- Or, Sunspace’s first taste of total-immersion language instruction *
Ever since I was in high school, I’ve been interested in Japan and the Japanese language. (There was this Japanese girl, see, she was smart and gorgeous, straight As including in math and physics, and she was a cheerleader.) I found a book on Japanese in the library and tried learning a little of it. I did an art project that included some Japanese and it got hung in the school library*. I tried karate. Much of this activity was to try to impress the girl, which completely didn’t work, but still, it opened my eyes to the wider world.
I went to university and passed on to other interests, such as electronics, art, and comics. This was around 1984, and anime was unknown to me. Time passed, I got a job, and life moved on, but my interest in Japan stayed dormant in the back of my mind.
Eventually I met a friend who was really into anime. I went to a convention, but felt decidedly out of place–most people there were much younger than me. And I most definitely am not “cute”.
There are many pieces of Japanese animation I came to like–Akira, Spirited Away, Lain, the luminously-beautiful Millennium Actress–though I was never as fanatical about it as my friend. I was looking for something larger and less sugary in my art, but not a slavish adhering to darkness either.
My friend and I spent time trying to draw anime, to draw in manga-style. The spread of manga and manga-drawing books into the mainstream bookshops around here did not escape our notice. I realised that this was just one facet of my life-long efforts to draw people, and retreated from the style to struggle with the roots of figure-drawing and story design.
I’m now out of debt and finally planning to go to a conference, the world congress of the Esperanto-speaking peoples. I’ve been trying to get to one of these conferences for the past several years, but the money was never there because of debt. There’s not enough time to save for this year’s conference, but there’s one of these conferences every year, and next year, it’s in…Yokohama!
I sensed an oppurtunity to satisfy several interests, including Esperanto, Japan and Japanese, railways, non-Abrahamic religion, travel in general. And I sensed a chance for my first real holiday in too many years**.
So I was googling around Toronto for Japanese classes a couple of weeks ago, and I found Aitas Japanese Language School. It’s in a building on Bloor Street across from the Royal Ontario Museum, so it’s easy to get to.
They teach only in Japanese. This may be called immersion, but should be called something more like “throw people in and see whether they can swim”.
They offer a free half-hour trial lesson. I booked one, and went to it Saturday.
I arrived at the school a little before 1PM. The school was on the “upper concourse” of the building. The lobby and concourse were confusing and ill-marked, but I found the school.
I want in and sat down in the waiting area. A lady walked past, bowed, and said something in Japanese. A few moments later, a man came out and gave me a form to fill out: name, address, why are you interested in the course, etc.
After a few minutes, the teacher returned, introduced himself, collected the form, and sat down with me in the waiting area to ask me a few questions. Then he showed me into the small classroom.
The teacher started with some English introduction, and then moved into Japanese-only mode. There were five characters on little cards stuck to the whiteboard, members of a larger chart off to the side. By body gesture and pantomime, he indicated that these characters had the vowel sounds: a, i, u, e, o.
We repeated them back and forth. With a gesture, he added another word: des. A des! I des! U des! E des! O des!
He added more things: a selection of little cards with pictures. Basu (bus). Biru (beer). Mizu (water). Nihon (Japan). There were more. Basu des! Biru des! Sushi des! Bento des!
Things got more complicated. Biru des ka? A tilt of the head. This was a question! Hai was yes. The teacher pantomimed asking the question and answering. Then we did it.
More parts added on. Pointing at the picture of the beer as it was stuck to the board: Korewa biru des ka? Hai, biru des.
Then, pointing at a card: Korewa nani des ka? Mizu des. Pointing at another card: Korewa nani des ka? Basu des. Nani must be like ‘what’.
Even more parts, with a new question. The teacher picks up the picture of the bus. Biru des ka? Iie. (a shake of the head–that must mean no!) Biru dewa animasen. Basu des. We did that back and forth.
Then, putting the beer card back on the table: Korewa biru des ka? Iie. Sorewa biru des! Something like a bolt of lightning happened in my head. Korewa and sorewa! That’s like here and there or this and that!
Then the teacher had me write my name on a piece of paper. He stood at the front of the room with a business card and motioned me over. He bowed and presented the card and said something (which I do not remember). He motioned me to bow and present my “card”. I presented it backward, facing me. He motioned me to rotate it.
Afterwards, the teacher and I chatted for a few moments. I think I was in a state of amazed shock at actually seeing and feeling the immersion process working. It wasn’t like translating words into English or anything; it was just building new questions and statements and figuring out how they worked, all on their own terms.
The teacher mentioned that it was necessary to memorise the characters in the chart before beginning the course. This chart I had seen before, though I did not remember its contents: it was the chart of syllables for writing native-japanese words (either hiragana or katakana, I don’t remember which).
The teacher mentioned that the course was intense and not for people who couldn’t commit themselves to the effort.
I appreciated that admission. It helped me decide that I probably won’t take it until September, even though I’ll have the money well before the next course starts in June. (I must resolve the uncertainty in my work situation before then.)
But I so want to take this. I’d never experienced full-immersion language instruction before, and the astonishing speed of the method amazed me. In only half an hour I was asking questions and getting answers! A very circumscribed set of questions and answers, to be sure, but still… I was asking questions and getting answers in Japanese! It was amazing.
Later on, I could feel myself starting to lose the knowledge, and I knew that I needed reminding. In the course I would get that reinforcement.
I now believe the stories about people learning to speak perfectly-accented German in less than two years, for example, when thanks to the wars there were trapped in Germany and had to make their way out. And I believe the testimony on the school website that has beginners writing letters in written Japanese after only eight weeks of class. (I’m sure it’s simple, child-like Japanese, but still…)
And now I get some sense of what I missed by never having French immersion when I was a kid: what possible learnings could I have achieved? How would my life have gone? What people would I have met? What oppurtunities would I have had? I so wish that my parents could have done that for me, and I’m envious of those who did have that oppurtunity. From grade eight, I studied French in the usual grammatical clasroom style, but I never achieved any sort of fluidity, or had a place to practice conversation.
Where I work and live, most people are bilingual. Shame–no, that’s too strong a word… embarassment?–and frustration at being monolingual was one reason why I wanted to learn another language.
One reason I tried Esperanto for a second language was because it was said to be easier than other languages. And maybe it is… after six years I can speak it fairly well now. I started learning it grammatically, in an email course, and later I had some grammatical classroom training and practiced it intensely through instant messaging. But I spoke it a lot, in our Esperanto club’s gatherings. There was no immersion.
Another important thing that learning another language gave me was getting over the fear of making mistakes in public. When I went to Montreal in '92 I was almost paralysed with fear at either asking for things in my extremely-limited French (“Un billet pour la métro, s’il vous plaît?”) or asking for them in English, and I said almost nothing in public for the time I was there (one very long day–I came in from Ottawa on the bus). I wonder whether I could have done this Japanese immersion trial then.
I did go back to French lessons a couple of years ago, but again, they were the traditional grammar-based classroom lessons. I had no chance to IM or speak it. Then work and other events took me away from that. I wonder what immersion teaching would be like for me with my limited knowledge of French.
But one thing’s for sure… I very much want to take this Japanese course. I even dreamed in something like Japanese on Saturday night.
[sub]It was a giant model of a pen, with the words “The Giant Pen” written on the side in English, French (“Le Grand Stylo”), and something that might have been Japanese. I did some strange things in high school**.
**And maybe my last overseas holiday, if oil prices keep doing what they’re doing. I must go while I still can.
***Including a report on the finances of the Royal Family. To this day I do not remember how or why I ended up doing that.[/sub]