*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Study more kanji? %$#@ it.

There was a time when I wanted to be fluent in Japanese.  That was quite a while ago.  The eureka moment was when my brother and his wife, both monolingual Anglos, were able to easily travel in Japan: the trains, hotels and restaurants.  My sister-in-law did succumb to her shellfish allergy once, and though I feel for her, I'm not sure that wasn't more a matter of Japanese cultural blindness than language-barrier: allergic to something from the ocean?!  This is a country that thinks 'vegetarian' means fish.

I started studying Japanese in '92!  I have had more years not studying since then, and only three years I'd say I studied very hard at all: two years in university, and the first of the three years I lived in Japan in the 90s.  Because of my shiftlessness I have a pretty good ear, fair vocabulary, pretty poor grammar, and very poor reading skills.  Maybe I'd pass the new level III Japanese Proficiency Test, with some brushing-up on kanji (I passed the old III long ago).  The fact is that's good enough.

Before I continue, let me make it clear that I do not think it is acceptable to emigrate somewhere and not learn the language.  You see my point if you know Japan: who says I am immigrating here?  Never mind I'll never get citizenship (nor want it) and that the only residency I have is dependant on my Japanese spouse, but it is not a culture that will ever let me be 'one of them'.  You cannot fault me the same way you can fault someone who has lived in a more open society but not learned the language well after a few decades: you'd have to fault me in a different way.  Noting that my teaching career is in English, and I have enough Japanese to travel and for daily life, here are my only reasons to learn Japanese: cultural interest, and family communication.

I have lost the cultural interest.  Or let's say that to become more fluent would take more work than what I think I stand to gain from it, culturally.  There is also the fact that I speak well enough to reassure people I can speak with them, but not so much that I need to act as mannered as a Japanese person.  Sure, I am missing out on reading literature in the original.  I cannot read Japanese newspapers, and a lot of communication online is impenetrable.  Here's the thing: I discovered I don't like Japanese literature on the whole, Japanese 'journalism' is subject to thorough self-censorship, there are is a lot of online information about Japan in English, and I can use Google translator and my wife to deal with the rest.

In '93 I had a lot more reason to get to level II in the test, but that was an age of the Internet in its infancy, and with very few signs and information in English.  Now even the train message-boards, bank machines and train-ticket machines have English.   To make their stay in Japan fulfilling, I'd still suggest people take the equivalent of two to three years of university Japanese so that they could pass the new level IV or III test, but unless it is their mother-tongue, they have a unique talent for languages, or they need it for employment, I cannot recommend they work any harder.  As for becoming a translator: the pay's not great, and you are someone's servant at best.  It's easier to translate into your mother tongue, and you have to compete against someone who spoke Japanese from a younger age than you.  The money's not in Japanese, but in Mandarin to boot.  The real opportunities are in being polylingual.

Yes, this is an elaborate self-justification.  It's still not wrong.  To learn a language as an adult is a hell of a task, so you need to know why.  I am happy that I can think in Japanese, in a limited way, as it helps me get perspective outside of my Anglo head.  It's great that I can communicate most of what I want with my in-laws, and that my students can't say $#!+ about me in Japanese without my catching it.  Pleasant to communicate with Japanese people when I hike or travel.  To read well I'd need to put as much more effort in as I have already, for much less gain.

Don't use my excuses if you are learning a European language: same script and shared vocabulary.  You're just lazy!

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