Rethinking Japanese learning

By on September 28, 2012
Many foreigners arrive in Japan with just a vague knowledge of its language. This is especially true for native English speakers, who are blessed (or cursed, depending on one’s point of view) with a language that is more or less understood worldwide. For those who do not know the difference between sake (Japanese rice wine) and sake (salmon) which have the same pronunciation but different tones (a very important distinction in many Asian languages), the distance between their current skills and the level they aspire to reach may look as long as the road separating Narita Airport and the centre of Tokyo.

Japanese has an air of mystery about it, and mastering it is no piece of cake. According to the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, which has compiled language learning expectations for their professional staff (people who generally already know other languages), Japanese is one of the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and reading, requiring 88 weeks (2200 class hours). This said, acquiring a decent proficiency level is easier than you may think, provided you have the right mental approach. For one thing, spoken Japanese is actually more simple than other languages in many respects.

For example, it has only five vowels and 13 consonants, while English has 12 vowels and 24 consonants. Complicating factors, such as gender articles and distinctions between plural and singular, are almost completely absent. Also, Japanese verbs follow regular rules of conjugation with few exceptions, unlike English, Russian and Romance languages. This means that Japanese is relatively easy for beginners. Another good news for foreigners is that the Japanese themselves find some aspects of their mother tongue difficult to master, including memorizing kanji and using different levels of speech.   

However If you ask many English speakers about their learning experience, they will say it has been a mixed bag, and they are still far from fluent even after studying for years. I think it is fair to say that many English speakers arrive in Japan without having ever studied the language. Many have been sent here by their companies, and probably most of them end up gravitating around English-speaking environments (e.g. Roppongi) and think that they can always fall back on their mother tongue. A serious learner, on the other hand, has to do just the opposite, beginning with thinking outside the box, shedding as much existing cultural baggage as one can, and embracing the local language and customs without hesitation.    

In practical terms, this means that once you have reached a certain level and feel confident enough, you have to put to use Kudan Institute of Japanese Language School” all your hard work. I dare say this is more important in Japan than in other countries (e.g. in Europe) not only because the old “use it or lose it” saying is always valid, but because Japanese is infused with a social diversity that only life can truly teach you.

How we chat with friends is different from how we speak to a client. Learning how to navigate different situations requires vocabulary knowledge but also a sensibility that you can fine tune only through constant social interaction.

Once upon a time the biggest challenge for a white-bread foreigner probably was finding locals who would speak Japanese with them. Luckily things have somewhat changed, and engaging the locals in conversation can be as easy as going to a pub and chat someone up.   

In my experience, a Japanese might start a conversation with “Where are you from?” in shaky English, but a few exchanges would usually exhaust their English vocabulary and you can switch to simple Japanese. This is arguably one of the best ways to learn natural Japanese and not the stiff, over-polite business-speak on the language CDs.  

Everyone will tell you that the best such partner would be a boy- or girlfriend, and in my case it worked that way. Just be careful because men and women in Japan speak differently and have their own vocabulary, so you run the risk of sounding too effeminate or rough. Besides many English speakers end up relying on their Japanese partner to help them through all the difficult stuff like doctor appointments and paying taxes. These experiences are so important for learning any language, so it’s a shame to miss out on them.

Having a particular goal in mind is one of the best incentives for language learners. People who come to Japan to study martial arts, for instance, not only have a strong reason to succeed but find themselves fully immersed in an environment where they are exposed to the local language and customs on a daily basis.

In the end, Japanese learning can be as easy or difficult as you make it.

Gianni Simone is a freelance writer and zine maker from Italy. He is Vogue Italia magazine’s Japan correspondent and writes for several other periodicals. Together with Randy Osborne, he has co-authored the book “Made of This".

Is there a shortcut to learning Japanese?
The answer to that would be no.  Most reputable Japanese schools do a level check before admitting you for a course.  Unless you are able to convince them that you know enough to justify skipping the beginner’s level,  you will,  most likely as everyone else, be asked to start  from the very basic.  We asked some Tokyo residents how they find Japanese study and here are their answers.

