Learning the language

As you would expect of someone living in a foreign country, I have been making the effort to learn Japanese while living here in Japan. I find myself fascinated by this language and want to learn it as fast as I can. I wasn’t always, and probably payed little to no attention to Japanese before coming here. But, being incapable of understanding 90% of what you hear and read is a pretty strong motivator for learning a language, so recently I’ve been working pretty hard at it. I’ve been devoting a few hours a week to studying, and trying to do at least a little bit every day.

My progress has been frustratingly slow. 6 months in to my stay, I still respond to most comments or questions with a blank deer-in-headlights stare and usually find myself unable to make any intelligible sounds come out of my mouth. On a good day, I can force out a “yes” or one of my 5 go-to phrases: Excuse me, thank you, this please, that’s ok, and do you understand English? I didn’t study nearly hard enough before I came, and I did not think about how vast languages are, and the enormous amount of vocabulary I would need to know in order to have the most trivial of conversations. I can honestly say I’ve never really tried to learn a language before. I “took” French in high school, and Spanish in college, but at no point did I look at those as means of communicating that I would ever use. They were kind of just more information I was expected to cram into my head, like all of the algebra and chemistry that I never use in daily life. Even living in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, where there are many opportunities to converse with Spanish speakers did not give me enough of a drive to learn any more Spanish than the few words I had picked up through tv, vacations, or daily living.

But here, I am soooo curious. I hear Japanese spoken all day. I can pick out words that I hear repeated often enough. There are some words that I heard all the time from my students, so I eventually remembered them well enough to ask about them later. That’s how I learned the Japanese for “great,” “difficult,” and “what is the word I’m looking for?” Other times, there are conversations going on and I can hear people’s intonations, and others reactions, and I know that something funny or interesting is being said, but I can only wonder what it is. I desperately want to eavesdrop! And, I want to get more out of the wacky tv variety shows that I watch – nevermind how purely useful the knowledge of the language would be just for getting around. I could navigate my way through transactions at the bank and post office without giving anyone the blank, confused stare and hopefully come across as a pleasant and reasonably intelligent person. I could enjoy more Japanese culture by reading books and magazines, and the signs at sightseeing destinations. I could make more informed choices at the drugstore, and not be limited to cooking only things that have pictures on the package. And I could stop feeling so rude and be able to respond appropriately when my littlest 4 year old students start talking so earnestly to me about something that is clearly important to them, instead of trying to make them forget about it by plying them with stickers.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Japanese can be pretty difficult for a native English speaker to learn. In terms of speaking the language, the basic grammar is not terribly complex (so far), although keeping track of the particles is a bit tricky. Kind of like how people learning English tend to have trouble with knowing when to use ‘a’ and ‘the’ and ‘to.’ However, it’s really, really hard to remember all the new words – partly because they all sound extremely similar. Many times, the only thing that distinguishes one word from another is how long you hold one syllable. For example, the word for home is ie (pronounced ee-yeh), but the word for no is iie (pronounced more or less ee-ee-yeh, where the ee sound is held for 2 counts instead of one). There are myriad other examples. The word for pretty is kirei. The word for I hate it is kirai. Really easy to have a huge misunderstanding with that one. Kawaii means cute. Kowaii means scary. Be very, very careful when attempting to give compliments to your wife or girlfriend, guys. Hontai means opposite. Hentai means pervert. Don’t throw that one around willy nilly in class. Demo is but, domo is very much, and dozo is please. I’m still somewhat embarrassed about the time I wanted to really genuinely thank someone and instead of saying “thank you very much” I more or less said “please thank you.”

And of course, that’s just a complication with speaking and listening – reading is a whole other animal. Lets just forget about the thousands of things that are written in kanji which I may not be able to read for years, if ever. Even the stuff written in the letters I CAN use is fairly difficult, because I just don’t know the letters and sounds well enough yet. It is such a pain to have to sound out every single sound as if you are in elementary school again. So, sometimes I am quite lazy about it and I end up guessing and eating clam chowder when I thought I was getting cream of chicken soup. There are worse things. However, I am looking forward to a time when I can just glance at a word written in Japanese hiragana and know instantly what it says, the way I can do with so nearly any English word I encounter on a daily basis. Not sure when I will get there, but I am hopeful that one day it will happen.

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