An analogy can help.
Imagine someone shows you a photo of some streets in a foreign city and tells you to remember all the details. No matter how hard you try consciously to remember those details they will quickly fade from the memory.
But now imagine you are lost in a foreign city and are desperate to find your destination.
You consult your maps, ask passers-by etc. and eventually through much effort you find your way.
I am sure that if you are like me the concentration need to find your way guarantees that you will remember for years the roads, paths and buildings you passed en route.
I find the same thing with mountain climbing. If at some place there was some kind of difficulty in deciding or finding the correct route, I can tell you the details of that place today as if it was yesterday.
Why? Because I was faced with a challenge, and it forced me to concentrate. The concentration involved guaranteed that the details of those routes were pulled into my long-term memory, like steel particles sucked into a magnet.
Similarly with language - how to get it sucked into the memory. Concentration is the first condition. But there is another - correctness, making sure that what you suck in is correct language.
And correctness involves not just correct pronunciation. Stress and rhythm are also important.
Some say reading out aloud or rote learning helps the memory. Tests and quizzes also help. Both can provide the stimulus for needed concentration. But there is no correctness guarantee.
Living the language - being in a situation where you have to use and rely on the language for every day life – also helps, though it is not hard to find migrants living in this situation who cannot speak well even after decades.
Their listening is not sufficiently focussed. They hear what they want to hear and then repeat it till it becomes embedded in the sub-conscious and cannot be corrected later.
Some technique is needed to allow you to concentrate while listening to the correct language so that what you are listening to penetrates the all-important sub-conscious memory directly, before you have the chance to hear what you want to hear.
I call it deep listening, followed by the meaningful conversation needed to embed it in the sub-conscious.
First select some recorded material, the meaning of which you want to understand or that you are required to understand.
You listen carefully, with concentration, checking with a dictionary words you do not understand.
You are in effect trying to decode the sounds coming out of the machine.
That concentrated effort in turn begins to push what you are hearing into the sub-conscious, very much in the way a child listens and remembers.
You can of course rely on text to help you in your de-coding effort. Indeed, for someone like myself who relies heavily on visual memory, seeing words in a text or dictionary AFTER I have made that listening effort is a big help in memorising.
But it should be secondary - somewhat like using a map when you find yourself lost.
The memorization effect will be much more positive if first you feel you have done all you can through listening to understand.
I call it 'deep listening.' In Japanese 'ango kaidoku' – the de-coding or de-cyphering effect.
Using in conversation the words you have just de-cyphered also helps greatly. Writing out what you have decoded also helps.
Yet another hint: use tapes or CD's for the listening. Audio-visual is distracting, as is the presence of the other speaker in conversation lessons
Close your eyes and just concentrate on the sound trying to enter your mind. That way the impact is much stronger.
CD's and tapes also allow you to work at your own pace - to study when you want to and when you feel your mind is receptive.
This process of feeling that you are in control - that from the beginning you have wanted strongly to listen to and understand some recorded material - is important.
You do not get that in the classroom.
The role of the teacher should be secondary, if at all.
Once, when studying Chinese in Hongkong, I had to record and 'de-cypher' immediately an important Beijing broadcast at the height of an early sixties Taiwan Straits crisis.
The new words I learned when under the pressure to complete the 'de-cyphering' process remained with me for years.
Language as a Song
Ever wonder why we can remember songs - nursery songs especially – so easily and for so long? Poems also.
Because rhythm opens the gates almost directly to the sub-conscious.
Unfortunately we cannot turn that mess of nouns, verbs, conjunctives etc called a language into something as luring and attractive as a song or poem. But we can to do something to make it somewhat more attractive.
For example, I find it very useful to listen to recordings by someone with an attractive voice.
I was once involved with the Japanese language materials company that produced the very successful language learning set of taped recordings called 'Chase.'
They took my advice to tape in sections a mystery story of interest to Japanese. So they hired Sydney Sheldon to write the story. That helped their sales. But helping the sales even more was their idea of hiring Orson Welles to record the story.
When the voice is attractive you can almost feel the sub-conscious reaching out to take in what it is hearing. That is why we remember songs so well.
When you speak a language fluently you also have the sensation of repeating the words of a long familiar song.
People sometimes ask me whether you get confused with languages - whether knowing Chinese interferes with Japanese, for example.