What do you find difficult in Japanese language?  What do you find the easiest?
“After six months of studying keigo, I am still confused what to use when.  For me, Hiragana is the easiest.  My 18-year-old son picks up the language faster than I do.”  (Meguro-ku, housewife)

“It came down to decisions at the beginning (e.g. private teacher or school, which language school, study Japanese writing or just focusing on conversation…). This was a bit difficult as many people tell you different things. Once I decided to go for a 3-month course (5 days a week, 3-hour daily class),  the most difficult part for me was being a beginner of beginners at my programme where most classmates (60% were Koreans or Chinese) as well as a few Americans/Europeans knew Hiragana and Katakana already, putting me at a serious disadvantage. I was also the only one in a real job.  I had to go to work every afternoon until late at night and practice writing at 6 am which was basically a nightmare! Counting in Japanese was a further trouble as it took me time to figure out. Was there an easy part at the beginning? Absolutely not." (Minato-ku, male, finance professional)

"Everyday, I have to learn new words (written and spoken) in a very short period of time but I enjoy it."   (Chiyoda-ku,  housewife).

"People in Japan use the “casual form” with friends and family  but use the highest polite form for clients (okyaku-sama). Another difficulty is the fact, that many or actually most Japanese words do have many completely different meanings (jishin = earthquake, but also jishin = self confidence, etc.). That means in reality, you need to know many more words then on any other language just to “guess”, what people are talking about.  And another reason for a slower progress compared to other languages is Japanese has Kanji (too many, by the way). In English, I can read ANY word just by knowing the alphabet. The more I read, the more words  I remember automatically. That doesn’t work in Japanese. You need to learn a new kanji all the time, just to be able to read a word."   (Setagaya-ku, male, artist)
"I guess to start with, it is the difference in the culture. e.g. the Japanese apologise in almost all situtations, while in my culture (my personality included), I apologise only when I have done something wrong. So I feel really awkward using "sumimasen" even when something isn’t going wrong.  Easiest: As I’m Chinese, I have to say the easiest is kanji although sometimes the Japanese have a completely different meaning. e.g. the kanji for carrots in Japanese but Ginseng in Chinese are the same.  I had a good laugh once when I ordered "ninjin soup" at a restaurant and a carrot soup came to my surprise!" (Minato-ku, female, entrepreneur)

"The grammar hump and verb conjugations. In addition, getting the pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native level could be very challenging." (Minato-ku, female, HR professional)

"I found the spoken language relatively easy on a daily conversation level.  Complex sentences in business Japanese is more difficult.”  (Shibuya-ku, male, banker)

What do you expect from a Japanese language school?
"Teaching people Japanese that results to students being actually able to communicate. If people don’t feel any progress, they lose interest.  The same thing happened to me regarding kanji. I still can’t read Japanese. You learn 100 … and still can’t read anything … you learn 500 … and still nothing changes. Having the energy to memorize, let’s say, 2,000 simply to be able to read the newspaper … that’s tough.  So I notice that I can live very well here without being able to read and write. If I want to know something, I ask or read something in German or English in the Internet."  (Setagaya-ku, male, artist)

"Adapt learning curriculum according to the needs of the students, especially for working students. It’s quite dry just to teach out of standardised text books.  For Japanese language teachers to be effectively bilingual, so that they can explain the fundamentals of Japanese grammar clearly and well, especially during the intial learning phase when the foreign students have little to no knowledge of the language." (Minato-ku, female, HR professional)

"The combination of classroom study followed by custom-tailored lessons seemed to be the best approach." (Minato-ku, male, finance professional)

"Teaching students not only just the language, but also the culture,  and customs of Japan as well. Not only just textbook Japanese but also vocabularies people use in daily conversations (slangs included)." (Minato-ku, female, entrepreneur)

"I’d like classroom study to be  more interactive and lively." (Meguro-ku, housewife)

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