Orient Expression

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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20 February, 2009

So yeah, Cambridge.

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 3:22 pm
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Everybody knows now, which makes it hard to motivate myself to write this entry. Still, it’s important and worth me recording publicly.

My original application was to Wolfson College (one of the two “mature student only” colleges to take undergraduates) under the advisement of the Chair of Japanese Studies. He felt that I might be happier there than at a more teen-dominated college, given my advanced years(!)

And finally the letter came, one Friday in January. “Sorry, but we don’t want to offer you a place this year.”

Dammit!

But what’s this…? “We have submitted your application to the Winter Pool…” Should another college decide they like your ugly face, they may fish you out of the pool and offer you a place instead.

Well, a quick look at the statistics gave me little cause for hope: I was among the lucky one-in-five to be pooled, but of those only one-in-five get offered a place elsewhere. It’s a mechanism usually employed as a safety-net not for students, but for faculties, providing them with an opportunity to make up any shortfalls in numbers if their selection process has left them with too many empty seats. Good if you’re looking at a high-volume course like Medicine or Natural Science, less hopeful for a “we’ll take who we damned-well want” minor language course like Japanese – any given year for which might have as few as three students.
My heart sank; I swallowed hard and got on with deciding where my life would go next. Time to get used to nothing much happening, I guess.

Two weeks later…

Another letter from Cambridge? But surely it’s too late now. “On the basis of your academic record, we would like to offer you a place at St. Edmund’s College” on the condition that you can prove you can damned-well afford it.

Good lord.

But I’d started making plans!

Oh my.

I’m going to Cambridge. The other college for mature undergraduates decided to take pity! I can’t express what a profound surprise that was. Given that the Japanese course was much more geared towards research than undergrads, I really didn’t think I had much hope.

How to explain this bizarre coincidence? Perhaps the course-representative of the interview panel liked me while the college-rep didn’t, so he decided to recommend me elsewhere. Perhaps I just got lucky. All I know is that my life, for the foreseeable future, will be significantly different than it might otherwise have been.

It’s been a hairy, skin-of-the-teeth affair right from the start (and arranging for funding is going to be just as troublesome), but it looks like I’m in. I’d better get cracking with those studies, and the pre-course reading list

Oh look, they have a good boat club, too 🙂

I really should stop posting these things when I’m at work…

11 December, 2008

Aaaaaaand relax…

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:23 pm
Tags: , , ,

I’ve avoided blogging about Cambridge ever since I submitted my application. It’s been such a big part of my life, but I’ve always maintained that this blog was to be about more than What I Did On My Holidays.

More than that, as my optimism varied from day to day, I wanted to avoid committing anything to the cyber-ether that would later cause me to look back and cringe. I have complete and historical editorial control over my posts, of course, but as a matter of principle I try not to tinker with or remove old posts except to correct typos or formatting. Quite apart from anything else, it’ll be interesting to see how the blog – both my writing style and the way I think – develops over the months and, possibly, years.

However, the deed is done – the interview took place yesterday, and it’s time to record the events that led up to it, for posterity and for the sake of those who read this thing and might be curious. So, here’s a potted history of my attempt to insinuate my way into possibly the world’s most prestigious academic institution.

