Orient Expression

6 June, 2010


Filed under: Cambridge,language — pyrotyger @ 9:53 pm

The classic Japanese toast, to be blurted out convivially while raising ones beer, sake or other beverage of choice.

And indeed, there is some cause for celebration. Through fire and famine, disaster and destruction, hyperbole and hyperactivity, Cambridge’s tight-knit and loose-lipped band of first-year Japanologists finished their final exam of the year on Friday afternoon with an anti-climactic listening exercise. I’ve had quite enough of eavesdropping on the inane conversations of some apparently sexless twenty-somethings, thank you.

In spite of being nearly four times the size of the current second-year class – shedding only one casualty this year from its original complement of 16 students, in the guise of our linguistic friend Callum – we were able to celebrate the culmination of a year’s work (mostly) together, laying in the glorious sunshine on the banks of the Cam at Trinity. A near-miss with a champagne cork wasn’t enough to dampen the mood.

Sadly I was unable to spend more than a meagre 15 minutes socialising in such iconic Cambridge fashion before dashing for the train that never came, but in that brief time we were able to conjure a “Japanologists’ Drinking Song,” which must surely be a testament to our collective prowess in this most taxing of tongues, if not our collective responsibility. We were unable to agree upon a tune or pace for the ditty, but quickly agreed that this degree of uncertainty is a necessary characteristic of most drinking songs.

Kampai! Kampai!
Biiru o nomitai –
Ima wa nomu kikai.
Mo ichido kudasai!

Cheers! Cheers!
We want to drink some beers –
Now is our chance to drink.
Once more, if you please!

It’s simple, silly, and lacks subtlety and elegance. I can’t imagine anything more apt. It might flow better if we switch the middle two lines though.

It really has been a tough year. Others have borne up under the stresses far better than I, both on my course and elsewhere, and they have my admiration and respect. Frankly it was all I could do to get out of bed and attend exams some mornings (let alone lectures!) because the pace of the course has been utterly overwhelming and the sense that it has completely passed me by is quite dispiriting. The more I consider the undertaking that it constituted, however, the less ashamed I feel of whatever shortcomings I will have revealed in those three-hour slices of invigilated hell.

The notion that we should have learned – over the course of two 8-week terms – all we should need in order to converse, read, write and comprehend conversational Japanese, is laughable. The fact that we (or at least most of us – I have no illusions about the fruits of my own indiscipline) were then able to bear up under the painful scrutiny of our exams – including the additional ability to read some century-old Japanese literature and to discourse upon the last few thousand years of East Asian history – is a fact that makes me proud and pleased to have studied alongside these folks. We’re as mixed a bunch as you could hope to find on any course of this size, with a healthy cross-section of ages, genders, orientations, ethnicities, nationalities, backgrounds and characters, but the camaraderie and lack of clique-formation was surprising and lovely.

I hope to be singing that same song, in the same place, with those same people, in three years’ time. Let’s just hope results and funding decisions are on my side.

Finally, a word of apology to those who’re kind and curious enough to check in on my blog from time to time. For the brevity of this entry and for the conspicuous lack of activity over the last few months, I’m sorry. The former is due to my determination to get something worth saying on here, no matter how short or twee.

The latter is due to being, as I said, overwhelmed. Not to say that I never had two hours to rub together for the sake of bashing out a few lines, but I suppose I do take a little pride in trying to say things that are worthwhile on here rather than just saying whatever’s on my mind, so when it comes to discussing the idiosyncrasies of a break-neck education in Japanese, I try to make sure I’m saying something new. I’d rather be infrequent and interesting than regular and pedestrian. It’s not a “strength” that serves me well in all situations, but it’s important to me that I evince that quality in this blog.

So why did that stop me from saying anything? Well, back in the halcyon days of pre-Cambridge language acquisition (and during the slightly less demanding first few weeks) my brain had the time to do that weird pattern-recognition thing we all do so well, and occasionally to go “Huh… that’s interesting.” Since then, the flow-rate of vocabulary and grammar from pedagogues to bewildered class has been phenomenal, and left our poor withered neurons scant time to cram it all in sideways before moving on to the next lesson. There’s been almost no down-time during which to pick apart our garnered knowledge in moments of reflection, so nothing unusual has had the opportunity to strike me in my little creative lobes.

