Sunday, December 28, 2008

The less distant past

When I ask my adult students how long they have been studying English, the response always comes by way of a guilty little apology, and always sounds considerably longer than it should. At this point, I've developed my own standard response:

Teacher: Does that include junior high school and high school?
Student: Yes...
Teacher: Aha. Nope. That doesn't count.

There are exceptions to every rule, but in my experience, nothing from school actually STICKS, and I'm talking right up to undergraduate college. The point of this period isn't to teach you any more than the absolute basics; the most important thing you'll get out of high school is not who wrote "Common Sense," or how to calculate the rate of inertia in a moving object, or whether to put the comma inside or outside of the quotation marks, but rather, HOW TO LEARN. You learn how to retrieve this information when you need it, and how to filter out the garbage, and decide what's worth remembering. Unfortunately, no one actually TOLD me this until long after grade school had ended, when even college had me in its death throes. Somehow, I imagine I'd be a lot less prone to self-criticism if I'd realized that cramming for Bio 101 wasn't an insult to Mendel. I'm sure he kept notes, too. And, maybe he even doodled in the margins.

In Japan, everyone starts studying English when they hit junior high school - it's a required class, and since the curriculum is generally decided on a national level, kids don't even get a choice between other languages. As anyone who has ever been twelve can tell you (I extend this message to everyone 11 and under, of course), narrowing down a tween's or teen's choices to one is hardly the best way to foster an appreciation for said choice. Even worse, said classes are executed in the dullest manner possible, through grammar drills and reading aloud and multiple choice tests, all taught by teachers with nebulous English ability themselves. In many schools, after complaints from parents, said teachers aren't even allowed to SPEAK English. That's right - since they speak with an accent, all of the actual "teaching" is performed by ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) or, even worse, by recordings. Good intentions all the way, but it doesn't exactly make the class seem pertinent to life, especially when that life is at a stage where it revolves around a cell phone and a Nintendo DS.

I don't approve of adults beating themselves up for sleeping through more than a few childhood drill sessions. If you want to love a language, or a culture, or anything, the love has to be personal, and you've got to act on it personally, even if it doesn't make much sense at the time.

It is with great pride that I announce: I learned Japanese to save money on comic books.

Given how much money (and time, and potential) I've WASTED over the years on said comics, along with tapes, DVDs, and other tchotchkies, that statement should make O. Henry himself blush, but bear with me. The source of my Japanophilia was a certain friend from a certain summer spent at a certain day camp, which I attended because my parents toast their children's misery nightly with Tang. It was there that I discovered, at the tender age of 14, that Sailor Moon isn't REALLY a cartoon, and is thus totally OK to watch. After staunchly promising myself not to become obsessed, this time, I proceeded to join the crusade against dubbing and buy the comics.

At the time, English-translated manga was still a novelty. The selection was limited to a single shelf at the biggest bookstores, and horrifically overpriced - I still recall that the first volume of Ranma 1/2 grazed at $20. On the other hand, some of the comic book shops would occasionally stock a volume or two of the Japanese originals, and well! Well! Less than $7, on average, and the selection! When it took five or six months for a single volume of issues to merit a graphic novel release, the idea that the future sat in some little island on the other side of the world made me drool. So began the collection, aided by various online shops, eBay, and - eventually - day trips to the Japanese bookstores of New York. (I lived a two hour train ride away. Yes, I'm not helping my case here, but that was impossible from the start.) And, in the midst of this, I bought a few dictionaries, spent a few hours staring at the foreign writing system, and suddenly realized that I could read Japanese.

By the time I hit college, it was a given that I would be studying Japanese for really-reals, and would eventually make my Japan Debut. Of course, I probably should have planned it better... but, then, that's less distant than the less distant past.

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