Some languages are just easier than others

Some time ago I went against my better judgement and made a comment on a Facebook post about language learning. What the person asserted was that no language is intrinsically more difficult to learn than another and that the only real factor determining acquisition was learner motivation. The reason I avoid commenting on things is because you just get into circular arguments that don’t change anybody’s opinion. In this case though I had to convey my own anecdotal experience as an English speaker. Of course motivation is important in any human pursuit but the idea that all languages are equally difficulty is illogical. Languages are not discrete objective entities, they overlap continually and dynamically. As English is the dominant global lingua franca there is an inexorable flow of new coinages from English to other languages with and without modifications. On the other hand the hybrid origins of English give it substantial overlaps with Germanic and Romance languages so that common syntactical, grammatical and lexical features abound.
I am motivated to learn Japanese but understanding and assimilating all of the aspects of the language that differ from English is tiring and regularly demotivating. Motivation is not a constant in any situation. I recently started an Introduction to Frisian MOOC offered by the University of Groningen and though I have no aspiration is not to learn to actively use Frisian the experience so far has been really enjoyable. The fact that Frisian is very easy to understand for anybody who understands English/Dutch/German (and Swedish) means that there is very little effort need on the comprehension side. Reproduction is difficult but that is the only big challenge. If you contrast that with Japanese where every aspect of the language poses challenges for me then you can see why I get so annoyed with people who posit the notion that all languages are equal and that language distance is not a major factor.
Internet arguments about languages are generally pointless because there is very little objective discussion and many people just have not experienced learning more than one other language. In arguments about Irish it is worse again because English speakers with no other language skills join in with dogmatic positions about what should or should not be done with Irish including the position that everybody should learn Mandarin (it was Japanese or German back in the 80’s). It’s why I often don’t comment at all whatever the topic.

Languages like lovers

I have two drawers full of magazines in Italian that I have never read. They’ve been there now for more than four years and they date from the time I was learning Italian and subscribed to a German publisher’s magazine called ‘Adesso’. I don’t look in those drawers too regularly but when I do I am filled with regret. Opening the drawer is like looking at photos of the ex you still love after a break-up. Italian whispers seductively at me from the open drawer and I want to so much, but no. At least, not yet.
I wouldn’t dream of throwing the unread magazines out. They may be unread but in my mind they are still marked ‘to be read’. Italian is still a language that I want to make my own. To my mind there is no more beautiful language, I swoon at its sound. The problem is that I was not yet able to carve out a place for Italy in my life so maybe that time will come.
If you love languages it sometimes feels as though the world is one huge candy store. You want to try everything, you want to speak every tongue. That’s what I was like when I was younger, like a dog chasing sticks being thrown in all directions. The problem is that every language is in itself its own world. I could spend a life lost in the mysteries of English and that’s my mother tongue! Languages, like relationships, are far more satisfying when they go beyond the superficial but diving into a language and really exploring takes time. There are shortcuts but ‘distant’ languages like Japanese or Polish or Irish (for anybody outside Ireland) cannot be claimed without a struggle. When I was in Japan it was an enormous relief to finally be able to have basic conversations and to get this far has taken so much time. It is worth aiming for depth but that means that you need to choose.
Yes, I ‘want’ Italian but I don’t want a fleeting affair. It is a language so beautiful that I want to be able to devote the right kind of attention to the challenge. I don’t know when I can get back to it but I have to believe that I will. Only, for now, Japanese has my focus and maintaining the languages I know well like French, German and Spanish is a task in itself. Italian is there waiting but the timing must be right.