This is the fretful “Pressure Method” of teaching for which Cambridge University is so famous, and as I’ve said before, it certainly has its merits when trying to properly assimilate a language. This isn’t my first time around the block of higher education, and I can certainly see the difference. It just doesn’t leave room for much else in your brain; I suspect that the last nine months have taught me nothing more than the following things:

  1. Some Japanese, and a bit of East Asian history,
  2. How to row a bit better,
  3. The names of an awful lot of lovely people,
  4. It takes nearly 30 years before you finally accept that you’re not as bright or tough as you think you are,
  5. Time either passes slowly as you waste it away, or flies by as you lit fully. The latter is infinitely preferable, but just as alarming,
  6. Criticism from friends is usually right. Advice is usually wrong,
  7. There’s always time to chase a dream, but the later you leave it, the more you’ll have to sacrifice for it.

The saga continues, then. Did I pass? Will the funding palaver of which I’ve mentioned nothing here scupper my chances of a second year? Will I ever again have anything interesting to say on the subject of Learning Japanese?

Watch this space, and in the mean time: Cheers!

21 June, 2009

Say what you see…?

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 4:22 pm
Tags: , , ,
Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve often heard the Japanese writing system described as being principally logographic, in that the written characters – at least the kanji, which are principally derived from written Chinese – represent words rather than sounds. The converse would be a phonographic script, in which characters represent sounds (phonemes) rather than words. In fact written Japanese combines these two approaches by using both iconic graphemes and a couple of syllabaries, allowing logographic words to be connected and embellished with a grammatical subtlety that Chinese dialects sadly lack.

Sorry if that was a bit wordy. Wikipedia is a great help for linguistic terms.

I wasn’t convinced that logogram is an appropriate term, even for the kanji used in Japanese. Since any kanji can be read in a number of very different ways phonemically, depending on context, but the idea it represents is more consistent, the term ideogram might be more accurate.

Yet this notion is strongly opposed in the article to which I’ve linked, which states that ideograms “represent ideas directly rather than words and morphemes, and none of the logographic systems described here are truly ideographic.” As it turns out, I’ve got this whole concept arse-about-tit. Although I though logos was ancient Greek for “word”, it doesn’t actually mean that in the grammatical sense. Rather, it was used to define the concept or idea underlying a word or argument – the word’s soul, if you will – while lexis is the term used to describe the grammatical entity. This explains why logos is used in all sorts of religious and philosophical contexts where lexis wouldn’t be appropriate, and also explains why we call company brands “logos” even when they don’t feature words at all.

There you go. Another etymological mystery solved.

Whatever the linguistic definition, I find the eastern practice of combining discrete morphemes in iconic form to express complex notions and ideas to be both beautiful and inventive.

Furigana(振り仮名) text with furigana(ふりがな), as an...
Image via Wikipedia

It does make the written language very challenging to learn, though. If you can’t read a kanji, you can’t read it; you can’t even read it out to guess at the context, since it’s just an inscrutable symbol. The use of furigana – ruby hiragana (syllables) written over a kanji to guide pronunciation, often for teaching purposes or texts rich with specialist kanji – is of great help to a learner, but is nothing more than a workaround to an intractable challenge of learning Japanese.

And yet…

On more than one occasion – and increasingly frequently – I have the bizarre and unsettling experience of reading a kanji without actully understanding it. I mean that sometimes I will literally be able to read aloud the pronunciation of a symbol that I’ve only come across once or twice (or sometimes a hundred times – curse my memory), and have no firm idea what it means. It’s a little bit like bumping into someone you don’t recognise, but knowing their name – it’s the complete opposite of the usual mental block that occurs, and feels like knowing the answer but struggling to find the question.

Douglas Adams would probably be able to explain the frustration and disorientation better than I could.

Clearly something bizarre is happening in my brain. There is some direct association going on in there between the visual representation and the phonetic word, totally bypassing the usual intermediary of meaning. Most of the time I’ll recognise what a kanji means (or not…) and shortly afterwards I’ll remember its pronunciation, with that gap being reduced to an instantaneous pause so that the two come to mind simultaneously, but jumping from A to C without the all important B getting a look-in is really frustrating and a little bit spooky.

