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Becoming Literate

March 16, 2008

A sign in Japan. Part of the path to literacy.

March 16, 2008

The process of becoming literate, of reading and understanding language, amazes me. Thinking about it actually occupies my mind a lot when I’m driving in the car with time to contemplate the mysteries of life. I’ve been learning Japanese, living Japanese, talking with Japanese people for close to two years now. Looking back, I can so clearly see this process of learning — these stages of awareness. I can’t exactly give a name to each stage, but I am sure that learning language is a process that winds around in a spiral where one level builds upon the next in an ever-continuing curve of learning. You can’t simply complete one step to get to the next. You have to sort of weave your way along the path as you get closer and closer to your goal of becoming culturally aware in a culture that is not your own.

One reason this may be so profound an experience for me is that I also have a child who is becoming literate in her first language just at the time that I am trying to become literate in my second. Some things have become so clear to me. For example, the extreme importance of speaking a language fluently as a precursor to learning to read it or write it. Speaking the language gives you a certifiable advantage when you’re trying to link the letters to familiar meaning. Even though, in my case, I’m learning to speak at the same time as I learn to read and write, I can see clearly that it is ever so much easier to read a word that I have already added to my conversational repertoire. Those words that I “know” well enough to speak them in conversation seem to jump off the page when I read — now I’m even noticing my progression to being able to recognize a grouping of letters as a whole word rather than as a string of random letters. When I see ください or いらしゃいませ or おねがいします, I can actually read the word before I finish thinking about each of the letters, just as a new reader begins to recognize sight words.

I also started my learning with a phonetic approach by sounding out each letter sound and trying to put the sounds together into some meaningful word that I could grasp. Most of the time, though, I would find myself sounding out a word and have no idea of it’s meaning. One thing that makes Japanese so easy to read is that each letter has one specific sound. There are a few ways to combine certain letters to make unique sounds, but these sounds are still the same every time. The harder part, on the other hand, is that Japanese sentences don’t have spaces between each word as in English, so you can string together a row of dozens of letters and you are supposed to know intuitively where each word begins and ends. I don’t.

I’ve often tried to put myself in the shoes of my Japanese teacher and wondered if she is as bored listening to me sound out words as I am when my daughter does it. Not to say that I don’t really love seeing my little one learn to read. I honestly do, and it brings me such joy to see the world of language open up to her, but you know when you see the word, “hug” you just want to say, “That’s ‘hug!’” Hearing the phonetic sounding out of “huh-uh-guh” through the reading of an entire story can be a bit tiresome. So, that’s why I wonder if Toshiko-san might feel the same way as I stammer slowly, letter-by-letter though the 2nd grade Japanese Reader we are using right now – “Gah-mah-ku-n-no-oh-tey-gah-mee”- or “Mr. Toad’s Letter.”

My desire to become fluent in Japanese is so strong. I don’t really know why I want this so badly. It’s not like I’ve dreamed of coming to Japan for my whole life. In fact, I never even considered the possibility of visiting Japan until we actually did so. I don’t plan to live here for many more years. All my favorite Japanese friends speak English. My American friends here think I’m a bit of an oddball for spending so much time trying to learn, however, we all admire it when someone does come close to mastering the language. I also can’t imagine that I will have much of an opportunity to use it after we leave Japan. And yet, I’m compelled to add as much to my understanding as I can possibly absorb. It comes so slowly, too, and that is frustrating.

Ever the self-examiner, I try to understand the “why” behind my compulsion. I think it might be because with every little nuance I discover, with ever new word or thought or idea I add to my knowledge base, it makes me feel alive in this life that I have — as though to reinforce the fact that I AM STILL living and I’m not wasting this time that’s been granted to me to live. Time that deceptively feels like it crawls along at a snail’s pace, but in reality it flies by like the wind before we even realize it has gone.

[These signs and messages below, from Japan, become part of our cumulative knowledge of print awareness as we strive to become literate.]

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