Posts tagged Anki

On the magic of language.

The last time I wrote about learning a language, I wrote a turgid, boring piece that was a crime against both the English and Japanese languages. I guess it captured some of the hard slog involved and patience required for learning a new language.

This time may also turn out to be turgid and boring, but my aim is to talk about the magic of learning another language – those heady moments, away from the repeating things over and over, where you get to use your skills out in the wild; those moments where a sudden flash of comprehension shows you how far you’ve transformed your world.

Once upon a time, in a former life, I learned a magic trick. My friend Simon and I were out gallivanting in Cannes, with half of the UK videogame industry – including UK rich list member Jez San, who taught us a trick that he’d learned from famous mindbender Derren Brown. The trick involves asking someone to hide something in one of their hands; then asking them to hold out both of their hands in front of them; and then, piff, paff, poof, pointing to the hand that is holding the hidden object.

Unlike most magic, there’s no real deception. Just some simple rules about human behaviour that most people aren’t aware of. That night, I felt like Harry Potter as Simon and I wandered the streets, hotels and bars of Cannes, shouting at strangers to hide a coin in their hands. It was like we’d been initiated into a mysterious new world – a world where the old rules no longer applied; a world unknown to anybody other than we lucky few initiates.

That’s what learning a language is like.

The other week, I went to a wedding, in Tokyo. It was pretty interesting anyway, because it was my first Japanese wedding: first we had a traditional ceremony in a temple, where the couple exchanged vows and sake; then we had dinner in a Spanish venue, because the bride was Spanish; then we had drinks at an afterparty, that was accompanied by live music and attended by lots of people with strange hair and big muscles, because the groom works in the music industry and the bride works for Cirque de Soleil.

But it was also interesting because I got to use Japanese. Normally, the closest I get to real Japanese is sticking sentences into Anki and then repeating them for an hour every day, so this wedding felt like striding out on to the pitch at Wembley after doing nothing more than keepy-uppys in the back garden. And yet, there I was, actually communicating with people – real people, using real Japanese, talking about real things, like that annoying woman off the adverts, or is this the end of the queue, or how do you know my wife, or do you remember that time we went to the yakiniku restaurant, or whatever else we wanted to talk about. It felt like I was part of a mysterious new world. It felt like the old rules didn’t apply.

(Although, it turns out they still do. A few days later, I was practising for a sports march that my school had asked me to take part in, and one of the teachers told me to remember to keep looking up, straight ahead. Except I thought he was saying that I must be cold in my short-sleeve T-shirt, so I told him I like the cold. Fortunately, it sounded like I was making a hilarious foreign joke so all of the other teachers fell about in polite laughter, instead of just puzzled confusion.)

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