Moving From Conversational to Advanced Japanese


For both students of one’s native language and students studying a second language like Japanese, moving from conversational to progressively more advanced analytical language can seem rather intimidating or, in some cases, downright impossible. Japanese is a great example of this. The amount of material you need to memorize and understand seems to increase exponentially with each step towards fluency! But thankfully you don’t have to try and do it alone, as there are many great methods out there for organizing your studies more efficiently toward your goals. One such method is using the basic steps of critical thinking to truly understand what one reads and/or is attempting to explain in higher levels of conversation.

(Note: Various forms of Buddhism have been, and continue to be, highly influential in Japan and thus a running knowledge of Buddhist history and doctrine in Japan is essential to understanding local and national colloquialisms, and beyond. Thus, I will be referring to Buddhism often. Also, my system of pedagogy or self-study is compatible with all stages of the Canadian Language Benchmarks laid out by Citizenship And Immigration Canada. Thus, the content may be Asia themed but the standards set are CLB positive).

With each step comes a much greater understanding of your subject and you begin to really start saying things that are significant to yourself and others at a higher level: you’re able to get to the heart of a matter, or the point of a sophisticated film, for example. This ability clearly lifts you up to speaking to a level that will be much more personally significant as well, as you will have no doubt gotten tired of just being able to say, “How’s the weather?” or, “I ate noodles yesterday. They were delicious.”

First of all, this means you must actually find information on things; you must become a fact-gather, rather than merely a word memorizer. Memorizing words like onpu, or senritsu does not prepare you to discuss music let alone speak Japanese. You must have some reason for having these words in your vocabulary, and thus you must organize the information you gather. Can you explain who had an influence (eikyou) on the melodies of Brahms? (Hint: Beethoven!). Can you explain the difference between the (three) definitions of eikyou to someone who does not speak Japanese? You must gather a lot of information on even a single word, rather than just memorize words without context. You don’t need a context for basic words like blue or cat, but you certainly will need to gather information on abstract nouns, or intransitive verbs, in order to use them intelligently.

Then you must be able to effectively analyze the facts/material you gather. This means you must begin identifying patterns, themes, and interrelationships occurring in what you are analyzing. Can you organize and label in your mind the various ‘parts’ of the whole? If the weather is nice, can you relate that information to the overall weather that week? Can you explain to a friend “it is unusually rainy for this time of year, although the summer has only just begun?” This ability to see the weather as part of a whole trend or pattern, and express it as such, is what makes people truly fluent in a second language. It may be hard to learn at first, but it is absolutely necessary if one is going to truly be able to say they are fluent. It is also why many university students in particular taking Japanese give up after taking Japanese 101; the reason why many take 101, but significantly fewer and fewer students take 201 and 301. You have to stop talking about food and start talking about the physiological (internal) difference between a raccoon and a badger. It is not easy if you are not committed to ever increasing levels of hard work. It is not as much fun to study the necessary daily calcium intake of a badger, as it is to tell someone “I love anime.” But you do need the skill to do so.

To begin doing so you obviously must compare things, show how they are alike or different. Comparing things is an act of engaged thought, as similarity and difference are no always as easy as merely saying a tree is not the same as a giraffe. A conversation a student might have with a Shingon Buddhist priest about the goma ritual is going to be radically different from issatsu, the student/teacher exchange in Rinzai Zen Buddhism that can be a very vigorous testing of the student’s knowledge (and interpretation) of scripture and doctrine. The comparison of the two must include the difference between the Shingon and Rinzai worldviews, and how Vajrayana Buddhism differs from Mahayana Buddhism.

This means you must now be able to classify what you are discussing. You must now be able to sort objects, and ideas into sets of features, attribute, and/or effects. This also means you must be able to explain how and why you classified the material. If, for example, you sort the books Jude The Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy and Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964) by Hubert Selby Jr. into a set, people may not understand your choice – until you classify them as books that were considered by some to be obscene when they were first published. Classification will also help others make sense of your choice if you also include Japanese books that have controversial, “obscene” social relationships with their author, such as Decay Of The Angel, and Yukio Mishima’s death by ritual suicide.

I bring up Decay Of The Angel, because in order to properly explain the novel, you must known where the idea of an angel that ‘decays’ comes from. Decaying angels (tenbu), in Japanese Buddhism, are angelic beings with a lifespan, thus mortal. One can tell tenbu apart from immortal angels by various signs of decaying: sweaty armpits, dirty clothes, their bodies cease to give off light, etc. Thus, one must be able to classify tenbu, and this kind of language requires a running knowledge of Buddhism, Buddhist history in Japan, and a variety of religious words – requires a lot more study and analysis than merely memorizing the word ‘Buddhism,’ or ‘angel.’

