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Ask Dr. Khatz: Sidetracked in Salt Lake, Part 1

Maddie and Khatz go way back to carefree university days when they would put in long chocolate-milk-fueled hours in the underground computer laboratory hacking away at never-ending oceans of code. Now, having landed the most awesome and lucrative job of video game programmer, it would seem Maddie has it all…

There’s one dream, however, that has remained elusively beyond the reach of this avid anime fan, gamer, and cosplay seamstress–the dream of learning Japanese. In this extensive conversation adapted from an IM chat, Khatz plays language therapist to the distressed would-be AJATTeer.

I always get sidetracked and fail

Maddie: Khatz…

Khatz: Yes, Maddiekins?

M: Can I really teach myself Japanese? I’ve attempted a couple times, but I always get sidetracked and fail…and then I gotta start over when I try again. It’s something I want to do, but I feel like if I really wanted it, I’d try harder…

K: Go on… I’m hearing you… Multiple failed attempts, leading to evidence for low confidence in this field… What were your previous attempts like? What did you do? How did it feel?

M: Well, I’ve never gotten super far… The first time, I took a “class” that my friend had at my old job. We learned the hiragana and katanana, and then she started teaching us basic phrases and things. But few were very into it, and she got busy and fed up, and so that stopped.

Then I decided about a year ago that I really, really was gonna do this. So I started learning the hiragana and katana again, and I bought that learning kanji book that you said to get, but never really cracked it. Before I’d even gotten a handle on the basic symbols [kana] again, I got sidetracked and stopped…not sure why…I think other things just got in the way.

I think it often feels daunting and overwhelming… I’ve never properly learned another language. When I took German in high school, I had 5 teachers in 3 years. I didn’t come away with much at all. We were all terrible my 3rd year, and my teacher was very frustrated with us…

K: OK…daunting…no previous success experience…getting sidetracked…teachers giving up on you…apparent long-term efforts with zero gain in German…

Tell me more about your mother I mean the daunting feelings with Japanese…

M: Well, I gotta learn a whole new writing system. At least I have things I actually want to read/listen to in Japanese, but I don’t want to just learn to speak, or just learn to listen, or something like that. I really need to learn to do it all — read, write, speak and understand.

K: Writing system…ok… At the same time, you do want to do it all…so the desire is all there…

M: Yeah, it is. I would have loved to go to the Trigun Premier and have even an inkling of what was going on…oh, and be able to watch anime without having my eyes glued to the screen so I can read the subtitles (yes, I know there are dubs, but a) they aren’t on Hulu, and b) the Japanese voice actors are better and you know it).

K: lol… Japanese voice actors are the stuff.

I’m an easy-out kinda person

K: How did you feel when you were practicing? or in class? Were you happy? Was it fun?

M: I think it was fun. But I’m unfortunately an easy-out kinda person. That’s why I watch TV and play video games so much — it’s easy to just turn it on, or plug it in and go with it; it’s just right there.

K: Hehe. Me too 😀

M: I love doing my cosplay, but even that is sometimes hard to get motivated on. In general, I have a hard time getting motivated on things where I want a result, but it will be weeks or months before I actually see any real results.

K: Definitely.

M: I mean, I’ll work on it for a while, even be really good for a few weeks, but then work will get crazy, or I’ll go out of town, and it throws me off, and then I forget, and it’s not part of my routine, and then 3 weeks later, I’ll be like “oh yeah, I was gonna do that”, but by that time, it feels like I’m starting from scratch, so I’ll be like “oh, well, I’ll start that when I’ve got time”…

K: How often do you watch anime by the way, Mads? Every day…?

M: I really only watch it when my friends get together. I’d watch it more if I could watch and do something else, but even though there’s hundreds of hours for free on Hulu, I haven’t gotten into anything ‘cause it’s such a huge commitment… And I can’t watch anime while playing a video game like I can with my stupid US shows.

K: How come?

M: They are subbed, not dubbed, and so I have to watch all the time to read and know what’s going on. I listen to TV more than I watch it, in general. There are about 4 or 5 shows that I will actually sit and watch, and the rest are mostly empty-apartment filler. I watch a lot of shows, but very few do I really care about.

Language-learning was harder than anything else in school

K: Anything else from your language-learning experience that sticks in your mind?

M: I know I had a much harder time with it than just about anything else in school. I’d forget words a lot — blunt memorization isn’t any fun, and in some ways it almost felt like cheating? I dunno how to exactly explain that, but yeah, for German, I certainly never drilled or memorized as much as I should have.

