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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2000

Um, you know, like, how to be fluent in Japanese

Lots of people think one sure way to improve your Nihongo skills is to marry a Japanese. They hold this view even knowing a good textbook is cheaper and takes up less space. In my case, however, not only did I marry a Japanese, I married one licensed to teach her native tongue.

So, has this live-in sensei actually jacked my Japanese ability?

Uh . . . no. As she notes, some language learners lie beyond any reasonable help. She has successfully taught foreigners from all over the world, but my wife acknowledges her limits. For one, she cannot teach a block of wood.

Speaking for my fellow blocks of wood across this great nation, however, I want to say Japanese is not as tough as it seems. Like anything in life, if you can master but a few basics -- in this case, essential vocabulary items -- everything else then sort of flows.

Well, maybe not flows, but at least there is movement.

Just what are the pistons in Japanese for dummies? The words that drive the language almost anywhere we woodheads want to go?

"Ne," "eee" and "desho." As simple as one, two, three.

To start, Japanese without "ne" is like, you know, English without "like, you know." A fundamental expression which, you know, is almost, like, the first phrase baby Americans learn.

"Ne," however, is much more versatile. Like "like, you know," "ne" can be inserted into a sentence anywhere, front, center or rear. More than this, with a bit of added inflection "ne" can convey deep meanings all by itself.

Want to agree? Break "ne" off crisp and short. Want to express doubt? Say "ne" with rising intonation. Want attention? Squeak off "ne" three times fast. Want to say you can't believe your ears? Give "ne" a roller-coaster ride, up and down. Want to tell someone that they're a boob? Grab them by the collar and scream "NE!" in their face.

Given such versatility, it is no wonder many foreigners come to sprinkle "ne" everywhere, including in with their own native language. When I was first learning Japanese, I would practice "ne" for hours, just to make sure I had it perfected. Once upon traveling back to the States, I said "ne" so often my mother offered me a lump of sugar.

"Eee" is almost but not quite as handy. Though normally used to express incredulity, with a little stretching "eee" can also be applied as a transition device, especially useful when trying to patch over the fact that you have no idea what's just been said. The longer you can stretch the "eee," the better chance you have that the speaker will get bored and leave you alone.

My own personal stretch record is seven minutes -- though my dentist waited patiently the whole time. I still don't know what he asked and might be going "eeee" still, had I not swallowed a cotton wad.

Yet, as powerful and eloquent as both "ne" and "eee" may be, neither can quite touch the beauty and grace of "desho." While "desho" cannot be used to initiate a conversation, that is its only known weakness. Otherwise, given the proper intonation, "desho" can mean just about anything you want.

Consequently, "desho" is the favorite word of many foreigners in Japan, even outdoing "ne." Diehard users absorb the word back into their native language and use it there just as often. Then there are the super-diehard types who say "desho" and nothing but "desho" -- no matter what language they are in. Usually these people blink a lot and wear beanies.

At its worst this condition is known as hyper-redundancy syndrome or, in Japanese, desho-byo. My wife attests that in her experience, desho-byo sufferers come from all nationalities: Westerners, Asians, Africans, anybody. Desho-byo is an indiscriminate affliction.

One well-known cure for this dreaded disease is to have a friend extinguish a cigarette on your bottom each time you say desho. This treatment works remarkably fast, though hard on clothing. Just be sure to choose a friend who runs faster than you do.

Of course, there are several other beneficial Japanese terms beyond only these three. Advanced language learners will also wish to perfect their "yokkorasho," or its shorter root form, "yoisho." This word roughly translates into "ufda," which is Scandinavian for "yoisho." You say it especially when you lift something heavy, like your feet or head. It carries no special linguistic meaning other than to warn people you are too tired to say anything other than "yoisho."

Then there is "domo," which can also mean almost anything . . . or, more than likely, almost nothing. If you have an open mind, meaning, if there is not much up there, "domo" might be just the word for you. I myself use it all the time.

I often suggest that my wife emphasize these tricks in her teaching, but she scoffs and asks if students would really be happy learning such nonsense.

My response?

Well . . . it depends on if she is holding a cigarette.

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