The joys of incomprehension

makuhari
A tree grows in Makuhari. Chiba-shi, Tokyo, circa summer 2008.

In the new year, I am trying not to lose Japanese. I spent so many years of my young life studying this impossible language, and it would be a great shame to forget it entirely.

I have been plowing through kanji flashcards on Memrise. I vacillate between feeling super-proud of myself for not having forgotten everything and super-frustrated because I have forgotten most of it. I console myself, weakly, with the knowledge that Japanese is often called the hardest language for English speakers to learn.

The frustrations are rife. For instance: I’m re-reading War and Peace now, and a good deal of the social dialogue is in French (preserved by the translators, with footnotes providing the English). I have spent about 3 months of my life studying basic French grammar and vocabulary and I can more or less read and comprehend an entire paragraph in French (but don’t ask me to translate any spoken French).

In contrast, I have spent 15 years, off and on, studying Japanese, and I can’t read more than a few sentences in a simple Japanese news story. (A simple explanation for this is that I can remember only about 200 out of the 2,500 requisite kanji. I literally cannot read most of the words yet.)

engakuji
Engaku-ji. 2008.

But I have been thinking about the pleasures of incomprehension.

I have been watching a Japanese reality TV show for a bit at night, while preparing dinner. Even though I understand about 5% of the dialogue, I am resting in unknowing. I can find some happiness in letting the vaguely familiar sounds wash over me. Just hearing it spoken in everyday conversation (albeit between flirtatious twentysomethings in a Tokyo mansion, Real World style) is beneficial. I put on the Japanese short stories CD that I have had in my car for three years. I am still totally lost in the plots, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the stories aside from a few nouns and key actors, but I am learning to be OK with this lack of knowledge.

You have to start somewhere… even if “somewhere” is building on 15 years’ of forgotten knowledge.

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4 thoughts on “The joys of incomprehension

  1. I’ve been learning Cantonese for a couple of years now, and it’s been a bit on again and off again. It’s not only hard to understand but also difficult to read because I have only memorised a few characters myself yet. I listen to Cantonese radio every now and then, and am slowly recognising the odd phrase here and there. Most of the time I don’t know really what’s going on but then out of the blue a smattering of recognition kicks in and it feels fabulous!

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