Gymnastics – Turbulence

It wasn’t our intention to make any changes this year on the sports front but the last month has brought about another big change for us. Daisy is really passionate about acro but she had a very frustrating year last year. Her intended partnership did not work out well so it meant that she spent most of the year training on her own. This year we had hopes of her finding a new team but there have been many changes at her club and it didn’t look like there were any opportunities. Her best acro friend already moved to a new team and we heard that they were looking for members. Since this seemed like the only opportunity to find a new partnership Daisy went there for a trial and it worked out really well. So now she is going to training at a club that is about 30 minutes drive away. It has all happened very fast but we want to support her with this because she is so passionate about her sport. On Sunday our car is needed for training in Amsterdam so the way we resolved things is that I took her on my bicycle to the train station and then cycled about 17km to her training from the nearest station. It’s good exercise and it’s fine while the weather is good but we will have to do it a little differently as the weather gets colder.
It’s very hard coping with all of the changes that we are confronted with. Last year was a really difficult year for Luna with so many injuries but she is feeling a lot better now. She is really interested in trying new things like pole dancing and aerial tissues so we will see how far we can support this. She has started secondary school now and she is happily developing a new identity so now we have to negotiate the new demands and try to advise her as best we can. With rhythmic gymnastics the big issue is the lack of any growth path because The Netherlands has no national team structure. If this was in place and there was a chance to compete in the Europeans or the Youth Olympics then she might maintain the motivation and desire to keep going in the sport but it is a big issue for girls of Luna’s age and many drop out because national finals are as much as they can aspire to while girls from every other country can hope to progress internationally.
Nadia is different again because she has never really had the chance to do anything of her own choosing. She complains that she never chose gymnastics and didn’t have the chance to try out other things. We want to let her do some of the things she is talking about so we are planning to send her to a music orientation course and also to start taking lessons in pony riding. The fact that we never allowed her any freedom to choose contradicts our principle of allowing the kids to ‘find their element’. We had hoped that her natural talent for gymnastics would mean that it was the right fit and maybe it will be. We have to let her experience other things too though.

Is visiting Japan really so expensive?

One of the big assumptions about Japan is that it is really expensive. There is no doubt that it can be mind-blowingly expensive but it certainly does not have to be. Ireland, to use an example I know well, is a country where you often cannot avoid being bludgeoned. Prices increase exponentially in ‘captive’ places including airports, train/bus stations, isolated locations and near anywhere that might be termed an ‘attraction’. This does not hold true in Japan. Whether it’s something cultural or a matter of social control is not clear but the prices of regular goods are pretty much the same everywhere within a region. It’s definitely not because the country is oblivious to commerce since it is quite rabidly materialistic in urban areas with a seemingly endless number of retail locations.
Since this was a solo trip I know the exact amount that I spent so it’s interesting to look at that. Obviously the cost of the flight to Japan is the biggest ticket item. I paid 582 Euro return from Amsterdam to Osaka. There were cheaper flights on the route but with less convenient times. For a family of five that would be 2910 Euro so not cheap but the Canaries is not considerably less expensive. Taking into account an eleven hour flight time the cost is reasonable, they need to look after you in the air all that time too.
In Japan itself I spent 780 Euro and I was there for exactly seven days. The last night in the really impressive airport Hotel Nikko cost 71 Euro. The first three nights in the small but well-located MyStays Shin-Osaka cost 233 Euro (78 p.n.). The Homestay in Takatsuki was 37 Euro per night including a really delicious breakfast. As I opted to eat with the family I paid 800Yen (~6.50 Euro) for dinner each night and the food was amazing with a wide variety of different things to eat and I wouldn’t even have known how to order some kinds of food in a restaurant. Accommodation can be cheaper if you are willing to share bathroom facilities and be in places where there may be no airco. Although I wouldn’t have minded that half a lifetime ago it’s not something that I would do now. It’s important to have a relaxing place to go back to, to rest after your day’s exertions.
Transport is very reasonable in Japan for foreign visitors. There is a wide range of passes that you can get depending on your needs. There are many websites which help you buy the best pass for your itinerary. I bought a one day JR West pass to go to Himeji for the day as it is cheaper than a return from Osaka. From Kansai airport I bought an Icoca pass and a Haruka return ticket to the city which was another deal. On my final day using the aquarium / Osaka City combi ticket saved me a lot on transport and entries compared to individual tickets.
Temples normally cost a couple of Euro but there is no big differential between the ‘star’ places and regular ones. Castles cost maybe seven Euro and bigger things like the aquarium are twenty euro. The general feeling I have is that visiting the best known sights costs less in Japan than in western Europe.
Food and drink is generally much better value than in Europe. In many restaurants you can eat a full meal including miso soup and pickles for under ten Euro. Iced water is served as standard for free and so extra drinks are not needed unless you want that specifically. There are many quicker and cheaper options including having a bowl of ramen or udon or things like gyoza or takoyaki or sushi from one of the conveyor belt restaurants. The main thing is that the traveller can choose how much they are willing to spend. I remember being in Iceland and eating these cheesy bread snacks because they were the only thing available for a few euro. In Japan you can eat healthily and cheaply and food is taken very seriously so quality is rarely an issue.
I don’t drink any more so alcohol wasn’t a consideration but the prices are comparable to western Europe with restaurants being quite expensive for a beer (4 or 5 euro) but cans in the omnipresent コンビニ (convenient stores) would be a couple of Euro per can. I have no idea how much clubs but that is well of my radar at this stage.
Overall my trip cost 1362 Euro including some gift items. For the distance I travelled, the places I stayed and went to and the price of feeding myself I don’t think it was too excessive.

