Wednesday, June 9, 2010

littler fish

I always used to say that the easiest thing to learn is something you have already learned before.

Academically, I still think that’s pretty true. I almost feel like this is a companion entry to the one immediately previous because it also has to do with taking a long time on something. Only this time, in a progress-oriented way.

I decided that it takes me six years to get comfortable with a language. Six years, no shit. I guess it would be different if I were studying something intensively and focused on nothing else.. maybe the time would shorten up, then; but I’m not sure I could study Only One Thing for, you know, like two or three years, and still retain my sanity.

So when it comes to language, I have to move in stages. There are certain things I look at on the first go round, learn them only insofar as I have to (memorize for the quiz), and then just consign them to the currently-out-of-reach mental box. It’s not that I’ll never have what it takes to master those concepts, it’s just that I don’t have the time/energy/motivation/knowledge background right now to even want to deal with them.

Kanji’s like that. I had much bigger fish to fry than literacy for a long time. Honorifics and humble speech are like that, too. I joke about the ridiculous complexity of the Japanese writing system (which I am beginning to enjoy, go figure). You may also have heard me complain about how there are actually like twelve levels of formality for speech. Well, it’s not so. There are totally more than that.

But twelve is really all I probably need*, seeing as how I most likely won’t be having an audience with an emperor anytime soon. If I do, I’ll just have to hope that he, like everyone else that deals with me in this country, will be understanding that using those freaking levels is hard, and not as high on my priority list as learning how to just ask a train station worker a question with more words and less miming.

Thing is? If I think about it and formulate the question in my mind before approaching a station worker, as long as I’m not in any hurry, I can do that now. So I look down at my little chart of honorific and humble verb forms, and I kind of sigh, because.. shit. I guess it’s time. Twelve, though, really? Jeez. Not that it’s any easier for a nonnative English speaker to navigate the hemming and hawing we do instead to set a tone and show respect or lack thereof. I think in Japanese, you can ask a favor of your superior fairly directly if you use the right words.. you know, can I receive the favor of you allowing the rudeness of my requesting to get a ride to the work drinking party? Whereas in English I feel like you kind of more just.. make statements like I really want to go to the work party, but I don’t really know where it is, or how to get there. Can you tell me how to get there? Can I get there by walking? Oh you’re right, that is kind of far. Is it out of your way? Oh you would? Thank you so much!

I’m not turning Japanese. I always frickin’ have been.


* Obviously, you don’t really really need them. But it’s nice to know they exist when you go into a store or restaurant and the servicepeople, who have to be saying things like “How can I help you?” or “What would you like?” are using words that you cannot conceptualize, despite your basic vocab skillz. It’s kind of like the way a waitress will never say “What do you want?” which is simple/straightforward both grammar and vocab-wise, but instead “What can I get for y’all?” or “What would you like?” .. and would is all kinds of trouble as a modal verb and all this BS, when you really think about it.

But seriously, the service in Japan is mostly just insane(ly good), and it will only confuse them if you try to tip them. Go to a cafe in Japan once in your life just to hear someone say what must actually be “We are honored that you have graced us with your presence, I beg that you allow me to serve you,” and then not expect extra cash for it.

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