Posts tagged Japanese

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I recently had an epiphany.

It’s an epiphany about how to read Japanese. And it boils down to this: skip anything you don’t understand.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the reasons that I don’t update this blog very often is that I’m trying to use all my free time learning Japanese. Although I live in Japan, I don’t actually use Japanese at any point in the day unless I force myself: I spend all day teaching and correcting English, and all evening conversing with my wife in English because she refuses to speak to me in Japanese.

So instead, I try to create a Japanese environment by myself. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be.

Although my wife still insists on watching the occasional movie or TV show in English, we generally watch Japanese telly at home. When I’m out running, or on my walk to work I listen to Japanese music (Supercar, Candies, Perfume, Judy and Mary, Chara and Puffy, in case you’re interested), or listen to Japanese podcasts or audiobooks, or even movies that I have ripped to my ipod (like Omohide Poro Poro, for example, because I found the Japanese subtitles here).

But it’s taken me a while to get into reading Japanese books. That’s because when I started trying to read Japanese books, I was hung up on understanding every single word of whatever I was reading. So I’d encounter a word I didn’t know and I’d stop and look it up in a dictionary, and then carry on. It felt more like reading a dictionary than whatever novel I was trying to read.

But actually, that’s not how I read in English. When I was at university I came across plenty of words and concepts I didn’t understand – ‘prepuce’, for example, or ‘burghal hidage’. (I guess that was half the point, right?) And I still encounter things that are full of words and concepts that I don’t understand. When I read Blood Meridian, for example, it seemed to be about 90% words I didn’t know. Before Malcolm Gladwell came along and wrote about ‘tipping points’, I’d never heard of one. But when he did come and along and start talking about them, that hitherto unknown phrase didn’t terrify me enough to stop reading English.

When I read in English, I just skip over things that I don’t understand. I fill the gaps in my knowledge from context or further reading, or I forget about them altogether. Sometimes I might even look something up in a dictionary, but that’s usually a last resort.

Now that I’ve learnt to do that in Japanese, it has made reading Japanese books much easier. And so I recently finished reading ‘Parallel World Love Story’ by Higashino Keigo, and started on another of his books, ‘Graduation’. Neither of them would be the sort of thing I’d read in English, but as fairly trashy suspense thrillers, have the virtue of being easy to understand page turners, which is perfect for exercising my Japanese.

I’m also reading a couple of manga series. The first is a shoujo manga (ie. pretty emo) called Nodame Cantabile, set in a music school. It’s basically about a brooding but handsome would-be conductor, and a girl who has a crush on him, but it’s handled with a superb lightness of touch, and in many ways it reminds me of a lot of medieval literature, a bit – the way it presents such implausible scenarios with a disarming frankness; the way the world beyond the characters’ emotional experience is drawn with such vague strokes; and the way unnamed minor characters provide commentary and comic relief. (The reason I’m reading it, by the way, is because my wife has just been watching the live-action drama, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about.)

The other manga that I’m reading is Azumi, because I know the name from the movie, and because I got it cheap from my local Book Off. It’s a bit more gruesome than Nodame Cantabile, featuring about one decapitation every other page, with the occasional rape thrown in for good measure. But it’s also pretty fun, charting the gradual emotional awakening of the eponymous heroine a naïve young killing machine who occasionally gets her tits out. There’s actually quite a lot of expository dialogue that I don’t understand, about military campaigns and early modern Japanese politics, but there’s also plenty of more simple stuff to sink my teeth into.

And that is what I’m reading at the moment. There are still times when I read Japanese with a dictionary – especially when reading newspaper websites. But now that I’m no longer terrified of not knowing things, I’m reading, and enjoying reading, a lot more Japanese.

Although I guess that’s pretty boring if you’re one of my relatives who only checks the blog to see how I’m enjoying Japan. Sorry Mum. (Only joking. My mum doesn’t read the blog at all.)

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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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