Posted by: Teacher Peter | April 1, 2010

Deciphering the Code

I started unraveling the code as soon as we got the assignment.

A week later we had books, audio files, and even enrolled in a class.

The first word I learned was “word”.

Later came such niceties as numbers, hello, goodbye, thankyou.

Next I learned fish and fish, noodle, rice, eat, drink, “good job” or “pour some oil on it.”

Learning my fourth language has truly been an adventure.

1. I learned English as a baby, as I was born in New York City.

2. I started Spanish in 7th grade. By my senior year, when I didn’t make the cut for AP Spanish, I decided I wasn’t good at languages.

3.I started studying Japanese the moment I learned, in February of 1997, that I would be living and teaching there. At first, in my home environment, it didn’t stick. After arrival, I learned what I needed from dictionaries, workbooks, Berlitz CD-Roms, but mostly through immersion like a baby. I eavesdropped on everybody. I babbled constantly even when I wasn’t sure of what I was saying. In months, I was capable of conversation with strangers on trains.

Being the only non-Japanese person in a town of 7,000 certainly had it’s advantages.

My first summer in Japan, I had needed a dictionary to communicate one-word survival phrases to my kocho-sensei.

My second summer in Japan, I enrolled in an intensive grammar course in Kyoto, the old capitol. Finally, I was able to reform my caveman communication constructs with such novel constructs as conjunctions, simultaneous actions, and conditional phrases.

But I never really learned how to read and write. Conversation was my main goal during my two years in Japan. After all, who did I have to write letters to? Any emails I composed would most easily be in Romaji and while I had a passing interest in reading Manga, I never became quite obsessed.

Japanese has three alphabets: 1. Hiragana, a syllabary of 49 symbols for Japanese words. 2. Katakana, a syllabary of 49 symbols for “foreign” words and 3. Kanji: Chinese characters.

4. Nearly 13 years after my language adventure with Japanese, my journey brings me back to its roots: Mandarin and Chinese characters. This time around, I have decided that I want to learn how to read and write from the start. Given my loquacious nature, the listening and speaking come much easier to me. It takes extra effort and study to learn to read and write but as a lover of language it’s still more like play.

Photo caption: a picture of me wearing traditional ancient Korean scholarly dress. The photo was taken circa 1998 at a museum in Hawaii. All museums and other learning environments should have dress-up and dramatic play!

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