Flying into the sun

Flying back in the Japanese morning into the European afternoon really works out well since you don’t have to sleep (which is difficult in Economy at the best of times). This time I had a really tall guy sitting in the middle seat who took up the shared armrest and any legroom he thought he could snarfle. That meant that a marathon film viewing flight was in order. Not a lot of people know (or care about) this but I would often watch four arthouse films in a session in the IFC in Dublin so it is a challenge I am well up to.
The first film looked promising. It was called ‘James White’ about an off the rails thirtysomething drifter whose mother is dying of cancer. The film was full of the expected craziness but it didn’t have any resolution so it was not very satisfying. The next one was a Spanish slapstick comedy called ‘Ocho Apellidos Vascos’ about an Andalusisn who falls for a Basque girl. A lot of the jokes depend on your knowledge of Spanish stereotypes and where different accents are being put on is not necessarily clear in the sub-titles. I understood enough to find it quite charming and amusing. I then watched ‘Ma Ma’ starring Penelope Cruz as a mother struggling with life and breast cancer. It was a bit long but it was very well directed and it stirred the emotions. I saw that the Catalan follow-up to the ‘Ocho Apellidos Catalanes’ was also on offer. This one was a bit less funny than the original but the mad plot was enough to keep my attention. Finally I saw ‘Le Roi’ which is an amazing French movie telling the story of a passionate relationship through flashbacks focalized through a woman who has had a skiing accident and is in a rehabilitation centre for a long period of recuperation. When you see a good French movie it is optional very good indeed.
So the flight went by pretty quickly and now I have arrived into weather just as sunny as what I experienced in Japan for the last week.

Kansai Diary #13 – Last thoughts from Kansai

For my last night in Kansai I opted for the convenience of the airport hotel so I stayed at the Hotel Nikko. For 71 Euro I got a very luxurious room with a proper bath, all of the trimmings and complimentary bottles of water. I have stayed in downtown hotels in Tokyo that are more than twice as expensive that are nowhere near as nice. I guess that location and demand are the difference. Still, it was nice to enjoy the luxury and get a good night’s sleep.
It’s been a really memorable week in Japan and I am glad that I took the time to write so much. It’s too easy to stop stretching yourself as a person. I can accept that the process of aging and the redefining of my priorities means a certain loss but I mustn’t let that steal my dreams. Japanese and my heart country Japan belong alongside Spain and the Moon Country like beacons drawing me out of the mundane slog. This trip reminds me that I cannot forget the element, the passion that fires me to be new people. On this trip I pushed the limits of my language, I suspended my shyness, I opened my eyes to beauty, I opened my essence to new sensations and came out a better person.
Elizabeth Bishop’s words in ‘Questions of Travel’ are in my mind. We go to the last to catch those final warm sunsets.

