You might wonder why I am in a Learn Hungarian group on Facebook. I wonder that myself because I can’t recall joining it nor have I ever started learning Hungarian. Nonetheless a very interesting post caught my attention recently which directed me to a talk by the linguist Stephen Krashen. Now, his whole view on language learning is that comprehensible input is key and I don’t disagree at all. All the same he seems to emphasize consuming masses of input passively without worrying too much about the rules. That might work for second language learners but if it is your seventh or eighth language then I personally believe that rules (presented in the right way) can help accelerate acquisition because they give the input context.
With Japanese right now you could say that I am combining a bit of everything. In my classes and following the text book I do learn new grammar structures but, as predicted by Krashen, I rarely retain anything of what I have learned. It is when I recognize the previously learned rule when listening to or reading natural Japanese that I tend to finally get to grips with it. Similarly vocabulary or Kanji learned out of context rarely have staying power but once I encounter the word or character regularly it finds a home in my brain.
I go from elation to despair regularly with Japanese because sometimes I understand everything but then the context or the accent changes and I find myself understanding nothing. I know I am being hard on myself because second language (and even native) English speakers can be put into situations where they cannot understand what is being said. It doesn’t mean that they don’t speak the language. It’s just that I want to be reassured. That’s why I do go back to simpler Japanese texts and audio-visual materials every so often just to let myself know that I have already crossed that bridge. I just need to keep going now, word by word, character by character, onwards and upwards.
As we will be visiting Spain again in the summer I have been trying to watch more Spanish television and read more regularly again. It’s interesting temporarily switching attention from Japanese to Spanish because it feels like a kind of rest. With Spanish my comprehension is normally limited by words I don’t recognize but the grammar is normally clear and there is no real effort in processing what is being said. I can remember the feeling that I had the first time I realized that listening to Dutch had become a ‘like English’ experience. Once a kind of mental dam burst the challenge becomes more akin to understanding the advanced registers of one’s own language. If I am honest Dutch, German, French and Spanish are more or less ‘like English’ in my brain but Polish and even Irish are a step removed because of their distance from English which means that I can still get lost depending on the context and the speaker (my basic knowledge of Swedish and Italian means that I would class them as a step further away despite their proximity to English).
Since I know what it means to experience a language as being ‘like English’ then that is the holy grail in a sense. It should not be surprising to anybody familiar with language acquisition that exposure is the key to getting to that stage. Now, I am lucky in that I am exposed to both Dutch and Polish in my daily life and that experience tells me that the quality of the exposure and the degree of engagement also matter. With Polish I have never really made the effort to move into the more intellectual domains so my vocabulary and comprehension concerning cultural, economic and political matters is consequently limited. With all of my strongest languages I made a big effort at different points in my life to take that step.
With Japanese my ambition is to reach that ‘like English’ state but I have challenges on all fronts. The non-intuitive grammatical structures (from an English speaker’s viewpoint) have made the step to parse sentences mentally in the correct way a long and painful process. In the last year I have learned many new grammatical structures so, again, the mental adoption of these has been a big barrier to progress. The big differences between the Japanese formal and informal registers has meant that finding the right way to engage with naturally spoken Japanese materials has taken a long time. The immovable fact of having to recognize Kanji to read native texts means that improving my reading comprehension (and actively writing) is a gradual process. All of these things go against the grain in the modern world where everything is supposedly faster or even instant.
For me the fact that I have found such an excellent teacher to give me a weekly boost and an avenue to means to measure my progress has made a big difference. I have also been helped immeasurably by apps like Fluentu, Crunchyroll, Scribd and Dramot because I have been able to get so much excellent material to study. Finally after months of making a big effort I can watch a Japanese show with my eyes closed, hear (some) full sentences and understand what has been said. It’s the step of crystallization that I was fearing would never come. Finally some things are becoming structurally embedded in my brain. I think that a reason I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the challenge was because there is just so much more material available now. When I learned other languages in the past I was limited by the amount of learner materials and you would have to make your way through these before you could start to go to native sources. Of course you could start reading ‘El País´ or ´Le Monde´ from Day One to learn French or Spanish but the grammatical skeleton is a helpful skeleton to build on so most people would have worked their way towards native materials in the past. Now, with the internet, you have way more learner materials and instant access to native materials so you can be drowned in the ocean of choice.
What seems to work for me is a combination of the traditional (working my way through a structured method) with the ultra-modern (working my way through self-learning apps) and the television method (watching enjoyable television shows with sub-titles). The fact that I have found brilliant shows like “Orange Days” and “Stone’s Cocoon” (石の繭) has made the effort to watch Japanese drama much easier. There is still a very long way to go but I certainly feel like I am getting somewhere and that is a whole lot nicer than thinking I am getting nowhere.
So much has happened this year already that it has been hard to think about sport without thinking about the different problems like injuries that have clouded the season. This year has been all about perspective and putting health and happiness first. In January Luna took a District title for the first time and yesterday she kept up the strong form by winning a national qualifying competition for the first time. With all of the decisions that we made over the years as parents there was no guarantee that things would work out well. All parents in sport and in life want the best for their children but not every child can compete at the highest level in their region or country or internationally. We always rated Luna very highly but it’s hard to see beyond parental bias. When she failed to get the medals in the past we didn’t stop believing. When we made some big decisions around changing sports, clubs and teams we did what we thought was best but you never know for sure.
