How Do You Say..?

What would happen if you woke up one day and suddenly found yourself in a world where you could not communicate with anyone? I am an English language teacher. In June 2004, I accepted a job in a rural area of Japan called Niigata and found myself faced with this language problem. One event in particular stands out as an example of my inability to express my ideas to the people around me due to my lack of vocabulary.

    I had been in Japan only a few days, and I was feeling restless. I wanted to make some fresh bread, so I set out for the store with the seemingly simple intention of buying some flour. I had taken some Japanese language classes before I arrived in Japan. Although I knew my Japanese skills were limited, my lack of knowledge didn't stop me from going to the store to buy flour. I thought that I would locate the section where the grains were displayed and find the bag that had a picture of either bread or flour on it.

    The small town where I lived had only one tiny store. I wandered around the store a few times, but I did not see a bag of anything that appeared to be flour. In the United States, flour usually comes in a paper bag with pictures of biscuits or bread on it, so this is what I was looking for I finally found a few clear plastic bags that had bread crumbs inside, so I thought that four might be located nearby. No matter how many bags I examined, I could not find any flour.

    I desperately wanted to ask one of the three elderly women clerks where the four was, but I could not do this simple task. I knew how to ask where something was, but I did not know the word for flour. I tried to think of how to say four using different words, such as white powder or the ingredient that you use to make bread, but I did not know powder and I did not know ingredient. Just then, I saw one of my students in the parking lot. I rushed outside to his car and explained that I needed to know a word in Japanese. "How do you say flour?" I asked. He...