On wanting to know stuff

You may not know this about me: my first semester in college, I was enrolled in an Arabic class. I took Arabic out of pure intellectual curiosity, nothing more; at the time it wasn’t really part of any long-term plan of study or anything like that, it was just as far away as I could get from the languages I’d been offered in high school and it sounded neat. I lasted about three weeks, maybe; it turns out that despite being an excellent student, high school had not taught me to study, and as it happens mastering the Arabic alphabet, which not only has a handful of letters with no English equivalent but where each letter looks different depending on its position in the word– letters that start or end a word look different from letters in the middle, and the primary and final positions look different from each other as well– was more complicated than I could handle at the time. I would eventually fill my language requirement with Hebrew, which isn’t quite as complicated as Arabic, but that was the class that finally taught me to buckle down and study.

I have two big academic failures in my life: Arabic and calculus, and I still want to achieve at least a working knowledge of both before I die. I took calculus my senior year in high school but a bad case of senior burnout combined with a math teacher who was, inexplicably, one of the best math teachers I’d ever had for sophomore Geometry but was utterly unable to reach me for senior Calculus meant that as soon as I was admitted to IU and fulfilled all of my graduation requirements I dropped the class and took an independent study period of Spanish.

Stick a pin in that; we’re gonna take a left turn for a couple of paragraphs.

I’ve never particularly considered myself a weeb– a lifetime of aversion to any sort of Japanese animation not involving Hiyao Miyazaki will kind of nip that in the bud– and while it’s not entirely accurate it’s fair to suggest that the presence of a Japanese voice track on really any form of entertainment is an indicator that I may not be into it. That said, I’ve spent approximately six thousand hours since March playing Nioh and Nioh 2, both Japanese-with-English-subtitles and very loosely based on sixteenth-century Japanese history, and I have sunk a similarly obsessive amount of time into Ghost of Tsushima in the last couple of weeks, which is based on the (real) invasion of Tsushima island by the Mongols in 1274.

And god help me if this hasn’t woken up a previously-nonexistent desire to learn more about Japan.

I keep trying to find a decent English biography of Oda Nobunaga, who appears in both of the Nioh games, and I’m discovering, after spending half of my waking hours listening to people speaking Japanese for five months, a certain interest in learning to at least fumble my way through speaking Japanese. I’m not even sure where to start with that; there are apps and such, but anything reputable is way more money than I’m willing to invest. There are probably some reputable textbooks out there, but I haven’t taken the time to look for them yet.

Which, depending on whether this desire sticks around once I get past these few games, will add another complicated long-term intellectual goal to my list. I feel like I probably ought to get started on at least one of these at some point, right? Which one would you start with, at gunpoint if necessary? 🙂

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

11 thoughts on “On wanting to know stuff

  1. I have this unfulfilled desire to speak Spanish. Or more properly, Mexican. They are different. I got bogged down in gendered verbs. The app I tried was Duolingo. You can at least get started for free and it’s learning by trying conversations.
    I had a boyfriend from Jordan in college, he taught me how to write my name in Arabic.

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    1. Mexican Spanish is the easiest to learn, IMO. They speak a lot more slowly, which makes it easier to understand. They also don’t have the strange phrases that don’t translate to English like Puerto Ricans do, and no weird formal “we” verb tenses like Spaniards.

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      1. The people I work with who speak Spanish speak so fast, I can’t hear one word from the next. And also depending on where their particular variety came from, there are local native language words mixed in too.

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        1. I understand Spanish MUCH better than I speak it. That said, Google Translate came in hella handy with my one student who came in barely speaking English this year.


      2. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard a Spaniard speaking Spanish. I’ve taught in mostly Mexican and mostly Puerto Rican schools, and gotten along OK with my Spanish there, but other than my HS Spanish teacher (who was American) my experience with Spanish-spanish is nonexistent.


    2. I understand spoken Spanish reasonably well and can make myself understood well enough to work with bilingual kids. I wouldn’t call myself fluent by any means, but I can get along, and I’d be fluent in a month if I had to go live in Mexico or Spain for some reason.


  2. My Teach Yourself Russian is still on my shelves forty years after I abandoned it. More recently I spent a stupid sum on a Slovenian dictionary out of blinding frustration that none of my European languages worked there. Progress in Slovenian nil, though it’s a wonderful country. I’m getting on a bit and I’m not a musician, but I still think I will get around to that symphony one day.

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    1. Ah, Russian! There was a class offered my freshman year of college through the Honors department that took a single Pushkin poem and taught you just enough Russian to translate and appreciate it, and I have always regretted not taking that class.


  3. Of the three I’d tackle Japanese first. It’s probably the most accessible and fun, given your exposure. I use Duolingo (the free version) for Polish; I don’t know how effective it is, but it’s enjoyable.

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  4. I was conversational in German after four semesters in college, and I can still cobble together some basic phrases. I then decided to study Arabic, but never got beyond a beginner level. Beautiful script, though. As it turns out, crappy handwriting in English does not bode well for handwriting in a language that prides itself on its script.

    I’d love to dip back into German, or even learn Spanish, but experience has taught me that unless you can speak it with someone else, it’s difficult to retain. The apps like Duolingo and Babel have caught my eye, I just haven’t tried them out yet.


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