Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Say “Haro!” to All Strangers

May 22, 2012 1 comment

One word from an innocent child can deliver a punch far stronger than a speech by a linguistics professor.

Say “Haro!” to All Strangers

By James H. Choi
Source Link

During my stay in Japan, I took a week off my exchange researcher’s duty to travel the country.   I traveled as far south as Hiroshima and as far north as Sendai.  Basically, I traveled all the way to the two end points of the bullet train Shinkansen network.

In my travel to the Kansai area — which includes Osaka and Kyoto — I’ve seen a lot of tourist attractions and ancient temples.  But the one instance that stays in my mind most clearly is the one that I don’t even have a picture to remember by.  In fact, I don’t even remember in which city it happened.  All I remember is just one word from a child.

I happened to walk through a residential area, and I had to ask for directions.  I approached a group of young mothers taking their children somewhere and asked in Japanese for directions.  They eagerly listened, understood what I asked, and replied kindly.  We exchanged a few more words of gratitude and denial, following the rather strict Japanese communication protocol.  As I was carrying this conversation, I was feeling smug about my Japanese ability.  I could carry a conversation with unsuspecting natives, convey my meaning, and get my responses without any confusion.  Hey, perhaps, they didn’t even notice that I am a foreigner!  Am I that good?! a little preschool-aged boy — who was listening to the whole conversation quietly— looked up at me.  As our eyes met, he waved his small cute free hand — the other hand was holding mother’s — and I smiled back at him.  He had singularly harmless eyes and a peaceful face, I remember.  Then he articulated his mouth said:

“Haro!” in English.

So much for me going native.  Until then I knew I blew my cover when the Japanese people complemented for my linguistic ability.  Usually, in the middle of conversations, they would suddenly inject “You speak Japanese so well” which meant “I was wondering why you sound so strange, but now that I know who you are, your Japanese is not that bad considering you are only a foreigner.”

But this peaceful looking kid shot me down to my proper place with just one word, and he didn’t package it as a complement.  He is so cruel!  What happened to the famous Japanese politeness??  And he had to do it precisely at the moment I felt I was feeling good about myself, which is rare.

I got the directions all right.  (I told you I was communicating particularly well that moment.)  But the whole surrounding looked different afterwards: It looked more distant and foreign as if I am suddenly in a far, far away land, such as Japan.

Misery does not love company, it requires one.  I don’t want to go down alone this way.

I have advice for all innocent-looking preschooler in Japan, and all other non-English-speaking countries for that matter.  You never know when you will run into a foreigner with groundlessly inflated ego parading around your city.  Your one word packs a far bigger punch than an hour-long speech by a linguistics professor.   Go ahead and deliver!

Categories: Japan, Language

When I Met Another Penta-lingual in Tokyo

When I Met Another Penta-lingual in Tokyo

By James H. Choi
Source Link

Photo: Kabukicho district

I speak four languages reasonably but, depending on circumstances, can speak five. The fifth is Spanish, of which I took only one semester in college where I mostly learned how to modify Portuguese into Spanish. About 30 percent of the vocabularies overlap anyway, and about another 30 percent I can manipulate in order to make it sound funny but make sense to Spanish speakers. For instance, Portuguese words that begin with “ch” begin with “ll” in Spanish. So “chover” (to rain) in Portuguese becomes “llover” in Spanish.  “Chegar” (to arrive) becomes “llegar”.  And so on.  So, I blindly apply it to other words that start with “ch” and carefully monitor the listener’s expression to see if it worked.

Thanks to this similarity, I can figure out quite a bit of Spanish on the fly.  So when no Spanish speakers are around, I shamelessly declare myself a penta-lingual.  How I self-describe my fluency in each language depends solely on who’s around me.  If nobody is around to test my fluency in a particular language, I raise my capabilities a couple notches using vague, singularly untestable claims such as “I can carry a nice conversation.”

While in Japan, I saw no threat of running into Spanish speakers bent on exposing my fraud, so I presented myself as a penta-lingual.  Of course, I was very humble about my Japanese abilities, but as for my English, Korean, Portuguese AND Spanish, as far as anyone knew, I spoke fluently.

