Trick question. The answer is: everything.
I was sitting down to do my Japanese homework and thought… hey, you know what I haven’t done in ages? Write a blog post! So, here we are.
For those of you who may not know, I am still in Japan. I have re-contracted to stay here for a third year, beginning at the end of July. That means that, if all goes as planned, I will return to Canada in the summer of 2014.
I went home for a quick visit in March. One of the questions that I was asked most often was “So, your Japanese must be pretty good now, eh?” Ha. Let’s talk about my Japanese skills. But first, let’s talk about Japanese in general. There’s an interesting infograph that compares the speed and information density of several languages.
As you can see in the graphic, Japanese is an incredibly fast language.
However . . .
So, what does this mean for those of us struggling to learn Japanese as a second language? First of all, it means that listening comprehension is tough. Even if you can understand a fair bit of vocabulary, it can be difficult to pick out key words from a long string of formalities in speech. Secondly, even if you know a lot of vocabulary words, it takes a while before you can confidently string them together into anything that resembles proper grammar.
But what about me? Well, I’m getting there. I study with a tutor once a week and I spend at least a few hours a week studying on my own. At this point, I can pick up on the main idea of conversations in the staff room, although I can never follow the conversation entirely. If someone asks me a question in simple Japanese, I can usually understand but sometimes I take a while to process the information. For example, today I bought frozen tortillas at the foreign food store. The cashier asked me if I wanted an ice pack to keep them cool. I understood this question, but there was a lag of a few seconds between her question and my comprehension. The delay was just long enough that she started to panic because she thought I hadn’t understood. Still, I considered this a victory. After all, neither of us had to resort to charades to communicate. (Not that there is any shame in charades.)
In casual situations, especially ones where I know the context, I can usually grasp the basics of what is going on. However, in formal situations I remain lost. In March I attended my school’s graduation ceremonies. As I sat in the gymnasium before the ceremony began, I wondered how much of the ceremony I would understand this year. As it turns out, I understood almost the same amount that I had the year before: nothing. The hundreds of hours of Japanese studying that I had done in the previous 364 days were meaningless when it came to formal speeches. Although, I can say with certainty that the principal did not use the phrase “the bookstore is in front of the station,” at any point during commencement.
While formal speech is difficult to understand, I am equally baffled by excessively casual conversation. Anything that has a lot of slang or is in a non-standard dialect is difficult for me to understand. This is troublesome because my prefecture, Toyama, is noted for its distinct dialect. In fact, somebody once told me that trying to learn standard (Tokyo) Japanese in Toyama is akin to trying to learn the queen’s English in Alabama. Do-able, but tough.
This is starting to read like a list of excuses, which is not my intention. It is, however, intended to be a description of the realities of learning a language through immersion. In theory, it should be so easy to learn Japanese while living in Japan. However, real-life immersion involves a whole lot of factors beyond the repeat-after-me routines of a classroom.
The good news is that studying Japanese has become a lot more fun now that I know enough to use it. Being able to have toddler-style conversations with my coworkers is very rewarding. Any time I ever successfully read kanji I feel like a genius. Most importantly, I am hopeful that in the future all of this studying will help me win it all in the final Jeopardy question.
“So, your Japanese must be pretty good now, eh?” Nope, but I’m working on it!