The short answer is, no, (although there can be a brief mental confusion when you switch from a well-embedded language to one less so, for example in my case from Chinese to Japanese).
It is like asking whether I have a problem singing 'My Fair Lady' if I know 'Doing it my Way.'
Remembering a variety of languages should be no harder than remembering a variety of songs... provided we can push them into that sub-conscious memory.
Watch some mid-Eastern traders switching easily from one language to another to do their business and you will understand.
The brain is a house with many rooms. When you move from one language to another it is like moving from one room to another, taking care to close the door behind you.
True, I sometimes have a problem closing the door when I switch from Chinese to Japanese.
The fact of learning Chinese when I was younger (22) – and maybe because grammatically it is closer to English - has embedded it more deeply in my sub-conscious than Japanese, even though I have been speaking Japanese for 30 years.
So when I return to Japanese the mind can go into semi-seizure for a few seconds as I try to sort out what language I am speaking
But that is all.
The other surprise when speaking Chinese is the ease with which words and expressions learned as long as 40 years ago, together with correct pronunciations, jump out of my sub-conscious naturally as if I had been using them just yesterday – yet another proof of the power of that sub-conscious memory.
But then again, if you learned Jack and Jill in your childhood and I asked you to sing it now I can assume most would be able to do so almost without thinking.
A language is like a set of those nursery room songs, long and complicated, but not impossible to remember if you go about it the right way.
5. Reading Japanese – 'Listen' to what you read.
As already mentioned, when I set out to do my post-graduate research on Japan both I and my mentors assumed my knowledge of Chinese would make it fairly easy for me to read research materials in Japanese.
We were both wrong. Like the spoken language, the written language has the Devil’s fingerprints all over it.
It is a major obstacle preventing progress with the language.
Problem number one is the way the print is jumbled, with the Chinese-origin ideographs (kanji) mixed with two phonetic scripts - katakana and hiragana.
Katakana is used mainly for imported words, mainly from English. Hiragana is more for indigenous Japanese words or parts of speech.
Katakana is sometimes compared to the way we use capitals in English; hiragana is lower case.
So when you read Japanese, it is as if you were reading English and constantly jumping from one word in capitals to another in lower case with the kanji ideographs thrown into the mix.
Kana are fairly easy to learn and remember. Not so the kanji.
You will have to learn to recognize about 1500 or more if you want to read serious material.
That takes quite a bit more than a year.
The good news is that you do not need to learn how to write kanji, though many try to. It is enough to be able recognise them.
Nor are kanji quite as hard to recognise as they seem on first impression.
They are made up usually of two or three of about fifty standard components and if you know them you should in theory be able to at least search meanings in a dictionary.
Besides, you do not have to analyse each component to recognize each kanji. Once you know the components then when they are pulled together to comprise an ideograph you get to recognise the ideographs as you recognise pictures.
It is rather as if I see a Picasso on a wall I will know immediately it is a Picasso. I am not likely to confuse it with a Da Vinci.
All this helps to make for fast reading, though it would probably be even faster if there were no phonetic kana cluttering the page.
But while the kanji can make for fast reading, for some reason (probably inherited from the way Chinese is written) there are no breaks to indicate different words. Everything – kanji, hirgana, katakana - are all run together in each sentence (fortunately there are sentence breaks).
The result is rather like this:
Only a fluent English speaker could intuit where the breaks between individual words should occur, namely:
It is almost as if I was to write a sentence like this and then ask you to read it.
So even more than with most other languages you need to have good listening/speaking ability to read Japanese.
Without that ability students will end up like me many years ago – pouring over scripts for hours trying to untangle the scribble before you.
But if you have speaking ability then all you have to do is turn the scribble into sound and the meaning emerges naturally, as if you were listening to someone reading that text to you.
That language is sound rather than scribbles on a piece of paper is something many have yet to understand.
By now the reader should understand my difficulties when I set out blithely, back in 1965, to rely on texts for my doctorate research into Japanese overseas investments.
I could pick out the kanji in the texts, but could not relate them to the kana scattered before and after.
Fortunately particles can often tell you where a 'word' begins and ends in the jumble of script before you.
Then with the help of a Japanese dictionary, you can then try to discover the meaning of each of those separated-out words and particles.
