Soon after I got to Japan I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea for learning Japanese. Because was in Niigata, and Niigata was nicknamed “Snow Country” (Yukiguni) I would study Japanese by studying Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Yukiguni (雪国) in both English and Japanese. (I remember a guy doing this with a novel when I was in Albania and it seemed to work for him.)
This idea crashed and burned fairly quickly and all because of a train. Snow Country is famous for its simple opening line: “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” In Japanese it looks like this: 国境の長いトンネルを抜けると、雪国であった.
I broke out a dictionary (more on that later) and started translating:
Somehow, someway, I’d missed the train. I went through each word several times trying to find the train. I copied the words onto paper and double checked to see if I’d missed a word. I even got a different copy of the book in case there was a mistake in the version I had. Eventually I gave up and asked Ms. Ogura, my Japanese colleague for help,
Me–Umm, excuse me, Ms. O. Where’s the train?”
Ms. O–It’s implied.
Me–It can’t be implied. It’s the opening line of the novel. It’s like walking up to a stranger and saying “guess my name” and never telling them your name.
Ms. O–Because it’s トンネル (tonneru) in katakana, we know it’s a train tunnel.
Me–That doesn’t mean he’s on a train. He could be walking out of the tunnel.
Ms. O–Why would he be walking in a train tunnel?
Me–How do you know it’s “he”? (Remind me again: why don’t I get invited to parties?)
Something like that. Either way I threw that idea aside, along with the Japanese version of the book, which actually turned out to be a good idea. Sort of.
Back at university when I attempted Spanish (and for one semester, Latin) my bad habit was relying on the dictionary too much rather than the context of the sentence. This meant I’d look up every other word and feel as if I wasn’t making any progress through the assignment. When I went to speak, the introvert would take over and all the grammar rules would lock up in my head (If I were to use the subjunctive at this point in the conversation I would look impressive. If I were capable of understanding the subjunctive I would remember how to use it.) The result was me blabbering on about nothing, usually with a bad accent.
In Japan, I eventually learned to just try to speak more, but the perfectionist would eventaully take over as the other person got faster and faster and the panic and the brain lock would ensue. I was also torn between reading Japanese and spent a lot of time studying the four Japanese alphabets and getting nowhere.
My solution was to pretty much punt and marry a woman whose English was better than my English. I know it’s lazy, but it works when your goal is never studying.