It’s winter in New York and the freezer is on the fritz. We’re chopping ice inside, and we’re chopping ice outside. It’s painstaking work, but it’s necessary. If we don’t chop the ice in the freezer, we lose all the food that’s buried underneath it. If we don’t chop the ice outside, we can’t use the car, we’ll get fined for leaving the ice on our sidewalk and stairs, or worse, someone might slip and get hurt.
As I’m working through my book of Japanese idioms, I’m noticing the similarities between working through unfamiliar language and chopping ice. You don’t always feel like you’re making progress, but you know you have to carry on. You may have to make several passes through the task before you reach your goal. Once you do reach your goal, there’s always maintenance, or “salting the sidewalk.”
What’s at once fascinating and difficult about my book of Japanese idioms is its sample sentences. Sure the explanations of the idioms are interesting. Most of them are from long ago in Japan and China, and the stories behind them can be charming or mortifying. But what interests me is the employment of these idioms in sentences that use the colloquial language of the Japan of today.
While most language books teach the “text book” language that you would learn in the classroom, good books that offer ample coverage of the idiomatic language of daily life are far and few between. No, I’m not talking about those ugly little volumes that purport to teach you the language that “you never learned in the classroom,” in other words, profanity. I’m talking about comprehensive coverage of the non-standard way that native speakers of any language combine their words, phrases, and ideas. This natural linguistic process is essential to the understanding and use of any language.
All speakers shorten their native language in ways that would be incomprehensible to a learner of that language who had only studied the “standard” language. Finding good books that teach this natural way of speaking can be challenging, but they do exist. Once you find one, start chopping ice. I like to work through the entire book, making sure I understand all that I can during the first pass. Will I understand everything the first time through? Probably not. It doesn’t matter; I know I’m going to be working through this book many times, so I just keep going.
The second time through the book, I choose those phrases that I think will be most useful and I practice them for fluency. The other phrases I just work through again as I did the first time. Then I repeat this process, adding new phrases to the fluency practice process each subsequent time through the book. If I find a phrase that doesn’t seem to be useful, I ignore it. You don’t have to do something just because the author included it in her book. Finally, I salt the sidewalk by reading through the book either until I don’t need to any more, or for the rest of my life.
by John DePonte