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Learning Japanese

November 9, 2018

View of river adjacent to Hayashida Junior High School

The Japanese language consists of syllabic scripts, hiragana and katakana, and kanji, Japanese-adopted logographic Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese writing system. It is said that if you know roughly 2,000 kanji, you are officially literate. To me, that seems do-able, but at this time, I would definitely need to focus more than I have been on learning Japanese. I would like to not feel like a tourist during the entire time that I am living here, so the motivation to learn Japanese is high. In addition to being able to speak and read in the native language of this country, learning the kanji would allow me to understand Chinese more than I do since 80 percent of kanji is the same, both in appearance and meaning.

The first time I gained insight of where my Japanese language skill was during a first-grade music class at Ise Elementary School. At this point, I was told that the first graders could only read hiragana and only know a few basic kanji. Thus, when they began singing a song using the lyrics that were written in hiragana on the blackboard, I actually was able to read along with them! They were much more fluent than me when reading, but I was able to follow along for the most part. So at that moment, I felt pretty good about myself; I was like “Hey! You go girl. You can read and pronounce things at a first-grade level!” Shortly after that moment, I realized I did not have the comprehension skills of a first grader. While I could read the hiragana, I did not know what any of it meant, and I also could not speak in complete sentences at that point. But, I had memorized two 46-lettered alphabets in two weeks, so I felt accomplished at the time. Small victories.

Elementary school is actually the BEST place I’ve found to learn Japanese. The children aren’t scared or embarrassed to speak to me, and they speak to me in Japanese all day. So, I get to practice picking up words that I know in Japanese and using context clues to figure out what they are saying. At this point in time, I have enough Japanese capability to speak to the kids at elementary school all day. Granted, I am mostly saying “I don’t understand” or “I don’t speak Japanese very well,” but I know enough to understand what they are asking me. Because they are elementary school students, their questions are fairly simple, and I can answer them with just one or two words. Thus, having enough vocabulary to know what my answer would be, elementary school days are an all Japanese day for me, and it is an amazing feeling.

Even at my middle school, it is getting easier and easier to bond with my kids as my Japanese gets better. I know enough of the Japanese phrases that I would want to ask in English to have conversations with my students, and because they are in middle school, they know enough English to answer me, for the most part. It also helps to bond with my kids by speaking Japanese because it shows them that it is okay to make mistakes when practicing another language. It is just awesome to be able to communicate with my kids and have conversations with them daily. Just two days ago, I spoke to two of my third year, middle school students for an hour and a half after school. Speaking both in English and Japanese, they taught me Japanese, and I taught them English.

AND today, I had a 15-minute conversation with my middle school librarian, who spoke only Japanese. It was incredible! We used gestures at times, but we were able to get acquainted, know each other’s names, ask about our time in Japan and American, and perform a book check procedure. The librarian, I found out, is only at the school on Thursdays and Fridays. On Thursdays, I am at elementary school, which is why I never see her. Thus, I was intrigued by the lights being on in the library when I was roaming the halls of my school looking for something to do (this happens quite often). I am glad my curiosity brought me to the library and allowed me to practice my Japanese with a stranger. I was also able to check out books. They were written in hiragana, so I could read them. My hope is to look up any phrases that I can read but don’t understand, so getting through a children’s book may take quite some time for me. Regardless, it was an awesome experience.

I think one of the most useful phrases I’ve come across so far is “how do you say _______ in Japanese?” It gets a conversation started, and you’re learning something new while practicing your fluency in speaking. Other useful phrases include “Once more please,” “Where is _____?” and “I don’t speak Japanese very well.”

There are two big challenges that I see when learning Japanese. One of them is the difference in sentence structure. Rather than the usual subject+verb+object order, Japanese sentences are constructed as subject+object+verb, and it messes with my head! I have experience in Cantonese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Mandarin and English, but none of these, to my understanding, is structured anything like Japanese. Disclaimer: I do not speak all of those halfway fluently; I am just stating that I have experience with all of them one way or another. I can just hear my cousin Sam laughing his face off right now. Any who, the sentence structure takes awhile to get used to, but like every difficult thing, it just takes practice.

The other challenge is the dialect that is present in the prefecture I live in. I currently live in Himeji, Hyogo, and this specific prefecture has a very specific dialect called Kansai-ben. I don’t know much about it at the moment except that it is very informal and direct. However, from what I’ve heard of other people’s experiences, if I learn Kansai-ben, I will be able to pickup 50 percent more of what people are saying. Already, with two idiosyncrasies to this dialect, I understand a tremendous amount more. Because I am self-teaching (with my students’ help) myself Japanese, having the full immersion into a Japanese culture where no one really speaks English very well is helped to get used to the dialect.

Regardless of my Japanese language ability, every Japanese person is always pleasantly surprised with any gaijin speaks ANY Japanese, even if it’s just to say “good morning.” So, the standard is set low, but I plan to surpass what people expect of me, primarily because I want to be able to communicate with my kids more and to more easily build relationships with people in the community. There is a Japanese proficiency test every six months, and I am contemplating whether I should take it. It wouldn’t boost my opportunity horizon for my desired career path, but it could just be something I work towards as a personal achievement. To pass the test itself, you only need 50 percent. There are 5 different testing levels, level 1 being fluent and level 5 being beginner basics. I am positive I will pass the level 5 test at this point in time, and because the test is all multiple choice and listening (no section on speech), I feel confident that I would be ready for level 3 by July 2019 if I continue learning Japanese at the rate that I am learning now. We’ll see I suppose.  

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