My co-worker once shared with me some statistics that a person could only learn so many words. Apparently, even people who have lived decades in a foreign country never possess so great a vocabulary as native speakers. I was told native speakers learn something like 60,000 words while the most expert speakers cap out around 20,000. (If anyone knows a source on that please let me know.)
I struggled with this fact. My immediate counter-thought was that mastery of a language cannot entirely depend on vocabulary count alone. However, for what this statistic may lack in precision it surely must make up for in robustness–since you cannot hardly master a language without words. It was discouraging because it drove home the point that I will only ever have one native language. I’ve since accepted that and moved on. My native language and culture has become more special to me with that realization.
Fundamentally and generally, I think the approach of filling your brain with as much information as possible has its weaknesses and is no goal of mine. Mastering Japanese, however, is a goal and this undoubtedly will require expanding my vocabulary (even if for no other reason than to be able to understand others). But vocabulary is not and never will be a goal, not even an intermediate one. I have never envisioned myself ever having a bottomless quiver of expressions to shoot nor admired those who do. My literary heroes are the ones who make the world seem so simple and comprehensible in plain language. I also love the use of powerful symbols which are found so abundantly in Haiku. I fell in love with Haiku when I studied it in elementary school. The powerful simple imagery teaches wisdom, always to be remembered, in ways thousands of words cannot.
One favorite is 「柳に風（雪）折れなし」。”The willow tree doesn’t break in the wind (snow).”
I will let the reader think for themself what this means because I think it is most enjoyable to discover what the symbolism can mean for oneself.
Today I fell ever further in love with the idea that careful consideration of a little may be far more valuable than light consideration of a lot while reading in Alexandre Dumas’s The Counte of Monte Cristo a passage in which a scholar in prison is explaining how he has able to carry out his work without any access to the world. He starts off recounting when he was not in prison.
“I had nearly five thousand volumes in my library at Rome; but after reading them over many times, I found out that with one hundred and fifty well-chosen books a man possesses, if not a complete summary of all human knowledge, at least all that a man need really know. I devoted three years of my life to reading and studying these one hundred and fifty volumes, till I knew them nearly by heart; so that since I have been in prison, a very slight effort of memory has enabled me to recall their contents as readily as though the pages were open before me. I could recite you the whole of Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch, Titus Livius, Tacitus, Strada, Jornandes, Dante, Montaigne, Shaksepeare, Spinoza, Machiavelli, and Bossuet. I name only the most important.”
“You are, doubtless, acquainted with a variety of languages, so as to have been able to read all these?”
“Yes, I speak five of the modern tongues — that is to say, German, French, Italian, English, and Spanish; by the aid of ancient Greek I learned modern Greek — I don’t speak it so well as I could wish, but I am still trying to improve myself.”
“Improve yourself!” repeated Dantes; “why, how can you manage to do so?”
“Why, I made a vocabulary of the words I knew; turned, returned, and arranged them, so as to enable me to express my thoughts through their medium. I know nearly one thousand words, which is all that is absolutely necessary, although I believe there are nearly one hundred thousand in the dictionaries. I cannot hope to be very fluent, but I certainly should have no difficulty in explaining my wants and wishes; and that would be quite as much as I should ever require.”
I thought how I would be better off if all my reading of blogs, news, tech websites, facebook/twitter, etc. were replaced with a careful study of great literature. I don’t know if I have what it takes to be a great thinker, but I think that this is probably a first step and I would more than anything love to become like the great thinkers whose words I love so much. I think my brain which seems to have such a small limit for capacity is probably better suited to studying a limited set of materials very thoroughly. In doing so I hope I can somehow have the right thought at the right moment to choose the right path and bring about happiness for myself and others. I realize I will probably have to read some five thousand to find the ones that I will really want to study, but I am still only 27 and there will hopefully be enough time for reading and thinking. I think liberating my time will depend mostly on confining my spending. But in the moment I read that passage I felt so envious of a character who in prison has no possessions and all that knowledge and wished I could exchange some of my possessions for some of his knowledge. One thing my religion has taught me though is that you can act on what you read to bring it to life. Hopefully God will give me the strength to correct myself on this.
By the way, I would not be at all disappointed if in reading this entry everyone unsubscribed from my blog to put more focus on the ideas of people who have so much better ones than min
e. But for my own practice at writing, which has always been my goal for this blog, I will keep writing and occasionally posting things here.