Learning Japanese

Little did I know that it would become a lifelong task, but I walked into the classroom, Fall 1975, with great curiosity. The University of Kansas required me to take a language to graduate and during the summer I’d worked in a dorm kitchen with a Japanese fellow who said he’d help me learn it. Having flunked French in high school, I’d been told I had no aptitude for languages. Japanese was not popular back then as signified by the time slot it held—M-F, 8:30 AM. You’d have to really want it. (You’d have to want Korean even more since it was scheduled M-F, 7:30 AM.)

On the first day of class, the professor looked at the 23 of us and solemnly pronounced, “By the end of the academic year, only five of you will remain.” His words were prophetic and true. And until May, I wasn’t sure at all that I’d be one of the survivors. But I took to it like a fish does to water. Why?

That was puzzling my professor as well. Sure, I studied, but that wasn’t really it. He eventually figured it out, though.

“It’s because you have no concept of English grammar whatsoever.”

And, he was right. My high school years coincided with that phase of teaching when they threw bunpo out the window. We did creative stuff, i.e. a sentence was never diagrammed (whatever that means).

When you have no concept of English grammar, you have no resistance to Japanese. I never tried to figure out how it related to the structure of the English language because I did not know the structure of the English language. And flunking French just proved to me that Eastern languages were easier. Japanese just clicked for me and I didn’t mind memorizing the kanji.

This all went straight to hell when I started my second year of Japanese at Middlebury College during the summer of 1976. All the second year students had used the same, more popular, textbook and they had quite a different set of vocabulary than I had. The teacher used that textbook as well and I had never heard of eating itanda ebi in Ginza. I was miserable and started to doubt myself. One of the staff members said to me, “Just because studying intensively doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can’t learn the language. And he was right. The seven-hour-a-day, 30 characters to memorize-a-day format proved to be my bleakest language study. Furthermore, the director was cho-kibishii and demanded participation in all activities. I promptly broke my finger playing volleyball and got excused from that. (It took her 3 days to let me get my finger x-rayed because she presumed I was faking it. Hah!)

My first Japanese language professor was the best. He was an older gentleman who’d been in Japan after the war and could remember when you could see the rice fields from the Shinkuku Eki platform. He told us that we’d spend the first year learning all the rules of the Japanese language and the rest of our lives learning when we could break them. This is absolutely brilliant.

Many years later, I met up with this professor, who had a Ph.d in medieval Japanese linguistics, at a pizza restaurant in Tokyo. We hadn’t seen each other in years. He had trouble ordering and I gently stepped in. He beamed. He was happy to see how I’d done with the wonderful start he’d given me. I am forever grateful to Professor Richard Spear and the University of Kansas Japanese Department.

  • bunpo – 文法 grammar. Literally the method of sentences
  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters, remember? From another post?
  • itanda ebi -いたんだ えび apparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jordan that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jordan fail.
  • chō kibishii – 超厳しいIn this case, chō means really. It’s a bit slangy, but young people use it for emphasis. Kibishii means strict.
  • Shinjuku Eki – 新宿駅 Shinjuku is a place in Tokyo. It also often refers to the station there, even without eki which means station. It’s chaotic, confusing, busy, and there may be people lost in there right now.

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