To the Japanese Learner

I thought I would share some of the expectations about Japanese study that I had before moving to Japan and the crushing realizations that have kept life entertaining.

Expectation: It’ll be easy to learn Japanese, I’ll just make Japanese friends.

Reality: It is actually really hard to make Japanese friends.

Once you reach a certain level of Japanese, it becomes entirely necessary to speak with native speakers on a regular basis to improve any further. If you were an exchange student during university you may have realized that at some point you need to step away from your bubble of foreign friends and make your way on your own to the Japanese side. This often requires a lot of courage, but brings excellent results as Japanese people, although shy, are usually kind and curious about foreign cultures and people, and will welcome you with open arms. Consequently, your Japanese will improve a lot. The reality is that this ease of making friends is generally restricted to the school environment. In the working world, it is much harder to make friends. Your co-workers, and the vast majority of Japanese people your age, work constantly. Even after work they often have work dinners or functions to attend. The people who wanted to be friends with you because they love English and love western culture have all moved overseas. The people with kids you will never see again, as they are engulfed in the world of club activities, cram school, and other nightmarish things. That leaves almost no one. Your only hope is joining a club or class and hoping there are some people your age there to make friends with. Or you can make friends with some of the neighbourhood obachans. They will usually make you a decent meal and dote over you, just like your own grandmother back home. These kinds of friendships are important too. Just be careful your Japanese doesn't start sounding like a grandma, ne!

Expectation: Language learning is like osmosis.

Reality: I have met people who have lived in Japan for 10+ years who still cannot put a simple sentence together. You only get out what you put in!

Expectation: Kanji is horrifying and unnecessary.

Reality: Kanji is your friend and is completely necessary.

Do you want to eat at a restaurant ever? You’re gonna need kanji. Unless you want to make the poor waiter stand there all night and read the menu to you. Or you could play Russian roulette to see if you get the raw horse or cows tongue. Or you could do both if you don’t understand what the waiter is saying to you anyways. You want to fill in paperwork of any description? Read your mail? Pay your bills? You better believe that involves kanji, and a lot of it. On the bright side, it can help you understand words that you have never even heard before by combining the individual meanings of the characters. The more you learn the easier it becomes, as you begin to make sense of the individual components and see the patterns. Your brain begins to form a giant spider web of kanji that will help you live your days in the comfort of comprehension.

Expectation: Japanese people are good at Japanese.

Reality: How good is your English, really?

I don’t know about you, but my English is pretty terrible. Moving to Japan has highlighted this fact to me over and over again. As native speakers, we do not think about the language we use. We make mistakes. We don’t know all the words. So don’t be surprised when your Japanese friend cannot answer your maniac questions about Japanese. Also, don’t assume that everything you hear is correct Japanese, your surroundings may not have had their morning coffee yet.

Expectation: Sufficient Input = Output

Reality: The four language skills, reading, writing, listening and speaking, seem to operate largely independently.

This is a hugely frustrating realization. When learning language through any kind of immersion program, your listening and reading skills will improve very quickly because of the vast amount of opportunities you will have to improve these skills. Unfortunately, this does not translate to your output skills, writing and speaking. If you are not careful, you will find that you have a huge frustrating gap between your input and output ability. You will struggle to put a sentence together, only to have your friend guess what you are trying to say and finish the sentence for you, a sentence that you understand perfectly yet couldn't manage to string together yourself. The reason? Input does not lead to output. You actually need to practice speaking and writing to become better at them. There are no shortcuts in language learning.

Expectation: I studied Japanese in university, a year or so and I will be fluent. 

Reality: Language learning is life-long.

The more I study Japanese, the more I realize there is to know, the more I wish I knew. It is an endless mountain of vocabulary, words, kanji, idioms, slang, cultural references, etc. same as any language. Languages change over time, new words are invented or borrowed from other languages, and fads come and go. There is never an end point. Fluency, in my definition of the word, is the ability to use a language as a native speaker, and that boat sailed somewhere between the ages of 7 to 10. I am functional in Japanese, and in order to maintain this level I will probably continue to study it for the rest of my life, because the sad reality is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Don’t fear though, it’s not all bad news. You still get to have every Japanese person you speak to compliment you on how great your Japanese is. That is always a confidence boost!

Apparently I am still really interested in Japanese, even after all this. Recently I entertain myself by studying for JLPT N1, studying the JET translation course, attempting to read a Murakami book in Japanese, watching variety TV shows and dramas, attempting to master Miyazaki dialect, and talking with friends and co-workers. 頑張りましょう!


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