Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Elephant in Japan

Every week I meet with Takanori and we read Arabic together in his office. Takanori reminds me of some of my best teachers. We read slowly and carefully and at the end of every session we have raised more questions than we have answered.

He has this poster on the wall above his desk. I don't think the colors came through well, but it's printed on a deep yellow. It was made by a geriatrics association in Rhode Island for some campaign to encourage the elderly to continue reading. But that's not just some random old man studiously scribbling in a notebook. That's Otto Neugebauer.

My doktorvater has an original print of that same photo in his office above his desk. Actually, although Takanori is older, he and Alex were students together at Brown when Negebauer was still there. Even here in Japan I feel the presence of his tradition.

Mathematicians love these traditions that have to do with intellectual lineage - the transmission of knowledge and methods from one generation to the next, the development and preservation of schools of thought and styles of scholarship. They are much more interested in this intellectual transmission than in bloodlines. Once Deborah and I were talking about the Mathematics Genealogy project with a colleague who works in the history of biology and had never heard of it before. He started half joking that the mathematicians were going to mix this project up in with some kind of eugenics and try to breed a race of super mathematicians. When we realized he was half serious, we looked at each other, a little surprised that he had no idea how completely banal mathematicians would find this idea. I recently noticed that my doktorvater is included in the Genealogy project, and so is Takanori.

Over the holidays I made a few changes in the way I'm studying Japanese and by applying them consistently for the last three weeks, I'm starting to have a real break through. I've got a basic grasp of Japanese grammar now, and can read stuff that's not too Kanji heavy, but my biggest difficulty is in understanding natural Japanese and speaking at a normal pace. The sounds are just too unfamiliar and the vocalizations too foreign.

I realized that the only way out of this is exposure and drill. I've begun to do what's called shadowing, which is speaking what you are hearing at the same time that you hear it and trying to imitate the sounds exactly. I have some text and sound files on my computer and everyday I do a half hour or so. This is just blind repetition, over and over until I can say each sentence in the same way and at the same speed as the speaker. Meaning and understanding is secondary. On top of this I'm also drilling vocab with a program I downloaded that analyzes what words you know well and what you need to be drilled in and paces the ordering of the vocab based on this analysis. Then, almost every evening I go out and talk Japanese - use the words I just studied and phrases I repeated over and over again.

Even a few of my English speaking friends have agreed to do some Japanese only time. Jon has agreed to teach me Japanese in Japanese and when we're hanging out together, the people around us are totally mystified. Japanese people don't expect foreigners to know any Japanese, much less for one of them to be correcting another's mistakes followed by various example sentences of good usage.

The other night we went down this festival for Ebassan, a god of prosperity in business. I didn't get all the details but we were funneled into a big temple structure where people piled these bouquet like things in a huge pile and then threw money at one of the temple buildings and got a bamboo branch. I through my money clean over the roof of the building, at which Jon said, "ma ma."

In the crowd, there was much carousing and drunkenness. We gave the temple people some money and drew our fortunes from a big urn. I got the number one fortune. I couldn't read it but when I asked a nearby girl she said that if I worked hard good things would happen. She couldn't read much of it ether, but she said that was the main drift.

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