In the darkness the trees are full of starlight (henwy) wrote,
In the darkness the trees are full of starlight

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I've never been any good at languages. The picking up of a language usually requires a more or less continuous dedication that I've never quite managed. Instead, I have this tendency to pick up information in spurts and then stuff it into the noggin for later short term regurgitation. It's very seldom that I actually 'exercise' the knowledge which I imagine is what is necessary for real language acquisition. It's why people often say that the easiest way to pick up a language is total immersion. It's the scholastic equivalent of throwing a kid into the deep end of the pool to teach them how to swim. Or, perhaps more aptly if you're just not any good at it, like jumping off a building and hoping you'll somehow discover the secret of flight on the way down.

Lately, I've come to the conclusion that I'm actually pretty lucky that I grew up in the States and picked up English as opposed to having to learn it as a second language. For one, it's well understood that we Americans are provincial when it comes to foreign languages and thus no one actually expects us to learn one and many will pick up a smattering of English instead. Secondly, I've been thinking lately about just how screwed up spoken English really is. Most other languages generally have a standard alphabet and one distinct phoneme attached to it. English on the otherhand is just screwy with long vowel sounds, short vowel sounds, and plenty of times when nothing about the pronunciation follows the rules at all. It must be a nightmare trying to read English out loud and get it right.

About the only other language I'm familiar with that would be even harder and more screwy would be Chinese or any other tonal language. In that way, I guess I've hit the jackpot having gotten two of the screwiest fed to me when I was still young enough to absorb them without the pain and effort it would require as an adult. I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to learn Chinese at this point in time, especially given that there's usually a critical period for the detecting tonal differences. If you don't hear a tonal distinction as a kid and realize there's a meaningful difference between them, eventually you lose the ability distinguish the tone. This no doubt contributes to why so many people I've known who've asked about how to say a particular Chinese word never get it right despite repeated repetition. They simply can't hear the difference and to them it sounds like they're repeating it perfectly.

All of that being said, I still can't help but wish now that I had sucked up a few more languages when the going was easy. I'm still picking up Japanese vocabulary in drips and drabs but the sentence structure is just whacky. Both English and Chinese are Subject-Verb-Object languages and so it's what I'm used to. Japanese is Subject-Object-Verb and you wouldn't think that such a small change would screw with your thinking but it does. Not to mention Japanese is a whacky language when it comes to omissions and nuance. Words are often omitted all over the place as just being understood, which makes it almost feel from the outside like people are speaking in a personal code. The Japanese seem to fundamentally believe that the shorter a sentence is, the better it is. I really wish I could experience having it as my native tongue for a day. I'm really curious how common verbal misunderstandings are. It seems like it'd be just asking for the linguistically version of Three's Company. Once more Jack mistakes the actual subject of the sentence and hilarity ensues.

At this point, I don't know that I'll really try to pick up the language beyond just expanding vocabulary. There's not a huge point since mostly what I'd use it for is anime/manga and the groups doing fansubs and translations are really excellent at this point. About the only thing that would be spiffy, perhaps oddly, is that I can't really appreciate the music without a better understanding of the language. Some of the melodies and translated lyrics are beautiful, but it's just not the same as actually comprehending what's being sung. I wonder how long it would take for basically passive exposure to evolve into comprehension.
Tags: chinese, english, japanese, language

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