Every time I’ve traveled to a non-Anglophone country, it’s been like pulling up to a fast-food drive-thru. You give your order and are rewarded with a barrage of incomprehensible static. Please drive forward!
I’ve walked into the same scenario in Japan, Thailand, and France. (At least the food was better than drive-thru quality.) My mouth is pretty good at producing sounds in other languages. I can say the French R and the Japanese R/L and the Spanish…why is it always the R, anyway?
It’s not that people take me for a suave native speaker. My American accent comes with me like I packed it in my suitcase. But they can tell I’m trying. My attempts to speak are proficient enough that they don’t come across as the usual foreigner’s cry for help: Please put me out of my misery so we can switch to English, already!
So I ask, confidently, “Where’s the bathroom?” But if the reply is anything more complicated than a pointed finger, I have to put on my linguistic dunce cap and say, “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
I’m ashamed of this. I love unraveling a mystery, and a language is a box of moving parts. How do they work together? What are the rules and the exceptions?
These puzzle-box aspects of language also, as it happens, had an intuitive appeal to the proto-geeks who invented modern computing. A geek’s got to eat, and as Steven Levy explains in his book Hackers, MIT computer scientists fueled their nocturnal coding sessions the same way their counterparts here and abroad do today: with Chinese food.
Chinese food was a system, too, and the hacker curiosity was applied to that system as assiduously as to a new LISP compiler…. They went back loaded with Chinese dictionaries and demanded a Chinese menu. The chef, a Mr. Wong, reluctantly complied, and Gosper, Samson, and the others pored over the menu as if it were an instruction set for a new machine. Samson supplied the translations, which were positively revelatory. What was called “Beef with Tomato” on the English menu had a literal meaning of Barbarian Eggplant Cowpork. “Wonton” had a Chinese equivalent of Cloud Gulp.
In the 70’s, Calvin Trillin wrote about his fantasy of eating in New York’s Chinatown accompanied by Mao Tse-Tung. Trillin had no sympathy for Mao’s politics (also, Mao was already dead at the time); he just wanted the Chairman’s help translating the specials written in Chinese and posted on restaurant walls. He should have just brought some hackers from NYU.
Well, I want to be my own Chairman. I want to walk in to an izakaya, a Japanese bar, ask about the day’s specials, and order off the wall. Reading, speaking, and listening. Oh, and I want to be ready to do it next summer, because I’m going to be in Japan for a month.
Nearly everything I’ve ever read about learning a language has come from either an expert or an idiot. The expert, found mostly in textbooks, is in the business of teaching you how to get your mouth and your brain around a bucket of new concepts. If you don’t fall asleep or accidentally swear at someone, the expert has done her job.
The idiot appears in books you might actually read for fun. The quintessential language idiot is David Sedaris, who struggled with French under a tyrannical professeur in Me Talk Pretty One Day:
“If you have not meimslsxp or lgpdmurct by this time, then you should not be in this room. Has everyone apzkiubjxow? Everyone? Good, we shall begin.” She spread out her lesson plan and sighed, saying, “All right, then, who knows the alphabet?”
The idiot is an underdog, and we all love rooting for those, so it’s no surprise that Sedaris would cast himself in the role. To Sedaris and to many travel writers, language is a necessary evil, a problem to be mined for jokes, at best. You slog through the language study so you can order the croissant or the gyōza without being reprimanded. And that’s how I saw Japanese before I began studying it: an obstacle between my mouth and the catch of the day.
Then, well, you know. I started liking Japanese. And I thought: how come nobody writes about language the way food writers write about the process of cooking? Lots of great food writing features neither experts nor idiots but talented amateurs who enjoy the process of cooking as much as the end product. Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue can be clownish, sure, but he’s an extremely smart guy and doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. When you go down the rabbit hole with Steingarten, you are going to come out knowing the best way to skin, truss, and roast a rabbit.
Amateurs have a special power that experts and idiots lack. Becoming an expert means losing touch with how you do what you do. I know how to speak English. This doesn’t qualify me to teach English, because I’ve completely forgotten what it was like to Dick and Jane my way through a sentence, sounding words out letter by letter.
Admittedly, it’s possible nobody writes about the process of learning a language for the same reason they don’t write about the process of paint drying. So let’s find out!
One of the most frustrating parts of learning anything is seeing someone make it look easy. Well, the amateur knows where it hurts. So over the new few months, I’d like to check in periodically when I encounter something odd, puzzling, or thrilling about the Japanese language. I won’t assume that you have any prior knowledge of Japanese–or even any desire to learn it.
And I promise not to make it look easy.