I learned something new today in language class, thanks in part to the Chinese girls. One combs ones hair first, then one gets on ones bike. As soon as I entered TOPIA, the girls started pointing and giggling. Uh-oh. I didn’t know what they were on about, and assumed they just thought I was a geek or something, but when I went to the washroom I discovered my hair was a frazzled, blown-out mess. It wasn’t so much that I had a cowlick or two; it’s that my head was covered with them, and each was going in its own, unique, wind-sculpted direction. I didn’t think it was possible to have such a mess with hair as short as mine, but there you go. Anyway, when class started I thanked the girls in the most sardonic voice I could muster, but in a way I really was thankful.
In the class itself, the Chinese girls were more adept than we were, which I suppose is sort of to be expected because they’re working in Japanese all the time – we’re in Japan working in English. I’m happy I have the modicum of language that I have, because in my kind of situation the odds of achieving conversance aren’t very good. It can be done, but it’s not easy like it is at Sainte-Anne with French when you’re put in the place just for the purpose of learning another language. Not that it’s my employer’s responsibility to look out for my linguistic development interests, but I hadn’t really thought the difference through before coming here.
Anyway, the Chinese girls were a ways ahead of us, and for one of the activities the teacher had them vet our answers and the pronunciation of such. I should add that the teachers are supposed to be on a three-week rotation – we’ve only had J. once, but we’ll have her again next week. Our teacher this week is kind of hardcore – at one point I was taking a jotnote down in my notebook which later served to remind me of what I was going to write now, and she sort of facetiously but suspiciously ducked her head around to see if I was “cheating,” perhaps by passing English notes to F. We don’t use English in the classroom now, and I think this switch has come more or less at the right time.
I’m beginning to see that natural languages are more or less trade-offs in terms of the relative complexities among them. If we look at some part of another language and exclaim, “Oh! Sweet! They don’t have that, this’ll be easy!” it usually happens that there’s a related area of complexity to make up for it.
For starters, Japanese doesn’t have plurals. If you’ve ever wondered why so many old video games didn’t change from singular to plural tallies of things, now you know – the power to put these distinctions in rested with the Japanese programmers, not the English translators. At the finer game studios now, the translators and localizers are involved at an early stage and can push for “-s” or “-es” (et al.) aware counters as the game is being engineered:
“We have worked hard to gain the teams' trust and cooperation. This has allowed us to take small steps to innovate, starting from (*gasp!*) proportional fonts, support for European letters, and menu layout changes, all the way to original content for foreign versions. Lately I have worked on a system to allow singular/plural item names with proper articles--that means no more "Got 2x potion!" Now the system can automatically change grammar to match the substituted item names to display "Received an ax"/"Received two axes," or "Obtained a potion," etc. This might sound simple, but teaching Japanese programmers (who don't have articles or singular/plural in their language) how to accomplish this along with even more obscure European language grammar has been an ongoing challenge.” (From an interview with Richard Honeywood, a senior member of the Square Enix localization team.)
On the other hand, while you don’t have to worry about “one pencil,” “two pencils,” Japanese has counters, and they change depending on the object being counted. “Two pencils” and “two people” will have different forms of “two.”
The months of the year are very simple in Japanese, because they don’t really have names. They’re just numbered, “first month,” “second month,” “third month,” and so on. When I learned that I realized why some of the students I’ve taught were having trouble with naming months as opposed to numbering them. (There are traditional names, but apparently they went out of style with the shogunates.)
Likewise, the days of the month are very simple in English, because they don’t have names.
Yes, Japanese has special names for almost every day of the month. I can imagine how much fun this must be for Japanese teachers to teach preschoolers. And don’t forget the counters, and the kanji – holy crow. All we had to deal with were cardinals and ordinals (here’s a mnemonic – we use ordinals for ordering, first, second, third, etc..).
Still, it can all be taught, and if I need evidence, I can just look at the gajillions of people using the language all around me. Guess I’d better get with it, too – J. will probably be testing our knowledge of the days of the month next week.