At times I have felt so disillusioned with my progress with Japanese that it has started to affect my overall self-confidence. Once you are over forty it’s easy to start giving up and saying that you can’t do things. Nobody expects older people who have already got their qualifications and their career to have to keep learning new tricks. It’s not that anybody discourages me either but all of the pressure to succeed is coming from myself and not from other people.
The dilemma with learning more and more is that your own standards and expectations are changing constantly. Your understanding of what you are trying to do shifts. The truth is that I would probably have been quite happy to have reached my current level of Japanese if I was measuring myself against my own standards of twenty years ago. I remember learning a bit of Czech before I went to visit Prague before the velvet divorce. I was really impressed with myself even though I knew no more than fifty words that I kept recycling. With languages that I learned properly later on like Polish or German I never felt enormous pressure to build a vocabulary that was any greater than what I really needed. Yet with Japanese I have learned thousands of words and I feel overwhelmed that I need to learn so many tens of thousands more when the truth is that I don’t. I was learning variants of the word for very (totemo) so that I wouldn’t keep using the most commonly used synonym and then I started thinking to myself that I never did something like that before. Sure I picked up all of the variants of very in Dutch but it was a gradual and natural progression. With Japanese I am turbo charging everything.
Of course the single biggest issue with Japanese is the complexity of the writing system. At first it seems almost impossible to imagine that a day will come that you will actually be able to read a text. It’s taken a lot of time but gradually I have started to recognize more and more characters and the more you know the more new words you can guess from the context in a new text. It takes a long time to get to the stage where you see parallels with learning to read English (or any other language written with Roman characters ) but I am finally looking at intermediate level texts and picking out six or seven words I don’t know rather than wondering when I will be able to read anything.
It doesn’t help to look at complex texts from newspapers or novels just now. I have to keep it manageable but I am getting there as long as I don’t aim too high too soon. I still have a weekly private lesson and I feel that I am improving but I do get stuck on simple things all of the time. The main thing is to try to breathe deeply and not get really hung up on being perfect. I have learned a lot, I have to remember that. Roma non è stata costruita in un giorno!
I am always in two minds about the value of knowledge. On the outside it always seems more attractive to know more, to understand and to interact but the downside rarely gets attention. If you ask the average new parent if they would like their child to speak more than one language then the vast majority would consent. In non-English speaking countries there is a huge prestige factor attached to speaking English in particular and there is no shortage of parents who put their kids into special crèches or hire au pairs who can help them get ahead in speaking English. Other languages like Spanish and Mandarin have their followers for the same reasons, the notion that children will have an advantage if they speak these languages fluently.
The reality of being multilingual is quite different. In countries like Holland or Sweden there is a profound acceptance of English as a functional language in particular domains but even English is not welcome in all domains. I experience this almost daily when a less integrated foreigner leaves a meeting and then somebody will remark with relief that ‘we can speak Dutch now’. People are happy to use English when appropriate but it is not the case that it can usurp Dutch as the language of everyday life.
Still, English has a ‘special’ status which I have gradually learned to accept over time. I used to fantasise about abandoning English completely like Michael Hartnett, the Irish writer, once attempted. It was a whimsical idea though because giving up English is giving up the global lingua franca . If I brought up my own children without passing on English then I would only be withholding a gift that was mine to bestow. If I could have used Irish as an alternative there would have been a case but what would the value have been in using my imperfect Dutch?
So we made the choice to bring up our children with three languages. That creates all kinds of uncomfortable and compromising situations but we believe that the end result justifies the pain. The thing is though that multilingual does not mean perfectly lingual. In Poland you get confronted with a general lack of appreciation for this. If your foreign children ‘speak’ Polish there is an automatic expectation that they understand the same vocabulary as their Polish age cohort. When they can’t sing Polish children’s songs there is general disappointment. There is little feeling for the idea that it is already an achievement to speak any Polish given the fact that the children are in an environment with Dutch as a community language, English as a prestige language and Polish as one of the many unloved immigrant languages. Speaking Polish in front of other people in Holland is often met with hostility for the valid reason that people cannot understand what is being said. The quandary for multilingual families is that switching to Dutch in all open, public settings can undermine the minority language at home. In fact many mixed Dutch/Polish families seem to have the rule that Dutch is the family language so even in the home Polish can only be used in mother/child interactions which obviously limits the contact with the language as children get older. In our family there is no need to reduce Polish since I understand everything but we are still wary of letting the kids use Dutch. Sometimes I allow them say something in Dutch if it is very complicated and they just cannot express it in English but I always translate it back.
At the end of the day there is a massive gap between what people think they want and whether they would actually be willing to put in the effort to get that. The truth is that sometimes ignorance is bliss. If you just don’t bother speaking your language to your child and use the community language then life is a lot simpler. If we had Dutch speaking kids who spoke little or no Polish or English then we wouldn’t have to listen to the totally unrealistic comparisons with children who speak those languages in countries where it is the primary language. The reality of a trilingual child in a country like Holland is that the child ends up with Dutch at the same level as the Dutch kids (it takes a long time to reach that stage but they get there by the end of primary school). If the family has English as one of the languages then the kids have a big head start in terms of accent and listening comprehension but in other aspects of English (like spelling and reading comprehension) a motivated Dutch kid can surpass them. Finally the third language strength will depend on what the language is and how much exposure the child gets. If the children speak it all the time and visit the mother country regularly it may thrive but most people I know of in Holland whose kids have a second or a third language do not have near native ability. The fact that our children do speak Polish to a reasonable level should be a source of pride but the benchmark that is used means that they can only be doing worse than people expect.
