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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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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.

Have a good trip.

I know the feeling, having ended up conversing with a ticket vendor at a Budapest railway station in French as it was the one language we had in common, given that no one speaks Hungarian but the Hungarians and those of that ancestry. It was a surprise as the second language there, if any, is generally German which I don't speak but himself does.

Don't get me started on German! I studied that to 'A' level, and even got a grade A, but was totally unable to speak it when I went to Germany. (Imagine the scene in Paris, but this time transferred to a baker in Trier, with Pumpernickel standing in for the Metro tickets.)

In my head, learning another language feels a bit like qualifying for the Fianna:

When pursued by a host, he must stick a spear in the world and hide behind it and vanish in its narrow shelter or he is not taken for want of sorcery. Likewise he must hide beneath a twig, or behind a dried leaf, or under a red stone, or vanish at full speed into the seat of his hempen drawers without changing his course or abating his pace or angering the men of Erin. Two young fosterlings he must carry under the armpits to his jacket through the whole of Erin, and six arm-bearing warriors in his seat together. If he be delivered of a warrior or a blue spear, he is not taken. One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers. When pursued in a chariot by the men of Erin he must dismount, place horse and chariot in the slack of his seat and hide behind his spear, the same being stuck upright in Erin. Unless he accomplishes these feats, he is not wanted of Finn. But if he do them all and be skillful, he is of Finn’s people.

This time it must be different. Whether at eki or panya, I shall converse!

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you are obviously a Gaijin

Heh - you think they'll be able to tell?

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It would, of course, have been Russian but now, no one admits to speaking it. Depends who you meet. We've been a few times and had a very good experience. The present government doesn't help, I'll admit.

Coincidentally, my own experience with randomly having to use French was in Japan, where I was wandering through Kyoto, having a decent sense that I knew where I was going, but a woman stopped me in the street to offer me directions in English, which I accepted even though I wasn't convinced I needed her help. Halfway through laboriously giving me the English directions, she accidentally said something in French, to which I, rather taken aback, instinctively responded in French, and she suddenly changed to a very relieved expression and gave me the rest of the directions, much more quickly, in French. Having to use French certainly wasn't something I had expected in travelling to Japan. . . .

I recall being in a foodie shop in Dijon when a bunch of Japanese tourists came in and one of them began talking to the patronne in what she fondly believed to be French. Madame gave us a look as if to say 'what language is that?'

It'll be good to see you!

I'm really looking forward to it!

There's a scene in Third Encounters, of all things, in which François Truffaut says "I speak English, but I don't understand it very well." This is presented as a witty inversion of the cliché, but it seems a pretty accurate summary of where most of us are: we can work out what we want to say, but can never undertand the reply!

Still, while conversation may not flow immediately, surely immersion will help? Just hearing Japanese all around you helps to tune the ear.

Yes, that's my hope - and indeed one of the many reasons I want to go. Whether being steeped in Japanese for a week will be enough to help tune my ear or just bring home to me the immensity of my ignorance is of course another question!

Hearing about the experiences of friends who speak some Japanese, I anticipate that your efforts will occasion delight (even in the absence of understanding) and may lead to unexpected but lovely encounters.

Those are just the kind of encounters I welcome most!

I think they'll be excited to see you try, and if it's 'cute,' well, you're a foreigner and cannot be expected to do the thing properly. ;)

I think there is always a disconnect between speaking to people and knowing how to speak. Even in Welsh, a language in which I would consider myself reasonably fluent, sometimes people come up to me (or chapel ladies knock on our door) and ask a question and I get completely and utterly flustered.

I've had good luck in France by being so obviously very bad at the language that people greet my struggling, desperate attempts to communicate with tolerant smiles and very slow, careful responses.

I'm very prone to turning into a rabbit in the headlights, as you'll have gathered, but I'll happily settle for being an adorably tongue-tied foreigner if it oils the wheels of discourse.

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.

Best of luck and enjoy the trip!

I could understand most things that were said to me in Italy in 2002 and 2004, but I kept wanting to reply in either Spanish or Latin, which was not correct.

At least the dangers of my slipping into Korean or Chinese are slim...

My conversational Japanese is horrible -- even talking with the most lenient native-speaking friends, I can't catch half of what's said and my gaps between those words I manage to get out are too long to follow what I was trying to say. Heck, my conversational German is better than this -- I can at least negotiate traveling from hostel to hostel, and some meals.

It turns out that there is decent Japanese voice software for iOS, which dictionaries and ebook apps take advantage of. So I'm getting more listening practice, at least. When I use them.


I've been using Japanesepod101.com, which isn't bad, I think - and of course listening to anime. Unfortunately people don't come with pause and rewind buttons...

Nor slow down buttons.

At a toddler group a couple of weeks ago, I was pressed into service to talk to a child's grandmother who didn't speak English, "because you're good at languages". If only. My French is reasonable and I can get by in German, but the grandmother's native language was Spanish, and our only common language was Italian, which I studied for a year about twenty years ago. She didn't seem to know much more than I did. Add to this my innate shyness with strangers, and the distraction of my two-year-old, and it's not surprising that we didn't get much talking done. The family hasn't been back, and I fear it may be my fault.

Anyway, that's my latest language incomprehension story! Enjoy your trip. Immersion in the sound-world should help, I imagine; my languages are always a lot better when I've been singing in them, because we get a language coach to drill us.

Ooh, I like the idea of singing my way around Honshu! Actually, I've been trying to learn one or two songs in Japanese, but more for my own amusement than because I thought it might be a linguistic aid. I shall now reconsider it in that light.