What’s going on in there? Is this unsettling confusion between lexeme, logos and phoneme a sign that my brain is slowly adapting to the task of understanding Japanese inherently, or a sign that I probably never will? It brings back to mind a post I made back in October about translation and machine intelligence:

do [translators] listen in one language, then switch their thinking to the other – donning a different thinking-cap, as it were – before trying to express the nebulous ideas and idiosyncracies in a natural fashion? I’m quite certain that it’s possible to “think” natively in more than one language…

Well, I know from certain people who are competently trilingual that, yes, it is possible and indeed inevitable when you become fluent.

I couldn’t tell you what language such people dream in though. To dream in Japanese would be an achievement indeed. I just hope it doesn’t end up being anything like Natsume Sôseki’s Ten Nights Of Dreams.

Dammit, this has got me thinking about the role of tonality and aesethetics in language, especially Chinese/Mandarin, and the importance of the right-brain in such languages. That’s an interesting topic for another time, I think, but feel free to have a look in Fundamental Neuroscience, p654 (pdf warning) if you’re curious.

10 June, 2009

Saying NO in Japanese

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 9:32 am
Tags: , ,

It’s been a while. How have you been?

KYOTO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 9: Ichimame, an 19-yea...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I kept meaning to write – started a couple of times – but never got around to sending anything. I’ll probably post those old musings at a later date, when I’ve finished developing them.

In the mean time, I have a question: How does your medium affect how you speak? How does your writing style differ from your conversational style? How about when talking to different people? Or how about when you know you’re being recorded?

We all moderate our style of communication according to audience and medium; sometimes deliberately, but in my experience it’s almost entirely subconscious, and a built-in survival skill (I understand it’s something autistic people struggle with, though.)
I know that, when speaking about a serious topic with real gravitas, I have a tendency to use full-bodied sentences and a rich vocabulary – more like the manner in which I write – whereas in everyday small-talk I tend towards pithiness or triteness (depending how the day’s going).

Similarly, my girlfriend tells me that when I read aloud, the tone and timbre of my voice takes on a story-book quality; a narrative style and a tendency to be more measured with pace. I can’t do the voices though.
I’ve been considering trying to get a late-night slot on the Cambridge Student radio station, and I’m very curious to find out how my speech would come across on-air. Oh, to have the chocolatey tones of Boggy Marsh, or the dry wit of Mo Dutta (now sadly no longer a part of my weekend mornings). The best I can hope for is not to sound like Joe Pasquale reading the script to Mulholland Drive.

But I digress. My point is, the nature of the language itself doesn’t really change. We may tend towards formality, or use smaller words, or litter our speech with colloquialisms, but the rules of grammar and syntax remain the same, however poorly we apply them.

Not so in Japanese. Any student of the language will be quick to discover (and point out, if they’re showing off), that the language is moderated significantly according to the relative status of the speaker and audience, and the formality of the conversation. I came across a site that demonstrates some key Japanese verb conjugations in a very tight and lean manner, and one of the first things to notice is the proliferation of unusual verb-productions; such things as:-

  • Passive/respectful
  • Honorific
  • Humble

– not to mention the stark contrast between Plain and Polite forms, which is a crucial (and challenging) part of the language.

This modification of grammar according to audience and context is something we just don’t have in English. We tend to slacken off and drop a lot of the more cumbersome rules when in casual conversation (or all the damned time, if you were educated with a banana and an inner-tube), but the rules don’t change.

This is well-known to anybody who’s studied Japanese for any length of time though, so I don’t want to bore you with that. Instead I want to bore you with something else I learned from Hiromi-sensei: conversational grammar can change according to whether it’s written or just spoken, in the following way…

When you wish to communicate a reason, an expectation or a circumstance surrounding an event or statement, you would use the – (-te or “plain”) form, and the ending の です (no desu). This is a fairly typical conversational structure. So:
~の です (~te no desu) means “because of ~ ” or “the fact is that ~ ” or whatever the context implies.

So to say “because I studied…”, we would write べんきょう した の です (“benkyoo shita no desu, – (-ta) being the past form of –). Makes sense so far.

Well, when saying this, you would actually say べんきょう した です. Spot that? The (no) becomes a (n). For the purposes of easy conversation in a casual setting, that makes sense. It’s like a contraction – like saying “won’t” instead of “will not”. There are other examples in plain speech, where dropping a syllable doesn’t cause the sentence to lose meaning to a native speaker.

