How being able to speak Japanese has changed my life in Japan

KanjiI’ve been wanting to write this little post for some time. It’s not aimed at people who are perfectly happy not using Japanese whilst living in Japan (which I think is perfectly OK). It’s aimed at those considering studying Japanese. My hope is that it provides at least one person with a little inspiration.


It’s perfectly possible to live a very happy life in Tokyo without using Japanese. Our dear friend John John managed it for 30 odd years, and never seemed to have a problem (although he did have a lot of bilingual friends willing to help out when his VCR went kaput !). I also lived in Tokyo for about a year with a very limited Japanese vocabulary. Those were happy times, and I don’t recall feeling frustrated at not being able to speak Japanese.

My Japan-related History 2003-2008 in 6 short paragraphs

Prompted by the expiration of my visa (with no hope of a renewal) and a huge amount of debt, in 2003 I left Japan and returned to the UK.

I had a simple goal: to be back to Japan within five years with a university degree that would allow me to obtain a work visa (I’d previously bought a degree off the internet for US$300 but was laughed out of Otaru Immigration office).

Once back in the UK I applied to do a foundation course – with virtually no qualifications to my name and having been out of education for 7 years I needed to learn how to learn again. One year later that was complete, and I received an offer from the University of Sheffield to study Japanese at the highly respected School of East Asian Studies.

Graduation 2008There then followed 4 really tough years of study. We started off with about 50 people in our class – 16 of us made it though to the end (above, with Nagai sensei and Kitaka sensei. Note my appallingly cheesy grin). Though though it was, it was bloomin’ marvellous, and I would recommend the course to anyone.

Last July I graduated on a Tuesday, got married to my daringu *Twinkle* on a Friday, and returned to Japan shortly after that upon receiving my spouse visa.

It took me a while to settle back in. Having rejected a job offer from GABA that I’d secured over the phone from the UK I was unsure as to what I would do for a while. Also, I’d not used my Japanese for a while and seemed to have forgotten an awful lot. It was an uncomfortable yet exciting time.

Graduation, July 2008

Being able to speak Japanese and the impact it has upon my life

It’s now just over 6 months since my return. For reasons given in my previous mumble I’m now feeling very much at home. But there’s another reason I feel a lot more at home now that I didn’t go into in that post, and that’s my ability to speak Japanese.

Why? Simply put, it gives me more choices in how I live my life.

As I sat in the meeting room above the local gym, I had a little out-of-body moment. There I was, sitting in a room of local Japanese grannies and grandads, participating in a meeting to discuss how our local park should be run.

Wow! This is pretty cool! I thought. Six years ago when I used almost nothing but English in Japan I wouldn’t have been able to participate at all. I wouldn’t even have had the choice.

At work too I’m now using more and more Japanese. As my English telephone conversation classes peter out (it’s the end of the season) so I’m doing more work on creating marketing materials. This means working with the sales team, none of whom speak much English. In meetings with my (Japanese) boss I now find it far more natural to use Japanese – wow, I’m doing business in Japanese! OK, so I make a tonne of mistakes and my keigo is going through one of those non-existent phases – but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is I can communicate (and I’m continuing to study before work to help fill the 3 billion cubic metres of room for improvement).

Yesterday, I decided that I wanted to spend some time with a friend of ours who was made homeless a couple of years back and now sells the Big Issue outside Shibuya Station (East Exit, Ogura-san). He’d not been there for months, but yesterday, in accordance with what some call coincidence, he was there as we dashed to change to the subway. I quickly arranged to meet him after work, and last night, I did. I’ll talk more about what happened on the podcast, but just to say it was an enlightening experience – and something that could never had happened had I not learnt to speak Japanese.

I can sort stuff out at the bank by myself, I can run errands for *Twinkle* (where previously I would have had to get her to run errands for me). I can volunteer to help at the local city hall, I can speak with non-English speakers at parties and bars… I can do anything that I couldn’t do before due to the language barrier.

Speaking of *Twinkle*, it gives her greater freedom too. I don’t want there to be a language barrier between us – statistics show that intercultural couples are far more likely to divorce than others, language difficulties being one of the causes. I want her to be free to choose to use the language that most suits her feelings. I want to be friends with her friends, to communicate with them on the same level as she does. I want to be able to do stuff with her that requires Japanese language skills. I don’t want to be a husband who needs constant translations and explanations, or whose input needs to be translated back for others.

(I’ll repeat here that I’m not having a go at people who don’t speak Japanese. I don’t see Japanese speakers as being in any way ‘superior’ to those who don’t. We’ve all made our own choices and we all have our own priorities, and the way we lead our lives is entirely up to us)

Life is hard enough as it is without an optional language barrier making things more challenging.

