Connecting through language
J A P A N
Learning languages is supposed to be easiest as a kid, right? But what happens when you are no longer a child…do you resign yourself to the languages you know or is it worth learning another language as an adult?
Growing up, we spoke English. Like many American households, English was the common ground between my roots of Dutch, English, and Italian. Like many other families, my family aimed to be American. And while I can’t entirely fault my grandparents generation for this desire to fit in, I took an interest in culture at a young age. After years of futile study of French, I committed myself to learning Italian as an adult. It is part of my heritage and even more so, I really enjoy spending time in Italy. And while there are plenty of younger people in Italy who speak English, if I wanted to talk to the older generation I needed to learn Italian. And I did.
My Italian is by no means perfect, but it works. And unlike my Swiss friends who easily switch between five languages, I’m happy to have English, Italian, and a little French under my belt. But my Japanese is an entirely different story.
When I travelled to Japan for the first time, the language barrier seemed impossible to penetrate. For those who are not family with any Japanese, other than being a bunch of cool looking tattoos, there are three main alphabets: Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji. Additionally there are older characters mixed in. Last year, while in Kyoto I purchased a few woodblock stamps, simply for their graphic beauty. I asked the shop owner what they meant and he said,
- The first one means rice.
- The second one is an emblem for a high school.
- The third means number 2 (a little obvious, as there was an actual 2 above the character)
- The last one he said…hmmm, “…it is an old character, I don’t know what this means.”
I must admit, the idea that there are words and signs in plain sight that people can’t read intrigues me. It speaks to the age of a culture. It is amazing. In a way its a bit like seeing Latin on buildings in Italy.
Last year, my goal was to add three new words to my vocabulary and here’s what we came home with:
- Noren (暖簾) are traditional Japanese fabric dividers, hung between rooms, on walls, in doorways, or in windows. They usually have one or more vertical slits cut from the bottom to nearly the top of the fabric, allowing for easier passage or viewing. Practical understanding: Noren are hung when the shops are open. It’s a funny game of hide and seek that can be played with a noren. When the shop is closed, the noren are taken inside. When it is open, they hang out front and offer visitors a wonderful opportunity to get all tangled up and confused.
- Tsugi means “next.” Now why on earth would I learn the word next? If you recall, last year I had an exhibition and presentation at the Leica Store Kyoto. Much of the audience for the presentation were locals. The talk was translated into Japanese as I went along and “tsugi” allowed everyone to know we were going to the next slide. Not exactly high level language skills, but the one word went a long way and got a few giggles out of the staff.
- Toriaezu birru, this represents the fullest extent of my Japanese language skills…a staggering two words, side by side and as you can guess “birru” means beer. The expression is used when deciding what everyone will drink and it a bit like “alright, let’s do beer.” It came in handy more than I expected and it has a touch of added humor when delivered by a guy from NYC with a beard.