But that’s not what surprised me. When I was reading a sentence with this structure, my teacher pulled me up on pronouncing it as ~ です. “You read what is written – it’s ~です.”

Wait, can that be right? I’m quite comfortable with the notion of contracting structures in accepted ways for convenience – we do it all the time. Having separate rules for written and spoken grammar, though? Surely not…

Well it’s true, as far as I’m told. If you speak conversationally, you use ~n in this construction, but if you write it then you use ~no. More importantly, if you read a written conversation, you would read the ~no just as it is written. Let me shout this bit: a listener would be able to infer that you were reading a written transcript, rather than having a real conversation. The written form is not merely visual representation of that which is said, but has slightly different rules.

This is a totally alien concept to me. What little I have understood about linguistics so far tells me that the written word is a means of recording what would otherwise be spoken – speaking came first, then the oral tradition of passing on stories, laws and wisdom, and then writing was invented to immortalise that wisdom.

And yet in Japanese, there is a sense (to me, at least) that the writing system has a life of its own, concurrent with – but somewhat independent of – the spoken word. One of the things that makes the language so challenging is that Kanji are inscrutable if you don’t already know them, because they are not phonetic.
Anything based on Latin, Cyrillic or Arabic can be read, if not necessarily understood, and that encourages an emergent understanding of words that have not necessarily been directly learned. Written Japanese, however – along with a number of other logographic languages of South East Asia – is a one-way street. With no implicit correlation between writing and pronunciation, there’s no way to learn to read something if you don’t already know how it’s pronounced, and bear in mind that most kanji have several distinctly different phonetic readings.

Frustrating as that may be, it’s just one more dimension to this enormous puzzle. Whenever I feel that I’m getting a grip on some unusual aspect of the language, I realise that there are ten new and subtler idiosyncrasies hidden behind it. Every time I learn something, I get the impression that I’m only being told just enough to get a general idea – a lie that brings me closer to the truth.

断定の助動詞「だ」「じゃ」「や」の分布図。 Zones map of Japanese co...Image via Wikipedia

Thanks go to my brother for introducing me to Zemanta, a blogger’s dream that helps find contextual images and a host of other doohickeys. It’s already taught me that the core Japanese copula “です/だ” (desu/da) is not as immutable as I thought, and actually varies greatly according to the regional dialect – see right.

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16 October, 2008

I fear I to be unable such a thing do, Dave.

Filed under: language — pyrotyger @ 1:19 pm
Tags: ,

Learning a language is like digging a moat for your sandcastle, as the tide inexorably rises. Or maybe like gardening. It isn’t enough to say “There, I’ve done that bit – now I can move on” – you must constantly revisit and renew your earlier endeavours, or they will be washed away, overgrown, lost like tears in the rain…

I have a pretty good facility for languages, I think. I don’t know why – a memory for detail and vocabulary, decent ability to pick up accents, or simply enough interest to make it stick – but whatever the reason, it’s something I struggle with less than most. Some years ago, during a very brief and somewhat abortive relationship with a lovely South African girl, I couldn’t help trying to pick up a bit of Afrikaans as a courtesy.
The accent wasn’t difficult – light on the tip of the tongue, heavy on the pharynx – and the grammar was the simplest I’d ever encountered (except perhaps Chinese), so it was good fun to throw new phrases I’d learned into conversation, and have the occasional slow, stuttering conversation in her native tongue.

As you can imagine, the opportunities to reprise my conversational Afrikaans have been somewhat scarce since then. I didn’t realise just how much of it I’d lost until someone offered to make me a cuppa tea. “Please”, I wanted to respond, and perversely chose to do it in Afrikaans. Only… I couldn’t remember the word!!
I mean, please, for goodness’ sake! It’s got to be one of the first ten words or phrases you learn in any language, and I was stumped. From having been able to understand and construct simple sentences, I suddenly had next-to-no vocabulary, just six years later.