(And it is not as if those Japanese dictionaries are easy to use.)
Even after you have worked out the meaning of all the words, you still have to battle the back-to-front grammar and try to string those words together into some kind of meaning.
And while you are doing that you have to keep remembering the meanings of the many unfamiliar words you have just checked in the dictionary.
They too can slide easily out of the memory, sometimes in the time it takes to close the dictionary.
You feel as if you are juggling a bunch of words and particles and hope by accident they will all come together.
For me, just reading two or three pages of text would take the best part of an hour.
Reading by Listening
But once I got to know the spoken language everything changed.
That ugly and messed up collection of words in front of me (both kanji and kana) could automatically be turned into sound.
The meaning of the sentence would emerge as quickly and as naturally as if if I was listening to someone saying the same thing to me.
That is why I realised that my first priority on arriving in Japan would be to master the spoken language.
Which I did eventually, but only after the best part to two years of concentrated study, mainly by listening.
Only then could I begin the still painful business of reading the Japanese documents I needed for my study and research.
Explaining all these problems to my mentors back in Canberra was not easy.
In fact, I think they still do not understand, judging from the way they still send people without Japanese to Japan for serious research, and then assume that the mere fact these people have spent a year or so in Japan means they are able easily to handle readings in academic Japanese.
6. Mastering the Language
As mentioned earlier I had begun trying to learn Japanese back in Canberra before going to Japan.
Arriving in Japan I soon discovered how inadequate that had been - that the Japanese language teachers foisted on me at the ANU had left me with almost zero ability with the spoken language.
Virtually the only Japanese I had was what picked up in my few conversation classes with that Japanese housewife in Canberra.
So right from the start that I had to set out almost anew to make the listening and speaking breakthrough needed if I was to begin to be able to read my research materials.
As I knew from my experience with Chinese this would not be easy. But my experience with Russian had taught me the value of listening to tapes.
And unlike with Chinese, but as with Russian, with Japanese I had the chance to supplement with TV.
At first, all I had was the one set of Japanese language conversation tapes then commonly available (Jorden).
I would supplement this by trying to listen to TV/radio broadcasts of interest.
Trying to meet and talk to as many people as possible people was also important, as I had discovered in Russia.
But you cannot talk to people unless you can talk - a dilemma many other language learners face.
Even so, we all try.
The process is cumulative.
Get started on a language, and soon everything you do in your daily life, from buying fish to sorting out visa problems, all adds to that learning experience.
Fail to do that and you spend the rest of your Japan career confined to a box of dark incomprehension, jealous of those who have broken through.
True, most realize this and begin learning Japanese with good intentions. But progress can be excruciatingly slow, and many give up.
Fortunately I knew from previous languages that if one perseveres eventually there will be breakthroughs.
The ‘Plateau’ Phenomenon
Often you will reach a certain stage when you feel all progress has stopped. You are stuck at the limited level of language ability you have achieved to date.
You feel you have ‘plateaued’.
But then suddenly one day you feel your fluency has improved a few degrees.
You have moved up to the next ‘plateau’, so to speak.
From there you can move on to the next stage and so on.
Eventually you achieve fluency.
Using Radio and TV
True, the route I had to choose - listening to radio and TV programs (often without sub-titles in those days) – was not the easiest.
Children’s programs helped.
Fortunately today there is much more use of sub-titles on television broadcasts, which in my case can be read quickly thanks to the prolific use of kanji.
If I had had that aid from the beginning I could have cut greatly the time needed to master Japanese.
But I still had the homophone problem to overcome.
One day someone would be talking about sei shu. Then shu sei, or shu sai and then sai shu, sei sai, sai sei or even sei sei (to refine products).
The sounds alone were hard to differentiate, let alone remember the meanings that went with them.
Using the Tape Recorder
What to do?
In those days there was almost nothing like the flood of CDs, tapes and other helpful, graded listening materials available today.
For the concentrated 'deep' listening practice I need the best I could do at first was little more than taping the weather forecasts.
For terms I could not understand I would listen repeatedly and then check with a dictionary or the newspaper of the day.
Later I graduated to an early morning NHK radio program called Watashi-tachi no Kotoba. Announcers would read out letters from conscientious, mostly elderly, Japanese listeners giving their views on the social problems of the day.
