City skyscape photo that I took from Odaiba

Monday, December 17, 2007

Language learning

Pictured: I bought hiragana, katakana, and basic kanji posters and hung them up in my bathroom.

A brief explanation of the Japanese writing system, borrowed from wikipedia:
"The Japanese language is written with a combination of three different types of scripts: Chinese characters called kanji (漢字 かんじ), and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana (平仮名 ひらがな) and katakana (片仮名 カタカナ). The Latin alphabet, romaji, is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when inputting Japanese into a computer. Western style Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numerals are also commonplace."

August 1, 2007. e-mail to training people.
Navigating is the one thing that makes me feel like I have some control here and is quite empowering to be able to successfully get places. Otherwise, that whole language barrier causes problems, you know...

For example, today it literally took me over half an hour, "talking" to about 8 various shop workers, and being directed to 5 different locations (on different floors of a mall) in order to get my box of chocolates for my school gift wrapped. At each counter, we would repeat whatever we were saying to the other person many times, before it became clear that neither of us was going to understand what the other person was saying. At the first gift wrap counter, it went like this:
Me: "Omiyage. Gift wrap (with hand motions)."
Her: "Receipto something something something."
Me: "(Slowly and enunciated) Oh, I do not have receipt. I bought this in the United States."
Her: "something something something receipto something something something." Then she takes my box of chocolates and tries scan it.
Me: "No, no, no. No receipt. I did not buy here. I bought in the United States. Gift wrap (more hand motions)."
Her: "Something something receipto something something gifto wrapu something something something."
Repeat the conversation about 6 more times, until it finally became clear that she would not wrap my gift unless I had bought it there, even if I would pay for wrapping. Then I got sent up 4 flights of stairs, I believe, to buy wrapping paper. Anyway, this story is getting too long, so in the end, four people ushered me around looking for wrapping paper while we had unintelligible conversations, until some very nice and friendly worker finally gift-wrapped my chocolates for free as a "service."

August 27, 2007 -- e-mail to multiple people.
I have signed up for Japanese classes through our city ward office. I will begin taking them next week. I have also bought kana (the two basic Japanese alphabets) flash cards and am trying to memorize the characters. The flash cards I got are very good and have little pictures and mnemonic devices to help you remember them.

A general note
Before coming here, I could have recited all the Japanese I knew in less than five minutes. Although I would not recommend this strategy to others, I think I half-way subconsciously didn't study that much because I was curious to see what the experience would be like. And, it has been insightful. Here are a few things I think I've learned:
  • being illiterate is frustrating
  • being dependent on English, either finding people who speak it or finding signs in it, is obviously limiting
  • when you cannot read, you look for other things to convey meaning. For example, if I'm not with Japanese speakers, I generally won't go to restaurants that don't have pictures and/or English on the menu (although I have a couple times, and luckily I think both we and the waiters just thought it was amusing). If the restaurant has pictures on their menus, then I can still find something that looks appetizing and point and say "kore onegaishimasu" ("this please").
  • you miss a lot of what is going on around when you don't know the local language, which feels kind of isolating
  • having conversations (although so far they have just been brief) in the local language is very satisfying
  • slowly recognizing and gaining meaning from written characters is empowering
  • learning a language is a slow process and takes time
  • I appreciate people who are understanding of my language ineptitude, but who also realize my potential to learn, and try to use gestures and/or more simple language in order to help me understand. Although I understand why people would also shy away, it makes me feel like more of an inconvenient outsider who causes discomfort.

I think I have been spending a lot of the past few months soaking up the language sounds and common words and expressions. I took a very good class at the International Relations section of the City Ward office for about 5 weeks, starting in late August. However, it rapidly become too advanced for me, so I had to drop out. I've been trying to study on my own in the meantime and hope to take the class again when it restarts at the beginning in January. My studying mostly involves watching Japanese television, having my little kid students talk to me in Japanese and hearing Japanese at work, listening to these Pimsleur audio courses I bought, and looking up words and phrases in my dictionary and phrasebook. I will share two quick stories below.

One of my most exciting language moments came from the first "conversation" I had with a stranger. This little old lady and I were both waiting for an elevator in the blazing August heat, and although we had not made eye-contact, she knew there was a person next to her, so she said, "Atsui desu, ne?" (It's hot, isn't it?) as she turned to look at me. But as she turned, she seemed to show in her expression that she thought perhaps she should not have said that because I was foreign and might not understand. However, I responded in turn with, "So desu, ne?" (Yes, it is, isn't it?) and an ever so slight smile of relief and agreement spread on both of our faces.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things to me is how I have learned some Japanese through the natural acquisition process. A good example of this happened one time when I was going to the large 100 Yen store that is close to work on one of my breaks. As I was walking, I noticed another shop and went over to look at briefly. When I left and tried to head to the 100 Yen store again, I turned and went around a corner that was a dead end. Out of my mouth came a quick and muttered "chigao." I was utterly dumbfounded, as I had no idea what this word meant. I kept repeating it in my head, so that when I got back to work I could ask about it. As it turns out, it means "wrong." And indeed, I had headed the wrong way. This has happened to me a couple other times, where a situation warrants a certain word or phrase that I know to say, but then have to ask others of the meaning. It's very interesting.

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