  • Having made the decision to apply, I had a couple of weeks to get the UCAS form completed and submitted.
  • I consulted all and sundry regarding my Personal Statement, and the end result was pretty good. Thanks go to the dysfunctor and various good friends and colleagues for critical commentary.
  • The written reference presented a tricky choice of referees. The inestimably wise Dr Coates, my tutor at Birmingham Uni; my good-humoured Japanese Tutor, Hiromi; or my incomparably supportive line-manager, Gill. For one reason and another, Gill ended up providing my glowing reference.
  • Deciding which college to nominate was tricky. I was tempted to do so on the basis of application requirements (essays, tests, interviews etc), especially upon seeing that Trinity Hall seem to rely principally on the Thinking Skills Assessment (a form of testing at which I excel), but upon the Chair of Studies‘ advice I eventually went with Wolfson College – a college open only to mature (over-21) students.
  • Shortly after submitting the application, I was requested to complete the online Supplementary Application Questionnaire, specifically for Cambridge applicants. Another several hundred words of selling myself ensued, and I was nearly late submitting this as I had difficulty obtaining a suitable photo. (As I was amused to discover later, the print-out received by the interview panel was of such low resomolution that it may as well have been a photo of my cat)
  • Many agonising days of waiting later, I received a letter from Dr Sally Church inviting me to an interview with her and Dr Barak Kushner on Weds 10th December, 4pm. I was also requested to provide two examples of marked essays by the preceding Friday. Since I hadn’t written an academic essay (not that would be suitable for Humanities, at least) since my GCSEs ten years ago, this was a problem…
  • A brief email exchange with Dr Church resulted in a request to provide a 1500-word essay entitled “Discuss the nature of society-state relations in the modern world in any region of your choice.” I had a week to research and write it (including the stag-weekend in Amsterdam) and I’m pretty pleased with the result. Again, many thanks to friends & family for their support and advice. The dysfunctor‘s girlfriend, Chisa, was particularly kind in putting me in touch with a fellow academic in the field, although I was sadly too rushed to take advantage of this.

The day finally came, and I got the train down to Cambridge, suited up and looking dashing. It’s always nice to know that you can brush up well when the need arises. Lucky tie and everything.
I managed to keep my nerves under control for most of the day – I usually do well at interview – but upon stepping off the train I suddenly felt an unholy lurch in the pit of my stomach. I’ve never been so anxious about anything before, which is a strange thing to admit; there were more serious, more important and more uncertain occasions in my life, I’m sure, but right then it was hard to remember any. It probably wouldn’t have done me any good if I had, either.

I have a friend who suffers from occasional panic-attacks, and he’s tried to describe them to me before. I’ve never had such a thing, but right then I think I understood a little of how it feels.

Anyway, I managed to control my bladder and stop shivering, and sat with a calming cuppa tea for half an hour or so. As I walked up to the faculty for the interview, a well-worded, well-timed text from a friend arrived to soothe me. I had five minutes to sit in the common-room with a couple of other young prospectives (for Chinese), and I realised that I was in a far better place than they were. I had chance to reflect on my previous Cambridge interview, back in 1998, and how I had been successful on that occasion, and was far better prepared and equipped this time to face the panel.

As it turned out, the panel was so much more relaxed and informal than I was expecting, too. I finally got to meet Dr Church – a pleasant, quiet lady, whom I feel may even have been a little more intimidated by the interview situation than I was – and the other interviewer, Dr Kushner. He was a very likeable man, with an air of intelligent confidence when he spoke. His enthusiasm was clear, in spite of the late interview, and he seemed quite eager to discuss everything from the ideas raised in my essay to the possibility of studying Taiko during the 3rd year in Japan.

Generally speaking, I think I presented myself fairly well – enthusiastic, intelligent and affable, if a little green. Most importantly, I think I demonstrated a genuine interest in the subject, and established that I’m already learning what I can. Beyond being a bit more coherent with my ideas, it’s hard to know what more they would’ve been looking for.

I’m by no means certain that the interview was a success. However, I got the impression that they weren’t just “giving me a chance”; rather, that they were already hopeful and wanted to see if I lived up to their expectations. If I read it right, I think my chances are decent.
Anyway, a couple of things were said which gave me good reason to be hopeful:

  1. When discussing the possible difficulties of being a mature student among a small class of 18-year-olds, many of whom would have joined “principally to pursue an interest in Anime”, Dr Kushner intimated that it was more about gregariousness and personality than age, and that I seemed like the sort of person who’d get on fine. It felt like a vote of confidence.
  2. More significantly, my prior studies of the language were raised. It was suggested that I may find the first year “boring” if my knowledge and fluency in Japanese were of a sufficient level, since students are expected to enter with no prior knowledge. The notion of direct-entry to second year was raised, and that made me feel that they were seriously looking at how and where to fit me into the syllabus.

Good signs, then, and I don’t think I really made a tit of myself at any point. It’s hard to gauge how well they took me, but I felt that I got on with them pretty well, and got to express myself. They tested me a little – follow-up questions to throwaway comments – but I think I kept the ball rolling in the right direction.