The phrase I wanted (I remembered after a few moments) was Asseblief – roughly “if you please”. And yet I had no problem recalling the phrase for I only speak a little – it’s a pretty language, but I never use it. Obviously this phrase was one for which I’d had more use…

Human memory, of course, works nothing like a database. There are no convenient boxes in which to store information. There is no empty Tweetaalige Woordeboek (bilingual dictionary) waiting for you to indelibly inscribe it with every acquired transliteration.
Memory serves its purpose by retaining and reinforcing that which is used frequently, and slowly losing grip on that which is fleeting or trivial. The passage of memory from short-term, through its various stages, to long-term memory and (in the case of a skill like languages) into active process has been thoroughly researched by neuroscientists, linguists and tinkering hobbyist educational reformers for decades, and it all comes down to the three ‘R’s of learning:

  • Repetition
  • Redundancy
  • Repetition

(The above stolen from a Jhonen Vasquez comic about the spirit-crushing drudgery of state schooling, but I like it anyway.)

So it’s about what you use, and how often you use it. You can even unlearn your native tongue through atrophy. I know of a man who moved from England to Germany in his early thirties. Now at 65, he is still in touch with his friends in England – but he finds he can only communicate, haltingly, over the phone. If he tries to write or email, he struggles with the English language. In a Firefox-esque feat, he now thinks in German, quite naturally, and struggles to do so in English.

I wonder: will I ever be that good at Japanese? If I work hard, and move over there someday then… well, why not?

The process of professional translation intrigues me; I find myself wondering, how does it work in their heads? Do they listen in one language, and then express it quite naturally in the other without any intervening explicit process? Or do they listen in one language, then switch their thinking to the other – donning a different thinking-cap, as it were – before trying to express the nebulous ideas and idiosyncracies in a natural fashion? I’m quite certain that it’s possible to “think” natively in more than one language…

Even then, translation is not a simple process. Grammar notwithstanding, even syntax can become confusing when expression is rendered in culturally-significant shades of meaning.

I recall hearing of an assembly in the European parliament being brought to a standstill as, during a speech by the French representative, several of the English-speaking delegates burst into laughter. Having made an appeal for calm and rational consideration of the issues, he exclaimed that what the problem needed was “la sagesse Normande”.
The English translators, quite faithfully, relayed the speech thus:
“What we need is Norman Wisdom!”

That’s not the half of it though. Humans, with their inherent understanding of the ideas behind the words, can translate faithfully rather than accurately. Computer software has no such cognitive gifts at its disposal, and the results of even the most sophisticated attempts at translation are derided throughout the blogosphere.

It’s the same problem: a database can give you a word-for-word equivalent, but nothing cogent or intuitive – and even with simple words, cultural ignorance can lead to confusion. A generation or two ago, there was no distinct word for “green” in common use! あお (ao) is taken to mean blue, but it was also used for green not so long ago, and some Japanese still use it as such. This sort of cultural knowledge is invaluable when trying to make sense of, for example, Natsume Sooseki’s Ten Nights of Dream. It’s easy to get stuck trying to understand the significance of the lily’s blue stalk…

Does this mean that elderly Japanese people can’t tell the difference between blue and green? No, of course not…
And yet, there is some truth in that statement, bizarre as it may sound. Not in an extreme sense, but studies have shown the importance of language to perception. According to research undertaken at Goldsmith College (and almost certainly many other studies since), the range of words you have for different hues affects your ability to distinguish between them. If we had 20 words for subtly different shades of orange in the English language, we would perceive them as distinct colours, and would recall them as such without difficulty.

It all smacks of Derrida and Phenomenology, doesn’t it…?

This ties in nicely with another study (thank god for New Scientist) investigating the way in which our infant brains adapt to perceive distinct sounds characteristic to our mother tongue. Through repeatedly hearing – and presumably expressing – certain ranges of sound and learning to interpret them as the same sound, we lose the ability to distinguish between the subtle variations. This is quite necessary, for the sake of efficiency in communication, but can be a hindrance when learning a new language.
The classic example is the Japanese l/r sound, which is neither one nor the other. Through careful and diligent study, one can relearn the distinctions lost in infancy, but it is difficult – the mind learns to perceive certain patterns in the chaotic landscape of reality, and convincing our brains to jump tracks in its well-worn neural grooves is hard work.

