March 18th, 2015

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Packing my Phrasebook

It's not long now till I go to Japan, and I'm getting nervous as well as excited: 多分ちょっと緊張した. The thing is, I have a very basic vocabulary (I'd guess about 1200 words) and a grasp of grammar to match. But that's only true in my house: when it comes to real encounters with real people, I suspect that most of this knowledge will drain away like the ichor from Talos's foot, leaving me an empty hulk of disarticulated linguistic scrap iron.

For example, I was chatting to the owner of my local Japanese restaurant yesterday, and she asked about my trip, so I tried a few halting phrases. She laughed and said my accent was "cute", which wasn't altogether encouraging (for "kawaii" read "kawaisou"). Nervous, I wanted to ask whether I was at least comprehensible, but instead of asking "Wakarimasu ka" (Do you understand?) - which is a very basic phrase that ought to come unbidden - I found myself asking "Rikai shimasu ka" - a verb that also means "understand" but would be more appropriate if I had just explained how to solve quadratic equations. This was even less encouraging, and brought my sorry childhood attempts at speaking French in France rushing back like a half-digested madeleine. (I am at the Gare du Nord, and my father is pushing me to buy a carnet of Metro tickets, and the man behind the desk is looking at my 50 franc note and asking if I have anything smaller, when he should - according to the conversation in the phrase book - be giving me change and wishing me a cheery bon voyage, and I don't know what to say or do.)

Will I be able to clear the massive hurdle of my own self-consciousness in the more relaxing setting of downtown Tokyo? We shall see. I know from visiting Taiwan 15 months ago that the world now comes with English subtitles, but I'd really rather do without them as far as I can.