The Japanese Cave-World

The other day I got a random Facebook message from a high school acquaintance (actually I don’t think we ever spoke in high school or thereafter—he’s probably a leftover connection from those early anxious days of Facebook when you befriend everyone you can, and anyone in your high school class is fair game). He wanted to know if I was fluent in Japanese, I guess because I posted this silly photo a week or so ago, with the caption “This is why Japanese is impossible. The possible definitions of the verb 参る (mairu):

learning japanese
This is why Japanese is impossible. The possible definitions of the verb 参る (mairu):

While it’s easy to answer honestly that I’m not fluent (which is what I told him) it’s sort of hard for me to self-assess what my Japanese level is.

I remember when I first started learning Japanese in my last year of college. My Japanese professor was wonderful (and in fact I still borrow many of her tactics when teaching English to my Japanese students today). I remember walking in the first day of class and she greeted us smilingly “ohayo gozaimasu!” And of course we just stared blankly and made no response. And so she pulled out a pictogram of a sun rising and repeated “ohayo gozaimasu!” and eventually it clicked that this was “good morning.” So from the first day it was 100% in Japanese. The only exception was in the last 15 minutes of our lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays (the class met everyday, as all introductory language classes at my school were required to), when she would offer some English explanations and take questions from us. She herself was flawlessly fluent in English, essentially indistinguishable from a native speaker.

Maybe the most powerful thing she taught us, though, weren’t even proper Japanese words. After a couple of weeks of adjusting to the Japanese environment, she started gently reprimanding us if we ever said “um” or “uhh” or any of these English searching words while speaking Japanese. She explained that these were indeed English sounds, even if they felt language-less to us, and when speaking Japanese we should instead say ano or etto while thinking. You can’t imagine how irritating this was. This entire language is a mire of unfamiliarity, we’re being posed questions that we can only strugglingly make sense of, and as we try to reach into our feeble reserves of Japanese to craft an appropriate response, we’re told that that very reaching  process has to be done in Japanese as well. She was essentially telling us to apply conscious thought to the unconscious movements of our minds. And then still, simultaneously, use our conscious mind to answer the question. I hated this part.

But after several months of doing this, I noticed that, before speaking Japanese for the first time (after, say, 20 hours of normal English life), I would always start with “ano…” And saying “um” or “uhh” in the middle of a Japanese sentence felt as strange to me as saying “yes” or “no.” Through the environment that my professor created, she managed to form this crudely-built Japanese world that I lived in, where the walls were fuzzy, and the space vast and mostly empty, with the light trailing off quickly so that the furthest reaches of this cave were not at all visible. But still, despite its crudeness, it was a world that I inhabited where my person, my feelings, were entirely Japanese. And to this day, I’m always able to trick people into thinking my Japanese ability is far higher than it actually is, because of the naturalness in which I speak it.

Because of this starting point, when I first got into Japanese I had a kind of fearlessness towards it. I felt like I had already accomplished the most difficult part of learning the language, which was stepping into that crude Japanese cave-world. After that, it was just a matter of learning more vocabulary, more grammar, and gradually filling this immense cave and bringing its outline into sharper and sharper focus.

Unfortunately, after moving to Japan I gradually lost this fearlessness and my near-arrogant confidence slowly warped and melted until it was unrecognizably disfigured. Maybe one of the worst blows was during my homestay at the beginning of my stay in Japan. My host family was a child-less elderly couple— the husband spoke only a few words of English here and there, and the wife spoke none, so we communicated entirely in Japanese (along with the help of Google translate, of course). After a week living there, the husband was away one night for some reason and the wife said to me (in Japanese, of course) “I don’t know how we’ll manage tonight without my husband— I don’t understand English and you don’t understand Japanese.” I was stunned, and I think I weakly protested that I did understand some Japanese and she dismissed this with something like “not really.” For a week we had built an entire relationship in Japanese, and with that one remark she cut all of that down. And for the first time I noticed this invisible string between my thoughts and feelings, vibrating at the back of my throat, and the strange Japanese sounds that I emitted. And the string was long and slack, with my Japanese words floating out so far ahead of me that I could no longer be sure if they had any meaning attached to them at all.  When I speak in English, the words are tightly buzzing within my grasp, where I can drench them with my intended meaning. But in Japanese, the words are always some distance outside of my control, loosely connected, through this invisible string, to my inner feeling and meaning. To this day, I feel this string every time I speak in Japanese— sometimes short and taut, but more often long, so long that it trails off far beyond my eyesight. This is the basis of all of my anxiety every time I speak Japanese: the fear of how long this string will stretch.

Nonetheless, my Japanese professor gave me a wonderful gift: the ability to think in Japanese. Thinking in a foreign language that you’re not fluent in is a weird and often tiring experience. When I think in English, my ideas expand and stretch out over a vast array of language, which, as the idea glides over the right word, gives greater form and resolution to the idea. Since I have such a rich reserve of words in English, these words actually mold my ideas, even enhance and elucidate them.

But obviously this can’t happen in Japanese. When I think in Japanese, I have to keep my thoughts in their rough, crude shape. I have to actively stop them from running over that great library of words that would sharpen and enhance them, because the library is in English. I try to keep my thoughts attached to images or feelings, which often makes me feel like I’m thinking at a child’s level. Of course sometimes I get frustrated trying to express something complex, and my thoughts fall into this library of English, and I catch myself doing some translating. But I really try my best to stop this from happening, even if it means I’m not able to express my thought perfectly, and that invisible string becomes slacker and longer.

After a few months of living in Japan, I realized that becoming fluent in Japanese was not as simple as filling in the Japanese cave-world with new vocabulary and grammar. Becoming fluent in a language is not like learning a skill or studying a discipline. It means building a second mind in your own head. And it needs to exist, whole and in tact, completely separate from your first mind.

It’s tempting to approach language-learning like a skill, though. My Physics skill, for example, is like one mountain of knowledge that I built inside my English head. I could approach Japanese in the same way. That is, learn it in the context of English, learn it as it relates to English, and build up a mountain of knowledge: for every Japanese word, memorize the English meaning, for every grammar point, understand its best English translation, and when speaking Japanese, simply map my thoughts from English to Japanese according to this key. But the sad truth of this is that you’ll never become fluent this way. In fact, the further you travel along this method, the larger an English-based mountain you build, the further you are from fluency.

Language is the force by which we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Therefore learning a new language means that everything that this force touches and warps must be re-learned through a new force.

It sounds nearly impossible. But the thing is, while finishing this task, that is, solidly erecting a completely functional Japanese mind, is maybe a life-long task, starting this task, that is, creating a Japanese mind, is fairly simple. In my first few weeks of Japanese, when my professor forced me to think in ano‘s and etto‘s instead of um’s and uhh’s, she opened this Japanese cave-world; a second mind inside my own head. And even though I often feel like I’m drowning in the vastness of Japanese, in the endless, merciless ocean of knowledge that I need to bring into my Japanese mind before it’s fluent and functional, I’ll always be grateful that at least I’m in the Japanese cave-world. Even when it’s so shoddily built that the walls are crumbling around me, it will always give me hope knowing that at least I’m here, at least I have a Japanese mind. But it will probably take a lifetime of building up this cave until I can finally answer my old Facebook friend, “Yes, I am fluent.”




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s