After a 27-day Italian streak on Duolingo, I have given up. I simply got bored: after a month, I should be having little conversations, not still drilling I cavalli bevono latte and Gli elefanti leggono il libro.
This adventure on Duolingo, which is more a time-filling twiddle than a serious language-learning tool, was sparked by the announcement over lunch with friends I hadn’t seen in COVID-months, that they had planned a spring holiday to Italy. Immediately envious, I started plotting my own Italian holiday. Such things are now possible, although some of us are adjusting to these new, wider, neo-normal parameters more slowly than others.
I’ve always had the notion of learning Italian—and/or Spanish—as a reward for years of Japanese, for pure pleasure and because I want to spend time in both countries. With deeply lodged if not currently active high school French, I already have the cerebral architecture for Romance languages. However, I’ve always stalled at the question of which one. This deadlock was suddenly and conveniently broken by my clear and present desire for an Italian holiday. The same day as that lunch, I logged onto Duolingo.
According to Benny the Irish polyglot, whose blog I discovered during a doctoral fellowship in Tokyo, despairing over my spoken Japanese, if you don’t have a basic, conversable level of a language after three months of decent study, you are doing something deeply wrong. Being one of those people who happily spends years learning grammar from a textbook and even reading novels but finds actual conversation an experience of desperate inadequacy and shame, I was the target audience for his message (which he has since parlayed into a thriving online business—onya, Benny!).
At current rates of progress on Duolingo, unless I paid for ‘gems’ that would allow me to test out of levels I’d already mastered, the horses would still be drinking milk for a while yet.
In my years of language study (French, Japanese, Russian), I was acutely aware that people— often men—who acquired a target-language partner (in Japanese, an ikijibiki, a living/walking dictionary) or who just hung out with other people making pidgin small talk, often alcohol-assisted, developed a verbal fluency that eluded me. I hardly make small talk in English and I don’t really do hanging out. Also, I hate sounding like an idiot. Sounding like a halfwit is an essential part of learning a foreign language. Downgrading from the forensic precision of my native English to cavewoman stone-tool level in another language is frustrating, humiliating and requires a patience that I don’t have. For an intelligent but shy person who can intellectually grasp subtle points of grammar but stumbles to order a cup of coffee, it’s all too easy to develop a discrepancy between what language teachers term passive knowledge and active production.
As a PhD candidate, I was also hamstrung by the (self-imposed) expectation that I should have native fluency in Japanese. I did not. I’d returned to study some 15 years after finishing my Japanese-language degree, and even back in the mid-1990s I was nowhere near native. Sitting in conference sessions with people who’d spent the last two decades immersed in Japanese and spoke it confidently and correctly, along with various other languages, I was silent and frozen, dreading exposure as an imposter.
Since abandoning the presumption of an academic career, I’ve tried to maintain my Japanese reading ability, which took so much work to acquire. (Basic literacy requires, as of 2010, knowledge of 2,136 characters, up from 1,945 when I started learning Japanese.) I’ve read Soseki’s Sanshirō and Tanizaki’s Chijin no ai, Murata Sayaka’s Konbini ningen and Nakajima Kyōko’s Chiisai ouchi. I sit at my desk with my outdated electronic dictionary and chisel away at what an academic friend, a historian of Japan, describes as ‘the wall of text’.
It’s still far easier for me to read French, a language I hardly speak any more. In the first lockdown, I astonished myself by reading Leïla Slimani’s Chanson douce without recourse to a dictionary. I didn’t have to fight my way in.
In Japan, I met foreigners who’d lived there for years, in childhood as missionary or military brats, or with Japanese spouses. Such people could (apparently) read a Japanese novel as easily as one in English or their native language. (Here I exclude Chinese and Koreans, who have a different relationship to the Japanese language.) I suspect that such immersion requires an equivalent, balancing sacrifice of one’s own language. In the time it takes me to read one book Japanese, I could read at least ten or more in English. I am not willing to give up reading in English, which is more precious to me than any other language.
During my 27-day streak on Duolingo, I put aside a long Japanese novel I’d been reading for at least six months, possibly longer. In my defence, it is 500+ pages and written in a more complex style than many of the recently translated, award-winning and comparatively lightweight novels. Returning to it after a month, after abandoning the milk-swilling horses, I felt a sense of weariness and defeat. Why was I still doing this to myself? I was no longer under any professional obligation to be a competent Japanese linguist.
In a rare moment of self-assertion against my own punitive regime, I put the 500+ page novel on the shelf and allowed myself to revert to the excellent translation, which I’ve been using as a crib. Oh the relief of it.
The Italian holiday is still undecided. In my years of going on walking tours, as a moderately sociable introvert, I learned that the single supplement was always worth the money. At the tail-end of COVID in Europe, everyone wants a private room and little Italian hotels have few to spare. I may or may not walk the Cinque Terre this spring. In the meantime, I have bought a copy of Colloquial Italian. I will enjoy the familiarity of grammar exercises and guided dialogues, but I know they are only preparation for the unscripted, extremely basic conversations where true language learning happens.
And perhaps one day, I’ll have the urge to read in Japanese again, and it will be a pleasure, not a chore.