Understanding in a Foreign Language

 

When I first came to Japan, I could not speak the language. I came to the country in a job straight out of college, teaching conversational English in a juku, or cram school, in a town outside of Osaka, and my high school French and college German were of no use to me.

The first weeks were hard, trying to learn everything. I began copying the written kana daily in both forms, hiragana and katakana, so that I could be able to read signs, menus, and labels. I hired a teacher and attended lessons weekly. I talked with new friends most nights in a local bar and picked up Osaka-ben, or slang.

My first realization that I was really understanding without constantly trying to translate in my head came when a Japanese friend stopped by the bar to ask several of us to come on an excursion with him to hana-mi, or go look at cherry blossoms. My American friend who spoke Japanese perfectly was sure that our Japanese friend had said hana-bi, fireworks, and asked us in English if we were free for fireworks. I diffidently asked if he was sure that was what Minoru had said. Even I was a little startled that I had heard him correctly, and I realized that I had understood pretty much all of Minoru’s words, including the time he wanted to pick us up (another clue that it was hana-mi not hana-bi since the excursion was planned for the late morning and early afternoon).

By the time I left Japan, I was able to converse in a kind of pidgin-Japanese with every person I met, so I could not only understand them but be understood. I frequently made people laugh at the gaijin with her Osaka-ben, but I usually got the information I needed, and sometimes I made a new friend.

Have you had an experience like that, when you realized that you were suddenly truly understanding?

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad: Have you had an experience like that, when you realized that you were suddenly truly understanding?

    Yes, it was with parsing rhythm in poetry. Pretty exciting stuff.


    This conversation is part of our ongoing Group Writing Series under July’s theme of Understanding. July is nearing the end, but August has plenty of openings, and our schedule and sign-up sheet is waiting for you. August’s theme is anything to do with the word or name of Will.

    • #1
  2. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Yes, it was with parsing rhythm in poetry. Pretty exciting stuff.

    Living life on the edge as per usual…

    • #2
  3. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Yes, it was with parsing rhythm in poetry. Pretty exciting stuff.

    I almost really understood that when I was reading a beautiful little biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

    This is my favorite poem:

    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44399/pied-beauty

     

     

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Yes, it was with parsing rhythm in poetry. Pretty exciting stuff.

    Living life on the edge as per usual…

    Well, there are five different ways to measure and determine rhythm. It’s a bit edgier than some may think at first.

    • #4
  5. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Some years back I took my wife to France for her 50th birthday. She planned well and spent months studying French. She was doing quite well. As for my self I struggle with English so I didn’t even bother trying to learn another language. About the fourth week we were in France we stopped at a Outdoor Cafr for a drink. I ordered a beer no problem. She asked for a white wine in French. The waiter asked a question. She replied. He asked another. She replied. I could tell the conversation was beyond her comprehension in French. My beer arrived. The waiter also placed silverware in front of my wife. She kicked me under the table because I was laughing so hard. Shortly the waiter brought 2 eggs sunny side up with toast. No wine. I haven’t let her live it down yet.

    • #5
  6. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    I meant no sarcasm! Poetry really can take a man to the very edge — I need to find the title of that bio of Manley Hopkins because it really was lovely and the writer had such a good understanding of the problems that vexed and tormented the poet as he beat the words and pleaded with them into submission to make the beautiful forms he saw and heard in his mind.

    I remember being so excited by algebra when I was 10 or so. Heady days!

    • #6
  7. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Cheese, that is so funny.

    I remember being in Europe with my brother and sister, before I had taken any college German, and we were in Germany and trying to communicate in a tiny town off the autobahn. The waiter spoke no English and none of us knew any German, but at some point all four of us realized we had studied French in high school and were able to mangle out a meal order. His French accent was the worst I have ever heard…

    • #7
  8. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    PHCheese (View Comment):
    I ordered a beer no problem.

    “Beer” is a universal word I think.

    Also, “Okay” is known around the world. Everywhere I’ve been, at least (South America, Asia, Europe, North America). 

    • #8
  9. Danny Alexander Member
    Danny Alexander
    @DannyAlexander

    Tokyo denizen here.  (First arrived Summer 1988 for an undergrad summer internship; been living/working here in stints of varied lengths since then — across a total 30-year span, probably about 17 years have been on the ground here in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.)

    I had an unfair advantage in the form of 3 years of formal undergrad (elective) coursework in Japanese, plus 2 summer internships and a post-undergrad summer junket, prior to starting full-time “salaryman” life at a blue-chip Japanese corporation (an engineering/construction behemoth, akin to Bechtel).  Even so, my boss required me to go to a language school (at company expense) for additional grounding in Japanese one morning per week, for about a year.

    When I look back on that first job, and how I thought I was functional at at least a reasonable level, I have to shake my head.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    “Beer” is a universal word I think.

