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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Through the Open Window: A Manifesto for Approaching Language Study with an Open Mind

(Editor's Note: A Manifesto is 'a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer(Merriam-Webster)' which means what you're about to read is highly opinionated, more blunt in tone and likely to make you angry. Just a fair bit warning, since it's a bit long and you may not agree with what I'm about to say. And yes, I do expect you not to skimp, silly *laughs*)

The language we're raised with is shaped by grammar, colored by vocabulary & powered by culture, a word strongly tied to the stuffy and snooze-inducing aspects of our world-for example, the guy who turns his nose at those not into musicals or fine wines.

However, as culture can be manifested by a tea ceremony, so can it manifest through Causal Fridays & riding the bike trail to Border's with your friends every Saturday, all 3 a way of doing things cultivated through shared values & beliefs. When grammar, vocabulary & culture work in sync, our thoughts gain life & let us interact with the world how we want to, even if we've never seen it before.

You may be wondering how this relates to learning a language, and to that I say this: In understanding this you not only uncover the key to learning a language, but the key to learning it as your language.

Doing so a whole lot more than just stringing words together to try and sound like you know which way is up, and anyone who's told you otherwise cannot communicate. At all.

To fully learn a language means identifying and dealing with key obstacles impeding our understanding of communication, no matter what those obstacles may be. Among them, the first and most disabling block we encounter is how we perceive ourselves.

The desire to meet a requirement or immerse ourselves in a culture unlike our own drives us to take up a foreign language, and those consuming that culture have no clue about either their bloodline hails from or the one they grew up with. This leads to a constant state of emotional flux the more they absorb about their chosen language

If this is your reason for learning, your perceptions will endlessly stunt your growth. You will not fully grasp the knowledge you seek until you have roots to grow from, a lens to bring this world into focus. To study foreign cultures without knowing your own is like trying to whip up Sushi when you don't know a single way to make rice or trying to fix your car after spending 0 time studying how it works; you can't do it without having a foundation to work from.

Laying roots in your own culture lets you define your own cultural identity instead of allowing a given culture to shape you as it sees fit. Yes, it's true molds were made to be broken, but it's impossible to break the mold when you have no mold to break out of.

Ask yourself who you are & find your roots; seek out & study the history of your race, your lineage & your hometown; assess the direction your life is going & decide if that direction is the right direction.

Know yourself, and the world will open all it's doors to you.

The opening of these doors reveals all those waiting behind them, each with greater complexity than any literature would dare to put on the page. Think of the the Valley Girl versed well in the art of the sitar, the philosopher who religiously watches Money Night RAW and the Conservative taking a staunch pro stance for Gay Marriage & Abortion

If not that, think about if someone showed you the phrase 'Namaste' and expected you to grasp when, where and how to say it in that instant, without any further study. To do so is absurd, and seeing the intricacies of a culture's people will be beyond us until we stop relying on 2nd hand info and dive into it ourselves.

Then, after we do that and are firm in who we are, we must zero in on how we view those speaking the language we study and learn the events that crafted their modern society.

The spread of language is driven by both rapid globalization and the subsequent spread of foreign arts, media & entertainment to every planetary nook and cranny, from Princess Mononoke  to Capoeira, from Vodka to Lasagna, from the Mona Lisa to Keyboard Cat; consequently, this process also leads to new ways of marginalizing the people of those countries, some of which is enforced through the classes teaching their chosen language.

When an American English teacher tells their international students 'Americans are the fat, ignorant gunslingers your parent imagine them to be' that will be the image firm in the students' minds during their interactions with Americans, blinding them to how the person actually is. The same goes for media that reinforces those ugly stereotypes, such as gangster movies did to the public perception of Italians & Italian Americans.

Around these perceptions, new cliques and social circles are established, crafting their own rules & regulations based on their skewed views of the culture they so adore, such as skater groups who view drugs, surfer-style attire and terms like 'radical' to be the sole truth of skating, ignorant of it's evolution and reach across cultures. That said, it's not impossible to see the world beyond its media portrayal, but that can only happen if we choose to look behind the mask of their culture & dig deeper. Just below the surface is where we see the struggles the people face between embracing modern ways and upholding tradition, as Spain faces with bullfighting & the younger generation wishing to save the bulls.

