On holidays and being a kid again


Last week was a rest week. The weeks before were so packed, and although it felt awesome to be so out and about, I felt a little out of breath. So, I rested the way any college student usually does: by procrastinating in preparation for writing a paper. Which I finished!

Other than that I suppose the highlight of the week was Halloween.


Me as a Vampire Pumpkin for the AKP Halloween Parade/candy ambush. (Photo credit to Thea)

Halloween is an awesome, crazy time in Japan–for both kids and adults. AKP made sure this was no exception for us, and we all participated in the annual Doshisha Halloween parade. Which actually only had AKP students in it. And it wasn’t a parade. We walked around in a group all over campus and gave people candy if they said trick-or-treat to us (even the office workers). Ok, so most of the time we just gave candy to people and ran away. It was still very fun.

I was talking with a new friend just today about American Halloween versus Japanese Halloween. The main feature of American Halloween is kids going trick-or-treating in their neighborhood. For Japanese Halloween, the main feature is everyone–sometimes more adults than kids–getting a chance to show off their cool cosplay that they’ve been working on, sometimes for weeks.

I didn’t go out on Halloween, but I heard some crazy stories and saw some crazy costumes.

This’ll be a short post, but I thought I should write down a few of my thoughts anyway. A couple thoughts on learning Japanese so far.

Learning Japanese is tough.

There’s really no cheating. Although there’s a very large amount of borrowed words from English, English-speakers just can’t rely on the connotations or translations of words and phrases to line up with any intentions.

Because of this, I’ve had to work pretty hard just to get to a relatively basic level of communication. I’m actually pretty thankful for this. It’s shocked me out of my familiarity with language as a “given” and has forced me to take a good look at how I learn language. If I’d had more structural crutches, I may have overlooked parts of what makes language acquisition so interesting–but seeing that Japanese is so different from English, I’m practically a baby over here. And it’s fun to see how my brain handles being a baby once more and having to deal with learning language all over again.

I’ve already talked about how my language learning experience has driven home the point that language doesn’t really seem to be an A=B sort of thing, but is instead more about sharing memories with people. Like for instance, I learned the phrase for “Surprised?” a few weeks ago (and yes, it was a surprising situation), and ever since then whenever someone’s said “Surprised?” it triggers the feeling that I had when I learned that phrase. Or the opposite: whenever I have that feeling, I’ve been able to say “Surprised?” to my friends, who I assume have a similar association as I do with that phrase. Judging by their reactions, I definitely feel like we share a common language learning memory.

But there’s something else I’d like to note today: It’s really hard to build up context. It’s one thing to know all the vocab and all the conjugations, but it’s an entirely separate thing to be able to build up the context and conversation enough so that the words or sentences I say are easily understood. This is particularly hard for me to do in a Japanese conversation. One simple reason for this may be that there aren’t that many sounds in Japanese. English is kind of a sloshy language, but Japanese consistently only has about 50 sounds in it. This means there are a lot of homophones. So, if I don’t build up to a sentence enough, I’ll end up saying “bridge” instead of “edge.” But grammatically, a very cool thing about Japanese is that not all the parts present in an English sentence (subject, verb, object) are necessary in a Japanese sentence. But only if you’ve skillfully woven all the context beforehand, sometimes just a verb or a subject changes the whole conversation and delivers a very powerful message.  This happens a lot in every day English conversations too, but in my Japanese conversations so far it’s been the norm.

And it’s tough to keep up. But it’s also really fun. Maybe it’s because Japanese is a new language for me, or maybe it’s because Japanese is genuinely very different from English (I’m aiming for somewhere in between there), but a Japanese conversation has an entirely different feel. It’s very participatory. You all work together to weave the context well enough that even a single word or simple phrase delivers a huge amount of meaning. Together, you create a context where a very select few sounds and words actually have meaning–otherwise all the homophones would cause total chaos. And then within that context, you can play around and explore, together. It’s more about frontloading the effort of the conversation at the beginning than my experience with English.

But maybe I’m just excited I’m finally getting the hang of another language. What are your experiences learning another language? How did it change the way you looked at your own language?

I’ve started to get the first pangs of homesickness. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s because of the Christmas decorations that were already out on display on the 31st.

Nothing stands in the way of Christmas here.

Nothing stands in the way of Christmas here.

But other than that, I’m fine. I’m not physically sick. If I get the flu (which I don’t plan to since I’m getting immunized with my hostmom at the local clinic), I have to stay home for about a week. That’s not a personal promise; that’s the law. If you’ve got the flu in Japan, you don’t go to school. You don’t go to work. You don’t use public transportation. You stay at home or go to the hospital.

Not such a crazy idea, to be honest.

Next week (7-14) is fall break! I’ve got a few plans, but I think I’m mostly going to stay in Kyoto. I’ve been bopping around all over so much recently I think it would be nice to have time to explore Kyoto in more depth for once. I’ll hopefully have more time for kyudo, too.

The massive Christmas tree on Doshisha campus. Because Christmas is always closer than you think.

The large Christmas tree on Doshisha campus, because Christmas is always closer than you think.