Helen DeWitt
August 19, 2011 4:20 PM   Subscribe

AM: Do you have a favorite kanji character? HD: I like this one: 峠 because it reminds me of a poem by Christina Rossetti:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men


(what I mean is, it’s terribly nice to have the radicals for mountain, up and down form the character). I’m very fond of 競 because it makes me think of two men skating with their arms behind their backs in a Dutch painting, wearing black frock coats and breeches. 明 is not very exotic, of course, but it’s nice to have the word for ‘bright’ represented by the sun and moon – this is a bit like certain German words, where the elements of a phenomenon are put together for the word: there’s Morgengrauen (morning grey) for the sky lightening to grey just before dawn, and Morgenröte (morning red) for the sky when it first turns red, similar sort of thing. An interview with Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai, Your Name Here, a novel written with Ilya Gridneff, and the forthcoming Lightning Rods. DeWitt will be in New York September 8 - 11.
posted by xod (48 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Languagehat on The Last Samurai.
posted by xod at 4:29 PM on August 19, 2011


She's wrong about that poem; it's by William Allingham.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:53 PM on August 19, 2011


Thanks for posting this, this author seems to have a fascinating mind and I wish I'd heard of her sooner.

Her explanation for "峠" isn't as helpful as it could be for people who don't know already know what she's trying to explain about it.

Visually it's composed of 3 pieces. Each piece is its own stand-alone character:

- 山: which means mountain
- 上: which means "up" (amongst other things)
- 下: which means "down" (amongst other things)

...so there's a sense in which the character as a whole is composed of the ideas of up and down and mountain.

Similarly the character for "bright" is made up of 2 pieces. Each piece can stand alone:
- 日: which means "sun"
- 月: which means "moon"

...which hopefully helps explain a bit better what she's getting at in that quote.
posted by hoople at 4:57 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I read the Axiom Magazine interview, oh man. This woman obviously does not know the slightest thing about the Japanese language. And she admits she's never been to Japan. I suppose this is not an impediment to writing a great novel, but from the synopsis, it appears to be on the subject that bugged me most during my own Japanese studies: people who watched a lot of Japanese media and created an imaginary Japan in their heads.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:47 PM on August 19, 2011


Yeah, her grasp of kanji is really questionable.
posted by bardic at 6:01 PM on August 19, 2011


No, it's not the questionable kanji knowledge so much as the sheer fabrications:

I bought a kanji dictionary and a romaji dictionary and blundered around through one passage and another, using my dictionaries and the translation.. And I did manage to read various bits of the book.

Nope, impossible. Can't be done by a novice. IIRC I only learned to use a kanji dictionary after almost 2 years of formal instruction.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:26 PM on August 19, 2011


I've always liked this one: 姦

It's three copies of 女 which means "woman". And what does it mean? Actually, it's archaic, but one of the readings is "mischief". Another is "noisy".

Which is wonderfully politically incorrect, isn't it?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:41 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


- 山: which means mountain
- 上: which means "up" (amongst other things)
- 下: which means "down" (amongst other things)


Obviously some Chinese characters can kinda sorta represent their current meaning, but most readers won't notice the connection. It's kind of like saying that "Oxford shoes" are meant for fording a stream with a herd of cattle.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:49 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


So what does "峠" mean? Bivouac?
posted by sneebler at 6:56 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


sneebler: mountian pass, iirc. It's been awhile.
posted by hoople at 6:57 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


峠/とうげ/tōge does indeed mean mountain pass.

It can also mean "difficult period/situation". It is used in medical Japanese to mean "crisis", as in the worsening of a condition to a critical state.

峠を越えたと見なされる is a (relatively) common phrase meaning "over the difficult part"/"over the hump"/"to turn a corner", also medical terminology.

Interestingly, I think it is a kanji unique to Japan (i.e. not imported from China, but created in Japan. But I'm not an expert on Chinese, so not sure about that.)

