Morikami Oshougatsu 2015

Yesterday I went to the New Year’s festival at the Morikami Museum and Gardens. Having been back from Japan less than a month, I thought I’d write up my impressions, good and not so good. Times are approximate. Starting from the line to get in:

9:50 — “I know how to pronounce sah-kii because my friend works in a Japanese restaurant.” She meant sakè. (= ‘sah-keh)

10:00 — Got my first staff smile of the day while buying my ticket. She said she loved my yukata.

10:05 — Saw my first (but not last) woman in a Chinese bathrobe.

10:15 — Did some catching up with an old friend at the fortune paper booth.

11:30 — Two girls asked if they could take my photo for social media promotions. Yeah!

12:00 — Saw a group of girls in awesome loli costumes. Also wrote my wish on a board with a bunch of daruma faces and filled in its right eye. If my wish comes true I can go back next year and fill in the other eye. 🙂

1:30 — Went to the tea ceremony demonstration, which was packed. I felt really happy about all the interest in what’s usually a more under-the-radar art form. (Except, guys in the tree, seriously? You must not even have known what you were trying to look at, since that kind of behavior doesn’t fly in tea ceremony.)

2:15 — Got asked by another promo guy for a photo. He said I might feature on the New Year’s leaflet next year. Cool.

3:00 — (After James and I spent five minutes answering a little girl’s questions on kimono and how to study Japanese)
Random guy with a Japanese girlfriend who literally just fed him this information: “Hey, um, I dunno how you guys take criticism, but… your kimono should be right over left.”
James: “That’s for dead people.
Guy: (looks stupidly at his girlfriend)
Girlfriend: “Heh? I though it was the other way.”
(Followed by about 30 seconds of James and I correcting her in Japanese while her boyfriend looks lost. Ends with her saying “I’ll look into it” and running away.)

***Word of advice, guys. Don’t assume that other people are ignorant weaboos just because you’re Japanese or have a Japanese S.O. It will come back and bite you if you if you don’t know what you’re talking about, and especially if the opponent you choose is someone who does.

The verdict: I love the Morikami and I love that they try to get the general public interested in Japanese culture. There are many authentic things about the festival, like koto, traditional games, and tea ceremony. But as someone who lived in Japan for two years, I can see what’s been watered down or adjusted for an American audience. I don’t fault the Morikami for that; I’m in the minority for actually liking matcha and knowing the difference between kimono, yukata, and the all-too-prevalent Chinese bathrobes. And I also understand that being interested in a culture is not the same as understanding or even having respect for that culture. So, in the big scheme of things, the festival did serve its purpose of exposing people to Japanese culture while being entertaining. I do wish people could have acted with more care for others, or even done a little research beforehand, but it looked like most people had a good time and maybe even learned something new. And as someone who has singlehandedly taken it on myself to attempt the same goal (which is a post for next time), I think the Morikami is doing a pretty decent job.






Mt. Fuji — January 20, 2013






Kinkakuji — January 12, 2013


Just thought I’d clear this up once and for all.

Since beginning Korean language classes, several of my fellow ETA’s have commented on the fact that I’m so good at picking up the language. “Well, you’re a linguist,” they say. “It’s easier for you.”

This has also come up a few times while I was trying to tutor someone. I could understand her frustration — being under a lot of pressure to learn a language so unlike English, in so short a time span, can really do a number on you. At the same time, “you’re a linguist” was quickly becoming this person’s number one excuse as to why I “got it” and she “didn’t.”

1. Linguists are not professional language learners.

As the slideshow emphasized, we are scientists. I didn’t get my degree by learning Japanese; I earned it by conducting research and experiments, by memorizing statistics and writing formulas. Though yes, having a background in a foreign language was one requirement of the program. In any case, while I can’t tell you the Quechua word for “antidisestablishmentarianism,” I can give you such trivia as this:

  • Fewer than 9% of the world’s languages do not have fricatives.
  • Object-Subject-Verb is one of six potential word orders in language, yet there are perhaps only 5 languages in the world that use it — close to 0%.
  • In linguist speak, “a lower low-central unrounded oral vowel followed by a voiceless grooved aspirated alveo-palatal affricate with egressive lung air followed by an extended high back rounded oral vowel” is the description for a sneeze.

2. Being a linguist doesn’t entail having epic language learning skills.

We have to memorize vocabulary and practice our grammar and verb conjugations just like everyone else. Being a linguist does not mean that every aspect of language learning suddenly becomes easy. Sure, I can tell you that the Korean ㅃ is a tense, non-aspirated, voiced bilabial stop — but does that automatically mean I can pronounce it? And I’m not even physically capable of articulating that lovely French R, which is actually a voiced uvular fricative.

Likewise, does knowing that a language is agglutinative and that its word order is Subject-Object-Verb mean that I automatically know how to add and conjugate each individual verb ending?

