The pampas of ennui

Being Leonardo Boiko's online Journal, featuring Long & Very Sporadic Essays on any Subject.

17 October 2011

Lately a few different trains of thought have been converging to English.

Anglophone Orientalists

As the backlog makes clear, I’ve been thinking about what kind of scholar or professional I could be; it’s a decision that I was glad to postpone, but sorosoro I think it’s about time to start narrowing. Then it suddently struck me what kind of Orientalist I’ll become: an English-speaking Orientalist.

So far my academic modus operandi have been like this:

  • I’m asked to write an essay on $topic;
  • I search for $topic on JSTOR, MUSE, google books, amazon, local libraries (all primarily English material);
  • I read everything that seems interesting;
  • I plagiarize copy jumble together analyse the literature and synthetize a well-researched scholarly essay.

Now you might be thinking this is dans l’ordre des choses for 21st-century academics worldwide, and I agree; but not here, no. Not all teachers can read English effortlessly and not all research from such material; and the percentage drops even further among classmates. No one ever teaches the students about JSTOR or; I arrived at such tools naturally due to being an English-speaking dude on the Internet. Consequently, the ideas I steal bring to class are often surprising and fresh to the audience. True, my teachers have access to even more (and, arguably, better) material directly from Japanese. But reading English, a purely accidental skill, has given me an edge over many of my peers in research efforts.

(I can’t write it very well, and I’m even worse at live conversation; but oh yes I can read English. I know my Chomskian friends will find this claim absurd (not to mention the Sausurreans), but I’d go as far as saying I can read English better than Portuguese—at the very least, I’m certain that translations to English are easier and more fluid for me than the equivalent translations to Portuguese, even when the source language is very close to Portuguese (like French or Italian)).

What I then realized is that, if your intellectual growth is shaped by your sources, then it must be shaped, at a higher level, by the languages you know. I’ve talked before of my affair with the French semiotics of Greimas (a completely different beast than the English semiotics of Peirce and Eco), and of how surprised I was to find little to no impact of it on the English-speaking academia. Now the only reason I know about Greimas is another accident of history; when my college was established French was still the prestige language for humanities, and the first teachers were brought in from France, and they had a profound influence that has lasted to this day. Now just like (some of) my lit teacher’s ideas on literary criticism were built on top of—in several important ways, were consequences of—their skill in navigating French-language waters, my own ideas as a Japanese studies guy result mainly from my familiar, abundant, easily accessible English sources, and there’s no going around it.

Such is our life in the perifery; we often talk of the autonomy of simulacra, but when you’re a simulacrum it makes a lot of difference what you’re a simulacrum of. What’s more, the desire for relevance and authenticity, the desire to move closer to the center is irresistible. I’d like to be part of the English-speaking circle of Orientalists more than the local circle, if I can get away with it. Surely it would be much more rewarding to be published in Monumenta than in Estudos Japoneses.

English: a handicap, a paradigm

I’ve been musing (again) on the disappointing pace of my progress with Japanese. I decided to be analytic about it: What am I doing that improves my Japanese, and can I do more of it? What am I doing that doesn’t, and can I stop doing it? That line of thinking made me realize that the single most significant obstacle to my Japanese learning is my knowledge of English.

We often make fun of native monolingual English speakers and their difficulty in acquiring even the basics of new languages (“What do you call someone who speakings two languages? Bilingual. Many languages? Polyglot. One language? Anglophone.”) The reason, of course, is not that English somehow impairs the mind for language acquisition, but that they can get away with it, and mental inertia is a powerful force. Everyone speaks English; everything is published in English—or, rather, for any topic you can think of, there’s enough English material to keep one busy for a lifetime. Today it’s perfectly doable to be, say, a scholar of Japan without knowing Japanese. I’m not saying it’s a good way of going about it, but I think it’s possible; you could read literally hundreds of books on Japanese society, culture, literature, religion &c. without ever leaving the safety of the lingua franca, and surely after that one must have one or two interesting things to say about it. I don’t like this idea, though; you’d be caught in cultural framing, not only from the translations themselves but from the very choice of what gets to be translated. And, unless I consciously do something about it, I’m headed straight into that trap.

In other words: okay, so if English is your L1, you have less incentive to acquire and practice your L2…LN. But, for the same reasons, if English is your L2, you have less incentive to acquire L3…LN. And English is the L2 of like everyone in the world. Those anglophone jokes are a global problem.