And yeah, what is it with people who write about foreign languages, knowing almost nothing of them? Do they actually think there aren't people out there who will call them on their shit?
posted by jet_manifesto at 7:07 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Depends on what she means by "read," I guess. When I started learning Japanese I was self-teaching myself in an incredibly piecemeal and full-immersion way, but it only took me a couple of weeks to get the hang of using a kanji dictionary (mostly) and that's enough-ish to blunder through passages matching up words from the translation to words in the original. (You couldn't do that with some authors, but with Murakami, why not? His style is pretty American.) It's another question whether you could get anything from that blundering that you wouldn't get from the translation -- most likely not.
posted by Jeanne at 7:55 PM on August 19, 2011


KokoRyu: I'm not making the claim that's what a normal reader would naturally associate with it (though I may not have added enough disclaimers, either), and I don't even think she's making that claim either: she's just saying that she likes that character because it makes her think of that poem (which, naturally, she seems to misattribute). I just wanted to explain what she was saying for someone who'd never heard of radicals and couldn't see what she was getting at.

I mean, am I radically out of line if I say when I was studying Japanese years ago I always liked "叶う" both for the sound of it and the way to a western eye it includes a somewhat-ironic "prayer" motif that's presumably entirely accidental / fortuitous (and a motif that only makes sense if you correctly identify one radical and completely misinterpret the other)?

charlie don't surf: I'm going to come to her defense. I think it's quite reasonable for her to have convinced herself she did what she did, though how much she got out of it would be a legitimate question (and I'd be skeptical).

She's got the original text and she's got an English translation. She's got a specific chapter in mind. The chapter numbering shouldn't change at all in translation, and the rough structure of the text won't change either: the # of sentences and paragraphs will be different, but there ought to be roughly the same # of lines of dialog and those should be roughly in the same order in the original and the translation.

So the smart approach would be: pick out a bit of dialogue in the English translation. Locate a likely candidate for the matching line in the original; you'll occasionally pick the wrong line but b/c the structure is the same you'll mostly be able to do this accurately even knowing almost nothing of the language.

In an E-J dictionary look up each *English* word (perhaps with what she's calling a "romaji" dictionary, we know she's not the most precise person, for sake of argument it's an E-J dictionary with the Japanese listings spelled out in romaji but also in characters, etc.).

Try to match up the characters you get that way with what you see in the sentence. You'll rarely get all of them that way, but if you're lucky you'll probably get at least a few of them. The rest you can look up in a character dictionary (and with one of the "learner's dictionaries" this'd be time-consuming and error-prone due to stroke-count issues, but if you're foolhardy and have the free time it'd be doable).

What do you accomplish this way? My guess: not much, when all's said and done. But, you might convince yourself you reverse-engineered the original language a bit from the translation.

Disclaimer: I'm not Helen DeWitt. She could totally be making everything up because it sounded cool. I've not read her novel and for all I know it's terrible, although it at least sounds fascinating (if only for what it is and not what it says).

When all's said and done you'd be dumb to learn about any of the languages she uses in her novel from her novel, the same way you'd be dumb to learn about medicine from House or computers from 24 or physics from Star Trek or yoga from Eat, Pray, Love. At the same time, just pointing out she's getting it wrong is helpful but not that helpful, the same way that pointing out medical mistakes in House or computer bloopers in 24 or voodoo physics in Star Trek or lazy misconceptions about yoga in Eat, Pray, Love is helpful but not that helpful.
posted by hoople at 7:55 PM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


I don't know, I think there is something deeply wrong when someone gets accorded status as someone who knows about a culture when in fact everything they know about that culture may be a frothy mix of conjecture and bullshit. Most people who watch House don't think they know anything about medicine, but even if they do they don't take that knowledge and try to operate on other people... while the eye-rolling orientalism just seems to get perpetuated over and over, because of people who presume to act as cultural informers when the're not.

I just think it's sad when Americans would rather read The Last Samurai than Haruki Murakami or Miyuki Miyabe or Banana Yoshimoto.
posted by Jeanne at 8:06 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


It'd depend a bit on what her novel's actually about.

