My Japanese teacher back in college spoke perfect English. I wanted to speak perfect Japanese someday, so talking with her was always motivating to me. One time I asked her if she could remember what got her interested in English in the first place. She said yes, she remembers the very day it happened.
She told me that when she was a little girl her family had an old TV. In addition to the normal Japanese stations, it got one foreign station that nobody in her family watched. One day, on a whim she turned the dial to that foreign station. There was an American movie on (she told me which one, but I forgot). There were no subtitles of course, so she couldn’t understand the movie. But she thought it was so interesting that these people were making these strange sounds with their mouths and that they could understand each other. She said that on that very day, she decided that one day she would understand what the actors in that movie were saying.
Later, she studied English in school, majored in English in college, studied abroad in America, married an American, had kids and lived in America for 20+ years. Perfectly fluent in English.
I asked her if she ever went back and watched that first American movie, the one she saw when she was a little girl in Japan. She said “Of course I did!”. What did you think about the movie? “Ahh, it was ok. But I could understand it!”
I thought this was a cool story. After hearing it, I got the idea to make a similar goal for myself with Japanese. I had already seen plenty of Japanese movies (subtitled) so a movie wasn’t going to cut it. Not mysterious enough to keep me wondering year after year. But what about a book?
Later that week I went to a used bookstore, a big purple building in the middle of town. As luck would have it, they had a decent foreign book section, with a nice selection of Japanese stuff: old magazines, newspapers, comics, children’s books, novels. I looked through the novels until I found one with a picture that appealed to me. I opened to the first page and sure enough I couldn’t read a word of it. Perfect. I bought it and promised myself that one day I would understand that book.
I still have it. This is the book I bought 8 years ago:
If you’re wondering why that picture would appeal to me, it’s probably because it reminded me Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss album:
Anyway, I made the promise to myself that I would someday read that book and understand. That promise has always been in the back of my mind, driving me as I study Japanese (admittedly on and off over the years, but in the past three years, very much on!).
I haven’t read it. I’m not quite there yet. I’m sure I could grind through it with a dictionary, but I want to read it with fluent, literate eyes. So it remains on the shelf. When the time comes for me to read it, I’ll read it and understand and then I’ll know I’ve arrived. It will be a sweet moment.
Even if the book freaking sucks, it doesn’t matter. I’ll have accomplished my dream.
So why am I writing about it now? Because I got a new book.
Last month, Rikker from Thai101 had a book giveaway on his blog. He had two copies of an award-winning Thai novel, one in Thai and the other an English translation. To enter the contest, you had to send in your name and your language preference for the book (Thai or English). Rikker would draw two winners at the beginning of May.
At the time, I had just made a commitment to watch 1000 hours of Thai TV and learn Thai. Since I seemed to be on the path already, I entered the contest and said I wanted the Thai version of the book.
And I won!
I received the book in the mail yesterday (Thanks Rikker! For the dictionary too!). Here it is:
Sure enough, I open the book and I can’t understand a word. I can’t even pronounce any of the words. Hell, I can’t even pronounce any of the characters, except for the one that looks like a penguin. That’s the “g” sound.
So I’ve made myself a promise. One day I will understand this book. I will read all the words and know what they mean. I will read this novel with the same eyes as a literate Thai.
It won’t be soon though! I have a long road ahead of me. In the meantime, I can count the penguins.
If you haven’t done so, I recommend acquiring a book for your target language. Promise yourself to read it after you become fluent and fully literate. Leave it somewhere you can see it from time to time to give you motivation (but don’t peek too early!). Let it be your lost city of gold. Your fountain of youth. Your Holy Grail. That’s a good name. Holy Grail Book. Get yourself a Holy Grail book and stick it on your shelf. Then start the journey to “find” it.
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