So how can there be any hope for computers? Is it possible, somewhere in the hypothetical space-opera future, for software to “understand” language in the same way that humans do? Derrida or Heidegger might argue that all of perceived reality is exactly that – perception only. Given that language is the exclusive realm of signifiers and symbols, one might suppose that computers – which deal only with symbols and signifiers – would be ideally suited to the task. Can one be “trained”, in the manner of a human mind, to have intrinsic understanding of a concept? Can an artificial mind be kicked out of its paths of databases and into a more functional, fluid form of expression and translation?

Perhaps the answer lies in that last question. Functional programming languages (Haskell, Lisp) operate on a basis somewhere beyond the mechanical strictures of Structural languages (Pascal, Aida) or the deliberate and measured methods of Object Oriented Programming (Java, C++). My brother (the Dysfunctor – get off your arse and fix your Blog, mate) could tell you a million times more than I could about this topic, but I have some very basic understanding. All things are functions – processes, if you will – and everything is signified rather than explicit. Sound familiar?

Artificial Intelligence (the emergent kind) and a computer really learning a language are in the same chapter of philosophy – the same page, even – because language, perception and intelligence are so closely linked. They’re pretty much a blurry smear of concepts, as any drunk philosophy undergrad will rant. There’s no point trying to tackle one without approaching the others, but if we come at it side-long, with a very long game-plan in mind, and functional programming as the tool (or the precursor to a better one), then who knows…?

Still more curious: if we created machines with the ability to learn and communicate, but didn’t teach them anything, what language would emerge from their society? What could we learn from their linguistic development?

Before they wiped us all out, I mean.

25 June, 2008

Mada wakarimasen (I don’t yet understand)

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 6:35 pm
Tags: , ,
My Japanese teacher set me the task of writing a four-panel comic last week. I just had time to finish it before my lesson, so I didn’t get the chance to scan it in. You’ll have to make do with hastily-shot camera-phone photos (my translations follow each panel):

LONG DAYNot again! You lazy #%!!*!

I work so hard, and you just do nothing…

I’m always looking out for you, but you never show any gratitude!

Myow? (Not again…)

The translation in the last panel was going to read “Feed me” – which would be funnier and, let’s face it, much more true to life – but I don’t know how to conjugate the Imperative Form yet, and I like having the cat throw the starting exclamation back at the woman.

The more astute students of Japanese will spot my obvious error (apart from the laughable simplicity of most of the grammar I’ve employed) – the second panel should end せん (Negative form) rather thanす. It probably reads to a native Japanese-speaker the same way as a double-negative does to me, meaning it probably makes your eyes bleed.
Well nuts to it. It’s my first comic ever to see the light of day, so just one glaring error in an unfamiliar language is good enough for me. Mind you, this post is now available for comment, so I’m sure I’ll be told soon enough just how many other linguistic gaffes I’ve managed to cram into four panels…

The more astute students of art, humour and other matters of taste will spot the fact that my comic is neither pretty nor funny, since I can’t draw or come up with jokes. Strictly speaking I imagine the only thing that qualifies this as a “comic” is the fact that it has four panels. This gives it the same artistic merit as a Ford Transit, only without the choice of colour an optional SatNav.
Still, I did make the effort to go slightly manga-ey in the first panel, and that’s got to count for something. Please.

Aside from this travesty of the modern medium, the lesson was even more interesting than usual. We over-shot my allotted hour – by about an hour! – partly thanks to the distraction of a burgeoning friendship between Hiromi’s son & me (based principally on DS games and the ability to pull faces), but mainly due to an extensive discussion about language and learning.

We chatted about our experiences of learning different languages and, as is often the case, the act of discussing the topic caused my thus-far nebulous ideas of the subject to coalesce into a clearer opinion. In essence, I think we progress through successive stages of fluency, something to the tune of:

  • parroting – repeating words and phrases exactly as you hear them.
  • knowledge – getting to know what those words & phrases mean, and recombining them in context.
  • understanding – coming to grips with the interplay of context and content: conjugation, form and style (this is where you start to appreciate the fundamental differences between languages with different roots)
  • application – using your understanding to apply the language in different everyday contexts: on-the-fly construction of appropriate sentences, the beginnings of real expression.
  • habit – over time, on-the-fly processing becomes embedded: at this point, you’re able to actually converse at a practical depth and speed.
  • intuitive use – the habits embed deeper: you can pretty much “think” in the language.

