Slice of Life: Saying Sensei

(This is for Slice of Life, a writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers. Each day, we are looking at the small moments of life and writing. You write, too.)

saying sensei

(Check out the Word Map for Sensei)

I am doing a read-aloud of a novel entitled Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz with my son. We’re both liking it (although the story starts with a ritual suicide by the protagonist’s uncle as part of a Samurai code ceremony and this unnerved me more than a little bit.) But there is a word in the story that I keep mispronouncing. Maybe you have your own arsenal of words that whenever you see it, you say it wrong.

My current word trouble is “sensei.” I don’t know why this one causes me so much difficulty. When I read it in my head, I hear it just fine. Sens-ay. When I read it out loud, it comes out Sens-eye. I suspect it has do with the spelling of the word. My son called me on the carpet last night. Again.

Him: Dad! (sigh). You said it wrong. Why do you do that?

Me: I did?

Him: Yes. It’s sens-aye. You said sense-eye again. Why are you doing that? It’s so frustrating!

Me: Sorry.

I pause to look at the word. I’ve paused to look at that same dang word many times now. I’ve seen Karate Kid (both versions) enough times to know how it sounds. I put my finger on the word. I keep reading, and when I run into the word, I slow my voice down, carefully pronouncing each syllable. Se-ns-ei.

Him: Dad!

Me: What? I said it right. Right?

Him: Now you’re reading too slow!

Me: (sigh).


This reminds me of a time when I was about seven years old, and I found I was saying the word “very” wrong. Somehow, without my even knowing it, I began saying vurrry (maybe I watched some British show?). A friend finally pointed it out to me (in blunt terms: why are you saying that word like that?) and it was like a punch in the stomach. What? What am I doing? I could not believe it. Then I said “very” out loud and sure enough, it was all wrong.

I practiced that word by myself, mostly because I did not want to be embarrassed in front of peers. I said “very” many times. Very Very Very Very. Now I find myself doing it with “sensei.” Sensei Sensei Sensei.

Me: I’ve got it now. Sensei.

Him: That sound right. Now, can you keep reading?

Me: Hai!

Him: Dad!

Peace (in the pronunciation),

  1. I smiled as I read this great F-S dialogue. It is clear to me that the pronunciation and even the story line are secondary to the connections, foundations, and memories that are being made on the edge of a book (with challenging vocabulary!)

  2. Kevin, I love this small moment with your son and a read aloud. Lucky him and you to have this time together. I also like the way you shaped the dialogue within the piece. You are great with those little technological ways that make presentation so rich.

  3. Just adore this piece Kevin! Not just your trouble with that word but the interaction between Dad and Son is so great and reminds me of my daughter and I. Thank you for sharing…wax on, wax off, wax on…

  4. Peace in the pronunciation. Yes, there is an arsenal of words I mispronounce. Here’s one–maybe you’ll get a collection–sow. I always have to think about is it SO your seeds or SOU your seeds. The English language is tricky and then you go and throw in some Japanese.

  5. It’s your accent getting in the way! I have that problem all the time. My New Jersey accent (I only have it for a few words) comes out at unexpected times. I hear it and think, “What a dork! Say that right!” But some things I say sound weird to people around me, and I don’t even know it until someone points it out.

  6. This reminded me of all the times I embarrassed my sons by mistake. They always took mistakes as personal insults, but now we laugh about them:)

  7. It is so hard to unlearn something. This was a great story and I especially liked how you ended it. I could just picture the look on your son’s face when you said “Hai”.

  8. Oh yes, I can relate! There are two words my husband calls me out on every time: quinoa and Sonoma. I try to pronounce them correctly; I really do!

  9. Thanks for this great slice! I like inserting dialogue into a piece. It seems to make it more real. You and your son seem to have a wonderfully easy-going relationship.

  10. It’s great you could go back to your early learning techniques to master this correct pronunciation! Imagine if you had never had to correct ‘very”…oh, you and your son may still not be seeing eye to ay.

  11. I love this, Kevin! How I miss having kids to read to. I can always count on my mother to point out my mispronunciations, although my sister once said to me, “Weren’t you an English major?”

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