The reading was slow and clear. The contents included many educated words and expressions, which I could use.
There was also the feeling of being drawn into world of the letter-writer and wanting to understand the message that he or she wanted to pass on to the world.
(NHK has since replaced the program with brief, superficial and highly forgettable comments by listeners.)
Thanks to that intimate feeling of listening in to someone's conversation, the words I picked up from de-ciphering those early morning broadcasts still stay with me as if they were yesterday.
(Years later, I was invited by a publisher to put my ideas into book form. It was called “The Code-Deciphering Technique” - Ango Kaidoku Hoshiki. Together with the concept of ‘deep listening’ it seemed to influence a surprisingly large number of readers.)
From those morning broadcasts I moved to news broadcasts, relying on the newspapers of the day to help me de-cipher what I could not understand.
Yasuko also helped me a lot in the 'de-ciphering' process. I will always be grateful.
Today, of course most of these difficulties have gone. There is now so much good listening material available that one’s main problem is choosing.
First priority should be material spoken slowly and clearly. Also spoken firmly, so you feel drawn into the ambit of the speaker.
That way the emotional factor crucial to drawing material into the sub-conscious memory begins to function.
For some strange reason the recording people seem to think they have to produce materials spoken at full conversational speed, or even faster, and filled with jargon and background noises.
(One NHK Spanish language broadcast I used to listen to had a steam train roaring through a tunnel - to provide the sense of reality.)
Students already have enough problems without having all that thrown at them.
Later, when you have mastered the language, you will get all the fast conversational practice you need.
If reality is needed then the mere fact you are trying to understand something sensible that someone is saying is more than enough reality.
You do not need gimmicks and puppet-shows to push words or expressions into the memory box.
Also, I discovered it helps a lot if you can use materials which run on a question and answer basis, ideally with changes of tense, person etc – e.g. ‘Do you like sushi; I like it now but I did not like it at first.'
But whatever technique you use, feeling involved in what you are hearing is the key.
Today I enjoy greatly watching an interesting TV program on the topic of the day, armed with my dictionary to help me de-cipher subtitled words new to me.
TV dramas are also good; Japan produces many of quality.
Listening was one thing. But obviously I needed speaking practice too.
The current fad is for something called 'communicative English.’
In theory that should be fine. The effort to communicate an idea or feeling to a native speaker can do much to consolidate the language in the sub-conscious memory.
Hopefully the teacher will help by correcting mistakes in pronunciation and grammar.
But for reasons already mentioned these conditions are often not present. Much of the conversation is stilted and forced.
You can come away with little retained in the memory
And it goes without saying that you will not remember much unless you have prepared the topic in advance, ideally through the kind of listening practice I have recommended.
Teachers have yet to realize that you access your memory through your eyes and ears, not through your mouth.
Trying to Speak
And so like most other dedicated learners, I eventually reached the stage where I could communicate in Japanese.
Years of presentations on the lecture and TV circuit obviously did no harm to further progress.
But going out and talking to as many people as possible is crucial.
That, at least, was my resolution when I arrived in Japan as a would-be research student, back in 1967-8.
But it was hard to get started.
In those postwar days the psychological and other gaps between Western and Japanese society were still wide; for the women at least, foreigners still carried some of the stigma of the Occupation days.
Today mixed foreigner-Japanese bars can be found on almost every Tokyo street corner. But for most of my early years in Japan these places hardly existed.
Fortunately, a British Embassy contact introduced me to a professor of English at some mid-level university.
He was said to be an expert on Shakespeare but could hardly speak the language – a typical victim of the text rather than the listening approach to language learning.
But he introduced me to his deshi and they tried to look after me. That gave me my first break-though into Japanese society.
I was not so fortunate with the Australian Embassy. They had me firmly black-listed as a dangerous anti-Vietnam War protestor.
Fortunately my one contact at the Embassy - a third secretary, Richard Broinowski, and his wife Alison – kindly invited me to the occasional party and gave me some useful introductions.
Breaking Through - The Nomiya Experience
My eventual speaking break-through came by accident - at a small nomiya (eating and drinking place) at the bottom of the Toritsu-dai hill where I was renting my room.
