Musings on Japanese learning

I’ve been in Japan for about a month now. So what’s been happening with my Japanese language ability since I got here? I could of course say it’s slowly improving, and though that wouldn’t be a lie, it wouldn’t be an interesting read either, so allow me to go into a little more detail.

Language acquisition isn’t a uniform process. People with different backgrounds and study methods will have different levels for various language skills. Since coming to Japan I have noticed a remarkable boost in my receptive language skills: listening and reading. I can understand much more actual conversations, and the speed at which I can process input has risen dramatically. I noticed this most clearly while reading electronic billboards. These have text moving at the speed native readers would need for processing the message, but when I push myself a little, I end up reading much faster without a noticeable loss in comprehension. When talking to Japanese people I have noticed the same thing. Though I still have to ask them to repeat something at times, this happens much less frequently. Since there’s always input to process, whether it be listening or reading, I’ve been able to practice this nonstop since coming to Japan, and I’m starting to sense improvement in these domains.

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The same cannot be said for my productive skills, however. I’d been warned by professor Niehaus and Klaus Pinte (both of whom taught me Japanese at Ghent University), that one of the most difficult things about being in Japan, is getting people to speak Japanese to you. It just doesn’t happen. This has less to do with my Japanese than with the way Japan relates to the English language. It is taught in schools, but this is done by Japanese teachers, who for the most part can’t speak a word of English themselves. Their pronunciation is horrible, and this is transferred onto a new generation of Japanese. That’s why many Japanese go to English cram schools (juku), or take extra English conversation classes (eikaiwa). Since the traditional Japanese education creates people that aren’t very good at English, they react to this in one of two extremes: they either want to take every chance they can get to speak it, or will do anything to avoid speaking English. The weirdest instance of the first scenario happened last week, when I was walking in Shinjuku Station and was suddenly surrounded by a horde of old Japanese women. A wrinkled sample steps forward: “How’s your pronunciation?”. No hello’s, not even a “Where are you from?”. We’re retired and don’t have a lot of time, let’s get down to business please. “Well, how’s your pronunciation?” Upon explaining them I was Belgian but spoke English pretty well, they proceeded with the next item on the list. Did I have an hour or two? Jeez, these crows know how to ask for the entire arm up front. No messing around with fingers or hands for them, no sir. Well, you get the picture. Luckily, I had a train to catch, and bowed my way out of that situation. I was actually quite flattered, and shall return to these lovely ladies in about a sentence or two.

A similar scenario occurs at a lot of the places where I stay. If you ask Japanese people why they act as CouchSurfing hosts, I think the majority will answer they do it to practice their English. As these wonderful people take me into their home, I don’t want to be a bad guest and will gladly speak English with them. But as that’s the majority of the conversation I participate in during the day, I think my productive language skill has risen more for English than it has for Japanese. The old ladies were right: you have to aggressively force your way into situations where you can practice speaking, or you won’t get enough chances to. For me, that means always opening conversations in Japanese, as well as sending e-mails to new hosts or people I’ve met only in Japanese.

This brings me to the second way people deal with their insufficient English around here: avoidance. I’ve come across multiple people that flatout refused to acknowledge I was even there, when I asked them for directions. These were mostly middle-aged or old people, and while I was certain my Japanese was correct, they just pretended not to understand me. I couldn’t understand why this happened, until Kentarō offered a very plausible explanation: apparently they feel they have to answer in English, and as they don’t feel capable to, they’ll just pretend the situation to speak English never presented itself.

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But there are plenty of times when I do manage to converse in Japanese. These moments have been very instructive. Most of my conversation partners are young Japanese people, often hosts and therefore we talk like friends do: using the more informal short forms. This has become a lot more natural to some degree, and I have to be very careful when speaking to older people not to use the same informal grammar, because they will politely smile and correct my mistake. A heart-chilling experience every time it happens. But to answer the initial question: yes, my Japanese is improving. Improvement is slow, but it’s there nonetheless.

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