Japanese and the Empty Mind

by Leanne Ogasawara


Ten years have passed since I left Japan. And it has been about five years since I stepped away from professional translation. I have made little effort to retain my Japanese, and so it has hardly been surprising to find my language skills falling away. There have been times where I even took a willful enjoyment realizing just how fast all those years of hard work could fade away. Like a colorful mandala made of sand that Tibetan monks labored to create and then destroy, my ability to write in Japanese disappeared overnight.

The more passive pursuits of reading and listening have proven to be less slippery. But I no longer have that feeling of being a different person in thinking and dreaming in Japanese. It’s gone. And my son, who learned Japanese as his native language, lost his skills even faster than I did. People sometimes say to me that a person can’t lose their native language, but it’s simply not true. I have met people who lost their first tongues time and time again. My son, who left Japan at seven years old, might have Japanese in their somewhere, but it is buried deep.

Effortless to learn, it’s also easy to lose languages in childhood.

In contrast, to learn a second language as an adult is a Herculean undertaking. Neither quick nor easy, it took me a decade of serious study to feel confident in Japanese.

Last week, Claire Chambers wrote a marvelous essay in these pages called Beginning Hindi with a Beginner’s Mind. By sheer coincidence, her essay mentioned a memoir that I am currently reading called Dreaming in Hindi. Written by Katherine Russell Rich, it is about the author’s year of language study in the romantic desert city of Udaipur. Read more »

Beginning Hindi with a Beginner’s Mind

by Claire Chambers

Soon after the pandemic commenced its ‘global humbling’ in March 2020, I took on a humbling of my own in the form of learning Hindi. Trying to speak a new language makes most adults feel vulnerable. There is little to hold onto, so the unfamiliar language feels slippery, even treacherous. Compared to one’s easy intimacy with the mother tongue, second language acquisition entails surrendering to a shaky command of the foreign language for years, if not forever. They say languages learnt after a certain age will always be spoken with an accent. But oh well, embrace the accent! Experts put themselves in the uncomfortable position of becoming beginners again.

Most adults learn languages for one of two reasons: to make a living, or ‘to slip into another community’. However, my own motivations doubled back on each other, embracing both of these rationales.

When it comes to making a living, I have been teaching and researching South Asian literature in English for twenty years. In doing so, I’ve lived in India and Pakistan for a total of sixteen months, and picked up some words from Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Pashto along the way. But I had no confidence and, to be frank, no grammar. So, when activities ground to a halt in the first lockdown, it seemed like a good time to embark on a linguistic journey. Physical travel to the subcontinent had become impossible. With even my fifty-mile daily commute knocked out I was faced, like everyone, with a yawning expanse of time to fill. Many people turned to language learning at this time. And I had the vague idea that learning a South Asian language would help my research. At the very least, it would be something to do. Read more »