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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 8: Nonverbal Communication

My entire stay in Japan originated because of my interest in Japanese. It wasn’t a particularly serious interest at first, but I discovered somewhat to my surprise that I really liked studying that language. It was only natural that once I actually got to Japan, I continued my studies, even though it meant paying almost as much for language lessons each month as I did for food. Japanese is a startlingly well-constructed language for one that evolved naturally.

Despite that, it was very rare for me to speak in Japanese to anyone except my teacher or my students. Speaking Japanese with my teacher was natural. I didn’t speak much in Japanese with my students, but whenever I could illustrate a new concept or grammatical structure to one in their own language, I did. My students were paying for lessons in English, but I couldn’t really expect them to pick it up entirely by inference; it seemed only natural to communicate as effectively as possible when introducing a new idea.

With everyone else, though, it was rare for me to use the language. Probably the single biggest reason for that was embarrassment. The ability to express myself clearly and concisely is important to me; when my only option is to speak poorly, I would rather not speak at all. The only surprising thing was the extent to which that was possible.

Every Japanese person spends a minimum of six years learning English in school. The degree to which this study actually helps varies widely–it is far too common for them to simply memorize huge lists of vocabulary and phrases without any instruction of how to actually use the language to communicate–but it does mean that almost everyone in Japan has a certain baseline ability to understand simple sentences. Combining those with exaggerated hand motions and facial expressions gave me a means to communicate which covered pretty much everything that really needed to be said.

Sometimes I needed to express complex ideas; for that, I had to be inventive. I established my bank account by printing out pictures of the necessary forms that I found online. I shipped a package to America, from a convenience store, using stick figures and hasty sketches of what I wanted. People were very willing to accommodate me in this; nobody in Japan really expects anyone who doesn’t look Japanese to be able to speak the language.

Despite the fact that I shied away from speaking Japanese to most people, I made real efforts to understand what they were saying. It became second nature to attempt to think in Japanese as much as possible, and use English only when I didn’t have the vocabulary or grammar to express myself otherwise. The results of that attempt were rarely correct in a formal sense, but it felt like there was some good in constantly trying. If nothing else, it kept me thinking about the language, and it was more entertaining than studying properly.

Having a background in programming turned out to be a mixed blessing. Programmers by necessity have to have a certain facility with languages; a well-rounded programmer has at least two or three programming languages they’re comfortable with, plus maybe half a dozen technologies which aren’t properly programming languages but act kind of like them. The fact that Japanese is an immensely regular, well-structured language felt very good to me, as that is a trait shared by programming languages. It let me focus on really grokking the grammar and memorizing the vocabulary instead of having to worry all the time about exceptions and irregularities which plague European languages.

However, the single universal characteristic of computer languages is that they are all designed to be understandable to computers. Spelling and grammar aren’t refinements, they’re essential elements which must be used perfectly. The best possible result of a spelling or grammar error in a program is that the code won’t compile, and you have to go back and fix things to get your code to run at all. The worst result is that everything seems to work fine, but you’ve actually introduced a weird and difficult to debug error into your code which will come back to bite you months down the line. Programmers consequently get kind of fanatical about grammar, as it always requires less effort to express an idea properly the first time instead of having to go back and fix things later.

The most natural way for me to construct a valid grammatical construct, whether a sentence or a block of code, starts with semi-verbal intent. I then arrange the components I’ve assembled according to the appropriate grammar; if there is any doubt in my mind that I have done this in a valid manner, I look to online references to ensure that I have. This is efficient when programming, and I’ve completely internalized the rules of English, but it makes for a cumbersome process when attempting to express myself in Japanese.

Could I have worked to break that habit and simply speak uninhibitedly? I probably could have, but when programming, it’s actually a habit I want to maintain. It was far too easy to just accept that for me, grammatical perfection is mandatory, and therefore construct elaborate workarounds so that I could communicate in realtime without having to dive into a reference book every few seconds. Besides, there’s a certain amount of entertainment to be derived from using stick figures and handwaving to communicate; it was a contrarian impulse that required that whenever I couldn’t just blend in and act the way a Japanese person would, I’d at least be amusing at it. I think I generally succeeded; even though I couldn’t always know what the people who interacted with me were thinking, I was having fun.

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Comment by anonymous
2008-01-02 21:25:48

Unfortunately, perfection as a standard is always limiting. Next time, relax your standards, talk more, and you’ll still be amusing!


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