That’s not to say that having some familiarity with the concepts doesn’t help. But that’s not something you get solely from studying Linguistics, either…

3. Not being a linguist does not mean you are doomed to forever live in a linguist’s shadow.

First, for most any language you can take a formal class on, there is a multitude of textbooks you can use, and each takes a different approach. I have one Korean textbook, for instance, that actually takes a lot of time to explain just the concepts in Korean that are completely foreign to monolingual English speakers. If I didn’t have a background in Japanese, this would be my number one resource.

Second, if you are fluent, near-fluent, or even conversational in just one language other than your native tongue, picking up your third language will be a lot easier because you now have about twice as many neural connections in your brain than a monolingual — congrats! And for every language you add on, you build more connections. It just keeps getting easier!

Finally, there is one thing I will concede to here: things do tend to click and stick with me in class more than with my classmates, and not just because I read ahead and know Japanese.

Yes, it is because I am a linguist — I love language! I get excited for real-life encounters with linguistic phenomena I’ve read about, as well as those that are completely new to me. I love the speech patterns of native speakers, and so I notice their intonation and pronunciation and hence acquire it more quickly myself. I also love comparing Korean with Japanese because, guess what one of the greatest debates of the last decade was? The historical relationship between them! Now I can examine the research of my linguistic heroes right in the field!

You don’t need to have a degree in Linguists to find the subject fascinating, though. Think about it: of all the billions of people on this planet, not one of us lacks a language. Whether we use our mouths, our hands, writing, dance, you name it — we all need and use language every day. Everything we will ever want to communicate to another living being must be done in language. And yet so many of us are barred from doing so because our arbitrary collections of sounds and symbols doesn’t match those used by speakers of other languages. Heck, even sharing a language can’t avoid all miscommunications!

But without these thousands and thousands of languages, entire cultures wouldn’t exist. With every language lost to time, assimilation, or prestige, we also lose words carrying concepts that exist in no other language. No German, no schadenfreude. No Korean, no neunchi.

Feeling more inspired to learn a new language? I’m going to open this up:

What language would you like to learn, and what is its appeal to you? 









Use it or Lose it: a Linguist’s Downfall

I recently had a job interview for a certain program that would allow me to teach English in Japan. For the most part, I think it went okay — it’s hard to evaluate with no basis for comparison — but the part that stuck out the most to me was the Random Japanese Quiz my interviewers put me through.

This quiz consisted of several parts: reading a short paragraph, first silently and then aloud; then answering a couple questions by quoting the passage; then answering a couple questions about myself. The weird thing was that after this, the next question was referencing the paragraph again.

It was this that killed me.

“Kimi no shumi wa nan desu ka?” (What are your hobbies?)

“Shousetsu wo kaku koto ya yosakoi wo odoru koto desu.” (Writing novels and dancing yosakoi.)

No problem. They seemed impressed with both hobbies, and even asked what kind of novels I write.

“Ah… Fantashii…”

“Omoshiroi desu ne! Saa, mata bun wo mite kudasai.” (That’s so interesting! Now, please look at the reading again.) “Qhnoufb hovbo oxo snofuieh jvnodu, ncoufn sofo fni nidos snofno ouplcoos dobnooawei?”

I want to say that they intentionally asked questions that were above my self-proclaimed competency level, but honestly I don’t know. The point is, I caught particles and nothing else — the question was as gibberish to me as Martian.

Now, up until that point, everything had been perfectly comprehensible. It was actually hard to believe that all of a sudden, my language skills had failed me. Even harder was having to admit that I couldn’t understand the question at all, even after the interviewer repeated it.

Unfortunately, though, it makes sense. While I did spend all of 2011 tutoring Japanese at my university, it was mainly the lower level students who came in. Hence, my own skills were preserved up to a certain point. But it’s been two and a half years (almost to the day) since I’ve been to use anything more complicated. Even on my trip back to Kansai this past winter, I only had to stretch my skills a little to have effective conversations. My old textbooks sit on the bookcase, longing to be used. I know better than to try picking them up again while I’m still struggling through grad school, teaching, Japan Club activities, and trying to finish a novel.

At the same time, I love the Japanese language; I don’t want to lose any more of it.

Proposition time!

My greatest weakness right now seems to be vocabulary. Well, it just so happens that I have a program called Anki, a free flash-card-like study program, on my laptop. Ages ago I downloaded a set for it that contains all the recommended vocabulary for the JLPT level 2.

Vocabulary Solution: Leave Anki open 24/7 and use it at least 10 minutes a day.

After vocab, my next biggest weakness is kanji. Fortunately, Anki can help me solve that problem, too.

Kanji Solution: Choose ten words from each Anki review and write three columns’ worth of each of their kanji at least once a week. (Saturday mornings, most likely.)

Actually, my weakest point is speaking, but unless I can A) kidnap a sensei and convert her into an iPhone app or B) take the bus to a conversation group every Sunday, there’s really not much I can do about that. For now, the above steps are the ones I’m going to start taking until graduation, and hopefully they’ll help.

By the way, if any of my readers have had the same problem and know some quick and easy tips to regain proficiency, I’d love to hear them! Also, if you guys know of any way to mark my progress, that would also help a lot. 🙂

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