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"My Life with Foreign Languages" by Dr. Donald Keene Oct. 30, 2013 Prometheus Hall, TUFS
I was born and raised in New York.
So I have always been surrounded by foreign languages since my childhood.
But the kids I used to play with as a child all spoke in English.
In elementary school as well, I had classmates of different ethnic backgrounds,
but all my classmates used the New York dialect.
The dialect was so commonly used
that I didn’t think much about what languages our ancestors had spoken before us.
I had two interests as a child.
One was history.
I had a book on world history for children which I read many times over.
Although I had already read it once, I thought I would enjoy reading it again.
Also, there were certain historical figures which I especially liked.
My favorite figure was a little bit of an unexpected one, however,
I loved Marie Antoinette, the former queen of France.
I thought she was a great and beautiful woman.
But her fate was very painful indeed.
I read my favorite book over and over again.
I also read other history books including those on European history.
Because I wanted to find a book in which Antoinette escaped safely.
I didn't think history was set in stone.
I felt history was depicted differently depending on the books one read.
There was a reason I thought this way.
When I was a child, we lived next to a British family.
The eldest son was one year older than me.
I once read one of the books that he had finished reading.
I then realized that the events of the American War of Independence
were described very differently between American and British books.
Hence I felt history was different depending on what one read.
So I searched even more for a book where Marie Antoinette was saved.
My second interest was stamp collecting.
Serious stamp collecting could cost a lot of money,
however, I was fortunately able to get stamps without much effort.
My father was working for a trade company.
Much foreign mail arrived there, so I was able to get my hands on many stamps.
The various stamps motivated me to learn more about different countries.
There were stamps with the faces of the kings and queens of those countries.
That was why I knew about such events as when George V became king after Edward VII.
There were many things like this.
I repeatedly requested my father to take me with him to Europe.
But he always declined my requests, always giving some reasons.
For example, my father would say that he could not let me skip school
or he could not afford to take me.
He gave various reasons.
However in 1931, when I turned nine years old,
my father was due to go to Europe during the summer.
This time, he could not decline my request because of school.
If he gave money as an excuse, I knew of something I could say.
When I was born, many people gave money for my education.
I asked my father to use the money to take me with him.
But he did not agree.
Then I cried.
Most children cry when they fall over or what not.
But I was a child who rarely cried.
Even now, I can't cry no matter how sad I am.
But that time, I cried for two or three hours.
Looking back, that was the smartest thing I have ever done.
In any case, my father could not suppress my desire anymore, so he took me to Europe.
My first trip to Europe began in France.
I found it difficult to communicate with the French people, especially with children of the same age.
I had a strong desire to learn French.
Until recently, I had held on to a diary that I kept in those days,
but it disappeared when I moved.
In the diary, I wrote the various things I felt as a nine-year-old boy.
I was not a poetic child.
For example, I would write how many windows there were in a particular palace I had visited,
but I would not go on to elaborate how beautiful they were.
Anyway, I was very eager to learn French from that point on.
After returning to the US, I asked my father "May I have a tutor to learn French? "
However, 1931 was the toughest year of the Great Depression, so my father had very little money.
So before entering middle school, I didn't get the chance to learn a foreign language.
The middle school I entered was an ordinary school.
It was the closest school to our house.
They were trying out an experiment there.
Maybe they still are now.
The school offered only French and German courses as foreign languages.
Everyone learned French for three months, and German for three months.
We were then asked which language we liked. That was the experiment.
The teacher who taught us German was a young lady,
and taught us a variety of exciting German songs.
We would memorize them. I still remember some of them now.
The French teacher was an elderly woman, and very strict.
Whenever we made a mistake, she would yell at us.
When we had to choose our language, I of course chose French without hesitation.
I really liked French.
It was easy to remember, and I always got perfect scores.
I liked French very much.
Most of the teachers were French.
In those days, even in ordinary public schools,
French people taught French, and German people taught German,
Spanish taught Spanish, and so on.
In some regions, Italian or Spanish was taught.
Anyway, I loved French.
After I graduated from middle school,
my mother gave me four novels written by Balzac as a gift.
I still have them.
My mother knew that those were my favorite.
In high school, we had to learn another foreign language.
I chose Spanish.