Just looking at these reviews: http://www.helendewitt.com/dewitt/review01.html and http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/the-perils-of-genius/

...and what they make the novel out to be about makes me think she might be a bit more self-aware about the value and limits of the knowledge she has than she comes across in this interview (though, perhaps, there's still a sizable Dunning-Kruger effect at work with her).

To say much more I'd have to actually read her book.
posted by hoople at 8:29 PM on August 19, 2011


I'm going to come to her defense. I think it's quite reasonable for her to have convinced herself she did what she did, though how much she got out of it would be a legitimate question (and I'd be skeptical).

Sure, your scenario is plausible, that she convinced herself she did it, rather than actually did it. But Japanese dictionaries are one of my minor specialties, I have like 20 of them, and I've written extensive guides for novices to evaluate various dictionaries. But it's been a while since I looked at beginner's dictionaries, so I went to my shelf to check out Halpern's "Kanji Learner's Dictionary" to see if it was possible for a novice to locate kanji. No, it is just impossible. Halpern uses SKIP, which was intended to simplify lookups for beginners, but fails miserably at that. You still have to count strokes, and use "pattern matching" which is even more difficult than just learning the radicals.

I think I was particularly irked by DeWitt's extensive quotations from O'Neill in that interview, which seemed like an attempt to sound a Japanese linguistics expert.

hoople, I read that NY Review of Books article. Wow, that section he quotes and claims is a "key to reading" is just absolute drivel. It's almost exactly what she said about how she learned to read Japanese, but with music instead. I see no evidence she knows her limits, actually, quite the contrary. The reviewer seemed quite generous in giving her a pass on this. Well, that review was quite informative. This discussion intrigued me enough that I wanted to read the book, but now it's obvious I have better things to do with my time.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:07 PM on August 19, 2011


I'll defer to your expertise about dictionaries, but the "two years" claim seemed off and different from my own experience. I remember buying one maybe 4-5 months into my first course because I got tired of having to find someone to ask every time I got curious about something I saw (Kodansha's Compact Kanji Guide, I had to go dig it out). It was pretty straightforward to use (though time-consuming), and I assumed a "learner's dictionary" would be even easier to use than that. Maybe I lucked into one that's easier to use than most?

It's definitely interesting to see how people interpret things though. I took her quotations of O'Neill as a good sign: she gets asked "How does Japanese compare to your other languages?" (a horribly generous question, but let's let that slide), and she pulls some books off her shelf and cites stuff she finds interesting; she isn't pretending to have any particular knowledge of the language beyond what's on her bookcase (other than the implicit claim of knowledge implied by actually answering the question). Her actual comments -- the stuff in square brackets -- are mostly reasonable things to find interesting about the language-as-understood-through-books-about-it. I'd have been much more concerned if she'd gone off on an ad-libbed lecture on the finer points of some obscure grammar aspects.

Likewise with the "key passage": I read that and assume it's possibly a key package, but the disordered thoughts are part of how she shows she doesn't take what's being said all that seriously; it's not that uncommon a sleight-of-hand to have the authorial thesis advanced by side characters of dubious status within the fictional world.

At this point I'll defer to someone who's read the book. Is it any good or no?
posted by hoople at 11:09 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nope, impossible. Can't be done by a novice. IIRC I only learned to use a kanji dictionary after almost 2 years of formal instruction.

Yawn. I did take 2.5 years of Chinese, but I found using a Chinese dictionary pretty straightforward. It's always kind of weird to hear people studying Japanese talk about how difficult Kanji is, whereas when you're studying Chinese that's all you have, and it doesn't seem that difficult at all.