Anyway, time for me to stop worrying about it now. The deed is done, and I’ve devoted quite enough energy to this application now. It’s out of my hands. Time to focus on the next event in this month’s hectic schedule – my best friend’s wedding.

I think I’ll need a holiday after this Holiday Season. Roll on January…

2 July, 2008

Opening credits

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 10:31 am
Tags: , ,

I had a dream last night that someone important (I forget who) was visiting my house, and I was hopelessly unprepared. This isn’t unusual, in dreams or reality.
What was unusual was that a kind person of my acquaintance (again, I forget who) had taken a moment to clear away the pile of unopened or unregarded mail behind my front door. I say pile; a more accurate term might be “drift”. Again, this isn’t unusual.
So I only realised this had been a dream upon leaving the house the next morning, passing that very same avalanche of junk on the way out.

Mail is a headache. While any piece of mail was a package of excitement and anticipation in my youth, once I hit 18 and started getting bills and regular bank-statements, I quickly lost interest. You start to become part of the real world, where paper communication serves a utilitarian function rather than – as most things do when you’re a teenager – some form of entertaining or social purpose.

These days my mail is roughly composed of:

  • 50% local freesheets of varying purpose and quality
  • 30% advertising junk
  • 13% bills/statements, which I can recognise within one glance and therefore needn’t open
  • 5% “No longer at this address” (going back 3 generations, I believe)
  • 2% “Ooh, I wonder what that is…?”

That 13% chunk still needs opening and checking periodically, of course, but it’s an annoying chore that can be avoided until you have the gumption to sort it out – like vacuuming, or updating your blog.
So only the 2% is of any real interest, and that means every morning I can happily trample over the strata of the last couple of weeks without giving a second thought to the fact that I May Already Be A Winner, I Have Already Been Approved For [something], or the front-page news that invariably includes a picture of pre-pubescent kids in hi-viz tabards holding brooms or binbags and looking very pleased with themselves.

This week was different.

This week, I received two things in the mail that made me happy.

First was the DS cartridge: Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten – my stylus-enabled Japanese Kanji dictionary. This thing is, as I had hoped, excellent. Hiromi was impressed, and I use it constantly along with my two-way Japanese dictionary whenever I’m doing homework. It’s all in Japanese so I’m still finding my way around, but it’s got pretty much all the functionality you could hope for in something like this, and most of the entries have an English definition against them.

I would heartily recommend this software only if your Japanese is at a sufficient level. If you’re somewhere around JLPT level 4 or 3 then you’ll be able to use this to great effect, but otherwise you’re wasting your time. Don’t try to run before you can crawl, especially if you have ragged stumps instead of legs.

Second, and probably more significant, was the arrival of… *drum roll*… my Diploma in Higher Education – Civil Engineering With Management!
Whee!
This is something I’ve been meaning to collect for some time (7 years), but never got around to somehow. It represents the two years of study I did attend at the University of Birmingham, and in truth I did rather well during those two years. It’s still my greatest regret that I never completed a degree course, and something I burn to rectify sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Maybe I’ll get a mail-order degree. The University of Mountebank sounds quite reputable.

Anyway, at least I got something out of it. The credits from this can be put towards another course of study, naturally, but I can’t really make any practical use of the qualification itself – it’s been too long since I did any real Civil Engineering to consider myself suitably qualified, although a Diploma could still get me a decent wage standing by the roadside in high-viz gear waving a stripy pole back and forth while some career-voyeur looks at me through a theodolite…
Yeah, I think I’ll stick with my current situation. I’d rather be ambling along a road to the future than standing on the hard-shoulder dodging traffic.

So, many thanks go to Dr Lawrence Coates, my old tutor and confidant, for so swiftly and kindly sorting this all out for me (and arranging the waiver of my outstanding library fees), and to Mr Kamel Hawwash for agreeing that I may as well have a with Management tacked on there, which will probably do more for my present career than the Civil Engineering part (“Critical path? Sir, I am the critical path!!”)

My tacky, mauve, faux-vinyl National Record of Achievement folder already feels heftier with the gravity of it.

Next, the JLPT?

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.

Dekimashita.

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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