The Japanese Challenge: can you learn a language within a week?

Outrageous Claims?

I tend to be a bit sceptical when I hear reports of people, even geniuses, who claim to have managed to learn a language within a week (just as much as I tend to be sceptical of people telling me that they were able to read and write at the age of 3). These claims don’t tie in with my own experience of language learning (and they don’t tie in with what I see on a daily basis when teaching children and adults of all ages and abilities at my language school, The Universe of Language): whatever you say, language acquisition is a hard, time-consuming task! Although I personally have always enjoyed diving into the unknown realm of a new language, I could never pretend that learning a language is easy. No, it’s a long journey, characterised by numerous setbacks and the need for willpower to re-build words and sentences from the remnants of attempts that failed in times of pressure.

Learning a language within a week?

After discussing reports of super-fast language acquisition in adults with my friend and fellow linguist Charlette, we decided to put the claim that – with a bit of talent and lots of dedication – it is possible to learn a language within a very short period of time to the test: by trying to learn a language none of us has had any previous experience of within a week! And what more interesting language to learn than Japanese? That evening, the Japanese Challenge was born!

A time of unencumbered learning

With our diaries in front of us, we tried to find a week that suited us both, and we soon agreed that it would be the first week of January 2017: it is far enough in the future to allow us to get organised, and it is a week in which none of us has any serious commitments. This is important: such a week has to be well planned! Moreover, I am a strong believer in the idea that both first language acquisition in children, which often appears effortless to the outside world, and the failure many adults experience when trying to learn a foreign language are down to the same factor: life – the motivation to survive, the fact that life happens! While a child can spend countless hours thinking about nothing else but words, and even has to do so in order to get what it needs, adults are faced with all sorts of difficult decisions and intellectual problems, which encumber their thought processes and make language acquisition hard. (This is not to say that children are not faced with problems, but the nature of their problems doesn’t seem to distract from language learning, and language acquisition is even necessary for some of their problems to be solved.)

Preparing to meet the challenge

Now, back to our challenge! The next couple of weeks will be used to organise everything: ordering textbooks, finding a teacher who can help us with potential difficulties, finding Japanese places to eat out in our city (we love dining out almost as much as we love language), buying Japanese food and products of everyday life, ordering Japanese magazines, downloading Japanese music and videos, maybe some hentai for the night :-), and setting up a plan.

Watch us …

If you’re interested in our progress, if you want to see how far we will get learning a language within a week, watch this space from 2nd January 2017 onward. I’ll keep you updated on everything to do with our Japanese Challenge.

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Trump translators, stop moaning and get on with your work!

Recently, a number of articles and interviews have popped up online in which translators and interpreters – most prominently French translator Bérangère Viennot and German interpreter Norbert Heikamp – complained about the difficulties Donald Trump’s simplistic and unpredictable use of language poses to them. While the French translator seems to fear for her own reputation when rendering simplistic language simplistically, the German interpreter highlights the unpredictability of Trump’s speeches, comparing the new American president’s discourse to dadaism. Silently triumphant, much of the English-speaking press takes the two linguists’ comments as evidence that Donald Trump’s use of language is sub-standard, rubbish and unforgivably bad.

When reading the articles, I couldn’t help thinking that they were – at least in parts – politically motivated. The linguists’ complaints are, in a slightly underhand way, used to prove the point that Donald Trump is so incredibly dumb that he can’t even speak English properly, leaving language experts unable to make sense of his erratic ramblings. The strategy of undermining a political figure’s authority by mocking their use of language, of course, is not new: in the Bush era, Bushisms were famously collected and shared online; and Slate, whose French version was the magazine publishing Bérangère Viennot’s article, had embarked on a campaign to mock Trump’s linguistic skills (or lack thereof) as early as in 2015. But it is new that professional translators take the floor to add their meta-linguistic comments on people they work with to join in the linguistic bashing of political figures.

While I do agree that the American president’s discourse is not exactly the pinnacle of linguistic prowess, I believe that his linguistic ineptitude is being overstated and that translators and interpreters are wrong to moan about it. Illogical sentence structures reflecting half-baked thoughts, inelegant repetitions showing a poor range of vocabulary, the wrong register, unwanted ambiguities and lacking cohesion are all very common in most people’s utterances. After all, defective texts are among the reasons why machines haven’t put human translators out of work yet: we humans have a great ability to make sense of defective texts, using context and world knowledge and putting ourselves into the mental frameworks of others, thereby finding meaning beyond the actual words. Translators and interpreters should therefore see the new American president and his defective speeches as a professional challenge and take up the gauntlet.