You don't need years of training to use a Hanzi/Kanji dictionary, though. In every thread you come up with some new ridiculous claim about yourself. Now you're an expert in Kanji Dictionaries? Whatever.
posted by delmoi at 1:12 AM on August 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Okay, I'll give my own experience with kanji dictionaries. When I got my first one (the New Nelson's) I was literally a week or two into the study of Japanese. I wasn't particularly good at using it at first, but if I couldn't find it in the regular part of the dictionary I would look in the appendix where all the kanji were organized by stroke number, and brute-force it that way. I was trying to read a manga that didn't have furigana; my method, at first, probably wasn't far from DeWitt's. Actual textbooks and classes made up the difference. But I did get pretty good at looking up kanji fairly quickly. There are a lot of the same radicals that show up over and over, and once you start to get a handle on them it's not so bad. Later my Nelson fell apart (it was badly bound, I was a high school student who liked to carry it around in her backpack) and I got the O'Neill. By this time my Japanese level had gotten to intermediate, but I found the SKIP method super easy. You're saying it's hard for a beginner to figure out that 競 or 校 is made up of a left part and a right part?
posted by Jeanne at 4:11 AM on August 20, 2011


I don't have a favorite kanji, but I love the fact that 嚥 means swallow (ingest), and 燕 means swallow (the bird).
posted by adamrice at 6:46 AM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Do you have a favorite kanji character?

No.

Oh wait, that's katakana.
posted by Drexen at 7:53 AM on August 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Well, if charlie don't surf is talking about a kanji dictionary where you have to know the kunyomi or onyomi for finding a word, then yeah, that would be hard, and would presumably take you a long time to learn to use, since you'd essentially need to learn the kanji first. If it's stroke count that's still hard but I don't think it would take two years to learn. If there is some other way, I don't know. I only use digital Japanese dictionaries where I can use all kinds of tricks (knowing one of a word's kanji onyomi which I can use to search for the full word, or guessing a kanji's onyomi based on kanji with similar meanings or pronunciation).

I don't know if I have a favorite kanji, but lately I'm fond of 線. I like it because it is fun to draw for me. The meaning is sort of dull I suppose, I see it mostly used to describe train lines (line = sen = 線). I think the primitives are elegant when taken together though: it's got the radical for thread (糸) and the character for spring (泉)—which itself is elegant, being composed of the character for white (白) above the character for water (水)—juxtaposed, suggested the thread of water flowing in a line, which is a perfect metaphor for a train system. There's probably more going on there too that I don't know.

I don't have a favorite kanji, but I love the fact that 嚥 means swallow (ingest), and 燕 means swallow (the bird).

adamrice, that's pretty cool. I've never seen that 嚥 character before.
posted by dubitable at 8:09 AM on August 20, 2011


I'd never heard of the SKIP method you mentioned Jeanne, interesting...
posted by dubitable at 8:11 AM on August 20, 2011


Pardon me, delmoi, but if you're going to stalk me throughout various threads and flame me, you're just going to look like an idiot. My track record in Japanese Pedagogy is well established. I just checked the ancient sci.lang.japan FAQ and I have 25 lengthy reviews in there. Unfortunately I withdrew my extensive analysis of dictionaries from circulation since it focused on electronic dictionaries that are now obsolete. You know, I think I'll update it and repost it, just to make you look like an idiot. You ought not to make petty judgements about people based on your own small life.

Anyway, it is possible my Japanese program was rather conservative, they did have some odd ideas about how you should progress. For example, they wouldn't give recommendations or scholarships for overseas studies to anyone who hadn't completed 3rd year. They thought you would "pick up bad habits" by "premature" exposure to a native language environment. But I can't complain, it was one of the top programs in the US. Maybe they did hold us back so we didn't even try to use dictionaries, all our study materials were already glossed. I recall that sometime in first year, I asked my teachers how to use a Japanese dictionary, and her explanation was incomprehensible.

This was back in the day before the new generation of all the current editions were released, and the WordTank was new and hot. SKIP wasn't invented yet, it came out and we had already learned to use the conventional methods. I remember trying to learn SKIP in late 3rd year, it was damn useless. I checked around with some professional lexicographers, they all said SKIP was intended for experts who could memorize the SKIP tables, that way they could just use the little columns of SKIP components in the margin of the pages, riffle through the dict and find a kanji in a couple of seconds, without ever looking in the index.

