Tag Archives: language

What’s more fun than studying Japanese on a Sunday night?

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.


Sometimes I wonder if my textbook was written specifically for me.

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!


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Hello, yes, hello. Good Morning!

Still no internet at home, but here’s a quick proof of life post. I hope things are going well for everyone at home!

Before I left for Japan a few people asked me how I expected this experience to compare with my time in Korea. I was always unsure of how to answer. They are, in so many ways, apples and oranges. There is, however, one glaring constant: I don’t speak either language.

I’ve studied some Japanese but I am still unable to read katakana or hiragana, the two “easy” Japanese alphabets. Also, although I know a handful of useful words, I constantly use them inappropriately.

For example, “Hai” means yes. I know this. Still, more than once when people have said “hai” to me, I have replied with “hi!” This happens more than I ought to admit.

Last week I was finishing up a pretty important meeting with my principal; he had just finished giving me my official appointment papers so I thanked him. Thank you is a simple phrase in Japanese, one that most westerners already know thanks to Mr. Roboto. To be super formal we add a gozaimasu at the end, so it’s “Domo arigato gozaimasu.” I say thank you about a zillion times a day, so it ought to be pretty firmly implanted in my brain. I was feeling pretty good as I left, thinking, “One successful encounter with the principal sans embarrassment! 10 points for me!” Sadly, it was at this point that I realised I had not thanked him. I had said good morning. (Ohayo gozaimasu! Yeah, it sounds nothing like thank you.) On the up side, at least it was the morning.

The difference between my experience in Korea and Japan thus far is that this time around, I’m much more comfortable with my linguistic (and cultural) screw ups. I’m much less afraid of making these mistakes, which makes every day living much less exhausting. So, all in all, life continues to be good.


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Clint Eastwood, eat your heart out.

This just in: learning a language is difficult! I mean, really, very difficult.  I’ve always known that I don’t have a knack for language. I was lucky that I was able to learn French when I was very young so I think that its foundations are permanently engraved into my brain.  I tried to learn Latin when I was in university, but I only made it as far as Latin 100a.  I still remember some basic vocabulary: sailor, girl, rose, and praise.  Thanks to mandatory chanting in class, I can still conjugate “to praise.” However, if someone put a gun to my head and ordered me to put together a proper sentence in Latin, my best effort would probably resemble “An sailor gave a roses from the girl.” So, languages are NOT my forte.

My first Korean class was on Wednesday and it was almost entirely devoted to learning the alphabet.  The teacher would point at a symbol and we would try to make the sound.  I can’t find a great way to explain the experience.  Except maybe this: have you ever had the misfortune of being seated beside a linguistics class in an exam auditorium? It’s a bit distracting because the whole class spends much of the 2-3 hours trying to contort their mouths, tongues and throats to produce various sounds.  I’m quite certain that an unknowing passerby would have thought we were taking a linguistics exam in that classroom. The only difference is that while the linguistics students try to make the noises under their breaths, we were making noises loudly, and in unison.  Like a phonetically challenged adult choir.

That night’s homework was to practice reading and writing the alphabet over and over. In the end, I was feeling pretty good. I could recognize all of the characters and I at least knew what sound they ought to make, even if I couldn’t quite produce the noise.  This confidence was reinforced at the beginning of Friday’s class, when I proudly read words like “cucumber,” and “baby” in Korean.  Excellent. Maybe learning a language isn’t so hard!

If my life were a Western movie, then this would be the scene where we all have drinks in the saloon and a man in a vest plays bouncy music on the piano. Morale is high; the town has just rid itself of a confidence robber and it seem that the streets are once again safe. However, the drinking and dancing is interrupted when the doors swing open and a mysterious figure enters and leans against the bar, surveying the crowd. The camera pans to the wanted poster on the wall and the audience realises immediately that that the evil compound vowel is about to turn the town upside down.  (He’s easily recognised because he has a bad moustache and brandishes not one, but two guns.) The compound vowel grins as he sees the horrified faces in the crowd.  End scene.

Where was I? Right…. Learning Korean. Well, I have brought my total Korean word count to about ten, and I can read most of the hangul characters. However, those darned compound vowels continue to mock me and they make opening my textbook a rather daunting task. I will keep on trying though, in hopes that maybe someday I won’t sound like a wannabe linguistics student.


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