Having said that, I can, in many ways, sympathise with the German interpreter when he claims that Donald Trump gives him outbreaks of sweat: any conference interpreter who has ever lent their voice to an inconsistent speaker will know the feeling of utter horror when that speaker, all of a sudden, starts to contradict himself, leaving the interpreter with the haunting thought that they might just have said the exact opposite of what the speaker expressed in his speech! In Trump’s case, such outbreaks of sweat and horror must arise with great frequency: when an interpreter lends their voice to the American president, there is a lot at stake, but with Trump, the interpreter is also faced with a complete breakup of the conventional concept of  what a political speech at a presidential level should sound like! While amongst the mental health patients for whom I often interpret, inconsistencies and hallucination-induced, dadaesque utterances are well to be expected, the scripts and frames of presidential discourse don’t allow for such features! Donald Trump, however, has changed the script, and interpreters had better get used to it! The challenge for interpreters consists of leaving behind their usual understanding of how a statesman has to talk and of inhabiting Donald Trump’s world with all its political incorrectness, with all its vulgarity and its lack of diplomatic finesse. If an interpreter manages that feat, embracing Trump’s way of thinking, his words, over time, will certainly appear less bizarre and inconsistent to them than they do if they stubbornly refuse to venture into his world.

For the French translator, I have much less sympathy. In her article, she keeps on raving about the beauty of Obama’s speeches, which she used to translate with great passion, speeches for whose translations she was able to write all those fancy words, those silent hints of irony, those elegant figures of speech translators learn to use at university for the unlikely case that they might, some day, earn their money by translating literature. She now seems bitter, because with Trump, she can no longer show off her writing skills… Oh, those writing skills! Translators always fancy themselves as authors, but they’re not! While they may well have the linguistic skills to be authors, when they’re working as translators, they’re translators, and their task consists of creating a target-language mirror image of the source text, of the words and thoughts and the personalities behind those words. And with Donald Trump, those words are simple, sometimes rude or even vulgar, not refined and elegant as Obama’s words. However, they are ideal for translators to show off their translation talents: their talents of figuring out the intention and the meaning behind the words, which might not always be the right words, the overall function of a speech, the conscious and less conscious reasons why someone says what they say the way they say it and of conveying the speech in the most appropriate manner to the intended target audience. For those who don’t share Trump’s political inclinations and who value a refined style in language, translating Donald Trump – more than translating any other politician – means to leave their intellectualised, inclusive, multi-cultural world of taste and good style behind them, providing a voice for someone they profoundly disagree with and whose linguistic style they disdain. Simplistic language has to be rendered simplistically; vulgar expressions have to be rendered as vulgar expressions; xenophobic thoughts as xenophobic thoughts! People have a right to know how exactly the American president expresses himself, and a good translator will bring out all the nuances in his speeches, his thoughts and his personality. The French translator, somewhat hypocritically, claims that she’s afraid of normalising Donald Trump by making his speeches sound more elaborate than they are in the source language. Well, if she does do that, she does it because she forgets that translation is not about her and that she’s not supposed to shoehorn Donald Trump’s worldviews into her intellectual and linguistic universe, but that quite the opposite is the case: that she has to use the riches of the French collective vocabulary to re-create Donald Trump’s thoughts and words in a French context. It is nonsensical for a translator to claim that Donald Trump ruins their reputation in the target-language community because of his simplistic style and thought processes.

Trump translators, get a grip! Unlike what you would like to be perceived as, people in the target-language community don’t see you as authors. If they see you at all, they perceive you as the trusted messengers mirroring the words and thoughts of Donald Trump, the man they’re interested in. It is your job as translators to serve your source text author by maintaining their style and choice of words, however offensive, stupid or inconsistent you think their utterances are, and to serve your target-language audience by helping them create an accurate picture of the man behind the speeches you translate. It is not your task to foster your career as a writer! Translation is not about you, and if you cannot detach yourselves from your own political ideas and convictions, let alone from your own writing style, quite frankly, you should probably consider a career change.

