Daigaku Z: Protext vs. Context

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

During the first few sessions of the lecture class, Mills-sensei took great pains to emphasize the importance of the Core Conversations assigned to us in our textbook and audio course (Japanese: The Spoken Language by Noda and Jorden). In particular, he stressed that it was critical that we learn the conversations by heart, so that we repeat them verbatim instantaneously when prompted. Most of the class seemed to accept this at face value.

And then there’s us. The 4pm recitation group. It might seem strange how quickly we bonded to each other, but in the face of our common adversary– utter confusion– we happy few, we band of bakas, we have found our communal resolve. We have met the enemy, and it is context.

Japanese is a language heavily dependent on context. A single word can itself be a complete sentence, because of the context in which it is used. Unlike English, a Japanese sentence does not necessarily need to have an explicitly referenced subject or object. The word “wakarimashita” is a sentence, literally meaning “understanding has happened”: but who understood? The speaker? The person the speaker is addressing? Is it an acknowledgement, is it a statement, is it just a polite formality? The sentences around “wakarimashita” frame the meaning of that simple sentence. But not just the rest of the dialogue; the very situation in which the sentence is said can change the meaning. This is most highly evident in the case of the word “shimasu”, which is the general-purpose “to do”. What are you “do”ing? Playing tennis? Studying? Controlling a video game?

In a way, the idea of the Core Conversations is to help provide ready-packaged context. A situation is set up, and then resolved. A question is asked, then answered. However, it can be a bit difficult to know during the recitations which conversation is being started– or even when the conversation has switched. This past week we had several instances where we answered in coherent, correct language, but in a way different from how the core conversation went, frustrating Takabatake-sensei to no end. In turn, we also became frustrated, because it appeared, to us, that the rules were being changed arbitrarily. We also had difficulty picking up the varying meanings behind certain tense-particle constructions, and that contributed quite a bit to our confusion. While the difference between “Tabemasen ka?” and “Tabemasen ne?” seem, at first blush, to be minor and interchangeable, the fact that one is a direct interrogative question and the other is an invitation took a bit of time to sink in.

Despite the trickiness of the conversation switching, I think we are making significant progress in the limited time that we have been working together. Our walks down the stairs at the end of class have us all comparing our mental notes and discussing what we thought we were doing right and wrong during the hour. One of us raised the point that we were saying the right things, but not at the right times. Outside of the context of trying to drill certain concepts of the language, a native speaker would understand us, even if they would be a bit nonplussed at our primitive grasp of the language.

That said, we can only go so far with what we know, and introducing new concepts and constructs is the lifeblood of the instruction. We need to be challenged constantly; we need to have the material reinforced daily so that we do not lose it. That’s critical for our understanding. If confusion is the price to pay for education, then it is one we should be willing to pay without question. But we also need to pay in terms of time and attention, and that means the Core Conversations, hours a day if need be. We’ve seen now the consequences of slacking on them: it creates a dangerous context for our education.