But, but. There’s another angle of approach to the same object. “What am I doing that does improve my Japanese”—of all the competing theories of language learning, what has been tried and true to work for me specifically? And I happen to have a case study at hand. How did I came to learn English in the first place? Can I reproduce the same methods with the L3?

Off the top of my head:

  • There were no flashcards. Also no grammar study, no institutions, no classes, ever.
  • There were huge amounts of reading. And the reading was graded; first videogames and comics, then light fiction, then academic textbooks. I recall not playing Might & Magic for the Mega Drive because the text was way over my head; I recall Fairy Tale was just right in the same time period.

    • On the other hand, I could always produce an acoustic image from a written English word (even though it was often wrong). English text is easier to get a handle of than kanji.
    • Also, I’m now an adult, and as such I have a lot less interest on videogames and anime and a lot more on adult texts, which are harder to crack. (side note: could this be part of the “critical period” mystique?)
  • Most of the time it felt like goofing off. It just so happened that the sites I wanted to procrastinate in were written in English.
  • I’m conflicted about dictionaries. I recall carrying them around and consulting every single word; I recall being called a “dictionary kid”, and Mom bragging to people that I learned English from dictionaries. But I also recall chosing not to use dictionaries, wanting only to enjoy the game or story; I recall not understanding everything & not caring about it. Perhaps there was a dictionary period, and a just-play period. Perhaps they alternated.
  • My overall path was Krashenian; tons of input, with communication coming much later.

English was the quirky lady who appears out of thin air one night & invites you to her place & becomes the fuck-buddy you adore & before you can even think “what the hell was that all about” you’re watching Dr. Who reruns late at night on her sofa. Which is to say, it crashed (or krashend (har har)) in my life like a meteor, & I’m profoundly grateful for it.

We currently think of skills as a result of volition; we become doctors because we wanted very hard to be doctors, and so on. But I think that notion would be weird for past societies. Most people knew how to do stuff that they had no know; it wasn’t a matter of choice (even my grandma never quite grokked the concept of doing something because you like doing it). Is it possible to have the best of the two worlds; to consciously create a kind of life where you have no choice but to acquire the skill you wanted? The gods granted me English as a gift; can I manipulate or please them into giving more?

(Mental remark: read more Tim Ingold on skills.)

Currently I’ve stopped with flashcards in favor of such things as grappling with classical texts and annotated anthologies; it’s been pleasant so far, but let’s see whether it sticks.


Comments (3)

  1. In other words: I never learned English. I never set out to learn English. English was not a goal; perhaps not even a means, but something more like an obstacle; I wanted to play videogames/read about elves/ace my Databases exam, and English was in the way, and I had to jump over it. So when I think “well I’m going to learn some Japanese now”, I’m already doing something categorically different.

    If I want to induce a gift-from-the-gods situation, I should concentrate on things I want to do that 1) need Japanese to be done and 2) cannot be solved just with English. What kinds of things like that can I find?

  2. Pingback: Roleplaying : Leonardo Boiko’s background diary

  3. From the Dark Ages to until around the XVIII century, ðere was a Latin ‘Republic of Letters’ in Europe, succeeding Antiquity’s Greek-speaking Mediterreanean culture. English is quite like Latin, having succeeded in become ðe global language of culture wiðout ever obliterating Latin and Greek, just as Latin itself never obliterated Greek. Ideally, everyone would just go back to Greek so all culture since Greece would be available to everyone; but nowadays it is much easier to just carry everyþing over to English, only it kinda goes against the grain.

    It is a pity Latinists’ purism and Europe’s nationalism killed the Latin Republic of Letters, and ðat Romanism killed ðe Greek Mediterranean culture. Such is our fallen world — actually, our Babelic world. Even a localist, commited Christian or Jew would probably welcome a global language of culture, provided it was not English… just as people did not want Latin to die nor, before ðat, to Greek to be superseeded by Latin.

    So it is English for us, for now. On ðe one hand, all our resources for language learning make it quite easy to add English to Greek, Latin (and Hebrew, for ðe leß superficial ones). But if we are to be really serious, we would have to add French and German as former languages of culture, between Latin & English. & ðat reminds me ðat, even if demography seems to indicate ðere is no country apt to succeed ðe US as ðe global superpower, ðe acceleration of ðe succeßion of powers and cultures seems like getting our culture more and more fragmented…

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