So by this token, my learning of English as a native should have followed a similar pattern, right? Well, there are probably hundreds of books and papers on the subject, but nothing makes for a blog-entry like an embarrassing anecdote…

Cast your imagination back to my childhood – we’re talking 20 years here…
*pause for a little cry*
…sat cross-legged on the floor of the village primary-school’s assembly hall, staring up stiff-necked at the projected lyrics on the wall, hoping some poor kid doesn’t wee themselves again (there really is nothing as pitiful as a little boy sat silently with his red, tear-streaked face in his hands as, one by one, his former friends leap away excitedly from the slowly-expanding pool of wee in which he stews…).
The song may be a well-known one, or it may be something our musically-inclined head teacher composed himself. He wrote assembly songs with the same casual frequency that other people make a cuppa tea. What matters is, the last line of the chorus was a sustained:

“And praise your hoooooo-ly naaaaaame!”

(Thinking about it, Mr Johns was a bit secular to have written that.)
The line was not – I can’t stress this enough – the more confusing “And prisha-horrrrrr-lee-naaaaaaay!”

Not that I was aware of this, becase that line had mostly smudged off the acetate sheet, but then it didn’t matter. I was parrotting the phrase in order to sing the song, but without knowing much about the lyric’s significance and only having heard it sung the same way, I didn’t have any reason to think differently. I was hardly likely to have the opportunity to apply the phrase in my playground banter and have it corrected, and frankly it served its purpose without requiring any knowledge of its real meaning.
At the time all I cared about was getting through the song so I could relax my neck, and not sound like Andrew Bunting in the process (a boy whose curiously rich, tone-deaf bass was probably the cause of all that embarrassing incontinence – I suspect he would have caused whales to beach themselves and go into premature labour given a sufficiently low melody)

Those who were fortunate enough to watch TMWRNJ, back in the day when there was anything on telly on a Sunday except bloody Hollyoaks, may remember Richard Herring banging on about a similar misunderstanding, insisting that Jesus was “the Lord of the Dance Settee” (said he). Come on, there are whole books dedicated to children mishearing speech and believing that “the ants are my friends“, or whatever.

The point is, we learn the same way as children, it’s just that when learning something new we don’t have any preconceptions with which to judge our current understanding – until we come to learn a second language.

So last night, in learning how to conjugate verbs to give the Past Tense, I discovered that shouting できました (“dekimashita”) at the end of a round of Hiragana-bingo in our early lessons was not equivalent to shouting “House!”
It meant “finished”.
I have developed some minimal level of proficiency in Japanese, which has helped me to evolve this little island of (incorrect) Knowledge, giving it a land-bridge to the ever-expanding continent of Understanding, wherein the highway-planning agency of Directed Learning is extending it’s road network of Application, so the articulated lorries of Habit can start to wear their useful grooves into my neural pathways…

So, for all that I find Kanji attractive and interesting, learning stroke-order is as nothing when compared to trying to compose an admittedly un-funny joke, for in such ways are we forced to re-evaluate the misheard lyrics of our early lessons, and come ever closer to understanding the heart of what is, at this stage, still a foreign language.

Which is why you’ve been subjected to my Ford Transit of a comic.


20 June, 2008

Dirty Secret (Lite)

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 4:02 pm
Tags: , ,

I have a confession to make. I did something recently that I shouldn’t have done, for various reasons, and I’ve avoided telling people where possible because of the shame.
It’s addictive, expensive and endlessly distracting, and I’ve come up with all sorts of rationalisations, but the fact is I shouldn’t have done it, and now I can’t stop.

I bought a Nintendo DS Lite.

So far I don’t have many games for it, but I can see that it’s going to be an effort not to start pampering it like a spinster would a beloved pet. I’ve already found myself “brain-training” during my lunch break – and no, I can’t claim the time back as “training and personal development”. That’s the excuse I use for trolling Slashdot.

My inherited puritanical guilt is being subsumed, however, by the relentless onslaught of sheer childish delight. I’ve not been attracted by the power of its graphics or the range and intensity of its games (Mario can go felch Yoshi for all I care), nor even by its shiny black case (and just how did we ever phone people before the iPhone…?).

