It was the month of May 2016. I was back from home (went to celebrate Holi after 6 years) and an uncanny ennui had surrounded me. I had an year to myself (finally joining B-school in April 2017) and no matter how cliched the word “productivity” sounds, I am a sucker for it! Languages have always been my passion and after studying Spanish for 1 year in 2013 (loved a lot, retained a lot) and French for 2-3 months (hated it and as expected, retained nothing except “Fils de pute”), I firmly believe in being “Jack of all trades, master of none” as far as languages are concerned and hence I wanted to pick up a new language this time.
On one random dull day at office, something randomly hit my mind- when I had started taking Spanish classes back in 2013, an acquaintance had commented “French, spanish to sab seekhte hain, Japanese/Chinese seekho tab to thodi aag lage”. I don’t remember if I had smoked some pot the last night, but I googled “Japanese classes in Bangalore” and dialed the number of the 1st institute that came in the search results! They said that a new batch is starting the next day and asked if I would like to join. Next day was Saturday and by 12 PM, I had paid the fee and was already sitting in the classroom (the first one to do that) waiting for my Sensei (teacher). Yes, it started that randomly!
Within one hour in the class, I had realized that joining (and paying the fee too) without doing ANY homework about the language was the most stupid decision I have ever taken in my life! We were introduced to Hiragana (Japanese script) which had 46 characters. After struggling to write it while simultaneously blurting out its sound, we were given the next shock- This script can’t be used for foreign derived words, for those words we have another script called “Katakana”. Which means another set of 46 characters needed to be memorized for the same set of sounds!
By the time the class ended, I was exhausted and my head was cluttered with those characters. Next saturday came pretty soon and I was again in class silently hating myself for being spontaneous and stupid but I was not ready for another shock so soon. We were introduced to Kanjis- the chinese characters used in Japanese language which can be inserted anywhere and can be read in two (or in some cases, three or even four) different ways depending on the word and context. Whatever motivation I had to continue with this language training had vanished and I was completely clueless about what to do next (I had paid the fee afterall)
Saturdays started coming back more frequently and our textbook classes begin. I had not memorized any of the scripts and used “Romaji” (Japanese written with Roman Alphabets) to my rescue. After around 2 months (where I was a silent follower in the class most of the times) something dawned over me- I was actually able to see something written in Hiragana and Katakana script and could read it in my mind correctly! And this happened when I had not practiced writing and reading aloud (the way our Sensei asked us to do) even a single time. Immediately I understood that my “learning curve”, that was gladly enjoying itself resting on a plateau till now,had started its steep climb uphill and I would be foolish to give up at this stage and not push it forward.
I started taking more interest and part in discussion in the class and our Whatsapp group. I was travelling for around 5 hours daily for work (Hebbal-HSR on Ring road) and I started using that time to do the assignments (with everyone around staring at me) and practice the listening scripts on my phone. There were times when I used to text Sensei at wee hours of late night and she was always helpful enough to reply with the explanation first thing in the morning. Also I must point out that my batchmates at the Japanese classes were one of the most helpful and jovial people I have ever met. Right from sharing “translated notes of listening exercises” downloaded from unknown sources on internet to motivating each other when someone was falling behind, we had a ball of a time on those saturdays.
Japanese (or for that matter any Oriental language) becomes difficult to learn because of the script. The last time we learnt a script and conditioned our mind to make a particular sound while reading a particular character, was when we were kids. As an adult, it is a challenging task to train your brain and force it to recognize a new character and relate it with a particular sound.
I had many bottlenecks during the training that gave me sleepless nights- “e” and “na” adjectives, “counters” (those who have learnt Japanese will agree that memorizing counters can make you weep), “informal forms” and so on. But a little bit of perseverance and a lot of help from my batchmates kept my ship sailing somehow.
My JLPT N5 exam was on 4th December and attempting it was another experience. By this time I had learnt 800 words, 120 Kanji characters and numerous grammar structures and now it was time to test all these in limited time. Reading & Listening parts were difficult, the time limit was harsh but I had an unexplained thrill while attempting the exam- the feeling of reading a paragraph in a script which is unfamiliar to most of the other people, making sense of it and then answering the questions asked on it, all of these acts gave me an absurd “happy high”
I don’t remember being this happy even after my 10th Board results, when I got my JLPT N5 results on 24th Jan 2017 and I passed it. I don’t know if I will continue learning this language or if I will attempt the next level exams but one thing of which I am sure is that these six months gave me perspective, improved my intuitive and cognitive abilities and made me believe that I can pick up something completely new and unrelated to anything I have done before and still ace it with a bit of effort, and can force to work that area of my brain that was shut years ago. At the end I would like to quote one of my favorite authors Jhumpa Lahiri whose book “In Other Words” is a must read for anyone who is even mildly interested in languages-
“A foreign language can signify a total separation. It can represent, even today, the ferocity of our ignorance. To write in a new language, to penetrate its heart, no technology helps. You can’t accelerate the process, you can’t abbreviate it. The pace is slow, hesitant, there are no shortcuts. The better I understand the language, the more confusing it is. The closer I get, the farther away I am”