The main thing now is that Luna is happy at her club and with the environment around her. Though introvert she has a very different psychology to my own in that she absolutely responds to praise and encouragement. Negative criticism and hostility are completely counterproductive. That is a challenge for us as parents as well as for her school and everything extracurricular. It seems to be the natural human tendency to want to focus on what is wrong rather than what is right. If you want to correct what is going wrong it is a difficult task indeed to present that in a positive way. With Luna the amazing thing is that she responds to the positive approach so directly while almost absolutely rejecting a negative presentation of the same information. In her sport she has grown with every positive impulse and the setbacks along the way with injury and unhappy periods have been overcome.
This year she is up against some very strong competition so we are thankful that she has done so well but nothing can be taken for granted. So many of the girls have finished ahead of her in competition over the years, she cannot feel complacent. She has to keep working hard to stay competitive. At her age and in this sport you fall behind if you stand still.
It’s something that strikes you from time to time when you visit America; the people are so warm and welcoming. It makes me feel guilty because I am not so sure that I give visitor’s the same impression when they come to Europe. The fact that so many people go out of their way to do the right thing and offer helpful advice is humbling. The fact that it seems to be emblematic of a culture despite the many and varied origins of its people is special.
I was really so ready for home before leaving for the airport. Chicago is such a business city with so much coming and going that I have never had a pull to stay on any visit. It’s not like a Berlin or a Barcelona or a New York where leaving can sometimes feel like leaving your better life behind.
On the plane back I watched ‘Rikki and the Flash’ with Meryl Streep which was much better than I expected. I have been watching this show called ‘Sons of Anarchy’ on Netflix in the US which is really popular with some colleagues. It is unusual in that the bad guys who are a bunch of very violent bikers are the main characters so you are continually torn between their appealing side and the fact that they are so brutally violent.
Getting back to home will be so sweet. It’s good to travel to the other side of the pond from time to time but it takes it out of you and getting home is all the sweeter after a tough week.
It’s my own doing and nobody else’s but I always feel physically decayed when I have been in the US for a week because of my endless gluttony, the lack of exercise and the fact that I don’t bother with getting my rhythms adjusted to the US time. Falling asleep before nine and waking up at four is not exactly a recipe for feeling ‘normal’. Hotels and restaurants are a bit like those mini chocolate Easter eggs, their enjoyment is inversely proportional to the rate of consumption. It’s all so unglamorous and it makes me feel so old and so corporate. They say that Thursday is the busiest day on the highway near work because all of the armies of consultants fly home in the afternoon. From that point of view there are thousands of people in my very vicinity who probably feel much the same way.
I try to force myself to do at least some Japanese training every day but my head is really not with it. Work days are long and intensive. With all of the years of experience you end up speaking about a lot of things as easily as breathing. It doesn’t always make so much of a difference. The most effective people in any environment are those who communicate good ideas well. There is too much bubbling away in my mind to be able to satisfy both parts of that equation so anything I achieve is more a factor of inevitably hitting a target if you throw enough balls.
Sometimes I feel like I could be in America or anywhere. It corrodes the soul and depersonalizes you, this business travel, a cog in the wheel. For all I see myself as non-conforming and anti-materialist it all becomes a bit of silly myth.
Something that bothers me is that I haven’t written a poem in the last year at least. It’s not the first time that I have been in a drought period by any means but it is an indicator of the way your brain changes without you necessarily having any control over it. It’s how I imagine it will go when I am older, that no parts of me will fade away leaving me a shrunken version of what I was. When poetry, something that was an active and living part of me, is gone and maybe gone forever, is what is left different or less? Of course, I have losing and gaining is part of the natural cycle of things but the gains need to at least balance the losses or I am on the way into the void.
So I keep coming back to Japanese now because it is such a huge challenge. If I stop climbing that mountain will that be a defeat too far? I cannot give up because to give up might be to kiss up to oblivion. I know that I put all this pressure on myself to keep running but it’s the only way I know how to live now. Keep climbing, fall down, pick myself up, climb again. I used to fool myself into believing that I would ‘arrive’ somewhere but now I know that the finish line moves long before it comes into sight.
This time I am in America but not in America really because it’s just work, eat, sleep, repeat. I was looking forward to being at home again. This whole travelling thing is only sweet when you are in a place that you want to be.
Every time I come here it’s like I am on a mission to explode. Since the very first time I visited Dallas back in ’97 my trips to the USA have always involved gluttony. I eat everything put in front of me and more. The only reassuring thing is that I know that I can quickly get healthy once I get back. The first day here I walked to the office but that was so dangerous (because of lights not operating at pedestrian crossings) that I decided not to repeat the experience.
When I am here I never bother to try to get out of the jet lag mode because waking up at 4 in the morning works out okay when you have very early meetings. I have been watching the amazing Japanese drama “Orange Days” on YouTube when I wake up. I have just one episode left to watch and I almost daren’t because I have enjoyed it so much. It is so well written with really endearing character and I just hope that I can find something like it again.
It always sounds a lot more glamourous than it is to go on business trips especially to the USA where offices tend to be located in locations far way from where you would want to be as a tourist. For this trip Chicago remains temptingly, unachievably distant, 40 minutes way by train which you just ain’t gonna do when you have had a long day and there are always business dinners that you have to attend to make the most of these visits.