Japanese – What happens next?

So I kept going and kept going and now I am where I am, wherever that may be. I know that today looks different from yesterday but I am not always sure exactly how. You know those computer games where the world you gave just been in crumbles away behind you as you run for your life? Well, that’s my life. There is no time for nostalgia and sentimentality because treading water is drowning and there is no way back.
So you look for a flame and everybody has their own one and I have had several that I nurtured for a time but now they are extinguished and gone. There is no parallel world where I am somebody else. The flame is now and the flame is Japanese and I can’t let it go out yet because doing that is a kind of dying.
So I did have hard times in the winter when life and lethargy and loss got to me and I wanted to crawl into the corner and roll up but I didn’t because I kept my half-open eyes on the future. I found the best teacher I have ever had and I do my best for her and she gives me focus but I needed even more so I found some internet teachers and some internet chat buddies and now I AM getting somewhere.
It can’t be for nothing though, it can’t all be a practice drill so I did something else. I talked with my wife and found some time to take a leap and now I am doing it. I am going back to Japan in September! I booked a flight to Osaka and now I am looking for host families and my plan is to stay with some real local folks and try to connect to use some of this Japanese I have been building up.
So, this will help fuel the flame, there can be second and third and fourth lives, we just have to find the way to be the new people we want to be. This is what happens next.

Rhythmic Gymnastics – Second Qualifier

We had the second national qualifier yesterday on a very warm day which meant that the conditions were quite exhausting for all the girls. She had a good start on Free and was joint top after the first rotation. As it turned out on the day though there were an awful lot of mistakes particularly on hoop with many girls throwing the hoop out of the floor area. Luna made a big mistake on hoop knowing that she would make a tumble but deciding in that split second to go ahead and that led her to miss a catch and the hoop rolled to the opposite side of the floor. She caught it just over the line so still got penalized and it also disrupted the whole routine. That meant that her mark was very low and she didn’t qualify for the hoop apparatus final. She managed to recover somewhat on Ball and got the second highest score but her routine was a bit disjointed because she had to be careful. Overall she did enough for third place and qualified safely for the national all-around final. She will be in the Ball, Clubs and Free apparatus finals as well.
The apparatus finals and all-around finals will be on next month so those will be the last competitions of the year. It’s been a tough year so far with lots of challenges around injuries but we are hopeful that she can just keep it going until the end of next month and then have a complete rest for a while.

Japanese – Just keep listening

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.

Japanese – Crystallization

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.

Rhythmic Gymnastics – First Qualifier

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.


From America (vi) – Homeward

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.

From America (v) – In the machine

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.