Classifying things leads to value judgements, determining the quality of what you now know. Are the things you know up-to-date? Are they the latest known facts about an issue? Or are there also a variety of sources that contradict what you now know? If you have read a book on Japanese culture, and memorize much of its main assertions, it is very important to also know what year the book was written. Books written about Japan before 1980 will not contain some rather vital knowledge about Japan one needs to know, as well as books written before the 21st century and the shinjinrui coming into positions of power and influence. To not know who the (1970s) shinjinrui are will definitely hinder your ability to discuss the future of Japan with any degree of excellence, let alone its past. Was it good for the 70s shinjinrui to grow up not knowing first hand of the effects of World War Two? Was it bad or good that they sought a life relatively more material than past generations, and looked to move beyond the much more devoted life to company and nation of their parents or grand parents? That is something you can only discuss if you know Japanese history. Through assessing the shinjinrui you will also discover what is appropriate to discuss, as Japanese people still continue to see potentially controversial political conversation as something one doesn’t engage in often in public, even amongst friends.

If you then have evaluated information – and looked at various ideas related to it – you then interpret them and/or deduce other facts or potential facts from them. This also can mean making an educated guess as well, one that will at least be as factual as possible, given the evidence available. Interpreting information in your second language is hard, very hard the further you go. There will never be a time when you are completely comfortable interpreting information at the highest level until you achieve higher than native fluency – a position interpreting at the United Nations, for example. But until that time, it is OK to feel a little lost sometimes. Keep in mind, no one is completely fluent in any language, even in their native tongue when compared to a famous professor of language like Noam Chomsky, or existential philosopher Keiji Nishitani. Nuclear physicists speak a very select, complex mathematical language when gathering at their most prestigious conferences, so no one out side of that world would be expected to be fluent in it, or more importantly, need to be.

This also means you must now solve much more complicated problems of logic or reasoning, as you must now explain your interpretations in a meaningful way. If you have seen a NHK special on Japanese youth, and think you now have a potential answer to low unemployment among them, you must have at some level determined a process by which they can survive and compete economically. Just saying ‘they should work harder” or “not be lazy” is in itself a lazy thing to say. It is neither a meaningful or particularly helpful conclusion, and you will be almost literally saying nothing. Language fluency is also intellectual fluency, so it is up to you to think quality thoughts, even if they are theoretical.

To solve something means to now have the means to describe your conclusions and persuade others of their veracity.At this point it is vital to make sure that you and your audience or conversation partner knows the difference between fact and opinion. You must be clear whether you are (a) speaking figuratively, or (b) literally, as one is factual while the other is open to further interpretation.

Unfortunately, it is extremely common to see people and corporations run with suggestion or opinion and use it as fact. This occurs all too often with any scientific study that “suggests” something – like eating bananas “may” slow the growth rate of certain cancers. Thus, almost within minutes seemingly, several new diet pills based on banana extract will appear being hailed as the “cure the government doesn’t want you to know about,” or someone will want you to go to their website to check out “this one weird trick for reducing your weight (with bananas)…” The words SUGGEST and MAY clearly state that this is not even close to a conclusion or fact, nor is it even a meaningful statement about bananas or cancer. Very often, too, another study within weeks will come out suggesting that NOT eating bananas may slow the growth rate of certain cancers; neither study has made any definitive or authoritative statement on bananas or cancer, or anything related. But then you see yet another round of misinformation and commercial interest connected to this new non-event, and hundreds if not thousands of people are duped into buying more useless crap from con artists disguised as health practitioners. It is easy to know the truth about these fake claims, but it can be very hard to persuade some people to acknowledge the truth. Thus you must be very well prepared for debate or outright resistance.

The final level of fluency rests in your ability to integrate what you have learnt and your analysis of it into a coherent whole, making clear the difference between what is known and what you personally are now adding to the world of language and facts. You know exactly which are your opinions about what you have learnt, which are reasoned, factual arguments about it, and which of these arguments are authentically your own (and not stolen/plagiarized from others). Being able to integrate the previous eight steps into a language whole means you are definitely, without question, fluent in your new language. It also means you will have the ability to do the same in your native tongue, making you a better student, doctor, lawyer, musician, sales associate, mother, brother, etc.

It is a hard, lengthy process. But it is 100% guaranteed to work.




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