Japanese, off the wall

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.

27 thoughts on “Japanese, off the wall

  1. Wendy

    I’m looking forward to reading your posts, but the only reason I haven’t yet forwarded any language-learning blogs to you is that I think you’ll hate them all. Let me know if you want suggestions. There’s a whole scary world out there.

  2. Eric Gower

    Only the mamster could invent an entirely new category of writing.

    I can share AN AMAZING method of learning katakana in a day or two (ok they would be full days) if part of your goal to learn this all-important syllabary!

  3. mamster Post author

    Eric, I’ve pretty much already learned it, but I want to hear your method anyway. Maybe it’ll help for the half-dozen characters I always get stuck on (writing, not reading).

  4. mamster Post author

    Well, I’d at least like to see some. I’ve looked around a little but mostly what I’ve found is complete courses. Not a lot of writing about the journey.

  5. mamster Post author

    I’ve been using Anki to memorize Japanese characters; it’s great, and I’ll be posting about it at some point.

  6. Aimee

    I felt the same way that you describe when I was in Geneva! I would listen to my google translate app over and over and get my pronunciation as good as my American tongue was capable of, and then completely fall apart with a response other than a oui or non.

  7. mamster Post author

    Wendy, I’ve looked at AJATT, and I find it terrifying–like, I think he’s right that a deep immersion is the best way to learn, but I balk at it for all the usual reasons people give for not doing something.

    I will give it more thought.

    The other blogs just seem like they’re selling something.

  8. Wendy

    Indeed. Many of the blogs I’ve told you about where people talk about how to live “location independent” are language blogs, and a goodly part of how they manage to live location independent is through selling other people on [the idea of] that lifestyle, quite literally. But the Fluent in 3 Months blog does (I think) have the genre of writing you’re looking for, though it isn’t usually to my style. He’s the language equivalent of that I Will Teach You To Be Rich guy (who is also selling something, of course, but says interesting things on his way there). I like the Everyday Language Learning Guy better, but he doesn’t take as many risks with his writing. After a while you stop seeing the ads for the e-books. Stop noticing them, I mean. They don’t disappear. Also, after a few months I felt like I’d read about everything there was to read about the language-learning process and those posts weren’t as interesting as they used to be, but the suggested resources have definitely been invaluable; and any post with a title like “32 Hints for your Language Journey” usually has a couple of different things I’m willing to try.

  9. Mary Miller

    I just found you on Fresh Picked Seattle. I love your posts about Japan and Japanese! My sister has lived in Japan for 20 years… she’s a translator and completely fluent reading, writing, and speaking Japanese. I’m language impaired and am always in awe. Good luck with your process.

    We visited in October and took quite a few good food shots. Here is a link if you are interested: http://apassionateplate.com/eating-japanese/

  10. mamster Post author

    Wendy, I’m trying to read Fluent in 3 Months, but I keep unintentionally following links to paid content, and the free content is way too pep-rallyish for me. Not that there aren’t useful tips–there’s definitely some good stuff in the “life lessons” post, but it doesn’t really speak to me. On the other hand, I’m probably too quick to dismiss practical stuff because I’d rather read something more exploratory.

    Mary, thanks for sharing your photos. That fresh wasabi is beautiful!

  11. Bonnie

    I’m so excited you’re going back and that we’ll get to hear all about it and your learning process. Thanks so much for the tips you gave me as I was preparing for my trip (last November). Japan was even better than I’d hoped and we’re planning to return to different cities. Thought of you while crossing the turtle rocks in the Kamo in Kyoto. Much cuter in the book.

  12. Aaron

    Hey Matthew, I’ll look forward to reading along with the process of discovering Japanese. I hope it all goes well and I enjoy the idea of writing as a food writers write about food and while I hope that I write as neither an expert nor an idiot, I suppose I stray into both occasionally. I was glad that Wendy used the word “prolific” and am working on being a bit more risky and hope that I don’t come across as pushy with my guides as she hints. I am learning the whole blog writing business/craft and will hopefully continue to help regular folks learn language well and reduce the “I want to sell something” feel. I’ve been begging readers for feedback for some time now and so it is good to get a little unsolicited feedback here. Anyway, have you ever reviewed any Turkish restaurants out in Seattle? Great food! Take care and have an amazing Christmas with your family. -Aaron

  13. mamster Post author

    Hello, Aaron, and thanks very much for the comment. May I ask you a favor? Where would you recommend I begin reading your blog. What are a couple of posts you’re especially proud of?

    I haven’t been to a Turkish restaurant in Seattle since our extraordinary Doner kebab place closed a few years ago; but there were a couple I used to frequent in New York. I love the enormous pide bread.

    Best, Matthew

  14. Aaron

    If you scroll down to the bottom of the home page you can find some of the reader favorites. I think some of my favorites are, 25 ways to find or create comprehensible input, the importance of journalling: Yuki’s story, lessons from Harry Potter and fartlek language learning. Anyway, I hope you find some of them useful and as a writer, if you ever have any suggestions to help me improve my writing or the blog, I’d love to listen. Good luck on the language learning journey and if you ever get to Istanbul, I’d love to share a Turkish coffee with you.

  15. mamster Post author

    Oh, this post about comprehensible input is great. Thanks–this gives me tons of ideas. (I’ve been using cookbooks.)

  16. Adam Cadre

    I was once listening to a radio interview with a guy from Latvia, and the hosts asked how his English was progressing, and he said something to the effect of, “Understand pretty good, speak not so well.” The hosts were quick to agree that, yeah, you can always understand others speaking a foreign language long before you can express yourself in it. I was like, whut? I can communicate in French reasonably well but I generally have NO IDEA what native francophones say back to me. I guess part of the reason is that if I find myself lacking basic vocabulary items when I’m talking I can always check down to some circumlocution that will get my meaning across, whereas if I can’t parse the string of syllables I’m hearing I have no recourse. So it’s reassuring to see that others have the same experience.

  17. Beth

    I think is it very difficult to learn food words before you travel–so often, even when I make the effort, I realize, once I arrive, that the term I learned was too general. A good example is the Turkish word manti–or dumpling. We recently went to Istanbul, and I was preparing, and excited about manti. But when we arrived, I learned that manti, was a whole category. There were tiny manti, large flat manti, all kinds and styles of manti…I was not closer than when i began my stidues to communicating what food I wanted–in part becasue I didn’t know what foods existed.

    Instead, now, I simply ask the server to chose for me, and then explain what I am eating after the fact, when we can both look at their creation together. Luckily, I don’t have any food restrictions.

    This is not to say that I don’t see the point of learning language, but more that I think there is a large difference between the specificity needed to get around, and that needed for food…and maybe that much of the point of the learning (aside from the fun of doing it), is, as you suggest, the jesture of respect, and interest, as the actual language learning.

    Still, I look forward to hearing about your journey.

  18. mamster Post author

    Yeah, Adam, I’ve heard people say that before, and I just can’t relate. Your analysis is spot-on, and I’d add that you can speak as slowly as you need to, but you can’t listen more slowly than someone is talking.

  19. mamster Post author

    Beth, I may very well be overestimating my knowledge (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I have been writing about Japanese food for over a decade, cook it regularly, have read dozens of Japanese cookbooks, and have been to Japan before. I don’t think I’ll be able to navigate a Japanese restaurant like a local, by any means, but if I can read a few words off an izakaya wall, I’ll be bragging about it for months. Wait, what was the point here, again?

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