Let’s be honest. Learning Japanese is difficult. Especially being as English is my mother tongue. However, I remember saying back in July that I’d try to write a bit about life as a researcher in Japan. I don’t seem to have made good on my word just yet so, with apologies for the delay, I’m going to talk about the single most difficult part – learning to speak the language.
Frankly, Japan has been lovely and welcoming for me as a foreign researcher. My work colleagues have all been friendly and helpful, and I’ve managed to get all of my essentials have been taken care of with minimal difficulty (albeit with a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through). Thankfully though, I have a couple of Japanese friends who’ve helped me with a couple of those things. In particular, getting my mobile phone contract taken care of without help would have been… problematic. While I have, of course, been making every effort to learn Japanese, it’s still not an easy endeavour. And yes, it can be a trifle intimidating.
Speaking English as your first language gives you a number of hurdles to overcome when trying to learn any non-European language. Japanese uses a different writing system and completely different grammar. Couple that with the fact that a fair number of words in Japanese are impossible to properly translate into English, and you have a lot to cope with all at once. In effect, the method which I used to use for speaking French – think in English and then translate in real time – simply doesn’t work here. Japanese is too different. Attempting to do this is why a lot of my conversations have resulted in head scratching, awkward pauses, and fragmented sentences. No, I’ve come to realise that the only way I’m ever going to speak Japanese properly is to train myself to think in Japanese.
This too is no easy feat. With the career I have, I’m lucky enough to be friends with people from a wealth of different cultural backgrounds. Between them, all the people on my Facebook friend list speak 35 different languages★. As a result, I’ve spoken to a lot of people about languages. Most of them have told me the same thing – they usually think in their first language, and it took them a long time to learn how to think in another. I should probably find this slightly off-putting, but thankfully I can be quite tenacious when I want to be.
So while it may seem a fairly lofty goal to try and attain, I’m keeping sanguine for now. With a combination of learning how to break apart the language’s grammar, I’m gradually improving. Also, practicing with children’s books seemed like rather a good idea. Actually, in the 4 months I’ve been here, I’ve improved a great deal already. So let’s see what I can manage…
★ Yes, I counted. I was curious. And purely FYI, the 5 most common non-English languages among people I know are currently Spanish, German, Chinese, French and Japanese, in that order.