Friday, September 4, 2009

Making the Connection

After a half century of communicating almost exclusively in English, I decided it was time for me to learn my mother’s native language – Japanese. I tried once before, thirty-some years ago, when I was in college. But the course wasn’t very intensive, and I didn’t really use what I learned, so I never developed the skill. When mom’s relatives came to visit, I could understand a word here or a phrase there, but I couldn’t really join in the conversation.

Last year, the university where I teach hired an energetic new professor to teach the Japanese language. I decided that it was time to get serious about learning it and enrolled in the class. Before long I was making flash cards and asking my kids to quiz me, completing homework drills and listening to tapes. It was like being in high school Spanish again, except a lot more difficult. Besides learning the words, I had to learn the characters – hundreds of them! Twenty-six letters seemed much easier to memorize.

I started to rethink this ambition. How in the world would I do this? I’m not exactly young anymore, and sometimes I have trouble remembering where I am and what I’m doing. I’d hear the same words and phrases over and over, and each time I’d have to look them up. I’d practice making the characters, and wake up the next day wondering what I wrote.

Fortunately I had my own private tutor, who urged me on. Each evening mom would listen patiently as I read through my homework questions, correcting my grammar. Each weekend she looked over my workbook, catching the mistakes I made. I realized that she learned all this during the first quarter of her life, before she married her handsome American soldier and sailed across the ocean to a totally different world. She then had to learn our twenty-six letters, and she had to remember how to combine them in different ways to make strange-sounding words.

Learning this language is having several effects. It’s giving me a closer link to my mom and her family. I’m learning about the culture she came from, and appreciating more and more about what she gave up by coming here. I’m learning to appreciate what children go through as they learn to read and write. Even when I know the words, the meaning behind the characters doesn’t come easily to me. I have a greater empathy for those who struggle with the symbols we use to communicate in the written word.

So this week a new semester started, and once more I’m sitting in a classroom of students younger than my own children. (That’s something I’m going to explore next week!) I have a fresh pack of notebook paper and pencils, a stack of flash cards, and my dictionary. And I have the determination to someday be able to carry on a conversation with my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

So – how do you connect with family? Are they nearby, or far away? If they’re far away, how do you keep in touch? Or don’t you?

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Switching to the crafty side of my life, I finished another project this week! Here’s the afghan I was working on during the trip I described in “The Family Afghan” post on July 20:


  1. Patty,
    You inspire me.

    My parents were first generation Americans. Their parents having immigrated here from Czechoslovakia.

    MY parents learned the Slovack language from infancy, but it wasn't passed on to us. Instead, they conversed with us and other adults in sometimes broken English. However, when they wanted to talk about things inappropriate for "little ears," they switched seamlessly into their native language. It became "The Secret Language of Adults."

    Much to my regret, my sisters, cousins, and I know just a few words in the Mother tongue -- although the family did keep alive many of the food and holiday traditions.

    I've always wanted to learn the language. I'd like to learn Russian, too, as my grandfather's stepfather came from there. Reading your story tells me it's never too late.

    You go, girl!

  2. Your mom is great (tell her so!). I don't know too much about my dad's family, but my mom's has been in Ohio for a long time. However, when I went to Europe (has it been six years?) I had a chance to visit the German village they left twelve generations ago. I had my daughter with me, it made an impact on both of us.

  3. Patty, what a fantastic post! My grandmother came to Michigan from Wales after WWII. Now that she's gone, other than a few words or phrases none of us have a working knowledge of the Welsh language. But we do have the other things she taught us - traditional recipes, knitting, a sense of family history and a love of daffodils. :)

    I think it's absolutely fabulous that you're making time to learn Japanese!!! You're an inspiration!!!