Saturday, February 19, 2005

Language Skillz

I write about learning a new language a lot because the process is so fascinating to me. I'm not quite sure how to explain it to people who have never learned another language, but trust me, it is soooo cool. And when I say "people who have never learned another language" I mean people who have never learned another language outside of a classroom setting. For example, I learned French in high school and college. I studied it for four years altogether. Give me a French text and I can read it really well. Put a French speaker in front of me and I will struggle to understand them and respond. My French was learned in the classroom and my skills with French largely remain in studious activities like reading. Now I'm sure because I have the four years background that if I went to France, it would only take a few months for me to get to the place it's taken me six months to get to with Japanese, but I'm not sure if I would have the same emotional experience I'm having with learning Japanese. When I was sixteen years old, I was selected for an experimental program in my high school to learn Japanese. We learned via satellite with a professor of Japanese based in Texas. We had a phone we could pick up while he was on the television and talk to him directly during lessons. It was way cool, especially back in the early nineties. But in any case, that was 9 months of language training in Japanese with, again, not much real world use of the language. So when I arrived in Japan, I knew how to count, I knew the names of colors and animals, I knew how to introduce myself and say polite things about the weather or inquire about how someone was doing. I knew how to ask if someone had something I wanted. I knew how to say what I liked and didn't like. That was it, really. And I knew the first two alphabets, of course. So, actually, a decent prep, but nothing special, because knowing those things didn't mean I could actually understand a Japanese person when they used those words. That came with living here and hearing it every single day being talked around me.

I am still constantly amazed when I'm put into a situation I haven't planned for where I have to speak or understand Japanese and I managed to do it. The other day I was grocery shopping and ran into one of the elementary school teachers I work with. The elementary school teachers have no English, and so when he came up to me and said hello and asked how I was, I had my instant of panic that I sometimes get when I have to really use the language quickly and without preparation. In a classroom, there is a very contained sort of context for language, so it's actually easier for me to speak Japanese while I'm teaching, whereas put me outside the classroom context and suddenly there are all sorts of things people talk about. And I'm always afraid I will take too long to think through what I want to say in my head that it will just frustrate the other person or that I'll look stupid. So anyway, I said hello back to the teacher and told him I was fine and asked him how he was, and he asked me if I usually shopped at this grocery store, and I told him I lived nearby so yes, and he said he lived in Ami, too, and that he always came here, though the prices were a little expensive, he thought. I agreed and then he asked me if I cook for myself, since he saw lots of groceries in my basket. I told him that I usually cooked for myself and ate out only once or twice a week and he thought that was amazing and told me how my Japanese was getting really good. I thanked him and then we said goodbye and I did my little sigh of relief thing, and then once the tightness in my chest unwound from the pressure being off, I was like, holy crap, I understood him really easily. The length of time to process what others say is shortening as well as the length of time that I need to process what I want to say in my head before I said. Now I am still a little slow and people can tell it's a second language and that I'm still studying it, but I eventually get said what I want to say, and don't have too much confusion over it. And I don't know how to explain the rush I get from that. I once complained in my journal about not being able to walk past people in public places and understand what they were saying, and now I walk past people in mid-conversation and understand a lot of what they're saying. It's pretty mundane stuff, just like most conversations in publice. But I'm still fascinated with hearing even the mundane. When I hear a little kid ask his or her father to get them a toy or a piece of candy, when I hear a husband tell his wife that he's beat, when I hear an old woman say her back hurts, or hear an older man tell his wife that the prices at a store are too expensive, to hear arguments or jokes being told, or hear someone trying to compliment somone else, all this mundane talk for me has a glow to it as I'm understanding it. Sometimes I feel so weirdly happy about it that I feel like I'm on some sort of happy drug. It gives me a natural high.

