A melancholy, gray, drizzly morning. After some weeks of avoiding silence by always having a radio on, or music playing, I left the radio off and wordlessly (internally and externally) looked around at my surroundings and out the window at the cold, winter outdoors.
Staring at my computer screen, I find myself at a fork in the road regarding Tokyo and noise. On the one hand, there is much I could say about how the attitudes to certain kinds of noise have changed over the decades here. For example, I thought of what my Portuguese friends had said when I read an old guide book from the 1950s that commented on how noisy the streets of Tokyo were - with people constantly honking their car horns! And on the other hand, I started writing this specifically to address the way the mind uses, perceives, and makes noise.
Anyway, back to noise within the brain.
Language is a wonderful thing - but it has caused us... (most of us?, all of us?, some of us?) to retrograde in some respects. Before I learned a second language, I thought that thinking was basically having an internal voice talking, but I've come to realize (belatedly...) that words are not thoughts - they are just tools that (rather clumsily) attempt to convey thoughts. As I leaned a second language (Japanese), this realization began to come into focus. It was a fluid process, but three milestones come to mind:
M1 - For objects, I went from looking at - say - a tree, and simultaneously thinking an (internally) audible "tree" to there being a lag while I decided on which word tool to use "tree" or "木", and the realization began to form that thinking was something apart from words - something that comes before words.
So - how to make it a fair exchange.... I came up with a simple system. We'd decide on a time - three minutes seemed to work best - and we'd talk in one language, then the other, and back again - sometimes for hours. Doing this absolutely fairly required a little willpower, and a certain kind of timer (standard on Casio digital watches at the time, but gone missing on modern models... I think, at least I couldn't find it on the newer models I tried), where the watch's timer auto-reset and commenced a new countdown even as it was beeping. So it would start with 3:00, and then 2:29-2:28-2:27... 0:05-0:04-0:03-0:02-0:01-0:00 - where it would beep - and (with no pause) continue 0:00-2:59-2:58, etc. Since the next countdown started exactly at the end of the previous countdown, each time block of three minutes was exactly three minutes.
The rules (which is where the willpower comes in) were simple, but very important. Actually... it's not even the plural "rules", but rather one simple, but Very Important rule - which was that during English Time, only English could be used, and during Japanese Time, only Japanese could be used. During English, absolutely no Japanese, and during Japanese, absolutely no English. An obvious issue with that system was what happens when you're in the middle of a sentence and the three-minutes-over! alarm goes off? If you are speaking in Japanese when the "English Time!" alarm sounds and - even for a few seconds - you continue speaking in Japanese (to finish your sentence) the system is broken. The answer? Simple! You change languages mid-sentence! I suppose this sounds like it would be difficult, but actually, this immediate changeover requirement paradoxically kept us motivated to continue and made the exercise fun. It was kind of like an ongoing challenge - "How smoothly can I go from one language to another even in mid-sentence..." which gave the exercise an energizing tension and pressure to perform well.
Let me see if I can get a good example of a mid-sentence changeover on the screen/page here....:
"I went to Shinjuku yesterday to buy a new camera-" [beep-beep!] "買おうと思ったけど、買いたいモデルは、ちょっと値段が高かった", etc.
I did this fairly extensively with a few different people and one evening - after carrying on a conversation in this way for about three hours non-stop, I was saying something when I suddenly realized (momentarily) that I didn't even remember which language I was using! I was using the correct language, but after three hours of speaking/listening to exactly half one language and half another, the feeling of using a specific language had mostly vanished and speaking was just speaking - in whichever language.
The conclusion? "Life's an adventure. Get on with it. Just do your best."
Lyle H Saxon
Tokyo - December 2017