Thursday, July 3, 2014

Studying a Language

If not full circle, something in my life has come at least three-quarters.

I have bemoaned in previous posts the fact that I had started to study the Japanese language while I was in the army, but was prevented from pursuing it beyond a few lessons.

Amazingly, someone has organized a class right here in the senior community where I live, and I have signed up. It is taught by a lovely lady, a native speaker with, fortunately for me, a sense of humor. The usual awkwardness and mistakes predictable at the start of a learning process like this are compounded, in my case, by the remnants of the GI-Japanese we spoke to communicate with Okinawan bartenders and cab drivers. I am having to un-learn some things, and of course there are words I dare not ask about at all.

Since I work with language, the characteristics of Nihongo, (if I may) now that they begin to come clear, are fascinating. The language has no articles; no indicators of number or gender; and often leaves the subject out of the sentence. And I give you this quote from our instructional materials: “Grammatically, [the topic of a sentence] may be the subject, object, or phrase expressing time or place, or anything.” So how are you supposed to communicate?

Somehow, the Japanese have been doing it for centuries, and politely; but it’s a tough transition from English. On the other hand, think what it must be like in reverse -- learning English for someone who speaks Japanese. From having only a  few variations in verb forms, you’re confronted with present, past, past perfect, future, future perfect, infinitive, subjunctive, imperative, active and passive; first, second, and third person, in the singular and plural; gender; plus articles “a” and “the”; and of course all the irregularities that defy everything else you’ve learned.  Sure, lots of native English speakers will go a lifetime without ever encountering the future perfect, but it’s part of the deal if you’re studying the language.

Our most recent class exercise was to introduce ourselves, giving a little background as you might when interviewing for a job. I stumbled through place of birth, years in California, present home, and a few similar details. I had prepared it the night before, consulting a two-way dictionary for the words I didn’t already know, which was most of them. I wrote it out, and read from the paper when it came my turn to recite. I don’t know which was the worse, vocabulary or grammar.

Since I consider that I have a pretty good, or even better-than-average, grasp of the language I speak and work with, it’s disconcerting not to be in control of what I want to say. The gist of my little speech came across, more or less, but I’m accustomed to a fair degree of precision. I’ll take time when I write to run through the synonyms to pluck out the word with just the connotation I’m trying to get across. And here I am stuttering through a third-grade exercise. It’s embarrassing. Or as we say, kihazukashii desu.