There was a reason for this.
My father’s work was based in Spain at the time.
We were to move to Spain the following year, 1936.
I was 14 years old then.
That was the year the Spanish Civil War began.
So we ended up not going to Spain.
And so the reason I started Spanish was gone.
Because we never went.
But I had already started learning Spanish, and for most English speakers,
Spanish is the easiest foreign language to learn.
That’s why all the jocks take Spanish.
I liked Spanish, and it was different from French.
Sometimes I think that if I had taken German instead of Spanish,
I would now be able to read German with ease.
I can still read Spanish quite easily,
but there is little research on Japan written by Spanish people,
so the skill is of no use to me.
However I am aware there are many great Spanish poems.
When I entered Columbia University,
because of the influence of my high school teacher,
I decided to learn four foreign languages, and nothing else.
I took Greek, Latin, French and German.
I thought that if I were to read all that literature from those four languages,
I would become a highly cultured person.
But when I started school, I was told there were other subjects I had to take.
So I couldn’t just study foreign languages.
I was faced with a painful choice.
Giving up French wasn’t an option for me.
So I chose French and Greek.
Greek was difficult.
Much harder than French or Spanish.
But there was one great thing about it.
Most current European language learning starts from very dull topics and sentences.
In French and German, people start by learning to say very simple things.
But it’s completely different with Greek.
Greek starts from the classics.
In my first year studying Greek I read the tragedy "Eurīpidēs."
That would never be the case with German or French.
But in Greek and Ancient Greek textbooks, there are no everyday-use expressions.
There are no simple sentences like,
"Peter and Mary went to school." Or, "Where is your aunt’s pen?"
There is nothing of that sort whatsoever.
It was all literary works.
first there were the compulsory subjects-- one being Classics of the World.
There we read many English translations, from Homer to Goethe.
There were so many books to read.
I commuted by subway, and as I didn’t want to waste time there,
I would read Aristotle while standing in the train.
I remember doing that.
Next I decided to read a French classic in French.
I read Molière, Rousseau, and Voltaire.
However then something unexpected happened,
and it turned out to have a positive effect on my life.
In my class, students were seated in alphabetical order.
The person next to me - K for Keene - was Lee.
This meant I spent five days a week from 8am to 9am, listening to lectures sitting next to a Chinese person.
Up till then I had never met a Chinese person.
I hadn’t been interested in China either.
I liked France.
But I gradually become closer to Lee.
And in the end, he was the only friend I had at college.
I was often alone and I couldn’t make friends easily. Just Lee.
One day, I asked him to teach me Chinese characters.
He didn’t have a suitable book for me, so I went to Chinatown and bought a novel.
And that book became my textbook.
Another thing. He was from Guangdong.
Since the pronunciation used in the Cantonese province is not standard,
he never taught me any pronunciation.
I just read the characters and learned their meanings.
But I didn’t know how to speak.
I knew the meaning of the characters, such as “tree” and “mountain.”
But I really didn’t know how to pronounce them.
Later on that knowledge helped me,
but in the beginning it was useless.
Then the following year,
I started learning Chinese as an undergraduate student.
There were only four students.
One was the wife of a professor of Arabic.
She thought there might be some relationship between the Arabic and Chinese worlds.
So she studied Chinese.
Another was an elderly White Russian lady.
Another was interested in Chinese History,
but he wasn’t doing much.
And then me.
We read a lot of stories about a Confucian child.
I still remember that.
But we didn’t make much progress. In the old days that was how they taught Chinese.
Very slowly, and we only had three hours of classes per week.
In the spring of 1941, when I was studying Chinese in the library,
a student came over to me and said.
“Aren’t you the one always having lunch in the Chinese restaurant?”
He was right.
I was influenced by my Chinese friend and went to the Chinese restaurant everyday for lunch.
Then he said “Why don’t you have dinner with me tonight?”
Well, I had to think.
I didn’t have enough money to eat in a restaurant twice in one day.
What should I do? I already had my lunch.
In the end, I thought “Well I can skip a meal tomorrow.” and I decided to go.
He was a graduate student.
He had taught English in Taiwan for five years.
As you may know, Taiwan was occupied by Japan at that time. So he knew a little Japanese.
