Recent adventures in language

The subtitle to this post is “Understanding, Thinking and Speaking are not the same thing!”

On Friday night, kindly invited by my friend Neil, we shared a meal with the lads in A Page of Punk at New Samsi. It was bassist Tsutomu-san’s birthday (つとむさんのたんじょうびはでした). I’m quite shy about speaking another language, unless I’m in the relevant country and it’s a necessity. I have serious brain lag, where I know what I want to say in English, then spend ages translating it in my head, and then ages trying to remember how to form the words with my mouth. It’s slightly easier with French, because it’s a European language and I first learned it as a teenager. With Japanese I struggle. It’s a kind of stage fright, I suppose. There I am, claiming to know something of another language, and there are the native speakers waiting to hear what I’m going to produce. Time seems to slow down and my brain seems to freeze. On Friday night, though, I was lubricated by alcohol and fearless in the face of language barriers. By which I mean, I spoke a bit of Japanese, and it seemed to work.

It did make me realise, though, that only a month or so after finishing the AS level Japanese course, I have forgotten a lot. 多くのことを忘れてしまいました。I think I might need to do some revision if I’m going to carry on with the A2 course next month.

After the meal, as the rest of the party headed off into the night to thrill and delight Canal Street, Neil told us about a last minute free gig that the band were doing at Travelling Man comic shop on Dale Street in Manchester.

So on Sunday we headed into town for more joyous skater thrash punk. We paused to buy bread and onions (as you do on your way to a gig), and arrived to find around 50 people crammed into the shop to watch Well Wisher do a set. We browsed the manga and graphic novels and I picked up an English language copy of NonNonBa by Shigeru Mizuki (水木 しげる), which I’ve already started reading.

While we were browsing, Seto-san (せとさん) and Kado-san (かどさん) from the band spotted us and came over to say hello. I didn’t think they would remember us from Friday night, but they seemed genuinely pleased to see us. I managed to make myself say something to them in Japanese, which was greeted with splendid gasps of awe and wonder. They were so kind, because what I said was really basic!

Their reaction to my attempts to speak to them in their language made me think. We British can be so arrogant about language, expecting everyone to know English and generally refusing to learn anything of another language beyond the handful of phrases we might use on holiday. And when people from another country do speak to us in English, we often laugh at them or patronise them for their efforts – forgetting that our mother tongue is a bastard hybrid of celtic, romance and germanic languages that seems designed to trip you at every turn just as you feel you’re getting the hang of it.

Maybe if we made more of an effort to learn other people’s languages, we’d realise how hard it can be, and stop being so smug.

The gig was another blinder. If you’ve read my post about the Bay Horse gig, you’ll know how much I rate them. It has been a decade since I last fell so instantly for a band, and it was for similar reasons. If anything, at this performance they seemed more energised than before. They were a man down, but they didn’t let it affect them. The heat inside the shop was incredible and singer Chiaki-san (ちあきさん) lost most of his eye make-up pretty quickly. The crowd was really up for it, though, and the shop manager later described it as the best day of his life. There’s a review of the gig by Cath Aubergine on Manchester Music’s site.



Afterwards, cooling off outside, we chatted with Tsutomu-san about the band’s return to Japan the following morning and how they had enjoyed their week in the UK. Tsutomu-san is the only remaining original member of the band, and he described them as a family. Right there is why I love this band. They are a family, and they perform together for the joy of it.

As we left, we said goodbye and I wished them a safe flight. Kado-san demanded that I say it in Japanese. More brain freeze! I could remember the word for ‘plane, and I knew that I knew a phrase that means have a good trip, but nothing would come. Kado-san (who would make an excellent teacher, and who has a genuinely amazing grasp of English) slowly spelled out the words I should say: “Key – O – Tsu – Keh – Teh”. Ki wo tsukete (気をつけて) – take care.

About an hour later, when we were almost home, I remembered the phrase I’d been searching for. Yoi go ryokou (良いご旅行) – have a good trip. Only an hour late, then.

This is my frustration with language. If someone speaks Japanese to me, slowly enough, I can make a good fist of understanding it. If I need to write something in Japanese, it flows reasonably well (hiragana better than kanji). But if I’m expected to speak it, it all falls apart.

Perhaps I need to find someone Japanese living in Manchester who wants to improve their English and we can trade our respective skills.

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