Last time I wrote about what the general goal is for this blog, and today I will talk about the goal for this year.
The goal for this year is to learn more Japanese and communicate at a high level in it. I used the word “communicate” and will expand on that in a bit, but first…
Like many who grew up in the 80s, I wasn’t aware at the time but so much of the media I consumed, whether it be animation, toys or the games played in the arcade, were from Japan. When I hit the age of 8 or 9, thanks to magazines, I learned that Sega and Nintendo and other companies were all from Japan. The Japanese economy in the 80s was a beast too, and I would often see shows on kids TV talking about new gadgets from Japan, plus Japanese school kids and their huge amount of homework, and what their parents did for a living. I was blown away by seeing how different life was in a non-Western developed economy like Japan.
Despite having an interest in more mature animation and games in my teens and student years, I never considered studying or learning Japanese until around 2003. The movie Kill Bill was released and it featured several monologues in Japanese, I remember sitting in the cinema thinking “I’m going to start learning Japanese!”. When the movie finished I walked to the nearest bookshop and bought a cheap textbook that didn’t have “any scary looking script”, or hiragana and katakana, in it and went through the exercises and chapters in my spare time. It was all written in romaji (Japanese written in our western roman alphabet) and very basic, but was a nice foundation.
Some years later…
Then I got a job, forgot all about the textbook, until I was out skateboarding and made some friends with some Japanese skaters. Using some of my rudimentary greetings I got a postive response and listened to how they were studying abroad. At the time I was going around in circles in my “professional” post university life which consisted of thoroughly spirit crushing construction, retail and call centre work. To cut a long story short, in 2011 I had enough money and a working holiday visa to stay in Japan for one year. So I arrived in Japan, lived with a Japanese host family, had a contract job teaching English privately one-to-one with people and then finally, after being a hobbyist programmer for years, got my first job in the video game industry (In Japan! Wow!). In the end I stayed for 3 years in total. After that, I came back to the UK with work experience under my belt and some level of Japanese ability from living in Japan, studying every day, working in a Japanese office and taking private lessons. It got to exhausting, and at some point it felt as if my learning plateaued.
Hitting the plateau
Working in a Japanese office definitely improved my written Japanese and my ability to read Japanese emails. However, I spent most of the day sitting in front of a PC in silence, programming.
When it came to meetings and talking in detail about some instructions it became very difficult and at work, even though I got along with some people, I felt lonely. By chance I ended up discovering a metal and rock bar scene in Tokyo. It ended up being so that I was spending more and more time in those places speaking English to tourists to let off steam. At work I got so burned out at one point I just didn’t want to have to try and learn more Japanese. I just decided to come home.
So Why Pick it up Again?
Now I’ve been back in the UK for a few years, I’ve managed to get over the negative experiences and learned to remember the initial spark that was in the earlier days, leading to remembering the positive experiences I had when I first moved over to Japan. I’ve visited since and really enjoyed the visits, plus my wife, and by extension my in-laws, are Japanese so it would be advantegeous to get better at it. I also work at a Japanese company, plus I still like Japanese cinema and some games. I’ve kept my Japanese in “maintenance” mode since returning, hitting my text books and using study apps on my phone during the commute so in some areas I’ve progressed ever so slightly, while overall my speaking ability has atrophied.
There’s also the other benefits of learning a language: the mental stimulation, the challenge and the discipline. The need to develop good habits for learning and progressing, and going out of one’s comfort zone and rut to try and achieve something rewarding.
“Communication” vs “Speaking”
So why the distinction between “communication” and “speaking”? There are many people who claim to “speak Japanese fluently” but really can just use some stock phrases and “survival” grammar patterns with some important common vocabulary to be able to get by in a small amount of situations.
Now, let me explain something to you – I’m a lover and not a hater. Despite the above paragraph, do I doubt the claim that these people can speak Japanese fluently? Not at all! I commend the effort they have made and they should be proud, but keep their ego in check. Ken Seeroi at “Japanese Rule of 7” has a great blog post about this here: A Friend of Mine Learned Japanese in One Year. A great quote from that article that hits the nail on the head is this:
The first time I heard it was from a random guy in Columbus, Ohio, who told me: “My daughter went to Japan for a year, and came back speaking fluent Japanese.”
That was all the proof I needed. I’m kind of gullible like that. If she could do it, then damn it, so could I. Nobody beats Ken Seeroi, and certainly nobody from Ohio.
(You should absolutely check out Ken’s blog, it’s brilliant and funny in equal measure)
The first time I heard it was from a random guy in Columbus, Ohio, who told me: “My daughter went to Japan for a year, and came back speaking fluent Japanese.” That was all the proof I needed. I’m kind of gullible like that. If she could do it, then damn it, so could I. Nobody beats Ken Seeroi, and certainly nobody from Ohio.
…the claim is misleading. Yes, they can “speak” Japanese and they are, in a sense, “fluent”. Fluency is to speak smoothly without stopping or hesitating. So if I rolled up to you, a complete stranger in the street, and said some stock phrase like “Me Lloyd, Me Hungry,” even though the last
sentence is not grammatically correct it was smooth and you would understand that my name is Lloyd, and that I am indeed, very hungry like a caveman.
I’m aiming to not just “speak” Japanese, but also via written communication, and be able to listen and understand my communication partners’ words. Listening, even when living in Japan, was The Hardest Thing for me to really pick up. People may have been speaking words that I had learned at that point but just couldn’t pick up the sound in their speech. That could have been due to inflection, personal delivery style of a word and the words that came before and after a “known” word that could have sounded like something completely new to me.
What about writing?
Regarding written Japanese, even the most casual observer knows that the roman alphabet is not used – there are two phonetic alphabets of hiragana and katakana, and there are close to 2000 “everyday” kanji. Kanji are of Chinese origin and the word itself literally translates to “Chinese
Characters”. There are multiple readings/sounds for most of those Kanji and the reading can change depending on what other kanji are either side of it. Learning to read Japanese can be a massive undertaking in itself.
Then, there’s natural use of Japanese. For some sentences in English, direct translation may be grammatically correct in a lot of cases, but the sentence may seem extremely unnatural to a native speaker, or perhaps lacking for a better term, robot-like.
Or there’s also the problem of being too “direct”. The language itself can allow any user to be as direct with communication as they would like, but alas, it’s far more natural sounding (and polite!) to be indirect with native Japanese speakers
For example, the following sentence:
映画を一生に見たいですか？(eiga wo isshou ni mitai desu ka?) Do you want to come with us to the movie?
Is a little too direct. The following is more natural:
映画を一生に見ませんか？(eiga wo isshou ni mimasen ka?) Won’t you come see the movie with us?
Ok, that’s the “what”. How about the “how”?
That’s probably enough factoids about my history to explain the “What” and “Why” of the goal set for the next year. Next post I will go into detail into “How” I intend to improve my Japanese to a above-mediocre level. Until then, stay keen, stay curious!