Japanese Journal 1: My Linguistic Background

My native language is English, like most people who live in America. However, unlike most people who live in America—and probably unlike most people who live in any country—I had an interesting choice in second language: Latin.

I spent around ten years studying Latin, starting with Rosetta Stone Latin (yes, that exists), and culminating in the AP test: a high-stakes exam taken in American high school that’s equivalent to a college course. If you asked me to write an essay in Latin, even now—when I haven’t touched a single Latin word for nine months—I could probably do it. Well… if you let me use a dictionary to supplement the vocabulary I’ve forgotten, I could.

Basically, to the extent that a person can be fluent in a dead language, I was. (Don’t believe me? I got a 3 on the Latin AP exam. I got the exact same score on the English AP, which I took in the same year.)

To be fair, dead languages are exactly like living ones in most major areas. They’ve got grammar and writing systems and vocabulary. Even pronunciation! Some scholars, who obviously have nothing better to do with their time, have reverse-engineered Latin pronunciation from root words and poetry. There is only one thing dead languages don’t have. Conversation.

In all my time studying and speaking Latin, I never had a single conversation in it. I translated Vergil’s Aeneid and Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and yet I don’t even know how a Roman would say “um”. They never wrote it down!

This gives me a very strange handicap when I try to learn a third language, because my third language, like my first, is living. I know how to say “um” in Japanese, because there are real Japanese people I can talk to who say “um”. (Well, えと.) And in my third language, I can have conversations.

The problem with conversations is that they happen fast. When you write, there’s a moment where you can stop to consider what word you want to use. When you write, you can go back to edit what you’ve already put to paper. But when you talk, there’s none of that. You have no time to think, and it’s all permanent.

My brain, which is used to having time to think, does not like this.

“What,” my language-processing center yells at me, “are you asking me to do? When you made me learn a language before, you never made me come up with words so quickly. You gave me a moment to think, okay, which word do I use here. You’re moving your mouth too fast! I can’t keep up!”

I pat my language-processor on the head to try and calm it down. I say to it, “You seem to do it perfectly fine when I speak English.”

At this point, my language-processor storms off in a huff and refuses to speak to me anymore.

I write this dialogue because there seem to be two types of language learners: absolute beginners, who have no idea what fluency in a language looks like, and seasoned language veterans, who know what fluency looks like and just have to figure out how to get there with this new language.

I’m in a strange middle-ground. I can tell you exactly where I stand on the fluency scale as it relates to reading comprehension, translation, or listening. But if you ask me about conversation, I have no idea where I stand (though I assume it’s towards the very bottom). Further, I have no idea how to improve.

From here on out, I’ll be cataloguing my journey of trying to figure out how to do the fluent-in-a-living-language thing. All such posts will go in the category “japanese”.

I tried to not write this for some time, but unfortunately, I have too many thoughts and my hands can’t stay off the keys. I believe my thoughts are restless ghosts who wrongfully inhabit my brain and desperately wish to be somewhere, anywhere, else. So, I’m giving them a home on this electronic page. I can only hope that these restless spirits may become useful to someone.

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