It is also not very professional for translators to step into the limelight, speaking about the linguistic inadequacies of the people you work with. Translators and interpreters should always remain impartial and their political views should never interfere with their work. If you cannot morally lend your voice to a specific person, simply don’t translate them. And if you think that a speaker’s language is a reflection of his intellectual deficits, keep it to yourself. If you translate him well, your audience will come to the same conclusion after reading your translation. As a translator, you are not supposed to alter the reception of a speaker in the target-language community by meta-linguistically commenting on their language skills.


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Because it’s language, everything goes!

Yesterday, I went to see Lilting at the cinema, a film about a Chinese-Cambodian mother living in London, whose homosexual son had died before coming out to her, and about her relationships with her son’s grieving lover as well as with an elderly British womaniser she met at the home in which her son had parked her when moving in with his boyfriend. Given that the mother didn’t speak a word of English (apart from “Fuck you very much”), a bilingual person was brought in to help with communication between the protagonists. Language and interpreting played a major role in the film, and there was a panel discussion afterwards, in which – according to the programme brochure – experts from the University of Edinburgh would discuss, amongst other things, the link between language and gender.

Under the heading “language and gender”, a cornucopia of topics could be discussed, for example how interpreters in cultures with taboos for one gender (e.g. about sexuality) convey ideas expressed by speakers of the other gender, how literary translators between languages with gendered nouns render terms whose genders are used to convey meaning but whose equivalents in the target language don’t have the same gender (e.g. a translation of a German poem in which the sun is assimilated to a woman, with “Sonne” being feminine, into Italian, where the equivalent term “sole” is masculine), how – in many cultures – girls are taught to use language in ways that are different from the ways in which boys use it and vice versa (e.g. when it comes to swearing), how language is used by politicians and activists to promote feminism or to assign gender roles, whether there are universal patterns in the ways in which men and women speak, in which they are addressed and talked about in the languages of the world and to what extent such differences are of a purely linguistic nature and to which degree they can be attributed to culture.

However, Lilting was not about any of these issues, nor was it about anything that could be easily summarised under the heading of language and gender, at least not based on what the non-Mandarin-speaking target audience could have gathered from the film! Don’t get me wrong: it was a highly interesting film, which touched on a lot of subjects that are of great interest to linguists, but it wasn’t about the link between language and gender! It seems to me that the organisers of the panel discussion tried to lump a few modern-day buzzwords, such as “gender” and “LGBT”, together with language in an attempt to make “language” sound sexier! When I challenged the panellists, asking in what ways they thought the film was about language and gender, the answer I got from one of them was: “Well, language can never really be separated from gender!”

What? Let’s hear that statement again, so that it can sink in properly: “Language can never really be separated from gender!” I got very intrigued by that strong statement about language and its putative link to gender, and I asked the expert to expand on that. Her reply was: “Well, there are genders in language, therefore one cannot separate language from gender!” What a sweeping and illogical statement coming from an expert in translation studies!

As the expert wasn’t passionate enough to continue the discussion with me and preferred, instead, to go for drinks with her mates from the Ivory Tower (so much for academia’s attempts to reach out to the public), I was left speculating about what she could possibly have meant: when she said “there are genders in language”, did she refer to the fact that most languages have words (e.g. nouns or pronouns) to describe biologically male or female referents in the world or did she refer to the fact that some languages have grammatically gendered words? Either way, the argument she was trying to make seems trivial at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

If we apply the first interpretation, the only way in which language could not be separated from gender would be the same way in which language could not be separated from meerkats, baobabs, spacecraft or anything else that exists in the world and that we can refer to using language. Based on De Saussure’s terminology, terms like “man”, “woman”, “he” or “she” would be signifiers symbolising referents in the world, but it is quite easy to imagine a language which has no specific signifiers for genders, with maybe only a term to describe personhood. There is absolutely no reason why such a language couldn’t exist and function like any other language, which is why, in this sense, one cannot argue that language and gender are inseparable. The expert I spoke to might argue that there are, of course, biological genders in the real world and that language must have a way of referring to them, but that is simply not the case! There are a lot of things in the world which some languages can and other languages cannot describe, biological gender could just be one such thing. Theoretically, language can be separated from all its referents in the world individually; as long as some semantic content remains in a language, the language in question continues to exist.

