Thursday, July 12, 2012

Intern Graduation

On Monday Tino and I graduated from the internship program. I can't believe it's almost time for me to go home; these last few months have gone by so fast!
Tino and I wearing Japanese Kimono and Yukata.
For our graduation, we had a ceremony at the LEX headquarters and all our host families and lots of Hippo friends and staff attended. We both talked about our experiences this year in Japan, our time with our host families and friends, Hippo, and our learning process and discoveries in Japanese. I also shared a little bit about my cultural project, which was Japanese ceramics. We both talked for about 40 minutes, all in Japanese!
Part of my presentation about the pottery I made in Japan
as part of my cultural project.
When I first arrived llast year in September and had to introduce myself at a Hippo's 30th Anniversary event, I was was nervous because I couldn't speak Japanese at all and practiced over and over in order to be able to say,"Konnichiwa, watashi-no namae-wa Stephanie-desu. Yoroshiku-onegaishimasu."

At that time it seemed impossible that I would eventually be able to give a presentation like this in front of a large group of people completely in Japanese, but now that first introduction I learned is like second nature to me, and it's no problem at all to talk for 40 minutes straight.

This wasn't the first time I have spoken about my experiences in Japanese at events or in groups; I have been doing it little by little all year and as learned more and more Japanese and became more comfortable I was able to say more. Of course, my Japanese is not perfect, but looking back at where I was 10 months ago when I arrived in Japan, I am so amazed at what I am able to understand and communicate now!

At the end of my presentation I read a letter that my friend Sachi gave to me a few months ago that I absolutely love and I think also sums up the Hippo philosophy and environment very well.. Sachi is 7 years old. The letter, which was in Japanese of course and written on a bright pink piece of origami paper, went something like this:

"To Stephanie, (pretty!)

You are an American, but your Japanese is fluent 
                                    (you can speak really well)
but sometimes you make mistakes, 
but it's okay, 
mistakes are okay too.

From Sachi"

I have been really busy in the last few weeks finishing last projects in the office before I leave, and getting ready to go to Korea on Saturday! I will be there for a few days to help with the orientation for the group that is going to Wisconsin this summer and stay with a host family for a short time, then back to Japan for a few more days and then it will be time for me to go home. 

I will miss Japan very much and all the wonderful families and friends I have made here but I am sure we will keep in touch and someday I will see many of them again, maybe in Japan or America or in some other part of the world. I have learned a lot this year and had many amazing experiences thanks to all of you. I will never forget the time I have spent here and I will always keep you in my heart.

Thank you so much to LEX for providing me with the opportunity to come to Japan and to all my host families and everyone I have met who has helped and supported me throughout the year!


With my three host families, sharing their impressions and favorite memories 
of my time with them. They all said such nice things! I will miss them!
Everyone with LEX founder, Mr. Sakakibara、after we
received our certificates of program completion.

Thoughts on the Underlying Structure of Language

I have been busy in the last few weeks working on checking and editing the English translation of a book by LEX, that they are planning to publish in English in the coming year.

This type of checking takes a lot of time, as a group of 5 or 6 people meet and read through the entire document line by line, checking the original Japanese against the translation to make sure the meaning that is conveyed in the translated version is as close as possible to the original. Some times a question about one line can lead to a half-hour discussion about the meaning or connotations of words or phrases in the different languages and the larger ideas that surround the sentence. Even though it takes a long time, I think it's really interesting work because it makes you think a lot about the subtleties of language. A lot of times there are words or phrases that cannot be directly translated or even that express ideas that don't really exist in the other language, so it's a challenge to figure out how to express that idea in the other language in a way that will make sense to speakers of that language, while remaining as close as possible to the original.

In the last few meetings we had some interesting discussions about the ideas of Mr. Sakakibara and the TCL students regarding writing systems, and I read a little more from some of the other LEX publications on this topic.

