Further Observations

If you’ve read the other chapters, you know that I have sprinkled a lot of observations about Japanese grammar, usage, and culture among them. But there wasn’t really a place for everything. In this chapter, I add on some further observations that help round out the whole picture.

A Musical Analogy

My Japanese classes often contained a mix of students who were learning Japanese from textbooks (but had never spoken it in a real-life situation) and students who had “picked up” some Japanese from living in Japan, but had never really studied it from a textbook. I noticed in class that even those who can read and write Japanese, and who may have spoken it for months/years while living there, didn’t always have a grasp of the grammar. That is, they knew how to say things (a lot more things than me), but not why.

This reminded me of a time in college when I was discussing music with a guy who had learned several years of music theory. He was fascinated with intervals and the circle of fifths and the interlocking of major and minor keys. He knew about “commas” (which are slight errors in tuning that occur because frequencies of notes and overtones do not quite match mathematically, but that’s a whole different topic).

At the time, I knew no music theory. I couldn’t follow a single thing he was buzzing about. And yet, I have played music since I was about six, so that’s about 15 years of music under my belt when I was having this discussion. I can read music; I know all the markings for speed, tone, style, and execution; I know how to play all the keys and I can even intuitively guess which ones will modulate into which other ones. (Marches always add two flats in the middle, for example). But I didn’t know any theory. I just knew how to do it. In contrast, the guy I was talking to didn’t even know how to play an instrument very well! If he were actually presented with a piece of music, he wouldn’t be able to perform it!

So in that case, I was in the opposite position that I am in with Japanese. In some ways, my theoretical foundation is stronger than it is for those people who just learned to speak on the fly from living in Japan. But also, I would have a very hard time in Japan right now— I may know theoretically what verb form I should use, but I can’t think of it in real time. And I can’t read the characters very fast.

Which method is better for learning? I don’t think one is absolutely better than the other. I’m a fine musician, even if I can barely figure out the rule for transposing A into C-sharp. And I doubt if a lot of popular musicians had serious training in music theory, right? But there’s also a lot to be said for learning the fundamentals (ooh, bad joke for the music analogy). Having a solid foundation can make learning easier down the road. For instance, I also have training in physics. While there are “intuitive” scientists who make great discoveries after hardly any schooling, the majority of scientists who want to pursue science for their whole career find that they need a good theoretical foundation, if only to be able to keep up with new discoveries. Once you know the theoretical structure, it’s a lot easier to add to your knowledge base.

The Language Chart

[Actually, I already presented my Language Chart and some further notes about it in the chapter on Reading and Writing Japanese, but it seemed like such a nifty general chart that I am repeating it here. Please read the other chapter for more detailed analysis].

When you “learn a language,” it’s not a uniform process. It’s not like there is some total knowledge pool and you just learn a greater and greater percentage of it as you study.

In fact, language is more of a process or a skill than a body of knowledge. There are a lot of components to language, (at least four: speaking, listening, reading, and writing), and each learner will be more adept at some than at others. I’ve been trying to imagine how to think about all these components, and my first attempt was to come up with this diagram:

The Four Fundamental Language Skills

                           ^   fast
                           |   reaction
         LISTENING         |            SPEAKING
   you're not              |                     you are
   in control of           |               in control of
   the content             |                 the content
        READING            |            WRITING
                           | slow
                           V reaction

This chart shows four key language skills in relation to (1) whether you get to control the words or not, and (2) how fast you have to react to the words. You are in control when you are writing or speaking, because you are creating the words (as opposed to reading and listening, when someone else is doing that). But when you are writing, you get to think carefully about how to phrase things, and how to structure the sentences so that they have the right meaning. You don’t really have time to do this when you are speaking. Similarly, listening is a “fast” activity, while reading is a “slow” one where you can go at your own pace.

Different people will find that they have different strengths. For instance, I know people who have no trouble understanding foreign languages even if they only know a little bit of grammar and vocabulary. But these same people may have trouble actually saying original sentences. There are also people who can flounder through verbal communication using a combination of words and sign language, but find comprehension very difficult. And still others can read and write, but not speak or hear. There are a lot of combinations of skills.

Manga and “Bideo”

This is the tale of an interesting encounter I had early on in my Japanese education (after about 3 months). The thoughts written here were those in my head at the time, but I have modified the description a bit with the voice of experience,

I was a fresh young Japanese student, and I figured the best way to learn to read is just to try reading some things. The best thing to start with is comic books, of course, because there are pictures to help you get the meaning. Also, some comic books are written for Japanese kids, who don’t know very many kanji yet. They tend to have simple kanji, and some even have hiragana “translations” next to the kanji characters (called furigana).