    If you know about five roots, you can get it anywhere: Beer, ale, pivo, cervesa, and holding up a hand as if holding a stein and making the gesture for drinking. That last will work in the languages not covered by Latin, Germanic, and Slavic families.

    • #10
  11. Danny Alexander Member
    Danny Alexander
    @DannyAlexander

    After I’d wrapped up several years in that first full-time working stint in corporate Japan, I was back home in Boston for a year, working part-time and applying to grad schools.

    I deferred for a year the start of an MBA program I’d been accepted into, and headed off to Israel for an academic year of Hebrew-language study and quasi-yeshiva learning.  I started off the program at the upper rung due to already having some familiarity with Hebrew — but it took me forever to shake a Japanese-style intonation (or cadence, rather) that kept creeping into my conversational Hebrew.  My *accent* was good, but my cadences were anything but free-flowing (which is characteristic of modern Hebrew) — my roommate took to nicknaming me “Giant Robot” as a consequence.

    • #11
  12. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Danny Alexander (View Comment):
    I had an unfair advantage

    Definitely not unfair. I am sure you worked very hard to learn the language in those years!

    My friend who spoke perfect Japanese really did, I am told by actual Japanese people, speak perfect Japanese. He was a pale man with bright blue eyes and bright bright red hair so he kind of looked like an oni (Japanese demon) from legend, so it was always amusing to watch the startled and even horrified faces of Japanese people who met him for the first time and heard his perfect Japanese come out of his oh-so-foreign face.

    • #12
  13. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    If I am only going to be in a country for a short while I will (try to) memorize about 10 words.  You all know them:  Yes, no, thank you, please, and hello beautiful what are you doing this weekend?

    • #13
  14. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    I knew that I had finally learned Spanish when I realized I had begun dreaming in it and not English.  That was a bit weird at first fyi.

    • #14
  15. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Simon Templar (View Comment):

    If I am only going to be in a country for a short while I will (try to) memorize about 10 words. You all know them: Yes, no, thank you, please, and hello beautiful what are you doing this weekend?

    My aunt used to work for Northwest Airlines and they offered their passengers a deck of playing cards that also had phrases on them in about five different Asian languages, like, “Where is the toilet?” and “How much for this?” and “Can you give me a lower price?” 

    My 12 year old son the collector of the old and interesting has them now (he also has a 1896 sewing machine and a 1946 typewriter).

    • #15
  16. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    About twenty years ago, I put a website together for a friend, and part of the project was a list of the online English-language news websites–mostly the online editions of the important print newspapers in each country. In order to get to the English version, I needed to wander around the foreign-language version. So in the midst of these web page expanses of copy in the country’s own foreign language, I got the biggest kick out of the organization’s use of the standard English-language website tabs: About Us, Home, Contact Us, and so on. And Index. :-) These were the original tabs that came with the Microsoft Office website templates. Too funny. It was quite a glimpse of the global dominance of Microsoft and its office software. Clearly these were English-language terms that they were very familiar with. :-) Like “Coke” or “Xerox.” :-)

     

    • #16
  17. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Simon Templar (View Comment):

    I knew that I had finally learned Spanish when I realized I had begun dreaming in it and not English. That was a bit weird at first fyi.

    Yeah, when I’m vacationing at the in-laws places in France, and spend my days entirely in french, I usually dream in french.

    • #17
  18. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Simon Templar (View Comment):

    I knew that I had finally learned Spanish when I realized I had begun dreaming in it and not English. That was a bit weird at first fyi.

    Yeah, when I’m vacationing at the in-laws places in France, and spend my days entirely in french, I usually dream in french.

    Yep, that’s the acid test! Another is whether your memories of what you heard are in the original language.

    • #18
  19. Danny Alexander Member
    Danny Alexander
    @DannyAlexander

    #12 CB Toder aka Mama Toad

    If you’re alluding to Mike Verretto (who fits the physical description), he is an absolute force of nature in terms of Japanese language and cultural comprehension.  So much so that he is credited by author R. Taggart Murphy in his recent book “Japan and the Shackles of the Past” as being one of two truly “bilingual and bi-cultural” people who reviewed the manuscript in full — the other person being an actual Japanese.

    • #19
  20. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Danny Alexander (View Comment):
    If you’re alluding to Mike Verretto (who fits the physical description), he is an absolute force of nature in terms of Japanese language and cultural comprehension.

    No, Tim O’Leary. (He works for Nintendo now in the US I think).

    • #20
  21. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    My son earned a Japanese language degree at the University of Oregon. He had four years of Japanese instruction in high school as well. His high school teacher would take her classes to Portland International Airport to meet and greet Japanese citizens leaving the customs area on Saturdays.

