The English Auntie

One of my favorite walking routes takes me near the neighborhood elementary school. Last week, as I passed a young girl, I heard her question (in Japanese), “An English person?” I turned and explained that while I spoke English, I was American. Turns out that I was the first foreign person she’d had a chance to talk to “up close and personal.” We chatted for a few more minutes and I continued on my way. While our entire talk had been in Japanese, I got a “thank you!” in English as I moved on.

A few days later, I saw the same girl with a friend. She greeted me, and the friend added, “Oh, the English person.” This time, Rie explained to her friend that I spoke English but was American. I graduated from “an English person” to “the English person” and “the girl” became Rie.

Today, I ran into Rie again, this time with a small group of friends at the neighborhood park. She must have been talking about our meeting because I was greeted with “Hello, English Auntie!” (In Japanese, this doesn’t sound nearly as odd as it does in translation.) It’s another promotion on the relationship scale.

I often hear an analogy that compares effects of meetings like this to ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond. I’ve never found that analogy very satisfying because it seems quite one sided. If I’m the pebble, the implication is that my meeting Rie will affect her life is some as yet unknown way. But, the pebble just sinks to the bottom of the pond, suggesting that my life remains unchanged.

I prefer the analogy of gold bars and silver bars. If you touch one to the other, microscopic bits of gold transfer to the silver bar, and microscopic bits of silver transfer to the gold. Even though the bars look the same, they are changed forever by the contact.

It may be vanity that I prefer to think of myself as a bar of precious metal than as a wet rock, but I like this image. The changes may be small, and perhaps not consciously noticed, but we’re still changed by each new encounter.

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

About Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto has taught English and ESL in the US, and EFL in Japan. An EFL teacher and teacher trainer since 1985, she has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the USA and Latin America. Barbara’s motto is ‘Always try new things’, so these days, when she’s not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, she’s exploring the potential of new technologies for collaboration and professional development. You can often find Barbara online working with teachers around the world as Program Director for International Teacher Development Institute ( or on her new blog for English teaches who work with young learners, Teaching Children English.

You may also like...

12 Responses

  1. I love this story and it is even better that it is true – yes this just shows what impact one little moment can have – it is exactly like Education and learning – just that one small spark can lead to… I wonder where Rie will be in the future and what she will be doing? perhaps she will one day become a language teacher herself lol!

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Who knows? I often wonder what my first students are doing now. It’s hard to imagine that they are grown ups with families and careers. It would be interesting to see!

  2. aina says:

    perhaps the word english auntie is given to you because you speak english, and they want to call you auntie. this is so asian culture, naming someone on certain characteristic that they find the most interesting.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      You’re absolutely right, Aina. I’ve been in Japan long enough that I started out being called the English elder sister. Then, for years I was simply known as my daughter’s mother. I’m finally old enough to be an Auntie :)

  3. Joanne Sato Joanne Sato says:

    Last week a letter appeared in the post. It was addressed to my little girl in Japanese, so we knew it wasn’t from grandma and grandad in the UK. Excitedly we opened it together, knowing it was from another little girl who we had happened to pitch a tent next to ours on one of our many trips this summer. The two girls had spent hours together catching dragonflies and releasing them.

    There were two letters and a couple of photos, one letter from mum, one from the little girl. The little girl wrote of dragonflies and camping but what the mum wrote really touched me. The little girl’s older sister, who I had played a bit of frisbee with, had started attended an English school. We had hung out chattering away in Japanese and it was so lovely to hear a trace of that experience may have affected her life. For me she provided a much needed exercise partner in the lethargy of a hot Japanese summer and I’m so thankful for that interaction and her desire to study because of it!

  4. What a beautiful story. Thanks so much for sharing it Barbara. I agree with you that our lives are touched by the people that we meet and you are a story for her to tell just as she is a story for you to tell.

    Sometimes I even tell my students about the people I’ve met along the adventures I’ve been down on and when I do they always ask for more.

    At the end of the day, it’s this humanness that defines us.


    • What a great way of putting it, Karenne! We are stories for each other to tell. I’ve enjoyed hearing a few of your adventures on your blog, and can easily see why your students enjoy hearing about them, too :)

  5. MissShonah says:

    Barbara, what a succinct, yet powerful story. And isn’t that what life is all about – a series of encounters and subsequent stories that offer us endless possibilities and happiness!
    Also, another way to see the wet rock scenario could be that you are not merely a wet rock at the bottom of a pond, but you have been engulfed by the experience that had the effect on those that you came across??! However, with your zest, I agree a bar of precious metal suits you a lot better!
    Thank you for sharing your story…
    Shonah :-)

  6. I think about this kind of thing a lot now I have children of my own. We are often the only English speaker that a person has contact with – quite a responsibility. I worry that people will extrapolate whatever I do or say to all foreigners!

    But I love to see the kids in the neighbourhood playing happily with my kids in Japanese, throwing in a bit of English together, coming over for the occasional translation.

    Stephen Bax talked about the ‘normalisation’ of technology in the classroom, the point at which something becomes so commonplace as to be unremarkable. It’s nice when languages reach this status… nd everybody just throws in a bit of what they have.

    Lovely story. (I’m not an ‘uncle’ yet, but my wife says I smell like one sometimes….)

  1. September 30, 2009

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tamas Lorincz and annehodg. annehodg said: RT @tamaslorincz @kalinagoenglish: Beautiful! The English Auntie by @barbsaka || Loved this story too! […]