K: Almost felt like cheating? Why did it feel like cheating?

M: Well, cheating is not the right word for it… It was probably more along the lines of I rarely just had to memorize stuff before, so it didn’t feel right? It was many years ago, so I’m extrapolating a bit, but I do remember it being harder than anything else, and then after we lost our teacher half way through, and the next two were so terrible (one of them didn’t even speak German), then after that first year, we were all pretty crushed.

K: Yeah, you guys were abandoned. What good experiences have you had with language-learning?

M: None?

No, I’m trying to think… I’ve never talked to anyone in a foreign language. I’ve been able to read, like, the tags on some of the clothes I bought in Japan, but that was very context-specific.

K: Oh yeah? What did they say?

M: Polyester.

K: ポリエステル

M: Yeah, that. I can recognize enough of the characters to, in context, know that that says “polyester”.

By learning about Japanese, I was able to mispronounce my own language in a way that was easier for them to understand? I doubt that counts…

K: lol… In Khatz’s world, that TOTALLY counts btw 😀

M: On my first round through Japanese “class” I was able to put together my first complete, original sentence. I think I can still remember it… maybe.

You’ve been abused

K: Have you read any of, and if so, what have you read of it? (Just so we can save you hearing things you already know :))

M: I’ve read some of it. It’s been a year, though. I know your view of “you can do anything, just not everything”, and your confidence that anyone can do this.

K: ‘k…I’m about to go into soapbox mode…but stop me if you have any questions or objections or…just get bored. Especially if you get bored…

M: Ok.

K: You’ve been abused.

1) You’ve been living in America. This is a very pushily monolingual country. Many people in America are afraid of foreign languages and assume that they are only good for spying, missionary work and insulting people. All non-English speakers have had trouble passing on heritage languages — Italians, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, even Hispanics.

2) And then there was the German class thing. You kids were screwed over quite royally there…irresponsible adults…

M: Well, if you know other languages, or several languages, it can be seen as a mark of intelligence, but that isn’t always good in America, either, like it’s a waste…

K: lol Exactly. Richard Hofstadter talks about a lot of the issues behind that in Anti-Intellectualism In American Life.

3) And then there’s all the negative brainwashing about language-learning in general and Asian languages in particular: “hard” … “different” … “need to be smart” … “age” this … “age” that.

But all that’s in the past now. We can de-allocate that from memory, which leaves us with you here and now…

Just leave Japanese on

K: Earlier you talked about wanting results in Japanese…feeling frustrated…feeling daunted. So you watch some Hulu…or listen to American TV or whatever… Basically, you go practice English. Why not just leave Japanese on while you game?

M: ‘Cause I don’t understand it?

K: Because you don’t understand it…ok…

Say you were to…somehow…have a kid today…by miraculous conception. Would you refuse to speak to the kid in English because she does not understand?

M: lolz, yeah, no.

K: Why do you refuse to allow the Japanese child called マッディー to listen to her native language — because she doesn’t understand? Why does American Maddie get special treatment? Is it because マッディー is Asian? 😛

M: Can I really pick up that much just by listening? I’ve been able to hear phrases that I’ve learned in my “classes”, but I don’t feel like I’ve really picked up on much that I didn’t know before-hand, even though I’ve watched anime in Japanese, with the English subs. I know people have just watched enough in a foreign language to pick it up, but that hasn’t seemed to work for me all that much. Maybe I just haven’t given it a real chance, though.

K: Bingo. (Cute Girls, Mathematics, Language)

Let’s say you had this baby today, this miraculous baby, and you let her listen to English once a week with friends and took her to English class a couple hours a week…but then nothing happened. Would you give up and say “she just can’t pick up the language”? (rhetorical question)

And that whole watching-Japanese-with-English-subs thing… This is why I recommend people turn off the subs, really — or at least keep them off most of the time. Because I found something interesting… When I would watch anime with subs, back before I could understand it, I found that I would RECALL the anime all in English. Even though I watched it subbed…with Japanese voices…the voices would play in my mind completely in English. But maybe that was just me…

M: Yeah, I do the same.

K: Oh, you too?!

M: But I often “hear” text.

K: Okay…next order of business. So you want results…

(to be continued…)

Don’t miss the next installment, in which Dr. Khatz warns of the dangers of intellectualizing language-learning, extols the virtues of learning in context, and explains why it is important to cut off people that don’t accept your cosplay infatuation.