    In his junior year at U of O he earned a full scholarship to study for a year at Waseda University in Tokyo. He was offered a choice of living with American students, or home stay with a Japanese family. He opted for home stay, and was placed with a Japanese family that spoke no English.

    His wife is Japanese, and their two children, ages 4 and 7 are definitely bilingual. When my wife reminds them that their Nana does not speak Japanese the boys instantly switch to English to continue the conversation. 

    • #21
  22. Misthiocracy, Joke Pending Member
    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending
    @Misthiocracy

    According to Laowhy86, conversational Mandarin is really easy to learn.  It’s the written Chinese that’s the hard part.

    • #22
  23. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Arahant (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    “Beer” is a universal word I think.

    If you know about five roots, you can get it anywhere: Beer, ale, pivo, cervesa, and holding up a hand as if holding a stein and making the gesture for drinking. That last will work in the languages not covered by Latin, Germanic, and Slavic families.

    The northern Germanic languages have a different word for beer: öl in Swedish and øl in Norwegian and Danish. So asking for an øl change doesn’t have anything to do with your car.

    I had German all through high school. My German teacher was an American but had spent a decade in Germany in the military. He was also married to an Austrian. So I had a good grounding. In university, I substituted German lit courses for English lit courses that were required courses. I traveled to Germany a couple of times during university more as a tourist than anything. After a day or two I wasn’t translating, but thinking patterns just switched over.

    Later, I traveled to Germany on occasion for business.  Once when I was leaving Germany, I was at the airline counter asking some questions and chatting with the woman at the counter.  She then asked me if I had a visa to go to the US.  I said no and asked why I would need one. I brought out my passport and showed it to her. The look on her face was really funny.

    The US State Dept. has a language-difficulty ranking for native English speakers. Language difficulty is graded on a 5-point scale. Japanese is a 5+. German is a 2. So the German saying “Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache” – “German language, difficult language” may be true, but “Japanische Sprache, super schwere Sprache” is even truer.

    • #23
  24. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    John H. (View Comment):

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Simon Templar (View Comment):

    I knew that I had finally learned Spanish when I realized I had begun dreaming in it and not English. That was a bit weird at first fyi.

    Yeah, when I’m vacationing at the in-laws places in France, and spend my days entirely in french, I usually dream in french.

    Yep, that’s the acid test! Another is whether your memories of what you heard are in the original language.

    I lived in French-speaking Africa for a few years and local telephone numbers I remembered in French and if I had to speak them in English, I would write them down first.

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Hang On (View Comment):
    The northern Germanic languages have a different word for beer: öl in Swedish and øl in Norwegian and Danish.

    Cognate to “Ale,” which is one of the five I mentioned.

    Hang On (View Comment):
    Later, I traveled to Germany on occasion for business. Once when I was leaving Germany, I was at the airline counter asking some questions and chatting with the woman at the counter. She then asked me if I had a visa to go to the US. I said no and asked why I would need one. I brought out my passport and showed it to her. The look on her face was really funny.

    That is funny. I can imagine it.

    Hang On (View Comment):
    The US State Dept. has a language-difficulty ranking for native English speakers. Language difficulty is graded on a 5-point scale. Japanese is a 5+. German is a 2. So the German saying “Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache” – “German language, difficult language” may be true, but “Japanische Sprache, super schwere Sprache” is even truer.

    The main point is that it is difficulty for native English speakers. German might be difficult, but for someone speaking a sister language, such as English, Frisian, or Dutch, it’s relatively easy. How hard is it for a Japanese or Chinese person to learn German vs. the other nearby language? That would probably get a different ranking.

    • #25
  26. MeanDurphy Member
    MeanDurphy
    @DeanMurphy

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    I meant no sarcasm! Poetry really can take a man to the very edge — I need to find the title of that bio of Manley Hopkins because it really was lovely and the writer had such a good understanding of the problems that vexed and tormented the poet as he beat the words and pleaded with them into submission to make the beautiful forms he saw and heard in his mind.

    I remember being so excited by algebra when I was 10 or so. Heady days!

    My understanding moment was with HS Geomoetry in 10th grade.

    it led to my career in programming.

    • #26
  27. MeanDurphy Member
    MeanDurphy
    @DeanMurphy

    But not with spelling apparently.

    • #27
  28. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    For me it was in French when I could deal with numbers without translating in my head.  Particularly since the French speak their phone number in tens, so 40 68 09 68 is forty, sixty-eight, zero-nine, sixty-eight (quarante, soixante-huit. zéro-neuf, soixante-huit).  It also helped while shopping.

    • #28
  29. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    Arahant (View Comment):
    That would probably get a different ranking.

    Yep, not same-same.  Depends on your mother tongue and stuff.    

    • #29
  30. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    Just remembered this one:  When you can understand the other person and vice versa on a telephone – you’ve got it!  

     

    • #30

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