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I'm not sure when I started to like learning languages. I studied German in junior high and high school, but I don't think I had any particular desire to learn it, I was just taking the classes because they were there. Later on, though, when my high school offered an evening class in Japanese, I was eager to take it; too bad I can't remember what I was thinking.

So, anyway, when I found out I was going to be visiting Japan, I spent some time brushing up on my Japanese, mostly using a set of notes from a class my dad once took. And, it worked! I'm sure it wasn't pretty, but I was able to make myself understood, and it was a lot of fun.

My favorite sentence: “I am learning Japanese”. It may have been obvious, but I still think it was a nice thing to say.

Even better, I think I'd reached critical mass—if I'd stayed there for long enough, I think I could have kept learning more and more, just from hearing the language spoken. I'd always thought that it would be fun to learn a language by being immersed in it, like a kid—and now I know.

I felt like a kid in another way, too, which was that people didn't hold it against me when I made mistakes and said stupid things.

As a visitor and tourist, it was a lot easier to find things to read than to find people to talk to, so it was especially frustrating that I couldn't read. I knew the two alphabets, the hiragana and katakana, but most written material uses a lot of the Chinese symbolic characters, the kanji, and those you just have to know the pronunciation of.

I'd learned a few kanji in my Japanese class, but I'd forgotten most of them. I'd also actually studied Chinese for two years in college, so I had a pretty good memory for kanji, and there were even a fair number of them for which I knew the meaning but not the Japanese pronunciation.

Sometimes, a sign would show alphabetic characters next to the kanji, indicating the pronunciation. I kept an eye out for these signs, and made notes on new things I found. Toward the end of the trip, though, I realized it was just about futile. A single character can appear as part of many different words, with many different pronunciations; to know the pronunication, you have to recognize the word it's supposed to be part of. That is, you have to know the spoken language pretty thoroughly.

Even worse, I think sometimes the alphabetic characters that act as the glue between the kanji are simply left out, as a form of abbreviation. I figured this out from the “no parking” signs, which usually just showed four kanji, but occasionally had alphabetic characters in between.

When I found something written out alphabetically, it was strange to be able to read and pronounce the writing without knowing what the words meant. That must have happened to me before, when I was learning English, but it was so long ago I don't remember what it was like. It was even stranger when I found Chinese characters I recognized, because then I'd receive the meaning without receiving any sound.

Finally, here's a funny thing I wouldn't have thought of without knowing some of the characters. The train station we got off at for NEC was named Nakagawara. I learned to recognize the characters that went with the name, then, when I got back, I looked them up in my dictionary—which I now wish I'd taken with me—and discovered that they meant “middle river plain”. Having lived in New Jersey until recently, this sounded like a nice familiar name … perhaps there's a Japanese North Plainfield somewhere, or maybe a White Plains. Or maybe a Rahway or Metuchen?

* * *

By the way, it wasn't just the literal translation of names that amused me. I was in a suburb of Tokyo, all those cities in New Jersey are suburbs of New York … and Tokyo, of course, is the New York of Japan.

I got the idea of making analogies between cities from Hofstadter, who quoted Ionesco's remark

The French for London is Paris.

in both On Self-Referential Sentences and On the Untranslatable, and had more to say about analogies in Analogies and Roles in Human and Machine Thinking.

* * *

I forgot to mention the strangest thing about not being able to read. Here at home, I really like going into bookstores and looking around, so naturally I tried to do the same thing in Japan … but all I could do was look at the pretty pictures. I was surrounded by information, but couldn't get at it! If you ever want to have the experience of being illiterate (again), that's the way to do it.


  See Also

  Visit to Japan, A

@ October (2001)
o November (2005)