Time for some Plain talking
I'm now two-and-a-half months into my Japanese ‘Acceleration’ course. But only last Friday did we learn – for the first time formally - ‘it is’, ‘it was’, ‘it is not’ and ‘it was not’.
A little late, you may think. Well, the language we have been learning until now is not the Japanese spoken by the Japanese at home, in their local izakaya or, for much of the time it seems, on TV. I can say any of the above to a teacher or shopkeeper or friend’s parent, but don’t yet know how to converse with a friend. (No change there, then, I hear you mutter.)
With linguistic barriers like these, I could comfort myself with the received wisdom that 90% of communication is body language. But try telling yourself that when you’re attempting to renew your visa, describe a desired hair cut or engage in pillow talk. (Obviously, I have experience of only one of these, and am pleased to announce that I am now legally permitted to remain in Japan until the end of June.)
So if you thought that the ‘vous’ and ‘ihr’ / ‘Sie’ forms in French and German respectively were a pain in the proverbial, then try Japanese, where ‘plain’ and ‘formal’ verb forms dictate that the language forks along two mutually exclusive paths. Now I have to switch off the default language I know and translate it in my head into a new one. The basic elements are in place, but there’s a lot of mental re-programming and de-bugging to be done.
In this new place, particles and verbs go missing from sentences, questions are communicated through intonation alone and extra words are slipped in to ‘soften’ straightforward replies. It feels like learning a shadow or offshoot dialect. Imagine learning the Queen’s English only then to be told that, for any non-arm’s length conversation, you actually have to use Ray-Winston-English, with its different syntax and conjugations. Or having to learn both Plattdeutsch and Hochdeutsch rather than 'German' as a foreign language at school.
Beyond this complication lies the further challenge of honorifics and the discrete sub-languages – slowly declaring their presence - spoken by males and females (yet which the teacher must teach to mixed classes). (Learning Japanese primarily from a member of the opposite sex has its pitfalls. In the plain style, in mixed company, one cannot simply ‘repeat after me’.)
The delayed introduction of the plain form into lessons does undoubtedly make sense, from a social and a language-learning perspective. The polite (-‘masu’) forms we have learned to date underpin it, so the grammatical progression is a sensible one, and - as a matter of etiquette - I’d rather be talking up to Snow than down to my teacher or her family.
But there’s no denying I currently feel a little frustrated, linguistically off-colour, even angsty, about my Japanese. I am now well past the stage where a few words of broken Japanese, perhaps even an attempt at a sentence, drew a flattering but dishonest ‘jouzu desu ne’ ('you speak it well’), from strangers or new acquaintances. The formulaic response to which - “iie, mada mada desu” (“No, I’ve got a long way to go”) - I rather regrettably didn’t know at the time, so I was unable to respond with modesty / the truth. Now, having been chipping away at the rockface, I find myself in the long plain where my progress is as imperceptible to others as it is to me.
And in those rare moments when my head hasn’t been stuck in a textbook, the Japanese that I have been speaking didn't much resemble Japanese Japanese at all… (Or, as Snow’s young cousin put, you ‘use all those long verb forms’.)
So, as the school term nears its end, another parallel track emerges alongside kanji. In my final private lesson, we rehearse the same old topics of conversation (“how was your last weekend?” “what did you do?” “do you have a car?” etc) but with questions and answers in a language I can handle only hesitantly at best. We play this, at my suggestion, as a ‘3 strikes and you’re out' game where I lose a life every time my conversation lapses back into the polite form.
And so the game ends quickly.