If I speak for myself I am actually surprised that my Polish comprehension is better than ever. I still don’t express myself very well but I am not often called on to contribute. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t understand any Polish because then I wouldn’t know all of the details about what people are bickering about. Life is a struggle for many here so they talk a lot about lack of money and health problems are another recurring topic. I often wish that I could wallow in ignorance, the price of understanding is knowledge and sometimes you just don’t want to know for your own sanity.
In the last while I have really loved watching the Easy Language series on YouTube. I started off watching the Croatian ones but then I moved on to the Japanese ones which are really well produced with a funny, engaging and attractive presenter. She is so cool and she manages to turn lots of the conversations on the street into an entertainment ‘event’. There is just one episode for Swedish so far but I am looking forward to more because I really love the sound of that language. It’s a real pity that I did not try harder when I had a Swedish speaking girlfriend.
That’s a theme that has replayed throughout my life. When something is right in front of me I am often blind to it and even when I can see with clarity what I could or should do it’s just not so simple to act. All of my life I have loved other languages and gone through phases of hating the fact that I grew up speaking English rather than having a language that I could identify with as a native rather than a borrowed tongue. Despite this though it took me years to realize that I could have used Irish much more than I did. Most people in Ireland are indifferent to the fact that Irish needs to be used but there was always a minority who kept the flame alive. It embarrasses me now that I didn’t seek the opportunities out that were there.
Nothing is that simple though. You are never just one person and I was always trying to move forward on different fronts. It wasn’t that I was always blind so much as that my view was obscured. Learning Swedish was not the main function of that distant relationship just as my interactions with other languages have normally been a consequence of life events rather than goals in themselves.
It’s self-evident that you make more progress when learning a language becomes a primary motivation. That’s why I made really good progress with Dutch and Spanish and, most recently, Japanese. There were other times when I positioned myself as a speaker of French and got more exposure than otherwise would have been the case. The problem is that your best language opportunities do not necessarily coincide with your language desires.
When I watch Easy Polish I can understand 90% without subtitles. I can understand most everyday Polish conversations and I can even readily contribute at times. I often wonder to myself why I can’t just find the passion for Polish that I have for Japanese or Spanish or even Swedish. It’s similar with German. I like reading German and it’s enjoyable to watch some German television shows but I lack the real desire to make it more even though I have ready access to German media and I can visit the country whenever I want (it’s just over two hours drive to the border).
In a way this dilemma between learning to love what you have rather than what you want is moot. In the end I am torn between two opposing poles. I would like to have mastery of more languages so that I could truly transition at will into the other cultures. On the other hand I can’t seem to take that step without the extra ingredient which comes from having a real passion for the other language. If only it were simple to love what was in front of me in the way I desire the distant prize I think that I could square that particular circle.
I started to think about what I would like to achieve in 2016. There are many things that I would like to do but my degrees of freedom are very much limited by our commitment to the children’s activities. The coming year is going to be madness in many ways starting with choosing a secondary school for Luna in January and then beginning the preparation for Nadia’s First Holy Communion that will take place in May. We have to organize this on top of the really heavy training schedules. It could be that Luna needs to train three times per week for the national group in addition to club training and competitions. It all leaves very little time for my own ambitions.
I changed job function in December so I need to do my best to prove myself in my new role. It’s all more tentative and insecure now but that’s the quid pro quo for getting a new start. I will probably travel to the US again soon and maybe to Portugal for a conference in May but overall I will have less travel. If I go to Japan again in the coming years it will most likely be in a private capacity.
I really want to keep up the Japanese in 2016 and despite a little dip I have managed to keep up the progress through the dark months. It feels overwhelming at times that I have learned so much but I still have so far to go. It would be really great if I could mark my progress with the JlPT N5 or N4 in July. I think that aiming for an exam will help me keep the focus and motivation.
We already booked a summer holiday split between Spain and Portugal and now I know that I will be returning to Santander I already have a warm feeling. It will mean that I will have to brush up my Spanish and it’s nice to have a driver to do that.
This year I am going to start training to try to stay healthy as opposed to just to keep in shape. Since I have had bouts of painful sciatica I realize that I need to do what I can to develop my core strength to avoid irritating my back again. It is so painful and all-enveloping that I just can’t face suffering again. There is no point in having aesthetic goals when there are more important functional goals to deal with.
In the last while I have really upped the amount of books I am reading again. I hope that I can keep the momentum going in 2016 and make sure to get through some more novels in German and French especially because I have plans to use those languages much more actively again in the next few years so I can’t lose touch whatever happens.
