Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bleeding Japanese

I resumed taking Japanese classes in May. The plural indicates correctly that I am attending more than one class. Good friends and neighbors, I am taking two classes on the same day. The morning class is a conversation course at the Kyoto Prefecture International Center in the Kyoto Station building. The other is a Nihongo Bible Class at my church, which uses the Bible (shoulda seen that one coming) as a text for learning vocabulary and grammar. Goodbye, weekends.

When I talk about my Saturday schedule the reaction from my audience is usually the same. It’s something along the lines of Wow, your Japanese must be [getting] really good! Though I usually laugh and say no, no, no, I do admit that I can tell my listening comprehension is getting better. Being in two classes with foreigners who are better at this language than I puts me right in that Zone of Proximal Development on which Vygotsky placed so much importance (yeah, still using that education degree for something). Listening to them speak and, just as importantly, listening to the teacher explain their mistakes (nonexamples. Ed. degree comes into play again) both reminds me that I have a long way to go but encourages me to at least open my mouth once in a while.

When I’m at school or the office the adults who speak to me are usually eager to try out their English. Ergo, although I drop phrases in Japanese here and there I rarely use conversational speech. Two classes means that I’m being forced to practice inviting people to my apartment for a party, to convince a reluctant friend to go mountain climbing with me, and to tell a waiter politely that he messed up my order. While I’ll likely never try to convince someone to go hiking with me, at least now I know how to say “it’s good exercise and the air is fresh.” Actually, what I’d say is more along the lines of, “body becomes good and air is good,” but it transfers nicely to explanations on why I bike to certain schools.

My favorite part of taking classes is learning idioms, slang and colloquialisms. That and proper inflection are the best ways to fool a listener into thinking that I’m good at his/her native language. I did it when I was in France; after being told that the use of franchement (frankly) was very natural, I threw it in everywhere. Franchement, I prefer the Romantic and Classical periods in music over the Baroque. Franchement, Americans are not as fat as your television makes them out to be. Franchement, I’d like a croissant.

I’ve said before that I speak Japanese with a Kyoto accent, which already gives me a leg up on sounding natural to the folk here. Still, when I can tell students to quit zoning out in Japanese their little eyes get all saucer-like I feel very, very good about myself. It also helps when an elementary-school first grader repeatedly commands me to show the class my underwear, and I can say, “Eh? Eh? Ears are far,” which means I have selected deafness. That buys me enough time for the teacher to come back in the room and tell the boy to cut it out; he’s being very rude.

It’s clear that the benefits of actively studying Japanese far outweigh passively waiting for my brain to absorb the chatter around me. Still, every time I get on that train to go home on Saturday evening, I feel like my brain has dissolved into a puddle of Japanese and question marks. Kim-Chi mentioned that the movies romanticize learning a language as an adult; it always seems so easy for the foreigner to just pick up whatever they hear. I’m looking at you, Russian Dolls. As though if one just studies for a year, one can form complete sentences and not miss on all the subtle parts of speech between noun and verb. Now, I ain’t no dummy like Dale Peterson’s political opponent, but I feel downright ignorant compared to them folks in the talkies.

The benefits of not being a movie character is that I understand what a gross misrepresentation that “I learned Russian in a year” baloney is. I can remember that it takes a child just as long to learn how to speak its native language properly; even if taught proper grammar children make natural mistakes through age eight or nine. After that most of the improper speech is from habit, which is correctable. I’m still a child in the Japanese language, not even two years old yet. Yes, my brain capacity is much greater than a toddler’s, our levels of comprehension are probably similar. I can say with confidence that I have a larger vocabulary than a two-year-old.

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