Archive for November, 2011

Making Sense of Japanese

I can’t remember when I last read a book on Japanese grammar and laughed in delight. Yes! Laughed! Most people consider grammar a rather dry topic and I’ve spent many years in the bowels of Eleanor Harz Jorden’s Beginning Japanese with its forbidding subtitle, The Essential Language Book for Serious Students. [emphasis mine].

Jay Rubin, however, is not a linguist. He is a translator (Haruki Murakami), a teacher (Harvard), and most importantly a lover of the Japanese language. I agree whole-heartedly when he says, “One of the most satisfying experiences a human being can have is to train his or her mind actually to think in a foreign mode.” I’m always quite pleased with myself when I think something in Japanese rather than translate it back into English. These little glimmers of awareness give me hope that someday I will cross the bridge from a beginner’s conscious grasp of the fundamentals to the intermediate learner’s more intuitive understanding.

Just the other day when I was reviewing the causative, I came across this headline on the Internet. 「世界を泣かせた写真の中の彼女」 which I understood without thinking about it. I get a thrill anytime I can read something in Japanese without first deciphering it. (By the way, the Internet makes looking up words in context so easy. If I wonder whether or not a word can be used or a verb conjugated a certain way, all I have to do is a Google search.)

I think you will get the most out of Making Sense of Japanese if you are an intermediate student. By then you will have faced many of the issues that Jay Rubin discusses. Teachers of beginning students will also benefit. Perhaps the reason I like Making Sense of Japanese so much is that I’ve been tutoring the two beginning years of Japanese using the Yookoso! textbooks (which I used when I was a college student). I have spent hours distilling its explanations and trying to show the connections between and the logic of the (what seems to me haphazardly) introduced grammar points. Jay Rubin is encouraging. He teaches many of the things I laboriously figured out on my own. I could not restrain a yelp of recognition and validation.

For example, in his discussion of wa and ga he points out that there is not grammatical rightness of using one or the other without knowing the context–anymore than you can decided whether “a dog” or “the dog” is the correct form without know the context. On the directional verbs of giving and receiving, he tells me to teach it just as I did. “The most important thing is to keep track of who initiates the action“. After two days of struggling over many examples in order to make a chart of all the interactions, that was what I’d figured out. And it worked! My student caught on in less than an hour a grammar point that had been so painful for me to learn that I dreaded teaching it. Jay Rubin is quite insistent that you don’t form the lazy habit of turning active voice Japanese sentences into passive voice English sentences–something I still grapple with when dealing with transitive-intransitive verb pairs. I sensed that this was a danger and I’m heartened to know I was right.

Jay Rubin also stresses the importance of studying sentences in context. Sample sentences in grammar books are written to illustrate a specific point. In the real world, sentences are written to communicate. The context in which that sentence appears determines which grammatical usages are appropriate. This is most apparent in the cases of wa versus ga in Japanese and “a” versus “the” in English. Like Professor Rubin, I also use questions to determine what question the sentence is answering; that is, where should the emphasis be placed? “John went to the store.” answers two questions. “Who went to the store?” and “Where did John go?” In Japanese, particles provide the clues to which question is being answered.

The style of this book is conversational and anecdotal. Reading it is like sitting down with your favorite teacher and having a great after-class discussion. It’s interesting and enlightening. It makes you think about language (both English and Japanese) in a different way. But it is also sometimes like listening to only half a conversation. Jay Rubin is tackling issues in teaching Japanese that I either haven’t encountered or that weren’t an issue for me. So sometimes I get lost in his discussions and become uncertain. Did I miss something big? Or was it something I already intuited?

For example, maybe it’s my overexposure to Powerpoint presentation and the Internet but I don’t think that English language natives have as much difficulty grasping the concept of the unstated subject as Jay Rubin thinks we do. English grammarians and textbook publishers, yes. But the rest of us? Not so much. The conversational style of writing on the Internet has recalibrated our ear. Tangent: Due to my training as a technical writer, the fact that I edit my posts to clarify subjects and state explicitly what I’ve implied, apparently gives my writing a very distinctive voice. Many people who know me only through my blogs consider me to me far more intellectual, scholarly, and serious than I am.

Nor has it been particularly impressed upon me that Japanese is a vague language; this is a misconception that Jay Rubin obviously spent a lot of time debunking. In reading the Japanese translation of Harry Potter, I’m often impressed with how much more specific Japanese is. In fact, I wonder how did the translator, Yuko Matsuoka, know what to emphasize, what would be significant later in the series? I love Japanese compound verbs like mottekite (I have it in hand and I’m coming) for “bring”. I love the particle markers, the guideposts in the sentence. They have no semantic value but exist only to tell you the purpose of words and their relationship to each other in sentence.

See the effect Jay Rubin has on me? He makes me go all lyrical about Japanese. I think I could listen to him talk about it all day. Because he is so enamored. And because it’s so difficult to find anyone to share my excitement when I figure something out. And because he gives me hope that I might someday be able to think in Japanese. He explains that the US government figures it takes 1,410 hours of study to bring their employees up to a “Limited Working Proficiency” in Japanese. Convert that to five hour per week, thirty week per year study of the typical college student and it works out to 9.4 years. Given that on average, I don’t devote nearly that much time a week to studying, my twenty years of playing around at Japanese doesn’t seem so extreme. In fact, I could argue that I didn’t really start studying Japanese until I took my first class nine years ago. And there have been long periods, months, years) when I didn’t study at all. Onward. Ever onward.


Thinking in Another Language