There are so many other things I would like to do but it’s just not feasible. It would be great to take some cooking classes with Aga in the New Year since going to concerts is the only night out we tend to have so we want to start doing something interesting together besides that rather than just going for a dinner and ending up talking about the kids. It’s always good to have a different experience so that’s something that we are really hoping to do in 2016 even with all our commitments.
The table groans with more types of meat than you are likely to find in any other place in the world outside of a butcher or a delicatessen’s display window. It’s easy not to eat too much at Christmas here because there really is only so much meat that I can eat before my inner vegetarian starts reminding that all that of this was once alive and it behooves me to remember that and not indulge excessively.
It’s nice to be part of a family gathering and to listen as they share stories of other days spent at other feasts. At the same time I might as well be invisible because I have nothing to add besides the odd comment. With Polish I have to listen before I can really hear so there is always the choice to zone out. I used to facilitate that process with copious quantities of beer and even vodka on occasion but I took that option away in fear of myself so now everything that happens is engineered through concentrating on this world or other worlds, fictional or imagined.
There was a time when the real physical world around me mattered a great deal at Christmas but things happened over the years. Players left the stage of my life in all of the usual manners. When I was younger all partings, even the most minor, were endowed with huge melodramatic significance but losing gets easy with practice. It’s important to look at what you have now and what you might have in the future. That’s why I try to stay unsentimental and maybe why I don’t really do Christmas. I am here but not here, in a blink of the mind I disappear.
‘Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?’
Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop
It is a kind of failure but I have never managed to enjoy and expect bourgeois comforts in the way that others effortlessly manage. The consequence is that I always feel somehow gauche and inferior in polite company in situations of repute. On the other hand it means that I have never quite become unmoored from a ‘student’ level of discomfort. Traveling on a long coach journey would be unthinkable for many people with the means to fly or drive but 13 hours overnight ended up being the cheapest and easiest option from a logistical viewpoint so that’s how we ended up getting to Poland. My experience of Slattery’s coaches from Manchester to Ennis back in the 90s set me up to be able to sleep in the most uncomfortable of circumstances but getting the children to stay quiet and make the best of it is a different challenge altogether.
The journey from Holland to Poland by coach is itself quite familiar because that’s how we generally traveled in my first years after meeting Aga. I guess that my own emigrant experience helps give a familiarity and affinity for the group that collates around the pick-up point ahead of the departure. Each new arrival is greeted in Polish, some search eagerly for a willing ear to listen to their tale, all are waiting for the bus back to where they came from except me.
Yet even for me this is by now a sort of homecoming. I let the girls take a taxi from the bus station to my in-laws while I elect to walk. I don’t even think about the way because it’s imprinted on my mind and yet I always take the shortcuts through blocks of flats and the woods and I wouldn’t know how to get there by the main roads at all. It’s a childish relationship I have with this place because I never have to take any responsibility once I am here. Everything is out of my hands and I just drift in whichever direction others dictate. My relationship to the Polish language also remains stunted and immature. I understand everything until the topic gets intricate and difficult. Any response I offer is incomplete and partially formed. I am not myself and yet I am not expected to be much more.
In the days before we left I had to work from home because I could not move without great pain because of the sciatica that comes and goes more frequently and more severely now. I could work okay but I had to lie on my bed with a pillow underneath my legs. In the evenings I stayed in that pain-free position most of the time and did a lot more reading then I have done for a good while. I have noticed with eBooks that I really enjoy reading multiple books in series. Right now I am reading ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald, ‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk, ‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín and ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin. I expect that this holiday period will give me a chance to finish these and maybe read some more. That to me would be success.
It was way back in 2011 that we went to the Univé Gymgala for the very first time. Reading what I wrote back then it’s clear that I was impressed by the power and the passion of the top gymnastics performances. At the time we were saying to the girls that maybe one day they would be performing on that stage and this weekend that is what will happen. Luna will perform a small piece with the Jong Oranje group so she will get to mix with some of the top national and international gymnasts who will be there including the Ukrainian national RG team. We will go to see the whole show on Sunday.
It’s been a year so far with a lot of focus in entertainment and performance rather than competitions. In October a few of the girls from Luna’s club were asked to do a choreo to open the Hands On conference at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The girls had the opportunity to meet Queen Máxima of The Netherlands so it was an experience that they will never forget.
Luna and Nadia’s club, GTV de Badhoeve in Amsterdam, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015 so an enormous effort was put into two spectacular shows in November. For me personally it was an awesome spectacle because I knew that so much preparation had gone into the show but I had no idea what it would look like. Nadia had two parts in big group choreos that went very nicely especially an Africa themed dance. Luna had an awful lot of parts and it always amazes me that she can remember all of the choreos. The one I really liked was a piece based on Italy performed to the song “Vivo Per Lei” by Andrea Bocelli. There were five girls of different ages who delivered a very emotional and beautifully choreographed piece. Luna had another very funny part where she played a Manhattan Diva with two bodyguards. she had to do some acrobatic elements on high heels! We were glad she got through that unscathed.
After the Christmas break the focus will change to competitions. Nadia and Luna will have their first ones in January. Daisy is not going to be competing this year in Acro so it won’t be as crazy as last year but we will still be pulled left, right and centre every weekend but we love it really.