So I went to the local Japantown and found a comic/video store. (In Japanese, comics are called manga and “video” is written “bideo” because there is no “v” in Japanese). I browsed around and found some manga that had furigana. Just standing there, I couldn’t understand what the stories were about because I don’t know enough words; I have to have my dictionary nearby to “read” at all. So I picked one out based on the pictures— I got one that looked like an adventure story in a fantasy world.

I went to the counter, where a middle-aged Japanese woman was sitting and watching a Japanese video that might have been a soap opera. (It had that soap opera “look” that crosses cultural barriers, and I could almost understand a significant part of it because soap operas use such simple language). Anyway, when I put the comic down on the counter, she gave me a very odd look. “Do you… have a membership here?” she asked.

Huh? I’m familiar with the concept of renting videos, but apparently you have to rent comics too. Gaijin mistake number one. So I said, “Oh! Sorry. I’d like to get a membership then.”

Another odd look. “Yomu?” she asked doubtfully. In this case, that means “are you really going to read this??” What threw me is that she used abrupt/casual language, which I thought was usually used among children or among Japanese friends and colleagues. Why was she speaking this way to me as a foreigner? I was taught in my classes that polite language is always used with foreigners, and we gaijin should always use polite language.

So in the heat of the moment, I staggered through a Japanese sentence that was supposed to say, “I can read hiragana and katakana, but not kanji.”

I guess she got it because she said, “Hontou!” which means “Really!” Then she said a bunch of stuff I couldn’t catch. Most of the rest of the conversation consisted of her saying something in Japanese, then repeating it in English when I didn’t respond.

But looking back, I may have made gaijin mistake number two at that point. Although the “rule” about always speaking politely is a good one— you won’t get in trouble with it— it is not hard-and-fast, either. If a Japanese person speaks to you casually in a casual situation, it might sometimes be OK to use casual language back.

You’ll have to judge from the context, of course! After all, if your boss invites you out for drinks, and speaks in abrupt language to you after a few rounds at the bar, you still must not use abrupt langauge yourself! That would be a bad idea. But when the checkout woman chats in casual language at the video store, it’s fine to reply casually. In fact, using polite language back at her might actually create something of a barrier— it makes you sound cold and uninterested in speaking further.

All of these subtleties were lost on me at the time. And to be perfectly honest, they are still lost on me. (Heck, even in America, I am not the most perceptive person in real time. So I have no chance in Japan). I think the complicated game you have to play with all the politeness levels in Japanese is a real waste of brain space. Think of how much more knowledge you could fit in your brain if the space wasn’t taken up with complex “rules” (and plenty of exceptions!) about what verb form to choose.

Another thing I learned from that video store encounter was something that I still struggle with. I have trouble understanding things “out of context.” If I know the conversation is about a certain subject, I can follow along and participate. But if you just toss a random question at me, like “What do you think about environmental regulations?”, I probably won’t get it in real time. I have to think about what it means, and I don’t respond in an appropriate time interval. Then Japanese people get nervous about the silence, figure that I’m uncomfortable, and translate before I can process an answer in Japanese. (After all, discomfort is the biggest no-no in all cases).

By the way, there is a happy ending to the video store tale. When I filled out the membership application form, I wrote my name in both English and katakana. The woman at the store laughed when she saw it, but then she looked up at me and said, “Thank you.” She also said she was surprised that I would be trying to read comics and learn Japanese. Maybe we gaijin aren’t as barbaric as we look. Anyway, I felt good about that.

As I thought back over the encounter while driving home, I realized it was one of those rare times when I felt like I was the wrong race— not a common feeling for a white person in America, huh? I was clearly the outsider, being judged by the fact that my face doesn’t look like other people’s faces in Japantown. And I wasn’t behaving like she expected me to. Oh well, I’ve never been very good at playing the role society expects me to!

When I got home, I opened the manga (from the “back”— remember that Japanese goes top to bottom, right to left). With determination, I plowed through the first six pages in about 75 minutes— amari hayakunai ne! (not very fast!). I had to look up nearly every word in the dictionary, and I had some trouble figuring out where words started and ended (there are generally no separations between words in Japanese). I couldn’t get everything, but I could get enough to get the gist (and the pictures helped).

It was a story about Atlantis. It was lucky that I picked out this comic from the vast array in that store, because I actually know something about Atlantis—it’s a Western myth. If the story had focused on some Japanese fable, or had relied heavily on the reader having inside knowledge of Japanese culture, I would never have figured out what was going on.

In case you haven’t seen manga, they are not quite analogous to common American comic books. Manga are more sophisticated; they are better compared to American graphic novels, or really high-end American comics that are read by adult collectors. There are manga for kids, but many are for adults too. Businessmen often read them on the subway to work, for example. They’re like light novels with fabulous illustrations to add color, depth, and subtlety.