Wednesday 20 February 2002

Language skills

This morning I took the train to Penrith—50 kilometers (35 miles) from the center of Sydney, where I live—to do some work at FirmwareDesign. I always spend the 50 minute ride doing the same thing: reading a Japanese novel.

My Japanese is adequate. I can travel in Japan for weeks at a time without speaking English, always able to buy a ticket to the next destination, book a room at an inn, order drinks and food in the tiny yakitori-ya where I like to spend my evenings. Once the owner and customers recover from the shock of encountering a foreigner at close quarters, the evenings always turn out well. I have a conversational repertoire and, even if the topic strays from my areas of expertise, I can conduct quite a complex conversation with only 50% comprehension. I learned a long time ago that the only mistake is to let on that you don’t understand what’s going on. Bluff and you’ll eventually be able to make an appropriate remark.

Reading is a problem, however, so I try to practice reading in Japanese whenever I can. The train ride is ideal. My eventual goal is to read Nagai Kafu’s A Strange Tale from East of the River in Japanese but that’s way beyond my present skills. Instead I’m reading a trashy novel, a kind of Mills & Boon or Harlequin novel for men. Imagine something eight or nine rungs down the literary ladder from Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon. I chose this book partly for lascivious reasons but mainly because I knew I’d understand most of the grammar and vocabulary.

Still, it’s something of a challenge. Japanese is an oblique language, in which 60% of sentences don’t have a subject. You have to infer from the context who’s doing what to whom. On the third or fourth page I realized that Reimi, the heroine, who was driving back to Tokyo with her colleague Junko at the start of the story, hadn’t bought and delivered food to the software engineers who were working back late at the office. “Shit,” I remember thinking to myself, “they’re still in the Volvo on the expressway. She’s only wondering about whether she should buy food.”

This morning the train arrived at Penrith station, just as Wakura, the unscrupulous villain, had given Reimi a glass of wine laced with an hallucinogenic drug. I gathered up my book and dictionary and within less than a minute was outside, looking through the window of the first cab on the rank at a bucket of chips wedged between the driver’s and the passenger’s seat.

“Pardon my breakfast,” said the driver as I sat down beside him. “That’s OK,” I replied. I told him the destination and relaxed back in my seat. Then the strangest thing happened. He launched into a detailed explanation about something and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. What language is he speaking, I asked myself. I listened closely but it seemed totally unrecognizable. We drove for two or three blocks, him chattering away and me nodding in reply. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about; until I heard the word “vinegar” and I realized the conversation had something to do with his chips. “Oh,” I told him, “I love the taste of vinegar on chips.”

And he was off again. “…brown sauce…” I heard him say. “Do you mean like Worcestershire Sauce,” I asked him, “or thicker?” And so I clawed my way back into the conversation. He was a Scotsman. He’d lived in Australia for 40 years and hadn’t lost his brogue, which was as thick as the brown sauce he used to pour on the chips that he bought at the fish and chip shop halfway on his way home from the Edinburgh pub where he used to go every Friday night in winter.

The fog lifted and we had a great chat. About how Australia gradually took over his heart and became home to him and his wife and three kids; about his five grandchildren and how their flat Aussie accents occasionally betray their Scottish heritage. I told him how I loved hearing Asian children in the supermarket speaking with Australian accents. He told me about having the same experience with the children of Pakistani immigrants back in Scotland. “You try to match the voice to the face and it doesn’t fit,” he said.

I’m not sure why I found it so hard to understand him at the beginning. I might still have been in Tokyo, worrying about how Reimi could avoid Wakura’s clutches (and knowing that she wouldn’t). It didn’t matter. I discovered I could carry a conversation with only 5% comprehension and everything would turn out fine.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour