With many of our favorite games hailing from Japan, it should be no surprise that some of our writers have attempted to learn Japanese. Being one of the Top Five most difficult languages for native English speakers (according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute), it’s also no surprise that we have struggled with this language at some point. In this series on “Learning Japanese,” we share about why and how we learned Japanese.
Ash’s Journey: Her Struggle with Japanese
I began my journey with Japanese back in 2011. At that time I moved to Japan to teach English. I had always liked watching anime and old-school black-and-white Japanese films (Osu and Kurosawa anyone?). But back then—especially with anime—I honestly preferred to watch the dubs (blasphemy, I know).
I grew up a poor child on a farm in the middle of the most redneck part of Canada. I went to a tiny high school, and my class was the biggest to ever go through there (53 students). Canada is supposed to be a bilingual country, so our school system is supposed to teach us French at least once we’re in middle school; my school, however, didn’t have enough funding and they had to fire our French teacher. So taking a Japanese class in high school was never an option either. I personally never had a lot of money, so I never invested in books or programs to learn Japanese. So, 2011 hits and my application to go teach English in Japan is accepted. Honestly, once I knew I was accepted to go teach there, I panicked a little bit because I basically knew zero Japanese.
I was told I would have to introduce myself to the staff and parents in Japanese, so I should write up a little speech – which I did write up, in romaji (the Roman alphabet) rather than in Japanese characters – and to this day I am ashamed of myself for it. But let’s continue.
Arrival In Japan – Achieving My (Then) Dream
When I got to Japan, they were very adamant that I NOT speak Japanese in school, during school, or at all to the students. This, actually, became my Japanese-language-learning kryptonite.
I was so happy and bubbly for the first six months or so living in Japan. Taking Japanese classes—though feeling like I wasn’t learning anything—but I wasn’t getting disheartened or frustrated. . . yet. I kept trying, and I did a lot of study to learn and memorize hiragana and katakana (the two phonetic Japanese alphabets).
I was also able to recognize several everyday kanji characters (the ones for days of the week, for example). So I felt like I was making some progress. However, I was very shy and embarrassed about how little I was able to speak.
See, from my experience in Japan, Japanese people have major trouble understanding you if you don’t speak perfectly in their Japanese dialect or accent. So even if I’d try to speak to people, I would get a lot of strange looks, and “eh?”s. This greatly reduced my confidence, and I found myself gradually trying less and less to speak (a HUGE mistake on my part).
On top of that, I watched all my other fellow teacher friends getting better and better at Japanese all around me. And I found myself even more embarrassed to try to speak it with them. (I was a bit of a wiener back in 2011; I’m a much different person now, I swear!)
But back then, I cared about what people thought, I cared about looking and feeling stupid . . . so I didn’t even try to practice with my friends, I do have much regret.
I learnt basic, survival Japanese (your standard “sumimasen” and “arigato” stuff), but I didn’t come anywhere near close to fluent.
I have two regrets about my time in Japan—and don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVED 95% of my time in Japan, and I miss it every day like a dull ache in my left ventricle—but my two regrets are this:
- I didn’t spend enough time and energy on learning how to speak Japanese.
- I got sad and lonely (and probably actually had S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder) and stayed in my house a lot doing nothing productive, mainly in the winter time. I wish I had just taken every available opportunity and free weekend to hop on a train and just go visit every random little rural village I came across.
This is a bit of a sad story, eh? But I think there’s a smidge of a silver lining: now, I find that, when watching anime or playing video games in Japanese, my listening is getting better. I am now able to pick out Japanese words and phrases out of sentences and not have to think about their English translations and what they’re saying. So, maybe there’s hope for me yet.
What Does The Future Hold?
If all of this COVID stuff goes away, I have some flights to Japan happening in November. So I hope I can gather up some good motivation to try and become more than a survival-Japanese speaker; maybe become a good “listening and understanding” Japanese participant at the very least.
Anyone with any tips to keep motivated? Those would be extremely helpful, and I would appreciate them very much!
That’s my Japanese journey so far. It’s still on-going and remains a constant goal in the back of my mind.