If you took a look at Julianna Baggott’s Boot Camp, which I blogged about earlier this week, you will have seen that one of her ideas for gathering raw writing material is eavesdropping. I’ve heard this advice before: listen to the language around you and write it down when it’s provocative. Seems like a good idea, yes?
Well, yes, particularly if you are living in a country in which the majority of people speak your native language. Otherwise, not so much. Or perhaps it’s just me who has this problem. I am conversant but not fluent in Japanese; I can understand most of what is going on around me. Specifically, I can eavesdrop. But for some reason, for me there is much less emotional content in words in Japanese than in the same words when spoken in English. I don’t know if that’s because I learned Japanese as an adult instead of during my childhood, or if the emotional content will come once I am completely fluent, or whether this is just a personality problem unique to me.
Here’s an example. My husband and I are raising two sons, so the word penis comes up in conversation. A lot more than I, one of seven daughters with only one brother, would have guessed. (For those of you without firsthand experience, consider potty training, hygiene, scratching one’s self in public, those sorts of topics that little boys have to be introduced to.)
Now, you will notice that I wrote the word penis in tiny letters, the way I say it. Which is in a tiny embarrassed voice, in a voice that desperately hopes no one can hear me except for the intended listener. It’s the way I was raised. But I have fixed that discomfort by learning to use the word penis in Japanese. It’s chinchin, by the way—that’s the colloquial form, not the medical word. I can say chinchin all day long and not blink an eye. It just has no embarrassing emotional content for me. Perhaps because no one ever shushed me for saying it, no one ever whispered it to me, teaching me by example that it was a word not to be spoken aloud.
So one day my husband and I were walking along downtown and I was telling him about a discussion concerning hygiene I had had with one of our sons, so that my husband would be on the same page as far as reinforcing good habits in our boys. I was chattering away about it, when my husband asked me to lower my voice. I was surprised. Why? I asked. I’m talking English, no one can understand me.
My husband sighed. You are talking English except for one word, chinchin. So here is what everybody around us hears, “Blah blah blah blah blah chinchin blah blah blah chinchin blah blah blah blah blah blah chinchin blah blah.”
(Or, to translate into English, “Blah blah blah blah blah penis blah blah blah penis blah blah blah blah blah blah penis blah blah.”) (Notice the type size is normal here because I was using my normal voice for the word in question, speaking that one word in Japanese of course.)
My husband is a doctor who doesn’t blush over any the names of any body parts or functions, but a quick look around confirmed what he was saying. People were staring at us, wondering what the heck we were talking about. Well, they knew what we were talking about, but they were clearly wondering why.
So, words that horrify me in English don’t affect me in Japanese at all. In fact, when I was reading Little Red Riding Hood to my sons (in English), we all three of us fell off the couch laughing when I got to the part about the Wolf saying, “Not by the hairs on my …..” That would have never happened with me and the word penis.
Okay, so eavesdropping in Japanese doesn’t have the same effect on me as eavesdropping in English, and I have precious little chance to eavesdrop in English. I guess overhearing for writing content is one piece of advice that won’t do me so much good these days. I considered jotting down things I heard in podcasts that I found fascinating, but that isn’t the same as recording people who don’t expect to have people listening to them. You don't get the same effect with people who are madly editing themselves to make the impression they intend. So for now, eavesdropping as an art form is out of the question for me. It’s not even fun to eavesdrop as a hobby, since nothing shocks me in Japanese, nothing has that learned punch of naughty English words.
I’d be curious to hear from other people who speak multiple languages. Do you get the emotional content in both/all of them? Is it just me? Do tell.....