I haven’t been asked for quite some time now why I’m studying Japanese. A year ago several people couldn’t seem to help themselves, though I suppose it may seem out of the blue if someone hasn’t already made a life out of linguistics.
The most obvious answer, to me, is one studies Japanese to know Japanese. Much like when I moved to New York, it was to live in New York.
A case could be made that moving was to no longer be where I was. But that’s the point, isn’t it? To move, to learn, it’s to stop being where or who I was. To affect myself undeniably, to give myself something that couldn’t be taken away.
I’ve lost weight and then gained it back, I’ve been in relationships which subsequently ended, I’ve dyed my hair wild colors and the brown has grown back. But the neural pathways that are created each time I learn something new, have a new experience and then are ground even deeper when repeat myself, won’t be undone. Maybe they can be overwritten or even destroyed, but they can’t go back to base zero.
Folks looked at moving to New York as moving “so far” away, but I had lived in Los Angeles for some ten-ish years by that point so moving to another major city wasn’t such a big deal to me. It couldn’t possibly be the distance, it would have been far more alien to move to Davenport, Iowa, which is only halfway across the country. The difference to me was like the difference between speaking English and Spanish. I’m fluent in both and though they are manifestly different – you know which language you’re hearing pretty easily – it’s not that hard to go from one to the other.
Going from English to Japanese? That’s a harder analogy to make. It’s certainly nothing like moving to another part of the country that is roughly similar. The feeling I currently get is this: Say you and I are walking down the street and we come across a construction area hidden behind a fence. We want to know what’s going on in the area but we can only find a hole in the fence big enough for one person to look through. No matter how much up against the hole I get, my field of vision is really pretty narrow; I can only see a stretch of ground so big where people and one or two big machines move across and then disappear to the other side. I can’t tell enough to say what’s really going on over there. It’s going to be long while before I can access that space, wander around in it and really get a feel for what it is.
It’s a thing we toss around now – the neural pathways bit. At the moment I can’t be arsed, as my Brit friends say, to pull a Web article that illustrates the change in biochemical occurrences in the brain when we acquire new habits, and in particular the neurologic event that is acquiring a new language. I know I’ve read material on the subject; it’s very cool. The point is, stuff happens in the brainmeat when we learn things and a whole language is pretty huge-scale stuff.
Just one f’r instance: a tidbit I picked up recently was about how reading left to right (as most West European languages do) activates the left hemisphere of the brain somehow more, or maybe at a greater priority, than the right hemisphere. And in counterpoint, reading right to left activates the right hemisphere. (I’m not sure of what the article meant, only that in studies one side lights up more than the other – there’s more activity somehow.) I assume we’re versed on the specialized differences in cognitive function between the two hemispheres so I’ll plow ahead. The implication for this, according to the article, is the switch in method and utility of the Bible when it went from being written in Hebrew from right to left to Greek, written from left to right.
The article reiterates some of what I’ve been thinking as I try to learn how to read Japanese but they sussed it out of studying this event of translating the Bible. I’ve repeated to myself (and fellow students and more than a few friends) that it feels like one has to know what a sentence is going to say before one can read it. I have to be able to grasp the meaning of what I’m reading before I can read it. (FYI, traditional – vertical – Japanese is written right to left, horizontal Japanese is written left to right.) More over, to read kanji one has to know its meaning. You can’t “sound out” kanji because the characters frequently have more than one pronunciation, depending on what word they represent at that particular instance. It reminds me of one of the steps elementary school kids are taught to study new vocabulary: what does the context imply? Not a particularly elemental approach, if you ask me.
Moving to a conceptual approach for reading and writing (in a language I don’t speak at all well) feels like reformatting my brain. It’s hard, it’s dizzying, and puts me on unrecognizable terrain. It can be a little bit scary, even, to make myself let go of how I think language ought to work. I can’t move toward it through a sentence, step by step, word after word. I have to collect it all together, look back at the words and implications and tease out meaning from the hints at hand. I can translate back and forth a little bit, but it’s terribly clear to me that this is a substandard way of unpacking Japanese for myself. I’m better off trying to forget English and trying to hold on to as much Japanese in a given sentence as I know and figure it out from there. It’s excruciating and awfully slow work, too. Excruciating because my analytic, language-loving, English-based left brain desperately wants to help. Even when I figuratively lock myself in a room for a few minutes, the whole time English is outside throwing pebbles at the window.
For the most part, what currently happens is the English (or sometimes Spanish) meaning of a kanji will come to me first. Then I have to remember how to say that particular word in Japanese. I can sort of parse writing that, as far as I can tell, is on a grade school level. As for speech, it has to be slow and extremely clear, and simple. Yes, simple. Please.
But I don’t intend to stay here, clearly. I’m signed up for 204 at the local college next semester. After that I have to decide where to head next – university for 3-400 level classes? A private academy? Lots of decisions coming up.
But I’ll grow along with my lessons, my brain will continue to reformat; I’ll be able to report more fully what’s on the other side of that fence. I won’t be who I was, I won’t be where I was. I’ll move and I’ll evolve.
I think when people ask why what they mean is, what will I do with it? What will I do with Japanese proficiency? What would I do in New York (spoken: that I couldn’t do in LA)? My smart ass responses continue: I’ll speak Japanese; when you live in LA you’re not living in NYC. I didn’t entirely know what I’d find in New York – I certainly never expected to find a city frustrated and paralyzed by a massive financial meltdown. Even though I couldn’t find work and thus get to stay in New York what I did find was profoundly worth the time, cost and effort. I’m not sure how I would use Japanese – it’s not at all necessary to do voice acting, not even for anime. It could certainly be another thing I could do, particularly for the translation and adaptation sides of the business, but who knows how that would play against any voice work I’d be trying to get.
Maybe what’ll happen is that my by-then reformatted brain will get around some of the analytic tangles I fall into these days and I’ll be able to express concepts quickly and confidently. Wouldn’t that be nice.
Naturally, I hope it’s a skill set I’ll be able to use professionally one day. But I won’t be sad if in the end it just means I can tell my Tokyo cabby how to get me back to my hotel after a long, mad night in Shibuya. I tell you, I was never more glad to know Spanish than when I was wandering around lost and tired as hell in Jackson Heights, Queens.