Thinking in Language

No matter how much I advance in Japanese I still make mistakes at the most basic levels.  It’s rather embarrassing.  This happened just recently when I couldn’t even say “it’s warm in the school” correctly.  However, let’s dissect this a minute.

I think what gets lost on many people is that you tend to see the world around you through the filter of your native language.  This is what makes learning a new language so important, fun, and difficult.  Think to yourself about where you are, what you’re doing and the immediate environment around you.  Just take 10 seconds or so to do so.  Got it?

Now, come to the stunning realization that approximately 99.7% of the world’s population thinks about that room differently than you do.  (Based on ever-accurate Wikipedia information that about 330 million people speak English as their native language).  No wonder why we can’t get along with each other successfully.   A speaker of a different language evaluates the room similar to you but might process the information differently.

I used to have a supervisor that loved to remind us that a certain Native American language has 27 different ways to say “go”.  It depends on if you’re moving toward or away from your own house, by whom you are accompanied, what time of day it is, and other factors.  Do you think they process “I went to the store” in the same way as you do?  Do you think “going to the store” has the same implications to that person as it does to you? 

Back to me to explain this a little more:  In English you would say “it’s warm in the school” to indicate that the inside of the building and its surrounding air is a comfortable temperature.  Alternatively, you might have opted for the simplified “it’s warm in here”.  If you wanted to indicate the building itself is warm (as in the walls, etc.) you would simply say “the school is warm”.  Unless my English abilities have eroded immensely I believe we can all agree that’s accurate.

Now, in Japanese you would indicate the temperature in the school simply by saying “as for the school, it’s warm”. (Translating Japanese directly is awful, but that’s the closest we’ll get)  I’m still at that point where I think in English and translate to Japanese, so in my head I was searching for “in the school” when it not only was unneeded but incorrect.  This is one of the most difficult things about learning a new language – overcoming the way you internalize language.  Likewise, a Japanese person would say something like “outside is cold today”.  They have no concept of the English all-purpose “it”, as in “it’s cold outside”. 

Another common example comes when speaking about eating animals.  In English there is a HUGE difference between “I like horse” and “I like horses”.  In Japanese, both are the same exact thing, “as for horses, I like them.”  A Japanese person’s way of internalizing the language means there’s no difference between liking horse and liking horses.  If you want to talk about horse meat then talk about horse meat, not the animal horse.  This also means they get a kick out of it when I say “I ate chicken last night” in Japanese.  What I’m actually saying is I grabbed a live chicken, bit off its head and went to town gorging myself. 

I read an article in a journal about 2 years ago.  It was written by a Japanese-American girl (why is everyone under  my age a “girl” or a “boy”?) who was born in the U.S. to Japanese parents, moved to Japan in her teens, moved back to America, and was at the time of the article working and living in Japan.  In short, her story went something like this:

Her Japanese friends knew her as one person, her foreigner friends as another person.  When she would go out with the two groups at the same time her Japanese friends would always have comments afterward about what they noticed.  Her Japanese friends explained that as she would speak English with the foreigners she would appear to be a different person entirely.  Suddenly, the reserved, somewhat shy girl would come alive with confidence, boldness and an overall aura of “gaijin power”.  She never gave much thought to this until she noticed her English-speaking friends making the reverse statement.  What she came to realize is that she was adapting aspects of the culture of each language she would speak, while she was speaking them.  In Japanese, overloaded with its focus on different differential relationships and such she was polite, shy, reserved and quiet.  In English, with its unilateral treatment of everyone and everything, she was the opposite. 

This is a larger issue (the relationship between language and culture) but the basic point is that the way you see the world is largely defined by the language you speak. 

The other day I was trying to teach “bless you” to the kids.  My helper teacher was obsessed with trying to figure out the translation of “bless you”.  I told her it was just something you say after someone sneezes; it’s polite but carries no real meaning.  At least not anymore.  She would have none of it.  To her there must be a meaning.  This is because everything in Japanese has a meaning.  Even onomatopoeia has a meaning.  She was sure it meant the Japanese equivalent of “get well soon”, which I insisted was most definitely not the translation.  To Japanese people a sneeze means one has the cold. 

To stretch the point a bit but illustrate what I’m getting at:  All words in Japanese have a meaning.  This is how they see the world.  Therefore, everything has meaning.  A sneeze means you have a cold.  In English many words have no meaning but are place holders (think “ouch”).  So, “sometimes a rose is just a rose”, right?  A sneeze is just a damn sneeze, saying “get well” comes off as presumptuous and ridiculous.

Just some food for thought.



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