Sunday, April 28, 2013

One last attempt to learn proper Japanese
 I have always thought that learning a language is a natural thing. Babies soon learn to babble the language they hear around them, without a minute of formal instruction. They learn Finnish, a very complicated language. They learn Czech. Learning a language is a God-given ability, surely. I learned to speak reasonable Dutch while living for two years in Amsterdam. In Holland, there are no schools that teach Dutch to foreigners. There's no call for them. 

My dear wife, whose native language is Japanese, just naturally learned to speak English during the ten years we lived in Connecticut. Never a thought about attending a language school. Much too busy bringing up a family.

 And so I learned to speak Japanese in this natural, bang-around way during the forty years I have lived in Tokyo. I am sure the Japanese I speak is not always formally correct, but it seems to get the job done. I make my way around and I more or less understand what's going on. I can even sometimes read advertisements.

 But then I see other foreigners on TV being interviewed in Japanese and joyfully engaging in intricate exchanges. And then the other day my friend Adam Wynn from Australia told me about the language school he is attending where he learns four new kanji a day and I think, OK, why not? Why not go to a language school and learn how to speak proper Japanese - and perhaps even read? 

So I make an appointment with the ARC language school in Yokohama, telling them I'd like to learn how to speak properly, and on the appointed day I present myself. A sweet young lady ushers me into a private room and gives me three sheets of paper, a test. The first page tests my knowledge of katakana and hiragana. I am asked to write down the lot. I can't really. I recognize the kana and so can read them, but I can't write them. I discover I don't really know the difference between hiragana and katakana beyond recognizing that one is rounder than the other. They are all more or less the same thing to me.

 The second page is a dozen or so sentences written in hiragana, with a key word left out and a choice among four words in hiragana offered. Once I decipher the hiragana, a slow process, the choice is easy enough, but it takes too much time. So OK, OK, I am illiterate. And I haven't even been tested on my knowledge of kanji. (I have in fact managed to pick up some few kanji along the way - Free!, Prohibited, station, Tokyo, river, automobile, up, down, and a few more.) So after I have struggled with this test for about an hour, the young lady comes in to ask me how I've done and I tell her that I've learned I am illiterate. She nods, unsurprised.

 But then we settle down to a relaxed conversation in Japanese about language learning and teaching, about foreigners in Japan, about Japanese politics, about Japanese TV. Very pleasant. 

"Where and how did you learn to speak Japanese, Mr. Kennedy?" she asks.

 "Oh around, you know. Maybe mostly in Nombei-yokocho. That was my school." say I. (Nombei-yokocho is the little alley of tiny drinking places across the street from Shibuya Station, a national treasure as far as I'm concerned.)

 "Mr. Kennedy, I don't know how we can help you. You speak but don't read. Here we teach both together. I think it would not be worth your while to come to school to learn the kana and the 300 or so kanji we would teach you. You had better do this on your own. I think your best school, Mr. Kennedy, is Nombei-yokocho." 

"Ah, I understand," I said. "Thank you for helping me understand what I have to do. The problem is, the people I meet in Nombei-yokocho are amused by my rickety Japanese and would never think of correcting me. So I never really learn. I guess I will just have to live with it. Domo, arigato gozaimasu.

- Rick Kennedy

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