But he couldn’t read and didn’t know anything about Japanese grammar.
He had a mountain lodge in North Carolina, which is in the south of the US.
He was planning to study Japanese there for that summer.
One of his students in Taiwan had American nationality.
That person had come back to the US and was teaching Japanese as a tutor.
And they were looking for somebody to study with to keep themselves motivated.
I was in trouble.
My only friend Lee was Chinese and his country was fighting a war against Japan.
I had a moral dilemma. Should I study the language of my friend's enemy?
Finally, the cool mountain lodge won over my moral values.
There were no Japanese textbooks for adults at that time.
At least I don’t think he had any such textbooks.
So we used a textbook for Japanese elementary school students.
It was a famous book, beginning with the phrase “the cherry blossom bloomed.”
That was the first Japanese phrase I learned.
Staying in the mountain lodge were myself, the 30-year-old owner,
and another man who had fled from France to the US because of the war in Europe.
His name was Mr. Brook and he was 45 years old.
He was born in Yokohama and spoke Japanese as a child, but he couldn’t read it at all.
This was not unusual back then, and remains the same today.
No matter how long foreigners stayed in Japan,
they would learn to speak, but couldn't read Japanese.
The four of us spent two months in the lodge.
After using the “cherry blossom” book, we found a textbook on Japanese morality.
By the time the camp finished, I knew a little Japanese.
I then returned to Columbia University,
and studied both Chinese and Japanese.
It was "sayonara" to Greek.
My new Japanese teacher was from the US.
He liked haiku poetry very much.
The teacher also liked the arts of Japan and the Qing dynasty.
But he was terrible at teaching.
In the same year, a new textbook was published.
It was written by two Harvard University professors,
apparently for students who already knew Chinese and wished to learn Japanese.
The teacher was unfamiliar with the textbook,
so while making us translate the book, he would flip over the page,
read the next sentences, and look up the terms in his dictionary.
At that time, I also took a course on the history of Japanese thought.
Ryusaku Tsunoda taught the course.
He was a great teacher.
When I went into his classroom for the first time,
Professor Tsunoda was already there, but there were no other students except for me.
No matter how long we waited, no other students came in.
As it wouldn't be worth teaching only one student,
I suggested he cancel the course.
But he said one student was good enough.
So Professor Tsunoda prepared his lectures just for me for the first month.
The main topic of the course that year was Confucianism under the Tokugawa shogunate.
I didn't know anything about Confucianism.
When I entered the classroom,
I would find many Chinese classic sentences already written on the blackboard.
I had no idea what the sentences meant.
But with my poor handwriting, I copied down everything.
Professor Tsunoda was an excellent teacher,
and I thought of myself as his disciple.
Up until now, he is the only person I have referred to as my mentor.
After some time,
two other students joined the course, and so things became easier for both Professor Tsunoda and me.
However, in December 1941, the same year, the Pacific War began.
Professor Tsunoda was arrested as he was a citizen of an enemy country.
I had no idea what to do.
As a pacifist, I couldn't imagine ever killing people.
I was 19 years old back then, still wondering what to do.
At that time, I heard the Navy had a Japanese language school.
I searched for information on it, and indeed it existed.
So I went to the Department of the Navy in Washington,
and asked about the school.
I had an interview, and after two or three weeks,
I was informed that I could enter the Navy’s Japanese language school.
Then, I left for California.
I started studying Japanese there.
My position was a petty officer, but I did not wear a military uniform.
I was not taught anything about the Navy either.
When I first boarded a warship,
I had no idea where anything was.
All we did was study Japanese.
Everyday, we did two hours of reading, one hour of conversation,
and one hour of writing in Japanese.
This is rather funny, but
we always kept in mind which college we were from.
Each of us believed “My university is the best.” and competed with each other in learning Japanese.
I always worked to perform better than others.
In this way, we managed to complete all the classes in 11 months,
even though they were intended to finish in 16 months.
In class, we read various materials written in contemporary Japanese.
Our textbook was written by Naoe Naganuma.
It was unique in that kanji were used right from the beginning of the book.
Later on, it became normal to use romanized Japanese to teach Japanese conversation, though.
Come to think of it, I feel it was right to have kanji in the textbook from the beginning.
