Bruce Lee on the ‘hard part’ of language learning

 

What’s the hard part of language learning?

I’m often moved to quote my Japanese teacher’s opening comments in my first-ever Japanese class: “Learning Japanese is not difficult; it will just be a little challenging for your spirit, and you’ll need to work hard!”.  As the years go by, and I continue to explore other languages and cultures, the wisdom of her words continues to ring true.

You may have never imagined that the great Martial Artist, Actor (and Dancer!) Bruce Lee also expressed a philosophy of language learning.  Just like my Japanese teacher’s brevity, Bruce Lee captured an essential truth about language learning in just 30 seconds during this TV interview (an old Canadian talk show btw)–before you hit play, take a moment to imagine the one thing you think is the ‘hard part’ of language learning.

On a similar note, I read a wonderful book many years ago by Kevin Carroll, entitled “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball“.  One of the themes that he talked about was the “lonely” work that is part of positive growth in any domain.  He doesn’t take the word lonely in the sad sense of the word; rather, he talks about the significant personal work (i.e. at home work) that we must invest, and how we really should pursue that time, effort and attention with a sense of Joy.

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Language learning, like a marriage, takes work: Chinglish within bilingual Couples

I just read an interesting article/interview about someone who is doing a study about semantic language use within couples coming from mixed-language (Mandarin/other) backgrounds. Does this sound like you? If so, Susanna Wickes is hoping that you’ll take a minute to complete her online survey (in either English or Chinese).  [The article ran in the Beijinger as: Scholarly Chinglish: Scottish Masters Student Studies the Semantics of Interracial Couples]

From what I’ve seen, most couples gradually shift into one language; the unfortunate reality (at least in my thinking) is that language is usually English. Chinese people as a whole have studied more of the fundamentals of English at school so, even though many don’t feel fully satisfied with their language abilities, the language barometer will more often end up shifting the equilibrium toward English.  I don’t want to speak in absolutes— I’m sure this trend is definitely better for couples living in China, but I think it’s a fair observation to say that fewer bilingual households end up primarily speaking Chinese at home.

chinese_restaurant_wedding_reception

Reading the article actually brought up some fun memories for me; when my wife and I got together, we very quickly settled into a comfortable pidgin-mix of both languages that made us feel like I was speaking amazing Mandarin and she was speaking amazing English. The only trouble was that my expat friends (we were living in China at the time) couldn’t always understand her English; similarly, I was still feeling the daily sting of having Chinese friends and coworkers around me not understand me once the conversation moved beyond superficial pleasantries, and my pronunciation wasn’t really that clear.

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The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service

The post below contains several wonderful insights about Japanese 気配り(Kikubari), which is sometimes translated as ‘sensitivity’ and made up of two component parts: ‘気(ki), energy’ and ‘配り(kubari), distribute/deliver.  Tying the two concepts together, you can imagine the strength of one’s sensitivity coming from them spreading their energy around to all the folks in their social network. Having said that, don’t get too caught up in the etymology of the words— one of my Japanese profs once cautioned me that “we don’t think like that” when I enthusiastically presented my analysis of a particular word.

Back to the article—getting these two words straight in my head helped me to see the positive side of kikubari, which is a common intercultural tripping point for foreigners working with Japanese folks.  To understand why, and to benefit from the insights of an American who lived in Japan for a long time, give the article a read. (bonus: the author starts the story with a wonderful anecdote on the occasional role of private English teachers as therapist).

Intercultural Twilight Zone

Back in my Japan university days I eked out a living teaching English conversation part time. Made just enough money to support a weekend gallivanting habit too. It was a hand-to-mouth bachelor existence, and I was having the time of my life.

But no gallivanting for me on Thursday evenings, when I’d rush off campus in Mitaka Tokyo, jump on the bus to Kichijoji Station where I’d take the Inokashira line to Shimokitazawa, then ride the Odakyu Express out to the Japanese boonies on the outskirts of Atsugi City. In all it took me two hours door to door.

My Thursday student was a Japanese doctor. Unlike my other doctor students whom I taught at the local hospital, Dr. Thursday wanted private lessons at his home, where we conspired every week to fake our way through an English lesson, sessions in which I mostly listened to his troubles and regrets…

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