But I think, more to the point here, is what people are doing by trying to read Japanese with a dictionary, like the author claimed. I see more and more people like Jeanne who try to decode manga with dictionaries and learn the language that way. I think they're doing a minor version of the old Chinese Room thought experiment. To some degree they are simulating understanding of Japanese, rather than actually understanding it. This may give some structure to support later learning, but I think it's a big diversion of effort into unproductive endeavors. IMHO it's better to learn from the ground up, rather than trying to fly before you can walk. Well, this is probably a discussion only relevant to students of Japanese Pedagogy rather than Japanese language. I often joked that my program's primary product was Japanese instructors, and if they could graduate teachers with MAs in J Pedagogy without having to bother with those pesky undergrads learning Japanese, they'd eliminate the undergrads altogether.

As for my favorite kanji, currently it is 三. As a calligrapher, it is devilishly difficult to write such a simple character well. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for what we are talking about here. There is a whole philosophy of Japanese calligraphy just based on writing a single horizontal line. I once met a Japanese housewife who complained about a calligraphy class she was taking at the local community center, from a renown expert. She said, "I took three classes so far and all they ever had us do is write horizontal lines!"
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:22 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I had to do it all over again, it wouldn't be by decoding manga, but it worked pretty darn well for me. I did a year of self-study (reading manga, plus what textbooks I could find at the public library) and placed into (high school) Japanese 3 the next year, started decoding actual novels, placed into (college) Japanese 3 two years later, and got a Monbusho scholarship the year after that. Pretty good for just simulating understanding.
posted by Jeanne at 8:33 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes Jeanne, like I said, it gave you a structure to hang your actual learning on. My teachers always said that first and second year in college were just preparation for the actual learning that started in 3rd year. Your progression seems about right, they also said that 1 year of high school Japanese was equivalent to 1 semester of college work, and they placed students based on that. Their proficiency exams seemed to bear this out.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:37 AM on August 20, 2011


I see more and more people like Jeanne who try to decode manga with dictionaries and learn the language that way. I think they're doing a minor version of the old Chinese Room thought experiment. To some degree they are simulating understanding of Japanese, rather than actually understanding it.

"simulating understanding of Japanese"...please, spare me this pretentious nonsense. This kind of attitude is exactly what puts people off of learning, well, anything. When you tell someone "that way of learning X is wrong, this is the PROPER way to learn X" all you are doing is quashing their enthusiasm in the most objectionable way. Listen, if someone is interested enough in learning Japanese, or whatever, and you want to suggest to them that there is another—perhaps more effective way—to learn something, then the best way to go about it is NOT to insult that person but to make a positive argument for WHY it is that one way of studying can help them get to the next level.

And you know, considering that Japanese people themselves have variable levels of comprehension, writing ability, knowledge of Kanji meanings, etc., it's absurd for you to suggest that one way of using a dictionary is better than another. Would you really suggest that folks who grow in Japan speaking Japanese natively are "simulating understanding of Japanese?" Please, come off it.

If Jeanne had fun reading manga and learned to read and write that way, then more power to her.

And on preview, what Jeanne (er, Emily) said.

P.S. also, can you and delmoi both stop this childish sniping? mefi-mail works well in my experience.
posted by dubitable at 8:39 AM on August 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


I just think it's sad when Americans would rather read The Last Samurai than Haruki Murakami or Miyuki Miyabe or Banana Yoshimoto.

I'm no American but The Last Samurai is one of the best american novels I've ever read. Seriously, give it a go. It's not about samurai.
posted by Sourisnoire at 10:31 AM on August 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


At this point I'll defer to someone who's read the book. Is it any good or no?

hoople, I think the NYRB review in the FPP and languagehat's post, linked in the first comment, are two excellent, descriptive reviews. I found it moving, fascinating, challenging and beautiful. I highly recommend it and am very excited about the imminent publication of Lightning Rods.

Regarding the linguistics kerfuffle, perhaps it's useful to consider DeWitt's B.A. and PhD degrees in classics from Oxford. This is not a simple appeal to authority; it is a significant portion of the life of her mind and, it seems to me, would inspire a certain amount of confidence regarding her competence and sincerity.

I'll also take this opportunity to add a 2008 interview from The Institute for the Future of the Book, an LRB review of Your Name Here, as well as a languagehat's followup post and discussion.
posted by xod at 10:58 AM on August 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


"simulating understanding of Japanese"...please, spare me this pretentious nonsense. This kind of attitude is exactly what puts people off of learning, well, anything. When you tell someone "that way of learning X is wrong, this is the PROPER way to learn X" all you are doing is quashing their enthusiasm in the most objectionable way.

Whether you like it or not, Japanese language instruction has its own pedagogy. I just happened to be in the center of the biggest pedagogical battle in the history of teaching the language. The most widely used current textbook was written by my teachers, using me and my fellow students as experimental subjects. Every textbook I used was declared obsolete and removed from the curriculum after our class used it, and we focused on original custom materials written by our instructors that became the new textbook. I've seen a teacher pulled from my class when the department head didn't like how she taught. I've had a textbook pulled from my class when the teacher decided it sucked, and it is kind of galling when you just bought an imported $65 textbook and used it for 3 weeks and you had to go buy another new textbook for $65. Anyway, some pedagogical methods are provably better than others, some methods are provably going to retard your development. It is not objectionable to tell someone they are going about things the wrong way, you are doing them a favor to suggest more effective methods.

The only reason this issue of pedagogy has come up at all, was due to the dubious statements by the author about how she claims to have taught herself Japanese. I say it's impossible, others say it might be possible, or it might possibly be a self-delusion. The author's credentials in Classical Greek and Latin are hardly transferrable to such a dissimilar language as Japanese. The methods used to study dead languages hardly apply to modern Asian languages. While she may have a well developed life of the mind, her citations of Japanese linguists tends to make me believe that she is more interested in linguistics than language. And that is one of my pet peeves. I found that studying language with linguists tends to shape the language you learn around linguistics rather than anything useful in real life. I could have extensive discussions about linguistics in Japanese with my teachers, when I used these terms in Japan with normal everyday people, none of them knew what the hell I was talking about.

I already noted that a shaky grasp of Japanese is no impediment to writing a great novel. But others have noted, if you're going to make Japanese language a theme in your book, you probably ought to know what you're talking about.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:04 PM on August 20, 2011


And if Japanese language is not a theme of the novel?
posted by xod at 2:30 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Then God help us all.

> I just think it's sad when Americans would rather read The Last Samurai than Haruki Murakami or Miyuki Miyabe or Banana Yoshimoto.

I'm no American but The Last Samurai is one of the best american novels I've ever read. Seriously, give it a go. It's not about samurai.


Yes, precisely. I read and enjoy Japanese literature in the original, and I am here to tell you that The Last Samurai is better than anything Murakami or Yoshimoto have written in the past twenty years. (Miyabe, I dunno, I haven't read much by her.)

I was quite surprised to read in the interview how dependent she thinks the book is on the Japanese/Kurosawa thing. I felt like the story could just as easily have been about about a boy obsessed with Bergman films and Swedish, say.
posted by No-sword at 3:11 PM on August 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


The only reason this issue of pedagogy has come up at all, was due to the dubious statements by the author about how she claims to have taught herself Japanese. I say it's impossible, others say it might be possible

Of course it's possible, maybe not to speak or converse but to understand written text it should be fine. The "Chinese Room" thing is just a thought excessive that was intended to illustrate something that has never even been proven to be true. Japanese is a human language that children learn on their own with no formal system whatsoever. The idea that if you don't use the proper 'system' to learn it you're not 'doing it right' is nonsensical.

I studied Chinese, rather then Japanese. It uses the same characters, although the grammar is much simpler (from what I understand). Learning the characters isn't difficult. It just takes time and patients to memorize them. That's it.
posted by delmoi at 10:38 PM on August 20, 2011


By the way, Charlie Don't Surf...

I just happened to be in the center of the biggest pedagogical battle in the history of teaching the language.

Do you remember any details of what the battle was about? Sounds pretty interesting.
posted by No-sword at 12:02 AM on August 21, 2011


I just happened to be in the center of the biggest pedagogical battle in the history of teaching the language. The most widely used current textbook was written by my teachers, using me and my fellow students as experimental subjects.

