her son's 2-year health exam, and was reminded of my son's 3-year health exam in Japan.

It might sound unusual to those of us who are from countries without socialized medicine, but in Japan they periodically round up all the kids who'll turn X by date Y, and give them a group health exam. In my city, all health-care costs were free for children up to age three, so good deal, we thought.

One part of the exam was a kind of developmental progress check. They had this sheet with various pictures on it — a tree, a soccer ball, a dog, an airplane, etc. They'd ask the children to name five things on the page. My son still didn't speak much Japanese at the time, but when I told this to the woman giving the test, she said no problem — just have him name the items in any language he was comfortable with.

My son did his thing, then when he was done the woman told us, OK, please go sign up with social services. I'll go into dialog mode for the rest of the conversation:

Tester: Please go sign up with social services.

Me: What for?

Tester: For special care for your son's mental retardation.

Me: What??

Tester: Well, your son named enough items on the page, but he made several mistakes. He failed the test, so needs to be enrolled in a special daycare for the developmentally challenged.

Me: Mistakes? What mistakes?

Tester: Well, for example, he pointed at this dog but he didn't call it a dog. He called it something else.

Me: He called it a puppy. As you can see, the drawing is actually of a puppy — a young dog.

Tester: Oh, well how about this one? He pointed at a cat but he called it something else.

Me: Yeah, he called it a kitty.

Tester (triumphantly): Aha! But I know that a baby cat is called a "kitten" in English. He obviously made a mistake in pronunciation.

… It kind of went downhill from there. Suffice it to say that my son didn't have to go to daycare for mentally retarded children, and the tester got a free lesson in baby English.

I actually come across people like this tester fairly often in my work as a Japanese-to-English translator. Japanese native speakers who know just enough English to be dangerous. They insist on "correcting" the English of native English speakers, because they looked something up in a dictionary, or they picked up some phrase during their two-year stint in America. The problem, of course, is that the incompetent don't realize that they're incompetent. They have to progress to the cusp of competence to realize how much they actually suck.

Getting back to my son, just to show that I'm not some deranged parent who refuses his kid necessary care: my son's English is still stronger than his Japanese, but at six he did another one of those language tests, this time doing the whole test in Japanese, and still scored above average.

No idea what happened to the tester, but I imagine she's still doing her little "name the picture" test. I'm hopeful that she's gained a little humility about her English knowledge since then.

5 comments to Lost in translation: children’s health exams in Japan

  • […] Ryan Ginstorm, an indepent translator who lives in Japan, comments on a health official who assumed his 2-year old son was mentally retarded since he called a young dog a “puppy” and a young cat a “kitty”. (link) […]

  • Zac

    Being in a similar situation with two toddlers and based in Japan, it would be interesting to know how you brought up your child(ren) bilingual.

    I read a book that recommended for each parent to use native language 100% of the time – we have been doing that for 6 months and it seems to be working but I often wonder how my kids English now stacks up to similar aged kids in the UK.

  • @Zac

    I’ve always only spoken English to my son. My wife speaks mostly Japanese with him, but they both mix when speaking to each other. His Japanese grandmother and aunt live nearby, and they speak only Japanese. He also has both Japanese and English-speaking friends.

    We also send our son to an English-speaking school. This has been the single most important factor in raising him bilingually in Japan.

    He’s now 10 and in 5th grade, and I’d say he’s a fairly balanced bilingual (although his English is stronger). One problem is that his Japanese reading and writing is lagging behind; this year, we put him into Gakken twice a week to get that ability up, and it seems to be working. My measure of this is Yugioh: the English translations lag a bit behind the Japanese versions, and my son now reads them in Japanese first (but still reads them again in English when the translation comes out).

  • Zac

    Thanks for the info.

    You are extremely lucky to have access to such a reasonably priced international school. In Kansai they all cost 120 to 180man per child.

    Mine are still 2 and 3 years old, so it remains to be seen whether we will be able to get their English to a suitable level while putting them through the regular Japanese school system.

  • @Zac

    Yes, I’m lucky. The situation was similar to yours in Nagoya — well over a million yen per year, and many of the children didn’t even achieve real fluency in English.

    Some of the teachers at my son’s school are radical in their religious beliefs, but it’s a very good school otherwise.

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