Yesterday I was sitting in my local Starbucks, minding my own business when this girl started talking to me. She was a strange mix of friendly and forward. She wanted to practice her English, and she saw that I was sitting alone at one of those small tables with two really comfortable chairs facing each other.
So I guess after gathering up her courage, she came over and sat right and started firing away the same questions that foreigners usually get in Japan.
“Where are you from?”
“Where do you live?”
Etc. These are basically the only questions they get to practice out loud in school, so it’s pretty much all most Japanese can say in English. Despite spending a large amount of time studying English in school, most of it is writing and reading, and grammar rules. They don’t get much practice speaking, let alone speaking to an actual native speaker of English, despite a desire to do so.
What was interesting about this particular conversation was the courage this young girl showed. (She said she was eighteen, and a student a local university). She first came, and sat down, and asked the normal questions, and I tried my best to make her feel comfortable, with slow easy answers, and as much Japanese as I could muster, to give her a feeling it was a group effort at communication, rather than her being on the spot.
After she ran out of things to say, she abruptly, stopped and said she’d be back. I guess she wanted to go and talk to her friends and think up some more questions. So, naturally, I went back to reading my book.
The book I was reading was “The Stuff of Thought,” by Pinker. He’s written quite a few books on the subject, language and how it affects our thought, and vice versa. I never knew how complicated language was. Some verbs behave much differently, and how they are used can show a great deal of insight into the thoughts underlying the deep structure of the language.
He’s also quite an interesting speaker. I think he has a few videos on TED should you feel compelled to go and have a look.
It kind of reminds me once when I was in this ice cream store. I was trying to decide not only what kind of ice cream to buy, but how many scoops. I hadn’t set out that day to buy any ice cream, I just kind of wandered into the shop to see what was in there.
While I was waiting this guy behind me started talking about his neighbor. I think me might have thought I was somebody else, but I listened anyways, because this seemed like something that was really interesting. His neighbor use to be a dispatch driver for this delivery company that delivered stuff to people around this big city. And he was driving once to a call, and there was a herd of goats crossing the road, so he had to stop.
So while he was waiting, he pulled out a novel he’d been reading. Maybe you’ve read this, but maybe you haven’t. It’s a pretty popular novel, and the main character was on some kind of spiritual journey, and he was discovering all these insights and secrets of life through the story.
Kind of like when you read something like this, you start to think there is some kind of deeper meaning here, and you’re not sure what it is. Of course other times when you read this you might be under the impression that the guy who wrote this was making it up as he went along. But for some compelling reason, you can’t help but to come back here again and again to find out what was going to happen next.
Finally, the goats, passed by, and the traffic opened up. I’ve never really seen a herd of goats before, so it must have been an interesting sight. I suppose you could always go back and look if you are interested in that sort of thing.
And by the time this guy was done telling this really weird story, I had decided on a double cone with rocky road. I’ve liked rocky road ever since I was a kid, and it never fails to impress with its delicious chocolaty flavor, and nutty crunch.
I just when I was starting to wrap my mind around this deep philosophical point that Pinker was making his compellingly thought provoking book, this girl came and sat down again. I guess she’d thought up some more questions.
So had a nice little chat, and she seemed to be pretty pleased with herself for starting a conversation with a random stranger in a coffee shop. Like I said, it’s one thing to go up and speak with a random stranger in a coffee shop, but it adds about twenty different aspects of courage if you are to do that in a language that you are just starting to learn.
I never thought I’d be taught a lesson in courage by an eighteen-year-old Japanese college girl, but there you go. The world is filled with good examples like this.
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