Was that "pedagogical battle" about using the right textbook?
If so, then that sounds rather like a storm in a teacup to me.

You don't learn a language like Japanese from textbooks, at least not to the extent that you can hold a decent conversation in it. A textbook can give you some pointers regarding grammar or vocabulary, but the real trick to language learning is immersion - talking, reading newspapers, watching TV. Everyone has his own approach. FWIW, I learned much of my Japanese reading Crayon Shinchan and studying the Kanji Kentei books (and passed JPLT Level 1 and Kanji Kentei Levels 5 to 3 after living less than one year in Japan). I can't remember the name of a single textbook I used, so they can't have been very good.

In short, it really doesn't matter much which textbook you use to learn Japanese. Textbooks can't give you more than 10% or so of what you learn out on the streets anyway. Immersion is much more important.
posted by sour cream at 1:36 AM on August 21, 2011


Me: I can't remember the name of a single textbook I used, so they can't have been very good.

Actually, I just remembered the first Japanese textbook I held in my hands. It was called "Japanese in 30 hours" or something similarly ambitious.
The first sentence read "Kore-wa hon-desu." which I mentally mispronounced as "Kore-wa hon-desoo."
It must be at least 60 years old, as it was given to me by my grandfather who brought it back from a trip to Japan in the early 50's.
posted by sour cream at 1:41 AM on August 21, 2011


Do you remember any details of what the battle was about? Sounds pretty interesting.

Yeah, but this is probably more a topic for your blog (which I comment on often). The question was, what is the best way to teach Japanese? In earlier years, the model was Jorden, which as I understand it, was based primarily on reading and writing. Students were not expected to have any reasonable expectation of writing or speaking Japanese, the goal was to produce translators J>E, you'd start with Jorden and maybe someday you'd live in Japan long enough to pick up speaking skills, but no real hope of writing.

I was at the center of development of the current pedagogical method called "four skills." It put equal emphasis on paired skills, reading-writing, and listening comprehension-speaking. This was a new emphasis on production of language, not just passive comprehension. The idea was that memory was not truly activated until both the reception and production channels were equally balanced. In my day, these four skills were all kind of pushed together, they were working out the best way to educate students on each channel, using the basically obsolete textbooks that were in current use, but with extensive new material adapted to production rather than passive comprehension. Our dean was a statistics junkie so we were all measured to death to assess how these methods worked. In current classes in my old program, they divide the classes into reading/writing and listening/speaking. You take the two classes together, the work is on roughly parallel tracks.

It's surprising how obvious this four-skills idea is in retrospect, and even more surprising that nobody actually used this method with deliberate intention. Sure, almost anyone who attained real fluency used this method, even if by accident. But with statistically supported pedagogical models, and specific methods to remedy deficiencies in any one area, it was a huge improvement, and is now widely accepted.

And yes, immersion is important. Our school did intensive immersion classes, no English allowed. I also did overseas study in Japan with international students, they required you use Japanese only. The theory was that with so many native languages, we wouldn't have a common language like English, so we'd have to communicate in Japanese (even between 1st year noobs and 4th year advanced students). That didn't work so well, we all spoke English out of class because there was no way to communicate with the noobs. It was weird, sometimes we'd have teachers policing us out in the smoke break area between classes. But the immersion was all outside the class, in Japanese society. There is no substitute for that. The only people I've seen attain any real level of fluency have lived in Japan.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:36 AM on August 21, 2011


Oops, edit error, Jorden was based on listening comprehension and reading, they were two separate books, "Japanese: the Spoken Language" and "Japanese: the Written Language." You weren't expected to use the spoken or written language, just to understand them. The books were based on reading and listening comprehension.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:42 AM on August 21, 2011


Could you refer us to some German language police? Some pedantic Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Inuit 'experts' would also be greatly appreciated. Knowledge of the author's writing is not required.
posted by xod at 11:09 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some pedantic Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Inuit 'experts' would also be greatly appreciated.