If you wish to see all the richness & diversity it has to offer you, delve into its past & be aware of the news shaping it's present, then discuss it with those of the country. Let them impart their cultural understanding so you can better define your own. Search within these complexities, and you'll an abundance of ways to break the ice.

Study the culture thoroughly & let the people's views enrich your own, even if you disagree with your discoveries.

Soon, after at least a basic understanding of their culture is accomplished, the final, most intimidating obstacle of all to break through presents itself: the fear of falling on our face.

We rely on it to keep us from making life risking decisions-like crossing an old rope bridge suspended high above the rapids- but it's that same fear stopping us from doing something as simple as saying 'Hi' to a stranger.

Remember, though, that all the friends we have now started out as strangers.

Besides, it's almost a given you'll make some blunders in speaking the language, presenting yourself to native speakers & knowing the inner workings and day-to-day aspects of the culture, no matter if you learn from 1 book or 100. Nobody is above that, and that is how we come to better gasp our place within it, as well as what it means to more fully take part in it.

A pianist could never appreciate what good sessions sound like if they never hit a few sour notes, a chef could never appreciate what good meals are meant to look like if they never burned anything and a bike rider would never appreciate the kind of pain good balance saves them from if they never fell, nor would either ever see improvement to their capabilities.

You can save yourself from the pain of a fall, but in doing so you also lose the chance to learn the lesson that fall has to teach you about picking yourself up when no one else can or will.

A language learn should take away from their lessons, in addition to a wider vocabulary or greater understanding the the people who speak that language, the desire to communicate & understand our fellow man. Doing that means looking withing ourselves and deciding if what we want to say is what we want to show the people we meet each day.

The more we share ourselves with other, the more others will share themselves with us, forming bonds that grow across months, years or even generations. Their development is vital to our view of the world, and bettering that means we should nurture it and let it grow. To be able to speak another language entails giving up our preconceptions and seeing those we speak with for who they are: people with their own thoughts and feelings on the world they live in, thought and feelings they wish to share with others seeking to better understand it.

Knowledge of self enable knowledge of others; knowledge of others enables knowledge of the world they live in; knowledge of the world they live in enables our ability to communicate at a level far beyond any phrasebook or classroom, regardless if that language is Spanish, Japanese or Swahili.

When you seek to understand, the lines of communication will flood towards you, bringing information far more valuable than how to say 'Hello' or 'Where's the bathroom?', information those close to you would share after a date, after a proposal, after a child is born.

And just to show how serious I am about being in touch with modern Japan, here are a few starter links to keep you in the loop:

The Japan Times: an English Language online publication which a wide range of info concerning Japan and Japanese culture(along with a few other things from other countries for those in Japan wanting a taste of home)

Japan Probe: a blog(and about as biased as you'd expect a blog to be, my own, included) offering more intimate insights into the country's culture and interaction with other countries, as well as subtitled videos of news programs in and around Japan

Ampontan: a blog offering a more detailed insight into some of the politics, politicos and lesser known cultural aspects of the country-for example, it was through that blog I learned that one of the members of the Diet of Japan, 蓮舫(れんほう), was, in her younger days, a gravure[Japanese variant of a pin up] model.(If you don't believe me, you can check this Not Safe For Work video of her) More upfront & inclined to conservative points, so those with more delicate/strongly liberal sensibilities take caution.

CNN Go: Offers a great insight into the culture developed in the city of Tokyo, as well as elsewhere(and also covers other major Asian cities, should be so inclined to give those a peek)

Neojaponisme: a blog focused on giving a intellectual insight to things few ever speak of about Japan, like the stranglehold Johnny's(management company) has over Japanese boy bands and the graphic arts of the culture.

Many other resources are out there discussing many of the other facets of Japanese culture, from the geeks to English teachers to even the rock scene of the country, so if you wanna find something that strikes your fancy about Japan, fire up Google and search away(you can find many of them Where My Many Sources are Collected). Those looking for online Penpals would do well to check out My Language Exchange, Skype and other services out there, as they are likely to link to someone of the country willing to help you refine your own perspective of the country.

As for other basic things you'll need to know about Japan, I'll be bringing them to you in a series of articles called Circle in the Square-of which this Manifesto is the preface of, coming to you very, very soon!(first up, the stages of growth I'd expect a language learner to go through as they develop their skills and knowledge about the country)

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