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Lessons Learned from a Life of Japanese: Language Lust and the True Meaning of Prioritization

This entry is part of 4 in the series Language And Society

“The greatest results in life are usually attained by simple means and the exercise of ordinary qualities. These may for the most part be summed in these two: common-sense and perseverance.” [Emphasis Added] Owen Feltham

The longer I have Japanese in my life, the more of a jerk I become.

Let me explain

When I was new to the game, I had great sympathy for and empathy with newbies. One time, a hapa classmate asked me how to learn (because he wanted to talk to his grandma) and I actually wrote him a detailed instructional email.

Now, my only sympathy and empathy comes from analogy: my experiences with third languages give me the beginner’s perspective I need to help novices in Japanese.

It gets weirder: logically, I know I haven’t known Japanese my whole life; I know I didn’t know it childhood. But, intuitively, I don’t really feel that way any more. In fact, my childhood memories play as well in Japanese as they do in any of the languages in which they actually happened.

My lack of empathy and sympathy isn’t a bad thing. Obviously it’s not a bad thing for me — I get to know a beautiful language, read cool books, make and keep awesome friends and even occasionally be considered cool myself (and as shallow as I may be for admitting it, it’s kinda nice).

But I don’t matter here. You do. And I submit to you that my smug sense of self-congratulation is good for you as well. I have been using Japanese for more or less my entire adult life now. That’s something not that many people who weren’t born into Japanese families get to do and talk about (yet) —  not because it’s difficult (it isn’t) but mostly because they never believed it possible. Well, I believed it possible, and here I am.

So why Is my smugness good for you? Because I have perspective now. Perspectives, really. I have wisdom born out of sheer lived experience (rather than insight and moxy, which, while they are the only forms of wisdom open to those who lack life experience, are equally powerful and awesome in their own right). It’s a wisdom gained by simple attrition rather than elevated perspicacity (that’s a real word, right?). And it’s a wisdom that no one (well, hardly anyone) else has, a wisdom whose rarity is heightened all the more because almost none of the people who have this wisdom write about it. Many people have become awesome at Japanese on their own; I’ve met a few of these kids and they rock. But precious few have documented it for the world.

Again, I’m not saying I’m awesome — I’m not — I’m just saying I’m rare, not due to any intrinsic qualities but due to the choices I had the courage and the opportunity to make and keep making. Make no mistake: this is not a boast or a declaration of superiority. Quite the opposite. I am just a person who executed an algorithm. Much as I wish I were, I am not special: I always have and always will have room to improve. Personal development is a process, a lifestyle, a subscription, not a result, event or purchase. On the surface, this seems horrible — shades of Sisyphus — but if you think about it for more than ten seconds, you realize that it also means there’s always something to do; we’re never done, and that’s wonderful! It’s a game that you can’t “beat”, it has no “end”: the point isn’t to “finish” it, but to enjoy it.

Anyway, back on topic. Experience, wisdom, blah blah blah.

So, yah, there is a feeling I have now. Japanese comes out of me largely unconsciously. I wield it like a well-worn sword. It is an extension of me. It is me. Only consistent exposure can produce and maintain this state. If you lost contact with English long enough, you would lose it, too.

What is my point here?

My point is that I once, borrowing the words of KIN Birei, Japanese-Taiwanese hardlady, compared to well-honed language ability to a sharp kitchen knife and underdeveloped ability to a blunt one.

But it ain’t like that at all.

Well-developed language ability is not a sharp knife. It’s the effing Green Destiny from “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”. It’s the Harusame(?) 1 Blade from Gintama. It’s the friggin’ Katana of Destiny. And underdeveloped ability is….yes, a blunt, rusty kitchen knife.

Now, by way of sincere disclaimer, let me lay his out for you: I am not against polyglotism (polyglottery?) in any way, shape or form (OK, that’s not entirely correct:  I am against it in a few, but certainly not most or all, ways, shapes and forms). I have travelled enough to know that even knowing some languages badly is useful; nothing gets you out of a pinch better than some well-placed Arabic or Russian or Tamil. Nothing softens hearts like a Czech tongue twister or a Farsi phrase.

But I have also lived enough to know that depth is magical and irreplaceable. Knowing a phrase will break the ice, yes, but sharing intentional humor and stories and ideas will let you go beyond the surface and bore to the core (dive to the hive? I dunno, man), that is, form deep, strong, fun and lasting relationships — not with everyone, mind you, humans are still humans — but when and with whom it counts, namely, great people whom you like and who like you. Also, more directly, deeply developed language ability will get you want with greater speed and accuracy.

You don’t have to suppress your language lust altogether, just dial down the width and dial up the depth a bit. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Don’t try to butter every slice in the loaf. Go deep, and many years from now, you won’t be feeling regret for the languages that “got away” but deep gratitude for the one or two you stuck closest to.

As Barack would say, “let me be clear”: I don’t believe in zero sum games. Not because none exist but because many (most?) are actually false dichotomies in disguise — Paul Erlich-style doomer bullshizzle. But your time is a bit of zero sum game. Every moment you spend on one language is a moment you aren’t spending on every other language.

The solution, though, is not to treat each language equally — don’t give them equal time! — but to treat each language unequally. Unequally, but fairly and with the dignity it deserves. Don’t expect too much from your low-priority languages; don’t give too little to your high-priority languages. That is how to be fair to the languages and to yourself.

When prioritizing, it will definitely help to remember what the word “priority” truly means. It comes from the word “prior”, as in “before”. “Prior” is related to “prime” meaning “first”. You see, the truth is, you will learn every language and dialect in the world that exists or has ever existed. You’re just gonna learn one before all the others. You’re just gonna learn one first. First thing in the morning, first thing in the hour. To prioritize, then, is not so much to ignore as it is to sequence.

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  1. or whatever the correct name of one of them magical swords from early seasons of Gintama is

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