Daigaku Z: Silence Must Fall

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.

Within the hierarchy of languages at most American universities, particularly those universities not in the Pacific Time Zone, the East Asian languages– Japanese, Chinese (in all its variants), Korean, and so on– tend to get the short shrift in terms of attention, respect, and space. Now granted, it’s not as bad as the constant and incessant defunding of high school music and arts programs, but when the classrooms and labs for these departments are wedged incongruously into spare office space in the engineering building, as opposed to near the remainder of the language departments, it can seem somewhat disheartening. It’s that seeming slight which upset me more than the uphill hike (though I am certainly getting better at making my way to the classroom without being utterly winded).

So, we have our recitation class on a floor which also houses engineering grad student offices. I’ve certainly kept quiet in the hallways while reviewing and preparing, on those occasions where I am able to show up early; however, by necessity, there has to be some actual speaking practice involved in this, too. And while I have, traditionally, had trouble managing my indoor voice (which is an understatement that is currently making Jim cringe at the memory of my shouting into the microphone), I can also honestly say that some of my classmates simply choose not to. So last week, some signs went up to reinforce quiet in the halls.

After we were yelled at for the fourth time, I decided to invoke the privilege of the elderly and moved us to a nearby connecting room, which was reasonably soundproofed. And the problem has more or less solved itself; we’re able to practice (and joke around, which has historically been our biggest problem) without the pressure of quiet, and the grad students seemed okay with that. I was still bristling, though, at the thought that there wasn’t a greater effort made to compromise.

See, languages need to be spoken in order to be learned, and languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet in particular need the vocal component to assist in remembering the characters used. That means screwing up and that means sometimes attempting to make jokes as mnemonic devices, with the appropriate laughter afterwards when classmates get the jokes. When I was at Gannon there were dedicated language labs for these purposes, relatively soundproofed rooms where students could practice, discuss, and reinforce their skills without disturbing others.

Of course, Gannon had a far smaller language department, and I imagine that there was no trouble at all scheduling the space for the limited number of tongues offered. Pitt has the opposite problem, as I’m given to understand: there are some great facilities to have available, but they are limited in their availability because of the large number of languages offered. So, in a sense, it’s understandable that the freshman class just doesn’t have enough seniority to access those facilities. And I can be patient.

Apparently, though, I am a noisy jerk in any language.