As I passed it on my way home from a day's work at the Ajiken library I could smell the sweet smell of grilled yakitori chicken seeping out from the sliding doors and hear the buzz of conversation inside.
One day I decided to take a look inside. As I opened the sliding doors someone called out for the gaijin-san to come inside. Someone else moved up for me to sit down at a counter lined by the half dozen or so regulars - a plumber, a school-teacher and so on - with a mama-san facing us on the other side.
My neighbour turned out to be a nomiya regular - a very ordinary salary-man and as I discovered later a good friend of the mama-san. He helped me order, and then went out of his way to talk to me, slowly so I could understand.
For the first time in my Tokyo career I was able to have a proper conversation, albeit very limited, with an ordinary Japanese.
I kept coming back. They kept on looking after me. Gradually I came to realise that this little group had begun to see me as one of their regular members.
Early in the spring they invited me to join them and the mama-san for a hanami (flower viewing) on the cherry tree lined banks of the nearby Tama River.
Soon after they were to organise a farewell party for me when I was due to leave Japan.
All this even though I was still struggling to speak their language properly.
It was a lesson in Japan's group relations, and not just in how to learn a language.
When you are outside the group in Japan you are on your own.
But if for some reason you can get inside, you can do so totally, even if you are a foreigner still struggling with the language.
The sense of group – the longing for belonging as someone once put it - can be over-powering.
Insider/outsider, or soto/uchi as it is also called. It is one of the clues to understanding Japan.
That experience, plus other happy memories of that year in Japan, would do much to bring me back a year or so later as a news correspondent.
And this time I really did have to get stuck into the language.
**The origins of the Japanese language are puzzling. It is labelled as a member of the North Asian Altaic language group, and an important clue has to be the grammar similarities with Korean, also labelled as Altaic.
And like Korean, it is a mix of Chinese-origin words and the indigenous language.
Many of the thousands of Chinese-origin words in Japanese have similar pronunciation and meaning as the many Chinese-origin words in Korean.
So it seems fairly safe to assume that much of the Chinese in Japanese came via Korea, though some also say that some words also came directly, from south China.
But before any Korean or Chinese influence could enter the language there had to be a native language - namely whatever language it was that the original Jomon era (BC 14,000- BC 300) peoples were using.
Some of these peoples are assumed to have arrived from North Asia to create the still-existing Ainu culture. The Japanese language contains some Ainu-origin words. But there are also words of clearly Austronesian origin imported from the Taiwan and other areas to the south.
The frequent use of repetitive words - dara-dara (slowly), tama-tama (occasionally or coincidentally) – is identical with what we see in Malay-Indonesian today.
But as with Chinese, we see little trace of that native language influencing the grammar of today's Japanese. The Korean grammar influence remains dominant.
So how to explain this linguistic cocktail? And why should Korean grammar serve as the basis of a language which has indigenous origins?
A clue could lie in way the native languages of Papua-New Guinea have been absorbed into English.
Despite protestations of Japanese nationalists to the contrary, it seems clear that from the turn of the millennium through to the first glimmerings of a distinctive Japanese culture around 700 AD Japan came under heavy East Asian cultural influence, first with the introduction of wet rice growing culture of the Yayoi period (300BC-250AD) and then the Korean-inspired Kofun (Tomb) period through to 550AD.
During this period it seems likely that Japan came to be ruled by a Korean origin elite under heavy Chinese cultural influence.
Almost every time they open one of those enormous Korean-style imperial tombs of the Kofun period they find more goods and paintings identical with those used by the China-Korean at the time - to the point where the authorities are reluctant to open too many since they confirm the Korean-Chinese origins of the Japanese imperial family.
To my untrained eye, some of the tomb frescos of court ladies are identical with Han dynasty decorations found as far away as the Gobi desert!
In short, while Japan almost certainly had a lower class still speaking its original native language of various origins (Ainu, Austronesian, East Asian Altaic) it was ruled by Chinese-culture people speaking Korean.
And as in Papua New Guinea the lower class had no choice but to embrace the language of that upper class, including grammar, while retaining some of the words and expressions of the native language.
In PNG the result is Pidgin English, a crude form of English now recognised as a language in its own right.
In Japan, the result was the Japanese language we know to today - an amended form of Korean with heavy Chinese inputs.
But do not say that too loudly. The nationalists will get upset.