If we apply the second interpretation, where gender is seen as a fundamental part of the grammar of certain languages – comparable to the importance of number (e.g. 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular and plural) in almost all tongues – the statement about gender would only apply to individual languages, such as German or French, while it would not apply to a large number of others which have no grammatical genders, such as English or Turkish. But even then, the claim remains trivial! Claiming that gender can never really be separated from languages such as German or French is like claiming that numbers (e.g. 287 or 563) can never really be separated from most languages (except maybe from the language of the Pirahã, whose number system is extremely rudimentary), because most languages have a concept of grammatical number! In fact, the claim that languages with gendered nouns cannot be separated from gender presents a slippery slope to a complete mix-up of grammatical and biological genders: in the first part of the statement, the adjective “gendered” refers to the grammatical gender of nouns, whereas the gender which, according to this statement, is inextricably linked to language is an organism’s biological gender. The two have very little to do with each other, with grammatical genders’ just being categories of words,  which one could just as well call “Group A” and “Group B”. Therefore, to shoehorn the fact that some languages have grammatical genders into evidence that language cannot be separated from biological genders is a feat of intellectual dishonesty.

I might never find out what exactly the panellist meant by her claim, but I can’t help suspecting that her statement “language can never really be separated from gender” was not well thought through and was uttered more because it sounded good and fashionable, with its slightly neo-Whorfian ring to it, than because of its scientific accuracy. It seems to me that in language studies not even scholars care much about precision. They seem to be quite comfortable with the idea that words are flexible and can be used to blur an illogical train of thought rather than being used as precision instruments to clarify unclear thoughts. Because it’s language, everything goes!


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Japanese Challenge: Update


Charlette wrote a little write-up at the end of our Japanese Challenge. Moreover, she had a go at writing something about herself in Japanese. There may be mistakes. Check it out:

And so, our time as language geeks with nothing better to do with our lives than learn a language in a week draws to a close. Was it worth the sleepless nights on the floor, the exudation of highly aromatic body odour, the often-heated fallouts over grammar rules? Tuesday marked the day of the assessment. Despite our exhaustion from last-minute cramming, we made a heroic effort to impress. Little did we know the assessment was actually designed for children Japanese-speakers, so criteria such as “our ability to form friendships with other children” could be disregarded as irrelevant (and we would probably have failed that part anyway). In the end, we were awarded the title of “questioning communicators”.

Here’s her Japanese text:

Ohayou gozaimasu. Watashi no namae wa Charlette desu. Igirisu-jin desu. Sukottorando no shuto ni sunde imasu. Ni juu san sai desu. Daigakusei de gengogaku o benkyou shite imasu.  Watashi to watashi no tomodachi no Mirjam chan wa charenji ga suki desu kara, konshuu nihongo o naratte imashita. Senshuu takusan no gengo o hanasemasu otoko futari ni tsuite no bideo o mimashita. Watashitachi wa totemo kurashikatta. Konshuu wa taihen deshita kedo, nihongo wa omoshiro kutte demo muzukashii desu. Watashitachi no sensei no Noriko ga oshiete ni kimashita.

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The Japanese Challenge: Assessment Day


So, today, we got assessed for what we achieved over the past week. Unfortunately, our teacher made the assessment far too easy, and it turns out that the assessment sheet she used is one for children. We may well have given her the impression that we are indeed kids in our minds, as our learning process involved a lot of giggling and fooling around. However, the assessment sheet doesn’t really reflect what we can and cannot do. This means that you will have to take my word for it:

  • We can have very simple conversations amongst each other, telling each other where we’re going or what we’re doing and we can ask each other simple questions like “Would you like to have some coffee” etc.
  • We can answer simple questions.
  • We can speak about ourselves in simple sentences, saying who we are, what we do for a living or who our friends and family are.
  • We know about 20 verbs, which we can use in the present and the past tense, affermatively, negatively and as a question.
  • We can say what people do now and what they did before. We also know most relative time adverbials like “yesterday”, “last month” or “last year”.
  • In a limited way, we can describe objects and people using adjectives.
  • We can count: up to a million, as well as small objects, flat thin things, long slender things, days, days of the month, hours and minutes, small and big animals and people.
  • We know roughly 1000 words.
  • We can make simple sentences, but we cannot yet make any complex sentences.
  • We can read hiragana, but not katakana or kanji yet.

All in all, we’ve reached a level which we can be proud of and which we can build upon. Maybe we’re not quite as good as the red-haired brethren, as we call them, from Babel, but what we achieved is not bad either and seems to be more realistic for a language like Japanese.