‘Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?’


Kansai Diary #12 – Urban Pleasures

I woke this morning determined to fill my last day with the sights and sounds of Osaka. I had said my goodbyes to the host family the night before but Moe was around at breakfast time so I had a last chat with her. I walked to Takatsuki station and then got the train into Shin-Osaka. I had left just enough credit on my Ikoka card to cover the locker fee and thankfully my trusty Samsonite fit in comfortably.
My first stop was the Kaiyukan aquarium. There is a good deal where you can buy an entry ticket and an all-day Osaka metro pass for a discount. The ticket also gives you a discount on the entry to all of the main Osaka attractions so it is a bargain. Having seen large aquariums in Perth and Vancouver I wasn’t sure what to expect because I knew that this one was indoor. The whole thing is quite well done with good explanations in English and a focus on marine life preservation. I do always feel a bit ambivalent about observing animals in captivity and I couldn’t stop asking myself if they really had enough space. I took some obligatory photos of the bigger creatures but actually the smaller exhibits with amazing jellyfish were more inspiring. The scary spider crabs also caught the eye – they are the stuff of nightmares. For the first part of the tour there was a chorus of screaming Japanese schoolchildren so that kept me firmly in the world of the prosaic. If you are in Osaka it’s almost mandatory to go but I was happy enough to reach the end.
imageimageThe next destination was Osaka Castle which is a great place to visit. The grounds are huge and the surrounding moat is awe-inspiring. As you wind your way up the top you eventually get to the main building which houses a museum as opposed to showing the living and working quarters which is usually the case. They ask you to go to the top floor first and you can go outside and enjoy the viewing tower. I got a discount in, paying 540 Yen (about 4.50 Euro), and the view alone was as good as the skyscraper viewing towers I have been to (e.g. Mori Tower in Tokyo, Hancock Building in Chicago). The museum itself gave a detailed account of the castle history and for Japanese people (who would know the context) it seemed very interesting. I enjoyed some of the artifacts but the beauty of the view and the impressive castle itself were already enough to make me happy.imageimageimageimage
I was pretty famished at this stage so I stopped off at a working man’s udon restaurant. I had a bowl of curry udon that would satisfy the most voracious of appetites. Maybe because of the aquarium I kept thinking of the udon as baby eels escaping from my chopsticks. I do love the ‘slurp without care’ custom in Japan, I was born for this as song goes.image I took the subway to Tennoji temple which has a most impressive pagoda. There are other temple buildings with gold buddhas but no photographs are allowed. I went up the narrow stairs to the top of the pagoda. All of the floors were filled with gold artifacts but I could not read the characters written on them, presumably they are all donations from believers. Anyway, this temple is definitely an Osaka highlight too.image
The next place I visited was the National Museum of Art which is on an island called Nakanoshima. Rather as in Bilbao the building stands out architecturally and given its location in the business district it does look the part. I paid 220 Yen entry (less than 2 Euro) and I went to see an exhibition on the theme of Recollections. There was a broad body of work including pieces by Christo (who ‘wraps’ large building like the Reichstag). Some of the abstract pieces were beyond me but there was a part that had photographs from the old Kowloon Walled City slum in Hong Kong and photos of documents through the spectacles of famous politicians and writers such as Joyce. I spent about an hour at the museum and just enjoyed the pieces that spoke to me.imageimage
The final stop of the day was a trip to the Dotonbori area for some last shopping a feed of gyoza. I took the train back to get my bag and now I am on the way to the airport hotel to have my final sleep before flying back home to all of my ladies. It’s been a blast but the heart cries home.