Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


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Learning Japanese is as rewarding as it is soul-crushing

I took level N3 of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) on Sunday.  Considering it was the first time I’d taken a JLPT exam, I thought it went pretty well, except for the listening section.  My mind tends to drift off very easily, so the fact that we only get one chance to listen to each dialogue meant if I lost concentration even for a second, I’d miss vital information to answer the question.  The JLPT listening questions try and trip you up… the answers include everything that’s been talked about in the dialogues, but obviously only one has a slight detail that corresponds to the question.  So if I missed some information but thought I heard a particular word and saw it as one of the answers, my reaction would be to choose that one, but it’d probably be wrong!  I think that happened a few times so I’m not feeling so confident anymore… Even if I failed, it doesn’t matter too much because I don’t actually need it for anything.  I just find it more motivating to have a goal to work towards.

Anyway, before I get back into studying, I felt like posting about my experiences as a Japanese learner in Japan.  Before I came here, I had about two years’ worth of Japanese knowledge through a fairly relaxed studying regime.  I taught myself Hiragana and Katakana in my first year of university, looked at a few Japanese learning materials, then took a beginners’ course because I couldn’t get my head around the different sentence structure and verb conjugations.  Simple sentences were okay, as the order just becomes SOV rather than SVO, as it is in English.  But when things started to get complex, I struggled.  Longer sentences get a little trickier:

Just taking a random sentence out of my textbook.  Obviously they weren’t this hard to begin with, but just to show you how different the word order is!

毎日日本語で話すようにしていると、だんだん上手に話せるようになります。

Every day Japanese in speak try to do if, gradually skilled can speak like will become.

i.e. If you try to speak in Japanese every day, you’ll gradually be able to speak well.

(Sorry if that’s not a perfect translation, but you get the idea.)

Even though the syntax in Japanese is completely different and sounds like Yoda made it up, for some reason it just clicks after a while.  I don’t think there is a real watershed moment when learning a language where you suddenly just understand how the language works, at least in my experience, but there are definitely points when you realise how much better you are now than you were maybe six months or a year ago.  One of the most rewarding things about learning a language is when you suddenly understand something you couldn’t before.  A few days a week, a guy in a truck (always heard, but never seen) drives past my apartment babbling something through a loudspeaker and I’d have no idea what he was saying.  The other day, suddenly my brain just got it.  He was asking people to come outside and buy some vegetables from the back of his truck.

What made me feel even more warm and fuzzy was when I picked up the Japanese version of Matilda that I bought a while back, after ignoring it for a few months because it was too hard. I’d read The Little Prince before getting Matilda, and was so thrown off by Roald Dahl’s informal writing style after the gentleness of The Little Prince that I couldn’t understand any of the grammar and had to abandon it.  Three months of textbook-studying later, I tried Matilda again, and it was like 500 light bulbs went off in my head at the same time.  The random letters suddenly made sense, and I was able to understand and even enjoy the story.  It definitely helped that I already knew what it was about, but the words didn’t just sound like white noise in my head anymore.  Of course I still have to look up words a lot, but they’re always more interesting.  Like the other day I learned “tufty” – ふさふさ which made me smile.

As for the difficulties of learning Japanese, and any language probably, moving from beginner to intermediate is a struggle.  As a beginner you learn so much new stuff, you feel like you’re constantly leveling up and gaining all this Japanese knowledge.  When you hit the intermediate “plateau”, that’s when things get hard… You want to use what you’ve learned, but everyday conversation is still just beyond your reach and you’re way past self-introductions and talking about things you like.  Reading news articles and stories becomes a chore when you constantly have to look words up in the dictionary.  You find yourself understanding more and more of what you hear, but for some reason your brain won’t cooperate when you want to have a conversation in Japanese.  I still get this A LOT.  It’s the worst part of learning a language.  I can understand so much, but I get SO frustrated when I’m trying to speak Japanese and am hit by a mental block.  It’s hard for me not to constantly think, “Am I saying this right?!” and it’s embarrassing when I try to say something but I say it wrong and I have to pretend that’s what I wanted to talk about. 90% of the time, it’s only after the conversation’s finished when I’ve worked out how to structure the sentence properly, or remembered the word I wanted to say.  But I’m hoping that will get better with practice.

I think my listening has improved a lot since living in Japan, but the assumption that you can just pick up a language by living in the country isn’t always true.  I know JETs who’ve been here for 3 – 5 years and can’t speak the language at all, so studying and frequent speaking practice seems the way forward.  If you don’t practice with native speakers, it’ll take longer to progress.  I also know people who came here with a Japanese degree from university and couldn’t have a basic conversation in Japanese.  Unfortunately, even though I’m the only non-Japanese person at work, I find it actually quite hard to practice speaking.  I speak English all day to the students and when I’m talking to my JTEs, and I try to talk to the other teachers in Japanese but a) I’m shy! and b) my desk is isolated away from everyone else.  I go to my barber/gardener friend every Tuesday for free conversation practice, and I don’t have to think so much before saying anything anymore.  But there are still times when I feel disheartened after studying so much and can’t express myself properly. Basically I just want to immediately be good. Sigh.

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