The next step for us will be to sit an official Japanese language exam as soon as possible.

Over the next few days, I’ll post a few texts snd videos which document last week’s learning process.


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The Japanese Challenge: Update Day 5

Here’s Charlette’s take on the experience:

Japanese Challenge: Day Five
We have come to the end of a five-day working week, but, unlike the ordinary businessman who can probably now put his feet up for a well-earned rest over the weekend, our business is far from over. For the last five days, we have been stretching our brains to the limit, attempting to understand, learn and remember Japanese words, phrases and characters, with the pressure of the speedily approaching Japanese assessment only a few days away. More than once, I have been reminded of the aphorism: ‘The more I study, the more I know, the more I know, the more I forget, the more I forget, the less I know. So why study?’

Why study? After all, this week has shown us to be no more than self-inflicting masochists who enjoy nothing better than metaphorically flagellating ourselves with the nihongo branch of the Japonic family tree for no other reason than… it’s a challenge. We could just as easily time ourselves to see how many kilos of ice cream we can eat in a minute – at least that would be deserving of a potential Guinness World Record. But no, at the end of this week, there will be no prizes, no records, no world recognition… nothing. Indeed, having made a vow to spend the whole of the week in our study chamber, which is essentially what the Universe of Language has become, we find ourselves at the end of the day crawling, exhausted, into our makeshift beds of bean bags, pillows and blankets. However, the fear that by sleeping, we are wasting precious Japanese study time, keeps us in weary insomnia until the early hours of the morning. With only a few hours of sleep, we awake as weary as when we went to bed. Without any shower facilities, we are forced to make do with cold water from the sink, which is far from effective in maintaining satisfactory cleanliness. So, we have degenerated into zombified tramps, who have become squatters in our own establishment, with a murderous addiction to coffee, and who desperately need a bath. So why study? We’re getting nothing but frustration and mental fatigue out of it.

Let’s give you an insight with the example sentence: ‘miruku wa ikaga desu ka?’ (Would you like some milk?). The frustration first comes upon trying to recall the word for ‘milk’ – you know it’s there, you literally learnt it an hour ago, its letters are somewhere playing peek-a-boo in the recesses of your memory; this is followed afterwards by the highly stressful and equally painful ordeal of forming the necessary sentence structure to fit this evasive word in; then comes the final torturous endeavour of connecting brain to vocal tract to stutter out some garbled sequence of sounds not dissimilar to the effortless goo-gaa-ing of a two-year old.

So, why are we doing it? Because every day, we learn something new, and it is this knowledge which is like the door to another world, a new way of thinking, of seeing things not just as brushstrokes on canvas, but as a coded language which can only be deciphered by those who possess the key. Even at this stage, we can already class ourselves as privileged key bearers, who, at every step, unlock new secrets, new nuggets of information, which we can use to continue unlocking new doors and to revisit old ones.

And, above all, it’s good fun. Our ridiculous mnemonics for hiragana (‘the character for the sound ‘ne’ looks like Nessie, the Loch Ness monster’) and Japanese vocabulary (‘kanashii’ – ‘sad’: ‘Scots are sad because they cannae ski’), the wonderful tuition and guidance of our Japanese sensei, Noriko, and, of course, releasing Japanese vibes through The Universe of Language by way of mochi cakes, green tea, sake and seriously fucked-up home-made sushi have all helped us accelerate our learning to a level which has caused a great amount of surprise. And, most importantly, we know how to laugh at ourselves, as thefollowing videos and photos show:


Geeking out in our language nerd’s paradise




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The First 24 Hours


Yeah, that’s right: the Japanese Challenge began yesterday morning! We’ve had our first formal lesson with our Japanese teacher, tried to absorb the Hiragana writing system, labelled lots of objects in my language school in Japanese and crammed vocabulary until we fell asleep in our makeshift camp made of beanbags and blankets; but most of all, we had a real ball! To give you an impression of our first 24 hours, I’m posting a few videos. Please don’t laugh too hard at our probably rather unintelligible Japanese. I promise it’ll get better soon!


My response to Charlie’s attempt to wake me up with Japanese questions! Need to learn swear words for a more eloquent reply.

In the afternoon, we got really tired and did these videos. We didn’t even realise that the “r” in “tori” (bird) would be pronounced as an “l”. But then, we wouldn’t have had all the fun tori shooting!

We also practiced introductions: here are takes 1 and 2!





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