Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 8, 2024

Beginner's mind

Last September, I started learning Japanese through Duolingo.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Grantuking from Cerrione, Italy, Flag of Japan (1), CC BY 2.0]

My master's degree is in historical linguistics, so I'm at least a little better than the average bear when it comes to languages, but still -- my graduate research focused entirely on Indo-European languages.  (More specifically, the effects of the Viking invasions on Old English and the Celtic languages.)  Besides the Scandinavian languages and the ones found in the British Isles, I have a decent, if rudimentary, grounding in Greek and Latin, but still -- until last September, anything off of the Indo-European family tree was pretty well outside my wheelhouse.

The result is that there are features of Japanese that I'm struggling with, because they're so different from any other language I've studied.  Languages like Old English, Old Norse, Gaelic, Greek, and Latin are all inflected languages -- nouns change form depending on how they're being used in a sentence.  A simple example from Latin: in the two sentences "Canis felem momordit" ("The dog bit the cat") and "Felis canem momordit" ("The cat bit the dog"), you know who bit whom not by the order of the words, but by the endings.  The biter ends in -s, the bitee ends in -m.  The sentence would still be intelligible (albeit a little strange-sounding) if you rearranged the words.

Not so in Japanese.  In Japanese, not only does everything have to be in exactly the right order, just about every noun has to be followed by the correct particle, a short, more-or-less untranslatable word that tells you what the function of the previous word is.  They act a little like case endings do in inflected languages, and a little like prepositions in English, but with some subtleties that are different from either.  For example, here's a sentence in Japanese:

Tanaka san wa, sono sushiya de hirugohan o tabemashou ka?

Mr. Tanaka [particle indicating respect, always used when addressing another person] [particle indicating who you're talking to or the subject of the sentence], that sushi shop [particle indicating going to a place] lunch [particle indicating the object of the sentence] should we eat [particle indicating that what you just said was a question]? = "Mr. Tanaka, would you like to eat lunch at that sushi shop?"

Woe betide if you forget the particle or use the wrong one, or put things out of order.  Damn near every time I miss something on Duolingo and get that awful "clunk" noise that tells you that you screwed up, it's because I made a particle-related mistake.

And don't even get me started about the three different writing systems you have to learn.

This is the first time in a while I've been in the position of starting from absolute ground zero with something.  I guess I do have a bit of a leg up from having a background in other languages, but it's not really that much.  Being a rank beginner is humbling -- if you're going to get anywhere, you have to be willing to let yourself make stupid mistakes (sometimes over and over and over), laugh about it, and keep going.  I'm not really so good at that -- not only do I take myself way too damn seriously most of the time, I have that unpleasant combination of being (1) ridiculously self-critical and (2) highly competitive.  If you're familiar with Duolingo, you undoubtedly know about the whole XP (experience points) and "leagues" thing -- when you complete a lesson you earn XP (as long as you don't lose points in the lesson because you fucked up the particles again), and at the end of the week, you are ranked in XP against other learners, and depending on your score, you can move up into a new "league."

Or get "demoted."  Heaven forbid.  Given my personality, my attitude is "death before demotion."  As my wife pointed out, nothing happens if I get demoted -- it's not like the app reaches into my cerebrum and deletes what I've learned, or anything.  

She's right of course, but still.

I'll be damned if I'm gonna let myself get demoted.

So last week I reached "Diamond League," which is the top-tier.  Yay me, right?  Only now, there's nowhere left to go.  But I have to keep hammering at it, because if I don't I'll get dropped back into Obsidian League, and screw that sideways.

On the other hand, I keep at it because I also want to learn Japanese, right?  Of course right.

In Zen Buddhism, there's a concept called shoshin (初心), usually translated as "beginner's mind."  It means approaching every endeavor as if you were just seeing it for the first time, with excitement, anticipation -- and no preconceived notions of how it should go.  This is a hard lesson for me, harder even than remembering kanji.  I've had to get used to taking it slowly, realizing that I'm not going to learn a difficult and unfamiliar language overnight, and to come at it from a standpoint of curiosity and enjoyment.

It's not a competition, however determined I am to stay in the "Diamond League."  The process and the knowledge and the achievement should be the point, not a focus on some arbitrary standard of where I think I should be.

And some day, I'd like to visit the lovely country of Japan, and (maybe?) be able to converse a little in their language.  

[Image licensed under the Creative CommonsKeihin Nike, Bunkyou Koishikawa Botanical Japanese Garden 1 (1), CC BY-SA 3.0]

When that day comes, I suspect if I can approach the whole thing with beginner's mind, I'll get a lot more out of the experience.  Until that time -- I could probably think of a few other aspects of my life that this principle could be applied to, as well.


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