There were also some literary works introduced in our textbook.
For example, it contained short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa,
and plays written by Kan Kikuchi.
The Navy had a limitless budget,
and they chose to teach us various Japanese dialects.
In other words, we studied standard Japanese,
but also learned that what was standard in Aomori Prefecture
was different from that of Kagawa Prefecture.
I got used to the differences.
There were minor differences between each regional standard language.
What I learned became incredibly useful later.
The most difficult task was writing.
Understanding the meaning and the pronunciation of words was not that difficult.
But when writing kanji on the blackboard, my teachers did not use the current forms.
For example, they wrote Taiwan in the old form "臺灣," rather than the current form "台湾."
This was much more time consuming to write.
Before even finishing writing the "湾" of "台湾," we were told to write "憂鬱" (melancholy).
And then "鹽," the old form of "塩" (salt).
We had to practice very hard, writing, writing, writing ...
My teacher was as scary as a devil.
But thanks to that, I managed to learn kanji.
Even if you could read a kanji, it didn’t necessarily mean you had mastered it.
By the time I graduated from the Japanese language school in the Navy,
I could read Japanese quite well.
In addition to contemporary Japanese,
we also learned the classical style in the end.
So I understand semi-cursive script as well.
We did not write using the old style of Japanese language, but we read it.
After graduating, I was dispatched to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
There, I had a chance to read documents that the Japanese military had left in Guadalcanal.
I also had opportunities to talk to prisoners, although we did not see many.
All the other students of the Japanese language school had a good command of Japanese like this.
We were not especially gifted at language,
but thanks to the study curriculum,
and through competing with other classmates, we successfully mastered Japanese.
The first few documents I translated during the war were rather dull.
One of them was something like an aircraft manual.
I needed a dictionary to translate since I had no idea about aircraft parts.
I couldn’t understand it very well,
but it went like "this aircraft has this part, and you should do this, this and this..."
The Japanese military were using it back then.
There were also some documents others avoided,
because they had a terrible smell.
Wondering what they were, I peered into a large box,
and found small black notebooks in it.
They were journals kept by Japanese soldiers.
The bad smell was that of blood.
Fortunately, I didn’t have much difficulty in reading semi-cursive script.
So I picked up the ones with less blood, and used to read those.
That was extremely important for my education overall,
because I hadn’t met any Japanese people,
apart from Professor Tsunoda and the teachers in the Navy’s Japanese language school.
I didn’t exactly know what kind of people they were.
The US propaganda was repeating that the Japanese were fanatically fighting the war.
Through reading those journals, however, I figured out that this was not true.
I realized that they were no different from us.
The beginning part of the journal was something like a slogan.
The writing style changed after they left the mainland,
after an American submarine destroyed the ship that was running next to them.
They wrote about the South-Pacific islands.
They looked very beautiful, but there was no food, no water, and malaria was rampant.
My heart was torn apart by reading how they were bombed by American aircrafts everyday.
It was painful more than any tragedy.
This is how I came to specialize in diary literature.
I have written a few books about diary literature.
After the war, I went back to university,
and studied under Professor Tsunoda.
I studied only classical literature from the Heian period, medieval period, and Genroku era.
I didn’t read contemporary literature at all.
My first teaching job was at the University of Cambridge, England,
where I taught Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Matters) and Hojoki (An Account of My Hut).
However, I didn’t know contemporary Japanese literature at all.
I was lucky enough to get financial aid from the Ford Foundation,
and studied in Japan for two years.
Also, I happened to make some amazing Japanese friends,
and started to learn about contemporary Japan.
After another five years of teaching at the University of Cambridge,
I hoped to live in Japan once again.
However, since I was turned down, I moved to Columbia University,
where I taught for 56 years.
I had a number of fantastic students,
and they are about to retire now.
It was a great pleasure for me to learn foreign languages throughout my life.
I feel that it was the only path I could have taken.
If I had chosen anything else, I would probably have failed.
However, I had a kind of talent in some way,
and I was able to master Japanese.
I dare say that I’ve lived a happy life.
Subtitles: Akira Tsuruta, Arisa Kitagawa, Naoki Shioda, Nick Moriarty, Rie Ikeda, Shizuka Ideta, Yuka Kasai