Ichi, Ni, San…

Learning a new language can be tough. Especially if you’re old enough to acknowledge that fact. And especially if the language you’re learning bears no resemblance to anything you have ever learned before.

What it does to you, I think, is that it makes you realize how ignorant you still are – even if you think of yourself as an intelligent trilingual university junior.

I mean, I have been learning Japanese from a textbook that features pictures of cats, dogs, smiling people who ask each other what day of the week it is, among other pleasant things. I spent weeks just learning the Hiragana and Katakana (the “easy” parts of the Japanese alphabet). I feel so proud when I can read a sentence or repeat it after my tutor without much stuttering. I pracitce writing by following the dots, just as I did back in kinder garden.

On the way home after my Japanese lesson(s) I ask myself, what is that, Dina? How old are you? Ten?

But age has nothing to do with this, does it?

I never thought that at some point I could be struggling to remember what “six” meant in another language, nor did it occur to me that things I took for granted everyday would turn out to be so absolutely irrelevant.

It’s been a humbling experience. When my tutor clapped for me because I said “This is a table” on my own in Japanese, I felt I was  reduced to the status of a baby. In order to have the simplest interaction with her (not in English) I wave my arms, raise my eye brows and open my mouth in scary gestures, thinking she’ll understand what I really want to say or ask.

But this has also affected me in a very profound way. Kaoeri sensei, my Japanese tutor, never at once made me feel I’m a burden. She’s been very helpful, patient, and -surprisingly enough-  I didn’t get any negative vibes from her, not even once, even though I obviously don’t satisfy her aspirations as a teacher…

I’ve also noticed that, even though I haven’t traveled yet, I catch myself paying more attention to people’s faces, gestures and emotional cues more than I pay attention to the actual words they’re saying. I realized that all through my life here, speaking and listening to English and/or Arabic all the time, I have been living linguistically, taking things for granted. I can point to tables all day long, telling everyone that “this is a table” without any trouble. Piece of cake.

It makes me more and more eager to know how it will feel like when I am actually in Japan, where no Kaori sensei(s) will be in sight.

It’s scary, but it’s also good.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Alvaro
    Jul 26, 2010 @ 17:36:35

    good for you! with hiragana, the first classes won’t be that hard!


  2. Sebastian Shimomichi
    Aug 05, 2010 @ 02:44:02

    Maybe a little late to be commenting but, I have been busy so couldn’t really be on my computer.

    I also felt like this when I started learning Japanese. I felt like I was reliving infancy… being restricted to learn the simplest phrases and whatnot. However, this is how we learn a language; we start from the bottom-up. Hiragana and Katakana may seem to be “basics” but, once you continue in your studies in Japanese, you will see that all that studying paid off.

    Surely you will encounter words/kanji you cannot recognize, but you will be able to get the gist of it. You will soon encounter this “Well, I do not know that word, but I understand everything else in this sentence so… it must mean ___” Once you start encountering these “counter attacks” your Japanese will quickly improve.

    On the side note, it would be a good idea to read news articles/stories/etc. with furigana.


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