Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Baby's Talking

Recently, to the surprise of both my Japanese family here and myself, I've started speaking in Japanese a lot. Perhaps that's somewhat of a surprise to readers here as well. You've seen me write about the travails of technical translation. How is it possible, you must be wondering, that I can read complex engineering documents in Japanese but haven't really been able to speak the language? I've encountered this kind of bemusement among Japanese who have found out that I can translate Japanese patents that thoroughly baffle them, but am otherwise laughably inarticulate in Japanese. Well, how I became literate (selectively, narrowly) is a story for another time. The conundrum du jour is: why am I suddenly blabbing away now in Japanese, almost 12 years after I came to Japan to live?

I was puzzled over this question myself, even as I blithely entered into long conversations with strangers, and spoke to members of my family at lengths that surprised them, over the past few weeks. I had time to think about this question while hiking Takao-zan yesterday -- though not as much time as those hikes used to give me for mulling and theorizing. As it turned out, I spent half my ascent breathlessly chatting with a Japanese mountaineer who (I suppose) took an interest in me because I was the only person in his age range who could keep up with him on the trail. (And that wasn't the only extended conversation with a stranger yesterday. I fell into two more before I got home.)

One answer that occurred to me: I'm speaking Japanese out of sheer force of necessity. A brother-in-law who had been shepherding the finances of my extended family and its businesses died about a month ago, and the heir to those responsibilities has not been apparent. Things were left a bit of a mess, financially. Who is qualified to take up family money issues and straighten them out, with or without the help of a professional? This man's bereaved widow? No. Not right now, anyway. How about my wife? No. She is very literate, far more so than most Japanese, but she once called me up at work years ago to ask me what 6 times 7 is, because she couldn't find her calculator. Being literate and pleasantly fluent might have to take a back seat to being numerate, and these people are not very numerate. It looks like I've got to take up the money problems, and that's going to require speaking Japanese.

Force of necessity might be only part of the explanation, however, the spark on the kindling. The problem with necessity as a full explanation is that there have been more than a few sparks of crisis in the past decade or so, with no blaze resulting. If anything, the failure of those events to bring me out of the shell only dampened any ambition to speak Japanese fluently, an ambition that seemed unrealistic anyway given that I'm no longer young. I didn't start serious study of Japanese until I was 40. This year I turned 51. What could my future chances possibly be?

Well, here's an odd theory: it took me a long time to gain some fluency in Japanese because it takes me a long time to gain fluency in any language, with my native language being an excellent case in point. I could hardly stutter out my name when asked, at age 9. I was still very tongue-tied at age 12. I was reading like crazy, of course, but I was not a terribly good listener -- my thoughts tended to drift while being spoken to at any length. (Early warning sign on a first grade report card: "Does not always follow instructions.") In puberty, however, something began to click. I became outspoken in class (even though the prospect initially made my heart poiund), I learned to distract teachers with questions that interested them and I got them talking -- to me, and only to me, even with 30 other students in the class. In fact, I often got so much credit for "classroom participation" that my incredible laziness about doing homework was usually given a pass. By age 25, I'd go to parties in Berkeley, gab a mile a minute with any interesting person I could find, and was often handed a conversational plum at the end: "So ... where did you get your PhD?" (Dirty little secret about me: I never even got a bachelor's degree. A long story, don't ask.) A creative writing teacher at College of Marin once said to me, "You're 20, you look 17, but you talk like a 35-year-old man."

I'm a developmental oddity, that's all. Some part of my brain with whom I'm not on speaking terms (whose existence I didn't even suspect) seems to want circle all around a new language, keeping a watchful distance, then, after ten years, suddenly clobber the problem of speaking it.

So now that it seems I can speak Japanese, with whom should I speak it? Not just with tax accountants and my family. I sure hope not, anyway. That could get seriously dull. In my intensive Japanese school here, we were told, "If you want to learn to speak Japanese, you must make Japanese friends." I despaired of being able to do this (in Japanese anyway), partly blaming myself for starting to learn Japanese too late, partly blaming the culture for being so stand-offish. There may be a grain of truth to these excuses, but now I believe they are mainly just excuses. If I have a challenge now in the language, I don't think it's making friends. That just seems to be happening all by itself, if anything it's happening too fast to be sustainably manageable. Rather, I have to start improving my conversational Japanese fast enough to keep new friends. I know from experience here with trying to be friends with Japanese people speaking English that a person who seems initially interesting can become massively irritating if they keep making the same basic conversational mistakes over and over. I don't want to be like that, in any language.

Well, that's it. Baby's talking. (Baby's yelling, too -- the sparks of crisis have been sending sparks ricocheting off me. I've been spraying my own sparks, too. Now I often have to put out fires started by my anger, in Japanese, as best I can.) Baby's talking, yelling, burning. Baby's having to grow up fast, too. Taking on more responsibility can be like a second puberty, I suppose. Watch this space.