Learning Japanese (I Think I’m Learning Japanese, I Really Think So…)

October 15, 2009

It’s a tough row to hoe when you try to add a new language to your repertoire at an advanced age (by which I mean any age over about ten). Still, if you go to live somewhere where they speak a language different from yours, it is incumbent upon you to learn several key expressions and phrases in the native tongue:
“Hello”, “My name is…”, “Nice to meet you”, “Do you come here often?”, “Do you have a boyfriend (girlfriend, dog, communicable disease)?“, “How much does that cost?”, “Excuse me, how much?”, “Seriously?”, “No, I have never eaten natto before”, “Yecch, that’s bloody awful”, “Do you have one in my size?”, “Excuse me, I believe I was in line ahead of you”, “No, I’m afraid I don’t know your friend Bob from America”, “I am feeling some pain in my duodenum, doctor; it is a shooting pain, rather than a burning or an ache; it may have something to do with the aforementioned natto”, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”, “A venti cafe mocha, half skim, half soy, with a shot of caramel and double foam”, “Pardon me, but I seem to have crashed the bicycle (rental car, airplane)”, “I’m sorry, I cannot speak… (whatever language it is that you cannot speak)”, the all-important “Do you speak English?”, and its equally critical sibling “Where is the bathroom?” )”

Needless to say, most language courses don’t cover these vital aspects of daily life, concentrating instead on instructing the student in the fundamentals of structure, after which said student can state with confidence “This is a table, this is a book, that is a red car”. The theory seems to be that you, the student, might run into a local who, though fluent in his own language, has somehow managed to go his entire life without learning what a table, a book, or a red car might be. And then you can inform him. How cool is that?

Japanese brings a whole new dimension of difficulty (their word for “difficult” is “muzukashii”, which is on the difficult side its own self) to the written communication process, in that it uses an entirely different alphabet, or rather two alphabets, plus innumerable kanji (pictogram) characters, at least a couple of thousand of which must be memorized in order to read a newspaper article or a novel. No kidding. (And get this: the Japanese dictionary is arranged not by subject, sound or spelling, but by how many lines comprise the kanji character!) After countless hours of study, I have more or less mastered the phonetic alphabets, and a good solid dozen of the two thousand-odd pictogram characters; I anticipate being fluent in the year 2412. So far, I have committed to memory the characters for: mountain, river, inside, water, several (but by no means all) numerals, field, forest, village, fireworks, fireflies, and mouth. Almost enough to compose a haiku:
“One mountain river
Waters fields, forest, village
(four as-yet unwritten syllables, blah blah blah blah, likely some fluff about fireflies or fireworks)…mouth”
Move over, Basho.

So, as a coda to all this language stuff, I was at the local Saitama post office the other day, sending a book to a friend in the States, and the cashier handed me a form (totally in Japanese, naturally) to fill out. “Nan desu ka?” (What is this?) It turned out to be a Customs form, requiring that I declare the contents of the package. And then I had the epiphany, that bright shining crescendo of unparalleled clarity and divine humor, that defining moment of transcendent international verbal communication: for perhaps the first time in recorded history outside the Japanese language classroom, somebody (yours truly, no less!) was actually going to get to say, in a completely uncontrived situation, “Kore wa hon desu” (This is a book).