Sometimes studying Japanese is like banging my head against a wall repeatedly and other times it’s like riding a magical unicorn into clouds of enlightened understanding. Currently, I feel like I am banging my head against a wall. I will NEVER learn all the vocabulary words in my textbook!
I have heard many ridiculous things about learning a language over the years that simply are not true. The number one myth is that if you live in the country where the language is spoken, you will magically become fluent in a shorter time period. This is ridiculous. Learning a language always takes effort, learning a language is always difficult.
No matter where you live in the world, you need two things to learn a language; effort and cultural understanding.
You can’t learn a language without putting in A LOT of effort.
Many people move to a country expecting to “pick up” the language through immersion. They think being surrounded by Spanish words that have no meaning for them will help them magically speak Spanish fluently. In my experience, that just isn’t the case. Whether you live in Japan, Spain, America, or any other country, if you want to learn a foreign language, you have to study HARD. You have to put in a lot of effort. You have to practice SPEAKING the language aloud. You have to put in the effort.
I came to Japan with only the most basic of Japanese. I could read a handful of words and make a basic sentence along the lines of “I drink milk.” I speak a fair bit more now after 3 years of living in the country and studying hard. I take weekly Japanese classes. I routinely sign up for benchmark tests and study for them. I also try to speak Japanese with coworkers and friends.
To give you an idea of my ability, right now, I am currently studying for the JLPT N3 this winter. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, let me explain. It is also known as the intermediate-beginner level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. There are 5 JLPT levels, 1 being the hardest and 5 being the easiest. So, N3 is directly in the middle. I can communicate in most situations at this point, but not always eloquently.
I have managed to achieve an average level of growth in 3 years through hard work. Perhaps my listening skills and colloquial Japanese are better than the average student, but my pace hasn’t really been very extraordinary compared with someone studying at Japanese at an American University. I haven’t magically gained my Japanese ability because I live in Japan.
Living in a country is not a guarantee that language learning will happen. I know other people who have lived in Japan for over 10 years and who speak much less Japanese than I do. They are proof that if you don’t put any effort into studying, your ability won’t improve, no matter where you live.
The second thing you need to understand to speak a foreign language is the culture of the people who speak the language.
You can not speak a language properly without understanding the context of the language through understanding the culture. Still wondering about how I got into trouble by speaking Japanese in Japan? This is where I got into trouble for being able to speak Japanese. The problem was that I understood the words needed to express my idea. I didn’t understand the way that I should use them to communicate. Let me explain.
Earlier this year I was headed to a BBQ in central Fukui City where I was going to be drinking. This night I was running late getting into the city and I had to drive or I would be over an hour late due to irregular train times. Rather than parking in a paid lot, which is expensive, I made the riskier decision to leave my car in a convenience store parking lot overnight and collect it in the morning. I knew it was something that I shouldn’t do, but I thought it would most likely be fine. Hint: I was wrong.
I chose my convenience store carefully. I found one with plenty of spaces that were away from the store front so hopefully nobody would notice. But, of course, they noticed. I got an angry call from the owner of the convenience store the next morning demanding that I come right away and collect my car.
I knew this was going to be bad. I went with my friend and met with the owner. He yelled, and yelled, and yelled. He demanded in Japanese, “You’re a teacher! You should behave better. Is this the way a teacher should act? Why would you do this?” I tried to explain to him in my Japanese why I did it, how I thought it would be alright, and that I was sorry for the misunderstanding. This, however, only made him angrier. The conversation continued in this cycle for 30 minutes until he demanded to call my school.
At this point, I knew there was nothing I could do. He was going to call my school, tell them that I was a disgrace, accuse me of drinking and driving etc… I was in BIG trouble.
After he called my school I left with my car and my co-worker called me and demanded that I come to school straight away. I went to school where I explained what happened. One of my English speaking co-workers explained to me that part of the reason why he became so angry wasn’t what happened but how I acted when I met him.
Apparently, I was supposed to listen silently to all his questions. I wasn’t supposed to try and help him understand what happened. I was supposed to listen silently as he berated me and only say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.” This was the Japanese style of apologizing. He didn’t care why or what happened. He wants me to listen to his anger and apologize without any other words. He didn’t want the answers to his questions.
In the past when I have made a mistake in Japan, I only ever said, “I’m sorry,” in response to my mistakes because it was the only Japanese I knew how to say. Now that I knew more Japanese and could communicate, I got myself into MORE trouble because I didn’t understand that the proper way to apologize in Japan was what I had already been doing because of my difficulty with the language. I was SUPPOSED to not say anything at all. Oh, the irony!
In the end, I had to go with my supervisor and my Vice Principal in a proper business suit to apologize formerly to the convenience store owner. This time, I did it in the Japanese way.
Even though I was apologizing with my words in Japanese in our first exchange, the meaning of my words were interpreted as defensive and hostile. I ended up communicating something very different than the literal meaning of my words because I didn’t apologize in the Japanese way.
This is why I think speaking a foreign language cannot be done properly until you understand the culture of the people with whom you are communicating with.
This term I am preparing some of our high school students for a week-long homestay experience in Washington. I really want to focus on the cultural side of communication in their extra preparatory classes because of my recent experience. I’m starting to understand one of the important aspects of my job that I had previously overlooked.
Language Learning, man. It’s so hard, it really is. The more Japanese I learn the more aware I am of how much I don’t know about Japan and how much more I have to learn. I’m going to have patience though and put in the effort of studying and continue to learn more about the culture and maybe one day I will be able to speak better than “passable.”