Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Adventures in Language

Well, I've just finished a beginner's course in Japanese and signed my raggedy ass up for something heavier, the final objective being to bring my skillz in Japanese to roughly the same level as my English. Recent readings since my departure from white collar land aroused an interest in cognitive and social linguistics in me, and the process of picking up a new language with such things in mind is turning out to be quite a mental adventure.

Japanese, as I'm experiencing it thus far is a wonderfully structured machine, it's written form a veritable archive of Japan's history and culture. The glory of Tang Dynasty China is forever embedded in Japanese culture in kanji. Japan's voracity for new cultural influence is manifest in the smattering of katakana. At the same time, the rigidly heirarchal structure of Japanese society is constantly imposed on you consciousness by the forms of address. I for one think it's kinda kyoot that you can often get away with saying many English words with a comically bad Japanese accent in order to achieve the same word in Japanese, e.g.:

Bus = Basu
Taxi = Takushii
Convenience store = Combini*
Toilet = Toire
Jam = Jaamu
Banana = Banana**

On a more serious note, there's been a little something which has been weighing on my mind regarding Malaysian education. I call it the Malaysian Language Trap, for simplicity.

Here in Malaysia, we are taught Malay and English as compulsory subjects in schools. However, Malaysian education being what it is, even languages are subjects to be swallowed and regurgitated in exams, and left to swiftly decay afterwards, discarded like old toys. The fortunate among us will attend university, and when this happens, one language or the other will decay beyond recovery, whilst the other, the dominant medium of instruction in uni, will reach a level commensurate to that required to pass the exams.

So it was that I entered the white collar world, and found myself largely surrounded by people whose command of Malay had decayed to primary school levels, and whose command of English was just about sufficient to absorb financial information, but not much else. One lasting memory of my days as a salaryman was of me having to dissect my senior's report, sometimes throwing out paragraphs at a time as he tied himself in knots, describing a target company's activities in the most convoluted ways, using the word 'implemented' as though it was punctuation.

We percieve the universe with our senses. Out of what we perceive, a portion, consciously or subconsciously, sticks in the mind. Out of what we have managed to pick up, we can only communicate a portion of that to others, and, unless you're particularly skilled in the visual or musical arts, what we are able to communicate rests on our command of language. And to a lesser degree, our ability to manipulate our own thoughts, to work with them and make something useful of them, that, too is affected by our command of language. As such, without the vocabulary for abstract concepts to latch on to in our heads, we are that much less equipped to understand them, let alone manipulate them.

Here in Malaysia, the Ministry of Education has reduced knowledge to something you need to pass exams, nothing more. In a Malaysian school, a student is not taught what it means to love knowledge. Or to apply a measure of skepticism or critical thought. And so it is that knowledge has become not a gateway to exhilarating new worlds, nations, thoughts and ideas beyond our own corporeal experiences, but has instead been reduced to a mere tool. Skills to pay the bills.

I understand 'philosophy' quite literally translates as 'love of knowledge'. It pains me to say that I can attest to the absurd reality that in Malaysia, knowledge is not loved.

*Yes, it's true. The Japanese do indeed have trouble with the letters 'v', 'r' and 'l'. Don't believe me? Try getting a Japanese person to enunciate the following: 'volleyball', 'valuable' and 'variable'. And before you even think of laughing at them, you try saying 'atatakakunakatta' (lit. 'was not warm') fast.

** I LOVE this word! Wherever you go, a banana is a banana. Or バナナ. Or banaan. Or banane. Or банан. Well, except in China, which is lumped with 香蕉. Point is, everywhere you go (which isn't China) just say the word 'banana' and people know what you're talking about. Like Scooby Doo. :-)

1 comment:

Mike said...

i worked with a group of japanese exhange students one summer. i specifically remember their instructor cautioning them against talking about "big elections".