Language fluency is a weird thing.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, my Japanese is good — damn good. It better be, after all the time and effort I’ve put into it. I can deal with tech support, harrass the cable guy and converse with short-tempered doctors, all in Japanese.

I have an insatiable appetite for learning. I read everything from dictionaries to food labels to internet gossip sites. I went through a period where I was obsessed with kanji etymology, triggered by the realization that 空 (sky) is 穴 (hole) with a carpenter’s square, which struck me as rather bizarre. Another phase found me fascinated with onomatopoeia (for which I recommend 現代擬音語擬態語用法辞典). I once read nothing but porn magazines for two months, till I’d learned all the requisite terminology and was really sick of porn.

Thanks to CSI, I can rattle off terms like “bullet casings” and “gunpowder residue.” I learned the word for “night-vision goggles” after watching Silence of the Lambs, and still remember that the dictionary entry was on the left page toward the bottom. And just because I’m weird like that, I know not one but two terms for “rift in the space-time continuum” (時空の割れ目 and 時空断層). A friend of mine shakes his head and calls me “the walking dictionary.”

And yet.

I’ve had a conversation break down because I didn’t know the word for “sieve.” Up until last year, I didn’t know what the Chinese zodiac was called. Just last week, a lovely coworker introduced me to both 温野菜 (“steamed vegetables”) and 連呼 (renko), a pretty lulzy word that means to repeatedly say the same thing in a loud voice. And let’s not forget that time 10 years ago when, for whatever insane reason, it took me a full two months to finally memorize 石けん, or “soap.”

Which brings us to today. When I had to do a double-take because I didn’t know the word appearing in the title of this post — 結露 (ketsuro), meaning “condensation.”


Will there ever be a day when I don’t get my ass handed to me by this language?


11 Responses

  1. This post triggered some memories. I had an issue with my genitals a few years ago causing me to have to visit the doctor. My penis actually turned a shade of orange. For weeks and several visits to the doctor neither of us knew what was causing it … we finally got to the bottom of it when the doctor asked me my hobbies … “Watching porn and eating Cheezels”

    Your Japanese is tremendous mate.

  2. Neil – nice one

    John – this post is pertinent to me, and my study of the language. When I lived there, I pretty much half-assed it…and got to a decent survival level. But certainly didn’t take advantage of it like I should have.

    Now I’m trying to pick it back up (for a few reasons) and going about it more thoroughly. Actively studying kanji f#cking blows!

    Anyways, it’s nice to see a good example!


  3. @Neil – LOL! I heard a variant of that joke back in the States, and it’s actually a fave of mine.

    @Erik – Best of luck with the studies. I’m glad you found something in the post you could relate to. Since writing it, I have learned yet *another* new word: 知能犯罪, or “white-collar crime.” I never realized I didn’t know that. Having never really stopped to think about white-collar crime.

  4. “Will there ever be a day when I don’t get my ass handed to me by this language?”

    I know you don’t expect an answer here, but I do have to add that it doesn’t help when you converse with someone in Japanese for an extended period and then, when you can’t think of one word you need, that Japanese person slips into broken English. Doesn’t happen often, but if it does, it makes that getting-your-ass-handed-to-you feeling even stronger.

    And yes, your Japanese is good. When it comes to verbal Kung Fu, your Kung Fu is good, my friend.

  5. I couldn’t get past the blasphemy statement “was really sick of porn”. This statement ruined the whole post.. you need to go to church and repent..

  6. @Billy, I hate the broken English thing too. Not sure if they’re trying to be helpful or what, but it’s not too helpful at all.

    @JayNYC, it was 10 years ago. Church has been attended, penance performed and the House o’ Porn opened under new management.

  7. Found your site an hour or so ago John. Funnily enough I had learnt the word 結露 just last week, when I brought up the extremity of the condensation in our apartment with my girlfriend.

    Some impressive skills you have! May I ask how long you’ve now lived in Japan? I’m assuming it must be more than 10 years.

    I’ve been here just over 18 months, and been on the language pretty hard. At least up until the point I took (and most likely just failed) JLPT2 in December. Since then I’ve kind of eased off it a bit, with a lack of motivation. But reading this post makes me want to take it up a notch again. Thanks (I think).

  8. Dammit, I forgot that I also wanted to ask about the book on 擬音語/擬態語 that you recommended. I’ve been after one for a few weeks now, but looking on Amazon I’ve not been sure which one would be good for my level of comprehension.

    Is that the only book on the subject you’ve used? And is the content all textual, or are there pictures/stories too to help aid memorisation?

    Unfortunately I don’t live close enough to a large city to be able to find them in a local bookshop. Thanks.

  9. Hi there Mark,

    I’ve been back-and-forthing between the U.S. and Japan for 10 years but started studying the Japanese language about 19 years ago. Sounds impressive, but subtract a couple years for the time I dropped out of college, plus the fact that four years of college-based foreign-language study probably only condenses down to a good solid year, if that. I got here hitting the ground running, able to carry on conversations, etc. but was woefully lacking in several areas. I’d say I still am.

    Regarding the book I recommended, it’s the only one I’ve used for the past several years, and yes, it’s purely text-based. I have seen others out there that use pictures, etc. to aid with retention, but I haven’t personally used them and don’t readily recall the titles.

    Actually, I do remember one called Flip, Slither and Bang in the old Power Japanese series. Here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Flip-Slither-Bang-Japanese-Action/dp/4770016840
    It doesn’t have any pictures (I think — I haven’t seen the thing in years) but I do remember it had English translations of the sample Japanese sentences.

    Hope this helps.

  10. Thanks for the reply. I think I’ll hold off on buying any books until I can get to a bookshop and take a look through this one, as it’s 5000 yen – and with Sterling as bad as it is right now that’s quite a bit. Good to have the recommendation, cheers!

  11. @JayNYC, it was 10 years ago. Church has been attended, penance performed and the House o’ Porn opened under new management.

    Amen brother! I salute your penis and just like christ rises from the dead to be born again in it’s full glory

    all hail porn!

    (yes i have a seat at a table with my name on it in hell and will keep a spot open for you)

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