So if it’s neither the love of hardcore gaming nor posing techno-lust, what (I hear you ask) has wooed me so?
It’s just so much fun!
Not in the blam blam zoom k’pow way – and I’m someone who once lived for the seated adrenalin-rush of blasting the legs off an attacking swarm of ant-lions from a speeding dune-buggy in the resplendent immersion of Half-Life 2. If I want to relish in that kind of pornographically-violent thrill, I have a whole hulk of a PC purpose-built for the task.

No, the thrill of my newest toy is something much simpler: it really is a toy. Its very design-principle seems to have been “Don’t try to impress – just make it fun,” and everything seems to have flowed from that.

I’ll give you a nice pure example of the sort of thing I’m talking about here: Electroplankton. This fantastically intuitive bit of kit isn’t a game – there is no goal, no reward system, nothing of the sort. In essence you are interacting with a whole host of little semi-autonomous fellas, who in turn interact with their environment and one another, and create sounds as they go, resulting in some occasionally breathtaking symphonic chain-reactions.
This goes beyond bashing out drum rhythms. You influence things by poking them, moving them, directing them with your stylus; by altering tempo, frequency and even fluid current direction with various buttons; even by talking, singing and clapping into the microphone! This isn’t a game, but it’s undeniably fun. The obvious word is toy.

Even something as straight-forward as the cute platformer wholesomeness of Lego Indiana Jones is infected with this sense of intuitive fun. You want to blow out torches in the Temple of Doom? Blow into the microphone! Need to swing across the rooftops of Cairo? Drag across the screen in the direction you want to “whip”! Such simple elements, but they all add up to offer a cornucopia of immersive delight and discovery from a device with a couple of screens the size of business cards.

The classic Brain Training titles, to give another example, are the adult’s equivalent of those interactive play-mat things that parents get for their babies so they can develop normally in a sterile lab: in a similar but more direct way, the point is to learn and to enhance your brain’s natural abilities by interacting with something rewarding, and by working things out yourself. No adrenalin, no tension, no steep learning curve, just get stuck in and enjoy yourself.

A final mention goes to the imminent arrival through my letter-box of one of the most valuable bits of kit for the DS I could hope to obtain: a Kanji dictionary. You can use the stylus to actually write a Kanji, and it’ll recognise your atrocious scrawl and present you with a definition! No more hunting through the dictionary by Stroke-Count or Radical, just write the damned thing in. If I were to buy an electronic kanji dictionary even approaching that level of functionality, I’d be looking at a few hundred quid for a start.

All this speaks well of the DS, but there also seems to be a universal appreciation of the Nintendo Wii – the DS’s big brother – that has overcome the traditional barriers and boundaries of gaming culture and the usual hardcore market demographic by having much the same philosophy. Presumably as a result of this, the DS and Wii are exalted leaders in their respective markets. How is it that Nintendo got it so right where others seemed to be churning out the same old thing, harder and faster than ever before?

I’m tempted to think that it says something about Japanese culture. I’ve always felt that, as a society, Japan seems to be fairly unashamed to pursue its own interests on an individual level (such are the observations one makes when wasting teenaged Friday evenings watching Eurotrash). Maybe it’s down to the fact that people are unlikely to say anything if you act a little differently over there (however strongly they might feel), or maybe I’m just demonstrating my as-yet juvenile understanding of the culture.
It seems to make sense though. In all matters of personal taste and expression, Japan seems to shamelessly pursue an unfettered purity. From fashion to film to fun to – let’s face it – porn, if you want to know how far it can go, look to Japan. Maybe that’s unhealthy when applied to some of our less-savoury appetites, but I can’t think of a better philosophy when it comes to just having fun.

Of course, that whole idea falls down when you remember that one of their direct competitors – Sony – is principally Japanese also, and hasn’t managed to generate half the market-trouncing furore of Nintendo. Still, if you want multimedia excellence right along the chain from artists through production to electronic reproduction, you could do worse…

Okay, I admit it. I’m doing some intense high-brow rationalising here. £100 is £100, but I really am enjoying myself. Brain Training repeatedly tells me I have a Brain Age of about 20, and this gives me a bit of glee every time. At least it did until someone told me it doesn’t go below 20, and Dr Kawashima is probably trying to imply that my Brain Age is somewhere nearer 8.

I don’t care. I’m having fun, and I don’t have to blow the legs of anything to do so.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to go trade games with my Japanese teacher’s 8 year old son…

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