This impressed a colleague on the exchange program with me.  One day, he told me he ran into another penta-lingual at his workplace, NHK. Because I am a fake penta-lingual, I immediately smell fraud when others claim to be one.  It takes one to know one.  My suspicions grew when I learned this other penta-lingual spoke exactly the five languages I did, language for language.  What were the chances?

I couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which someone would learn English, Korean, Portuguese, Japanese, and Spanish.  First off, I instantly suspected he knew either Portuguese or Spanish and was faking the other.  But the other three aren’t interchangeable in any way, thus I was not able to explain those away.

But, who would learn these five languages?  What a waste of time!  One could do so much taking on other productive pursuits in life!  He must been caught by the circumstances like me, and must have been forced to learn a few of those out of necessity, and fake some out of vanity.  I had to meet him, and apparently he felt the same way about me.

Probably he smelled fraud on me, too. finally met one night at Asahi beer garden in Ginza.

It turns out we shared far more than I’d ever dreamt.

Born in Korea, he had immigrated to Brazil to study high school — at my high school: Colégio Bandeirantes.  He was my upperclassman! We had the same math and Portuguese teachers!!  And I found him in Tokyo.  This coincidence jarred me for some time, and still baffles me even today.

Afterward, he went to Texas for college and, finally, Japan to work.  And yes: His Spanish was fake, just like mine.

Needless to say, his Japanese was far better than mine.  Furthermore, he turned out to be the only one who talked straight about my Japanese abilities.  I’d blown up my ego about my Japanese because everyone was complementing it during my stay in Japan — until he told me, “James. If you study Japanese another three years, you’d speak it pretty well.”  I felt the pain of my deflated head hitting the hard granite floor of Asahi Beer Garden as I heard those words.   “Three years” was endlessly echoing in my head.  But I was grateful I met someone who understands exactly where I came from, how I was shaped, and would talk straight to me.  In fact, I still remember an expression that he corrected for me that night.  If I ever have to examine my Japanese level again, I would trust no one — not even the SAT which gave me 780 out of 800 — but him.

My English appeared to be slightly better than his, though, and our Portuguese and Korean were about the same.  So suddenly I had a dilemma for the first time: In what language do I speak to him?  I could say anything to him in any language, and he would understand.  It was the first and the last time (so far) it happened to me.  You’d think that’d facilitate our conversation.  But, on the contrary, almost every sentence became a challenge.

My upperclassman had come with his coworker, the boss of my friend at NHK, and my colleague who introduced us was there, too.  The four of us spoke late into the night.  When all of us were talking, we used Japanese or English, the common language for all of us.  But when I talked to my upperclassman privately, I constantly had to select a language.  Some languages are better at expressing various thoughts.  Expressions in one language, such as “Murphy’s Law” in English, become much longer expression in other languages.  Because of this, when I think, my thoughts are constantly shifting among languages.  Swear words happen in Portuguese, logical thoughts happen in English, and so on — although I don’t think in my fake Spanish even when I want to fake something.

I’m so used to translating my multilingual thoughts into monolingual conversation that not having to do it was actually harder.  Fascinated by this chance to use my “native mode” of speaking for the first time, and eager to make the most of it, I actually began to look for optimal expressions among the five four languages.  It probably cost me more energy than talking to a monolingual person with whom I would have no concern for any optimization of intermediary, raw, thought-forming process.  But with my upperclassman, I was able to dump my raw data, thus I was trying to shape the raw data itself into a more refined form.  I think.

In the end, I ended up mixing all four in an inconsistent manner.  He also did likewise, answering me in whatever language I used.  We talked and laughed on many topics late into warm and humid summer night in Tokyo until the subway’s last train forced us apart.

One might think two people who share so much in background and communication bandwidth would become close friends.  But after this night, we lost touch.  Just like me, my upperclassman was aloof, caring little about retaining contact.  When two detached people meet, they lose touch easily, as we did.  I’ve even forgotten his name.  He worked at NHK in 1994 and just had a baby at that time.  And he would be known to be penta-lingual.   If you know him, please forward this article to him.  I’d like to see him again.

Categories: Japan, Language Tags: ,
%d bloggers like this: