Some uncoordinated ramblings on becoming illiterate

In the course of human development, I believe it is a fair assessment that we communicated with one another before we had anything called language. I further believe that written language developed from verbal origins and was a fairly late addition to the overall communication picture.

I have been in Japan for just about a month at this point, and without excessive effort I am slowly gaining ground in being able to say something close enough to what I mean that, in simple settings and with a bit of effort on the receiving side, the message usually comes across in a few tries. Non-verbal communication is also generally working well as I have stumbled through the initial attempts enough that I now have a feel for the various processes involved in the grocery, on the train, at the grocery, etc.. For all that, however, I am still well away from being culturally fluent in a society known for the significance of non-verbal cues in the overall process of communication.

It is often easy to lose sight of what you have while you have it. Since the “ah-ha” moment of learning to read as a child, I have generally taken being literate for granted. Living in Europe added to that assumption, as I was well versed in the language before I went to Germany and by the time I found myself in places speaking other European languages I had enough of a basic background in the language and cultural context that while I may not have been able to respond to spoken questions, I was able to generally piece together enough of the written material to make my way through.

In Japan that is not the case. Not only do I not know the language, I also do not know how to interpret the symbols, and they do not line up with any of the information I have available. I am reminded of the lines:

“I am tracing the letters when I learn them; I’ll read every tale that you will write to me, the shapes so curious, still such a mystery…” – “More Than I Dare Say” by Wilderness Plots


“For all those lines and circles, to me a mystery…..It makes me humble to be so green at what every kid can do when they learn A-Z…” – “Cherry Tree” by 10,000 Maniacs

In an attempt to get a handle on the language I have an introductory coursebook with a set of CD’s, and while it is helpful to know that the color green is pronounced “midori” in Japanese and to hear someone say it, what is really needed for day-to-day living in the language is to know that “midori” is really the kanji 緑 – which is how it would appear on any sign, menu, etc…. Given the huge array of kanji and the varying contextual meanings a single kanji may have, it is obvious why introductory language material does not go this route and instead provides a latin alphabet equivalent. This allows me to mutter something nominally intelligible to a conversation counterpart. There is an intermediate step which utilizes a phonetic representation at the syllable level, called kana, however it is only used in cases where there are no suitable kanji.

What all of this means is that without knowledge of kanji (which is a multi-year process of learning by all accounts I have seen) I am unable to make use of the full immersive aspect of living here to assist in learning the language. While I may well be able to say (at some point) “Take the elevator to the third floor for the dentist’s office” I have no illusion that in a few months of working and trying to pick up the language on the side that I will be able to read the kanji equivalent of that, which means that all the packaging, advertisements, signs, newspapers, magazines, etc… surrounding me are of no value to the learning process, which puts nearly all the effort on the verbal aspect.

Given that I work in an office of other English speakers temporarily living in Japan, and that the working language even with our Japanese counterparts is English, means that although I am surrounded by written Japanese, I very rarely have a chance to engage in a conversation in Japanese beyond the context driven encounters with store clerks, taxi drivers, or restaurant staff – and in Tokyo most of them will know more English than I do Japanese, so in the interest of expediency they shift to English. This leaves me in a bit of a trap – I don’t know enough Japanese to be able to converse long enough to keep a conversation going in Japanese, which is what is needed to got to the level where a conversation stays in Japanese.

I can not help but contrast this experience to when I moved to Germany the first time and found myself totally immersed. I entered with an existing knowledge of the language and could, read, write, and speak it. The section of Hamburg which I lived in had a large Turkish population, and the second language of choice for most local stores to put signs in (if they did at all) was Turkish, not English. I remember studying the sentence structure and grammar of newspaper articles and nearly wearing out my dictionary looking up words as I came across them, and then incorporating that in my day-to-day interactions. After a few weeks, although still far from perfect, I was more or less self-sufficient and rapidly climbing the learning curve.

I am not nearly that far along with Japanese. The difference, in large part, is being able to read.

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