Daigaku Z: A Change Is Gonna Come

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She passed the first year with flying colors, but the East Asian Language and Literature department decided to give her a new challenge– the Accelerated Program. The entirety of second year in just ten weeks. Will she manage to stay the course? Read on to find out.

先週は、ちょっとわるかった。でも、今週は大丈夫だと思います。もっと勉強したい。それから、Let’s Daigaku Z!

We had our first “mid-term” this past week, and the results were not pretty. For any of us. Of the six of us who started this journey, all are still with us, but I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been serious talk from more than one of us about cutting bait and trying again at the normal pace. This mid-term came after two and a half weeks, where in the normal flow of things it would be closer to six weeks in. Given that we’re all pretty much the same in terms of wanting to do better regardless of how well we actually did, the stress levels on Thursday morning were through the roof.

The biggest problem for us isn’t the material, but ironically the breakneck pace at which it’s being presented. We’re scarcely able to get one lesson through our heads before we’re pushed on to the next one. In the case of the very lengthy Core Conversations that we have to memorize and recite flawlessly, we sometimes stumble more than is really good for us. The real crux of the issue isn’t that we’re not learning… it’s that we’re not learning the way the book– and by extension, the faculty– expects us to.

Jorden and Noda’s instructional series, Japanese the Spoken Language (and the accompanying The Written Language), are based around an almost automatic learning mechanism: reciting conversations so that even if we don’t understand the grammar underlying the syllables we’re speaking, sheer muscle memory will ensure we say something at least coherent. In the 1990s, when the books were written, that might have worked out. But our teachers are giving us enough exceptions and changes to lead us to believe that the language has evolved in the intervening 25 years– subtly, of course, but enough that there will be some funny looks from anyone we speak to once we get off the plane in Narita.

The issue, then, isn’t that we’re not picking up on the phrases we’re given, it’s that all of us– each of the six class members, without exception– are more interested in the mechanics of why what we say is wrong, and not merely that it is wrong. We are highly analytical minds, to a fault in this case, and as a result being told “that’s later on” or “it just is that way” frustrates us to no end. After three weeks, we’ve come to understand that how we learn isn’t likely to happen in the normal course of this program. If we want the meat, we’re gonna have to hunt it ourselves. And that means putting even more time into this study than we already devote.

I mentioned last year that studying was something I found particularly difficult to do when self-directed. It’s looking increasingly like I will have to get over that pretty damn quick.