I finally watched Daremo Shiranai (Nobody Knows) the Japanese film I wrote about a week or so ago. Wow. Woof. It was a killer. Amazing. I can't tell you how much you need to see this film if you can. I watched it in Japanese of course, and the good news is that I understood about 90 percent of what the actors were saying. The bad news is that I understood about 90 percent of what the actors were saying, and it didn't take me long to feel the pressure behind my eyes building and then I was crying buckets throughout the whole thing. (Amber, this is soo one of your kind of crying movies to watch!) I was right, too, about how wonderfully the director captures the Japan I know, the details, the sounds of the locusts screaming in summer, the voices of children at play in the park, the school uniforms, the way kids interact with each other, the sheen of sweat on people's skins during summer. The lights of Tokyo and the hushed trains. I'm not sure if the movie was popular here because it was such a depressing sort of movie, and you know, those movies aren't popular in the States either. I think the majority of people don't like to watch movies that aren't Hollywood entertainment type films, which is sad, because if they would give films that aren't about car chases and cutesy comical romantic encounters a chance as well, I think that people would find these less upbeat, more socially relevant movies has something different to offer them that could enrich their lives more than the entertainment only category films (which I love too, but I don't really have to argue here for why people should watch films meant simply and only to entertain, because they already watch those regularly). If you've ever seen a movie called The Bicycle Thief, I would compare Daremo Shiranai to it, the heightened sense of realism, but I would say Daremo Shiranai is ten times better than The Bicycle Thief.

Also, I found out that the April issue of Realms of Fantasy just went on shelves back in the States yesterday.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always said that when I could automatically yell in Spanish at a kid who was doing something dangerous on the playground, I would consider myself truly bilingual.

Well, I can do that. And I do parent conferences in my second language and translate for others when I must. I've got school vocabulary nailed. But still--I'm not a native speaker. I'm not sure I'll ever get to a level closely approximating it, although I can fool a few native speakers with my accent and vocab.

I always feel as though I'm eavesdropping if I listen to a conversation in Spanish at the grocery store, frex. I don't feel that way about conversations in English. So it continues to feel foreign to me in a few ways, even though I've been using it for over ten years now. (And vocabulary, for all sorts of situations--don't get me started! My kinders have a wider vocabulary base than I do at times.)

But it's cool that you're learning Japanese. I wish I had the time and energy. If I pick up a third, it's going to be Italian--simply because I can already read quite a bit of it because of the Spanish.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted here earlier about NOBODY KNOWS and agree with you about the power of the picture. Also about the difficulty an original film like this has in finding an audience. But I do think you needlessly undercut THE BICYCLE THIEF which in many ways invented the tecnnique and vocabulary for NK. BT takes a different theme, not the indifference of society but the chaos of a society in collapse. Looking at news photos of Iraq last summer, I found myself think of the old De Sica film, which I first saw in the early '60's 15 years after it was made, in an art house here in Manhattan. Coming out of the showing of NOBODY KNOWS - at the only theater in NYC where it's playing - I was reminded of my first reaction BT and also of the fact that it was the Italian Verissimo pictures of the '40's and 50's that largely created the art houses in which films like NOBODY KNOWS can get shown.


2:58 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I didn't mean to undercut The Bicycle Thief, only to say that I liked Daremo Shiranai better. Just a personal statement.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i checked, but alas, NK is not playing here yet. I will keep my eye on the reporatory theatres. They seem to get everything (I am lucky that way.)

and I did cry, a bit, reading A Home at the End of the World, even though I said I felt an emotional disconnect from the characters, which is weird. It was the little things; the part where Bobby says that about his brother, how he followed him into that gentle world, that was the saddest line of the whole book and could have caused much weeping, but only caused a bit.

but yes, the crying.
oh, how we love it so.

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I caught Nobody Knows tonight. Small crowd--fifteen or so--but that's probably not too bad for a movie like that on a Tuesday night.

The most interesting thing, I think, wasn't the movie at all, but that, when it was over, it was a long long time before anyone moved.

Thanks for talking it up. Still chewing it over, but glad I saw it.

- Hannah

1:17 AM  

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