One of the things that I find interesting is the Hippo Letter System, created by LEX, which uses a mix of kanji (Chinese characters) and the phonetic alphabets of different languages to write in that language. For example, the sentence:

"My family members are my dad, my mom, and I."

would look like,

"My 家族 members are my 父、母、and 私."

using the Hippo Letter system. The ideas is that if you learn the meaning of these kanji characters, you can then read them in any language. So you would read the second sentence aloud in the same way that you would read the first one, and you could write it in Spanish using the same characters, "Los miembros de mi 家族 son mi 父、mi 母、y 私." 

I've been thinking a lot about this as I have been learning to read Japanese, which uses kanji and the phonetic hiragana and katakana alphabets, and thinking about how this writing/reading system works. One of the ideas I keep coming back to is that languages which use a phonetic writing system like English aren't really that different, in terms of how we comprehend them, as languages which use ideographic characters like Japanese.

A passage from The Hippo Letter System, in a section describing the efficiency of kanji and kana in the Japanese language, reads,

"In Europe there is something called the fast reading program. Readers are taught to grasp words spelled out in phonetic symbols as whole shapes - in other words, as ideograms. People who read fast do so by subconsciously converting phonetic symbols to ideograms. This would again seem to indicate that a writing system combining ideographic symbols with phonetic symbols best fits the makeup of the human consciousness."

I think the idea that words constructed from phonetic symbols can be understood as ideograms is a great point, but I would argue that it is not limited simply to "fast reading programs" in Europe. I think this is the way that all literate adults read text in languages that use phonetic writing systems, just as they would text written in ideograms.

When young children are learning to read English they are at begin by slowly pronouncing each letter in a word and often mispronounce the word as a whole, because the sound of the word corresponds to the total combination of letters that make up that word, which is many times different than how it would be pronounced if one were to try to speak the sounds of each individual letter in sequence. But adults don't do this; most people can actually read faster than they can speak aloud. This is because we recognize the word as a whole, and can understand the meaning of a combination of letters almost instantly when we see it, rather than reading each individual phonetic letter in sequence each time we see it. If you think about it in this way, that words spelled phonetically function a lot like kanji in terms of how we recognize and understand them.

Furhter poorf taht our brians reocginze a wrod as a whole shpae and not by the individaul prats is that eevn if you mix up the lettres in the wrods of a sentnece, as lnog as you keep the frist and lsat lettres the smae (to maintian the shpae of the wrod), you can undrestnad it wihtuot mcuh diffcuilty.

The spaces that separate words in English allow them to be easily recognized by their shape.

itismuchhardertoreadenglishifthesentencehasnospacesorotherchangestoindicatethe breaksbetweeneachgroupoflettersthatmakeupaword

(It is much harder to read English if the sentence has no spaces or other changes to indicate the breaks between each group of letters that make up a word.)

In the Japanese language there are no spaces, which at first seemed to me that this would make it very difficult to read, but once I learned more I realized it's not a problem at all because the text alternates between kanji and the words written in phonetic hiragana and katakana (used for foreign words) characters. The contrast between the different letter systems effectively allows the brain to quickly recognize which group of characters makes up each word.

For example, in Japanese the sentence "My name is Stephanie," looks like this:


If you are familiar with the Japanese letter systems, you can easily see that each alternating word uses a different letter system.

私          の          名前          は        ステファ二-     です。

kanji     hiragana      kanji       hiragana     katakana       hiragana 

(me)  (belonging to) (name)  (subject marker)  (Stephanie)      (is)

When I was studying design in school, we discussed how contrast in building materials, patterns, color, etc. can create the sense of a separation of space in a given area, even if there is no actual barrier constructed. This is because the brain easily recognizes and registers a contrasting unit as separate from what surrounds it. 

You could apply this system of contrast (changes in the types of characters used) to English as well.


And Japanese that is written all in hiragana for young children who cannot yet read kanji is written very much like English; the words written in hiragana are separated by spaces.

So in both cases (and perhaps in all languages), the writing system contains a way for the brain to easily recognize and distinguish between the units that contain meaning (words), and the brain is able to do this very quickly. I think this is what Mr. Sakakibara was talking about when he said that all languages have the same underlying basic structure.