For some time now, I’ve been a serial language learner. In primary school, my Year 3 teacher spoke Japanese and taught some of it to my class, which we dutifully learned. Hearing of this, my grandmother, who taught Japanese immigrants to speak English after World War II, gave me the books she’d used to study the language herself. In this context, I started taking extra-curricular Japanese lessons. I was not, however, a dedicated student: detesting repetitive practice in the manner of children who otherwise learn so quickly as to find it tiresome, I made no effort to learn my katakana or kanji, and despite the fact that I enjoyed counting and making origami figures, the lessons eventually stopped. My occasional childhood encounters with Japanese culture, however, continued: first in the form of Miyoko Kyushu, an exchange student who stayed with my family for several weeks, and then in the guise of new neighbours, who, though Norweigian by descent, had lived in Japan for many years. All three sons learned the language, while both parents spoke it fluently. Like Miyoko, they kept the Japanese tradition of bringing gifts to one’s hosts, so that when we first met the Johansens at a welcoming-the-neighbours barbeque, the wooden geisha doll, Japanese picture book and hand-sewn juggling balls Miyoko had given me found company with a puzzlingly-shaped Japanese bag and several boxes of sticky (but delicious) Hello Kitty candies. With the exception of these last edible items, I still have everything else. Like my knowledge of Japanese numbers, it seems, they’ve never quite slipped away.
In high school, I learned French and German as part of the school curriculum. Some words from each have stuck with me, such as counting sequences, greetings and a handful of random nouns, although somewhat inexplicably, I’ve also retained a teaching song in French detailing the birthday gifts received by a fictitious singer from his various relatives. Around the same time, I decided that archaeology was my destined career, and was advised that the best languages to learn for this were Latin (for the antiquity) and German (for reasons which now seem both dubious and odd). Given that I went to a public school, such a decision was problematic: with seventeen interested students deemed not enough to sustain a full class, I ended up taking German after school, while for Latin, I was forced to resort to a correspondence course.
When I changed schools the following year, the German didn’t last; but Latin did. I kept it up through all of highschool, even taking advanced Latin units for the HSC despite my appalling grasp of grammar. Once again, my lack of enthusiasm for rote learning saw any chance at fluency well and truly shot, although my pronunciation skills and stock vocabulary were generally on par. By the time university rolled around, my interests had swung from archaeology to the history of the Middle East, such that, rather than continuing Latin, I started learning Arabic instead. I stuck it out for one year, but was still, ultimately, a lazy student: I simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) motivate myself to do the required homework and memorisation necessary for learning a spoken language, despite the fact that learning a new script had proved a sinch – after all, I used to invent alphabets in class when I was bored, memorise them in that hour, then write to myself in that cypher for a day, or a week, or however long it took me to lose interest or start again. But vocal fluency is different. Historically, I’ve been unjustly apathetic in this regard, perhaps because I find it frustrating to have to actually work at acquiring a new language, when in almost every other discipline – the exception being maths, which I’ve never liked – I’m able to osmose comprehension with a comparative lack of effort, especially when interested in the subject. That’s the irony of native intelligence: without a competitive drive, learning becomes purely a matter of convenience. And I’m not a competitive person.
For a while, then, I stopped learning languages – until a few weeks ago, when a friend offered to teach a beginner’s course in Mandarin Chinese. I went to four or five of his classes, and had a good time: if nothing else, I can now count to ten in Mandarin, and at least in the short term, I can recognise certain words and written characters. As with Arabic, however, there’s a strong chance I’ll forget most, if not all of it, although my track record suggests that if anything stays, it will be the numbers. This might seem paradoxical, given my dislike of maths, but remembering things in sequence is always easier than remembering them individually, at least for me.
Subsequently, since stopping the Mandarin classes, I’ve been thinking about my history with trying and failing to acquire new languages. I like the idea of being bilingual, but short of actually moving to a non-English-speaking country, could I ever convince myself to put in the required effort? Certainly, I’m more dedicated now than I was then, and more patient; this time around, it was time constraints which caused the change of heart, not lack of interest. Which brings me back to Japanese, the first language I ever tried to learn, and the one which, oddly, I still have the most to do with. Although my foray into learning karate ended several years ago, I still remain extremely interested in anime. Since discovering anime and manga through a friend at the start of high school, I’ve never wavered in my affection for the genre, and although at times it’s been a secondary interest, I’m currently undergoing a surge of renewed fandom. Which makes me realise that, far from having forgotten the little Japanese I learned as a child, I’ve actually built upon it, albeit in a highly specalised area. Thanks to the catchy themes of shows like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion, I’ve taken the time to write down and memorise the written-English phoenetics to several Japanese songs, learning them by heart. Through comics, interested Googling and contextual exposure, I’ve picked up the various Japanese terms of address, the rules governing their usage, and a smattering of vocab. Cumulatively, this represents the greatest interest I’ve ever directed towards learning a language, despite having nothing to do with academics. And it’s been fun.
All of which leads me to conclude that, if I were to sit down as an adult and properly attempt a language, in my own time and of my own volition, I’d be well advised to try Japanese, coming full circle. And all for the geekiest, laziest possible reason. Which makes me grin.