Here you go, xod.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:57 PM on August 21, 2011


To readers interested in the subject of the FPP:

Helen DeWitt will be attending the n+1 Magazine event at The Center for Fiction on September 8 and LitCrawl NYC at Dixon Place on September 10.
posted by xod at 8:18 AM on August 22, 2011


"You see...nobody ever goes in. AND NOBODY EVER GOES OUT!"

(C'mon...nobody's going to talk about the Willy Wonka scene with the tinker?)
posted by robstercraw at 12:14 PM on August 22, 2011


If you haven't read The Last Samurai, you should; it's a terrific book.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:05 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


[...] I noticed on the second reading the beautiful symmetry of the fatherless boy reading the Odyssey going round and round the Circle line—the periplum, as Pound kept saying of the circle of the Mediterranean around which Odysseus journeyed in search of his wife and child. Pound is much to the point here, for Helen DeWitt’s novel is, like “The Cantos,” a peculiarly American bricolage of all cultures. It is not at all a politically correct multicultural object, nor is it the kind of pared-down international novel, like those of the early Ishiguro, that achieves its accessibility to all cultures by eschewing detail that refers densely to any particular one. It is a multilingual, multistoried, myriad-minded novel—a novel of the Internet age, where everyone has access to all grammars, all dictionaries, all information, where math and physics and philosophy and fairy tales hum across the same screen. I have a Japanese friend who describes “The Seven Samurai” as a Japanese Western (the ambiguity in the word “Western” is intentional), with faint disapproval. But Sibylla—like Helen DeWitt—wants to live in a world where Finnish mixes with Greek, and English is informed by Chinese. Kurosawa’s film is Japanese, and it is a kind of Western. “The Last Samurai” reminds me of another first novel I admired recently—David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten,” which is also set in the whole world, also concerns both art and science, and is also constructed around coincidence, chance, and storytelling. The curious thing in both cases is that, though it is the ideas that drive the novels and, after the ideas, the elaborately constructed plot, the characters are more human, more simply important to the reader, than in many finely constructed, primarily psychological studies. They have the life and presence of characters in epics and tales. “The Last Samurai” is funny and tragic and intriguing and over the top and perfectly controlled. But it is also— in an ordinary and undeniable way—very moving. The voice of the child crying for more information, wrecking Sibylla’s work, rest, and thought process, is familiar to every mother, whatever the child is demanding. The love between the mother and son is clear, and complicated, and accurately felt. It is exciting for the future of the novel that a writer can do all the basic things readers need—from “Peter Pan” to the Odyssey, from “Bleak House” to “The Crying of Lot 49”—and do something new with the form of the tale itself.

A.S. Byatt
posted by xod at 1:21 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, I'll be reading this novel. Thanks xod for bringing making the post.

It's too bad the discussion hasn't been about the novel but since everyone who's read it is chiming in to say it's amazing I think that tells me everything I need to know about it.

As a young person one of my dreams was to be the person who finally cracked some mysterious ancient language. That's not a direction I went in life but I always wondered just how well -- or not -- anyone actually understands Egyptian or Sumerian; short of inventing a time machine that's not a question that's answerable.

Since this author has approached some living languages -- eg, Japanese -- the same as if they were dead languages and seemingly tried to "crack the code" herself I'm intrigued to see how it's all turned out; it won't answer my question but will at least speak to it, and it sounds like the book's interesting on its own merits.
posted by hoople at 8:38 AM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anybody capable of writing The Last Samurai is somebody I am going to take much, much more seriously than her critics, especially those who take it upon themselves to bag her without having read her work. Beautiful, beautiful book.
posted by flabdablet at 5:06 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, The Last Samurai is a great book, and well worth reading. Helen Dewitt is fabulous, regardless of whether or not her grasp of kanji is as evolved as other folk's. This is a nice post that I'm sorry I missed when it was posted. This is a tiresome discussion.
posted by OmieWise at 5:14 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


MeTa
posted by homunculus at 11:56 AM on September 15, 2011


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