And for me personally, I have another big reason for learning Japanese: for our (as yet not-conceived) children. I feel it is very important for me that I be able to communicate with them in their native language (which is likely to be Japanese). Yes, I’ll probably be using English with them a lot of the time as well, but I never want to be in a situation (probably later on in their lives) where I can’t understand what they are trying to tell me, or where I can’t respond in Japanese if the situation suggests that that would be best.

Take away all the benefits I feel on a daily basis, and that alone is enough.

So, no matter what the time and financial costs, if you are considering learning Japanese, I’d say go for it! The pay-back is potentially so enormous that it will dwarf the initial investment.

And of course the good news is, if an idiot like me can learn Japanese, anyone can!

頑張りましょう!

Merhaba! Nasılsın?

In this morning’s first class we were treated to the most extraordinary experience. It was absolutely captivating, and made me forget all about the scary half-naked man at the bus stop 30 minutes earlier who had thrown bricks at a carpet-delivery van containing three men, one of whom had briefly emerged with a long iron bar and said some rather rude words to the half-naked man.

We arrived in class, only to be greeted by a woman we’d never met before who immediately started to talk to us in a made-up language. It was complete nonsense, a few of us couldn’t help but laugh.

Then someone remembered – we were time-tabled to have an ‘unknown language lesson’, to give us a sense of what it might be like if we go to teach English in a foreign country where the students have absolutely no prior knowledge of English.

And we had none whatsoever of this ‘language’. During our interviews we had been asked to list all the languages that we spoke – even if it was just a tiny bit. Our course directors then found a teacher of a language that appeared on none of the resulting 16 lists.

Having gathered from her gestures that she wanted us to go into a different classroom, we moved next door and sat in the chairs that had been arranged in a semicircle. She then started repeating strange-sounding phrases to us. We gathered that this was a drilling exercise, and so played along.

She’d say a sentence several times, we’d repeat several times. This went on for some time, gradually building up to about 7 phrases. Nothing was written on the board, and we were banned from writing anything down ourselves. It was all just these sounds in our ears that we copied, not knowing what they meant.

We were then shown a short video of two people saying these phrases. At certain points the people indicated towards a picture of a shop, then a house.

Slowly, the sounds started to mean something. “Merhaba!” must be ‘Hello’ in whatever this language was.” Sen” appeared to mean “you”. Ah… and “Nasılsın” must be “How are you?”

After thirty minutes of watching, listening and repeating (and nothing else), the meaning started to become clear.

Hello!
Hello!
How are you?
I’m fine, how are you?
Fine thank you. Where are you going?
I’m going to the shop (or was it an office?!) Where are you going?
I’m going home.
Good bye!
Good Bye!

We were paired off, and practised this new strange language.

(We later found out that it was Turkish that we were speaking).

This exercise struck me as being absolutely remarkable, and afterwards I felt positively elated.

Why?

It had given us the chance to do something we could never normally do. We were allowed to return to babyhood and experience the first year or two of language development within the space of one hour!

It really felt like that. We had no other ‘language’ that we could fall back on, all there was was these new strange sounds that we tried to emulate with no concrete idea of what we were saying. It was only through use over time that we figured out the meaning – although not all of us did, with some only finding out in the feedback session afterwards.

It was so exciting to be learning to communicate all over again, from scratch.

A brilliant exercise. Thank you ELTC.


We had our second teaching practice today. I really enjoyed it. After I’d finished my bit, one of the the students passed me a note “You’re going to become a great teacher” – this was was very encouraging, and much appreciated. Still a long long way to go though.

Of course I’m absolutely shattered again. I’ve made my packed lunch for tomorrow and will go to bed shortly. I know I really should do my teaching plan for tomorrow’s course – I’l start it, and see how far I get before falling alseep!

night night

p.s. coursemates really are bloomin wonderful.

Japanese stage debut

I’ve never been one for over-dramatisation…

(an extract from a mini-drama staged in our Japanese speaking class today. Sorry about the poor camerawork. That’s the problem when one is on the wrong side of the camera – unless one has a psychic link with the camera and tripod it’s difficult to get it to zoom in etc.)

Results Day

Just remembered, it’s results day!

So, overall I got 67%. Add that to my previous results and I’m on 68%, so I think it’s fairly safe to say that I’m heading for a high 2:1, as in order to get a first (70%) I’d have to be get something in the mid-70s this semester, and whilst I am prepared to work very hard on my studies, I am not prepared to make the sacrifices that would be necessary to get such a result. The benefits of those things I would have to give up would be sorely missed.

Well done me. And well done course-mates too! We made it through our penultimate semester with no casualties!