The Meditative Power Of Learning A Second Language
Illustration by Ms Ana Yael
There was a moment, back in March, when I realised that I was dedicating all of my newfound spare time to obsessively checking the latest coronavirus stats, despairing over the news and doom-scrolling myself into oblivion. While the fretful whip of anxiety can be a great motivator in some situations, it is not a pleasant thing to deal with during a pandemic. And, after crawling out from under a particularly vicious spell of health anxiety last year, I needed something that would provide a distraction from daily life while still allowing me to feel like I was doing something. Disappearing into my own head for a couple of hours a day to study Japanese offered that escape.
Japanese didn’t come out of nowhere; I didn’t wake up one day and just decide to memorise hundreds of kanji. I have been learning the language, on and off, for over a decade. The lean towards Japanese in particular is hard to explain, but I think it started with beloved childhood karate classes. You see, I grew up in in a backwater bubble in the north east of England and, even as the family’s modem crackled and beeped, suddenly expanding our world, my twice-weekly karate classes were the closest thing I had to experiencing another culture. These classes, combined with a proclivity for Pokémon cards, Studio Ghibli, Tekken and Tamagotchis, clearly sparked something. I’d love to tell you that it was Ms Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde creations for Comme des Garçons, so aggressively un-Western in their art, that made me realise I had an affinity with Japan. But more likely it was Bulbasaur.
Buoyed by this fascination, I moved to Tokyo after graduating from university, but never really mastered anything beyond very basic conversational Japanese. I, like many other native English speakers, arrogant in our monolingual bubbles, had assumed that some mystical linguistic osmosis would take place, or that I’d simply “pick up” Japanese like it was some kind of local disease.
If only it were so easy. To “acquire” even the most rudimentary level of conversational ability in Japanese has taken me more hours of diligent study than I care to admit. I have now spent weeks of my life hunched over Japanese textbooks, repeating Terrace House subtitles on Netflix and trying to figure out what on Earth is going on in episodes of Ghost In The Shell or Cowboy Bebop. With the risk of sounding like a self-indulgent tosser, I try to look at learning Japanese in the same way I would a daily workout, but with more anime; without an hour here or there spent poring over some kanji, I feel uneasy, much like a Hiit-class addict must feel while stuck in quarantine (I imagine). Instead of chest and abs, I’m working on my listening comprehension. Leg day is kanji day, which you should also never skip.
It’s worth noting here that despite the mammoth effort and commitment required to reach even the most embarrassingly basic level of fluency, there is nothing at all impressive about learning another language. Billions of people are bilingual; out of the global population, over half of us can speak a second or even third language. So, by definition, this “talent” I’m pursuing is completely unremarkable. Which, conversely, makes it all the more enjoyable. There is none of the fear of failure or rejection that hobbles me from, say, writing a book proposal. I can only improve.
Or so I tell myself. I should add the disclaimer that my fiancée is Japanese. I met her after a fashion show in Tokyo and, at the time, neither of us could communicate in each other’s language well enough to say much beyond “If you teach me your language, I’ll teach you mine!” Some four years later, we’re now both proficient enough in both English and Japanese to argue about whose turn it is to hang the washing out, or why my onigiri-making skills are shit.
I could wax lyrical about how learning Japanese is a way for me to be closer to her and her family, to strengthen our relationship with a complete cultural understanding and to provide a solid bilingual environment for our future kids. Even, perhaps, so that I can speak my vows in Japanese when we get married next year. While all of those things are true, I think I’d study Japanese even if I was alone, because, frankly, it makes me feel calm.
“While all of those things are true, I think I’d study Japanese even if I was alone, because, frankly, it makes me feel calm”
The sense of repose I get from studying (or perhaps more accurately, experiencing things in another language) is that it allows me to revert to a time of childlike ignorance. For instance, I recently reread Mr Roald Dahl’s The Twits in Japanese (the title of which translates, thrillingly, to “Idiot Couple”). The podcast I most enjoy is one on Spotify simply called Let’s Talk Japanese, where Tomo, a Japanese teacher, speaks in varying levels of difficulty on a range of topics, from the lifestyles of Japanese pensioners to the etiquette of pachinko parlours. In books and anime, music and podcasts, I seldom understand everything that’s going on, but that is precisely what makes it enjoyable. To muddle slowly through understanding, rather than to comprehend completely, is to appreciate what it is to learn something new.
“The special quality of hell is to see everything clearly down to the last detail,” wrote the Japanese author Mr Yukio Mishima in his 1956 novel The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion. Perhaps there’s something of that sentiment in learning a language. Because I have little grasp of nuance in Japanese, I can enter a state of cultivated ignorance where everything is a little softer and blurrier, like Vaseline smeared across the camera lens.
For example, I cannot understand what Japanese politicians are saying, and so they take on the appearance of being benevolent (even though I know rationally this is not always true). When the news, in English, seems always to be bad, to spend even an hour parsing through language rather than experiencing it with piercing clarity is frankly meditative. In other words, my thoughts in Japanese are not developed enough for the spectre of anxiety to feed off. Instead, I’m reading about Mrs Twit cackling as she serves a plate of earthworms disguised as spaghetti to Mr Twit, and I am a carefree eight-year-old again.
I have novels by Mr Haruki Murakami and Ms Banana Yoshimoto sitting high on my bookshelf, but, as yet, they remain out of my reach, floating somewhere above the clouds of understanding. A small goal I have is to read My Dear Bomb, Mr Yohji Yamamoto’s biography in Japanese (partly because the English translation is hundreds of pounds), but the point at which I will be literate enough to do so without a dictionary is no doubt years away from now. I don’t mind. For once in my life, I am not in a rush. There is no light yet on my journey, so far just endless tunnel, the walls engraved with characters I just barely understand. It’s enough to know that in some way, I’m transforming, however gradually; that I’m making progress, however slow.