The metaphysics of becoming multi-lingual.

Every Monday at 6pm and Thurs at 5:30 pm for the last few weeks, a 6ft, willowy Japanese woman named Akiko (written with the kanji meaning “bright”or “shining” & “girl”) comes to our humble flat to teach us Japanese. She will do this for the next few months in preparation for our move to Nagoya in the last weeks of June so that Superman can begin work at the home office of the large car manufacturer he works for (who transferred us from Melbourne to Sydney just over a year ago.) As a lover of japanese design and animation since a small child, this trip will be a dream come true – to actually LIVE there for 18months or so rather than to just be a tourist is how I have always hoped to see the world. The language requirement of such an adventure is of course paramount and is, or so I’m told, a major consideration which stops many Australians (and probably English-speakers in general) from accepting transfers to countries in which English is not spoken at least as a second language by the majority of citizens. That Australians particularly, who grow up in this cornucopia of cultures, surrounded by other languages and English spoken with accents thereof, are afraid or even slightly reticent about language seems both sad and absurd to me – especially when the company is providing the cost of the language study.

We are not complete new-comers to Japanese, as fans of anime we are certainly used to it’s sounds and rythms and we even studied it for a few months in 2004 – just before we decided to take the plunge and allow me to give up work to write and had to tighten our belts – so we knew what to expect. Being presented with hiragana was not an issue as we had already learned that it is actually far easier to learn in kana than in romaji/roman characters because it is phonetic. What I didn’t expect, though, was that learning Japanese would effect my rusty school-girl French and my approach to language in general.

I have long heard the theory that it is easier to learn a third language after learning a second and easier still a fourth and so on… I have always assumed that this referred to having learned a second language to fluency but my French is far from fluent (even given that Superman is right that I have always underestimated how good it is) and yet I am finding a profound effect. Of course there is the obvious issue of being familiar with the general concepts of language learning but something more fundamental seems to be happening to my brain. As I learn new words I’m finding that the French for the same word or phrase will come to mind totally unbidden and that my entire world is becoming more abstract. Objects and actions are less tied to the words which name them – in a fundamental way. It’s difficult to describe, and when I do it sounds silly and basic but I’ll try anyway.

When we are children and we are told what something is called we are not literally told “that is named ‘a book’,” we are told “that IS a book.” Perhaps we take on a metaphysical belief about the essence of ‘book’ so that when we are taught other languages we simply learn by rote that “un livre” is another name for what is actually, fundamentally ‘a book.’ I wonder if the words of the mother tongue continue to be the fundamental basis not just of all language but of reality itself unless something is done to breakdown that metaphysical conditioning.

Those who become fluent in a language know the importance of the moment when you start to ‘think in

‘ When you are no longer translating, even at extreme speed, then you are genuinely fluent but this is not what I am referring to. When I was still studying French and even now when I am watching a French movie or le Journal in the mornings I have those moments (not for terribly long when it comes to le Journal I’m afraid). I know exactly what is going on, I laugh at the jokes when it’s appropriate for the French rather than the English subtitles and it will take me a jarring moment to switch back to thinking in English if someone speaks to me or asks me to translate precisely for them. But this new thing isn’t just ‘thinking’ in another language – I certainly don’t know enough Japanese to come close to doing that – it’s thinking outside language, observing beyond language to the core of things without need to impose a name or even a description until there is a requirement to communicate … everything simply IS.Hmm sounds fairly zen, really, doesn’t it?

I wonder if children raised with multiple languages from birth have a completely different metaphysical outlook?

After we arrive in Japan, we will continue to be given language lessons for the duration of our stay so there is a real possibility of achieving more than a survival level of fluency. Perhaps I will even be able to make a rudimentary translation of Shadowkeeper for pitching to the Japanese anime production houses which have inspired and influenced my writing since I was a child. At the very least I should be able to collaborate intelligently with a translator. Standby for posts in kana!

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