I love language. Having been denied fluency in the Dutch language from my late Dutch father, who spoke only English to us kids growing up, I was envious of my European cousins who spoke several languages and perfect English.
Determined to be a polyglot, I took four years of French in high school and received a minor in Spanish along with my journalism B.A. in college.
I worked in Ecuador and Mexico in journalism and was hired on the spot as a correspondent for the Bakersfield Californian as well as an English as a Second Language Tutor in Jefferson County Public Schools, Colorado because of my language abilities.
I tried to learn another language in my mid forties, such as Czech, the language of my mother’s ancestors, but looking at that foreign alphabet I thought, “Forget it! I will stick with Romance languages!” Besides, they always say the best time to learn a language is when a person is young, which has great benefits.
Babies who grow up bilingual have brain functions that are superior to those of monolingual children, because they have better “cognitive control,” said Dr Mariano Sigman, neuroscientist and author of The Secret Life of the Mind in an article with The World Economic Forum. Cognitive control has many aspects, he said, such as the ability to pay attention, the ability to plan and the ability to switch easily between tasks.
“One of the things most studied about bilingualism is this task-switching, and bilingual children consistently (outperform) monolingual children in this regard,” he said.
But age be damned! Steve is 58 and I’m 50. We feel like kids all over again, and our brains are better for it! We are remarkably actually learning Japanese! Even if it’s by taking baby steps.
Steve and I take lessons together at the Berlitz Namba location in Osaka, receiving 100 hours or lessons from his work. We had an orientation with Tomoe, whose name means a 12th Century Japanese female warrior, I learned from reading Michael Hoffman’s excellent book, In the Land of the Kami: A Journey Into the Hearts of Japan.
Tomoe suggested we take lessons twice a week to bolster the language, but we were good to start with two, 40-minute lessons back to back once a week, since Steve is a salaryman now, working 7 to 7 every day. Plus, it can be overload, as fun as it has been these past three weeks of our instruction.
Despite the challenges of learning Japanese, we are excited to know that adults who know another language can offset dementia, according to a study at the University of Edinburgh. “Early research indicated that the symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders often appeared 4-5 years later than individuals who only spoke one language.”
Another study by York University in Toronto found that bilingual people’s brains function better and for longer even after developing Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that those who were bilingual had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about four years later, on average, than those who spoke just one language. And the bilingual people reported their symptoms had begun about five years later than those who spoke only one language, research showed.
So we are happy to know our midlife brains will be better for all this, even though the first lesson with our teacher was overwhelming with the immersion technique. But we hung in there, learning some words for nationalities and professions, and getting two big books and a CD to practice with at home, which we supplement with some apps.
I learned to count to 10 from a friend in high school who was half Japanese, but that was it. From my first two trips to Japan this year, I had learned to say in Japanese, “Good morning, good afternoon, and goodnight. Yes, no.” Little things like that.
At first it was overwhelming because of the culture shock, and I couldn’t even figure many words out until the third trip or apply it, my brain got so mixed up. My brother gave me one of his Japanese language books, and I picked out a few vocabulary words and grammar to try and memorize, and did. But there is nothing like immersion behind here in Japan. You can’t help but learn!
At the grocery store checkout line recently I distinctly heard the word, “Sumimasen,” and looked behind me to see two little kids who were excusing themselves so that they could talk to their mother, the cashier.
I understood! Another grocery worker smiled and said, “Genke desu ka?” Which I knew was, “How are you?” And I smiled, as in “yes!.” While trying to pay the water bill at the local Lawson’s store, the man shook his head, said something and also said the word, “ginko.” which I learned from class as “bank.” So I realized I couldn’t pay the bill there, I had to go to a bank because it was late or something.
I had also gone to some festivals, including the Tenjin Matsuri, which means festival of the gods. Watching Japanese TV can be a handy to learn, so watching a show on TV about festivals, I picked out the word, “matsuri” and later other words I’ve learned. Or when I hear the sound “ka” it means a question is being asked.
I made friends with a housekeeper at the hotel we stayed at early on and have been hanging out with her. She taught me a few words, as has going to the Japanese chiropractor every Friday I try out new words on him from the classes or learn using Google translate during the session. Exciting and fun! I can just feel those brain cells bursting with fresh connections!
Now originally we elected to learn Romaji only, the phonetic sounds with Roman letters of Japanese language, which consists of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Tomoe said it’s actually harder to then learn the Japanese symbols if you start this way rather than dive in.
But we thought let’s take those baby steps. In many ways Japanese is easier than Romance language, as there is no gender like Romance, which always messed me up. Also the vowels and consonants in Japanese are sounded the same every time. Although it can be difficult too with the sheer number of symbols, vowels and consonants, and the complex system of verb forms and vocabulary that indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned, as well as different sets of words for different uses of numbers. BRAIN BUSTING!
But that’s what’s fun about it. Some people do crossword puzzles, we are learning Japanese! As we did elect to learn some Hiragana the second class, and it felt like being in kindergarten all over again, writing out and pronouncing vowels a, i, u, e, o, or consonants ka, key, ku, kay, ko, putting them together to make words. I make up silly sentences via mnemonics to learn! But we just practice and try words and conversations out on people in the elevator – just communicating, which is a great joy.
It’s good to know too that even Japanese people can’t read the old Japanese languages that are on some of the shrines around Osaka. And luckily a lot of foods are printed with English and Google translate is a godsend. Of course good old fashioned sign language and body language can do wonders to communicate.
Our latest class today really busted our brains and tongues starting out, but with the immersion we started to think and understand. We are here for at least three years it seems with Steve’s work. So we have plenty of time. And every day as I venture out and connect to the Japanese world, it’s wonderful language and culture just sinks in via Japan’s rich customs, festivals, food and never ending amazing people.
Kampai! We are reborn!