Aug 6, 2017

Learning Japanese when you don't feel like you need to...

Back when I was in high school, we were offered a choice of two languages to study (it was compulsory to do at least one for a couple of years). My school had the choice of German or Japanese - and I ended up choosing Japanese. Quite frankly though, as a stubborn teenager I never saw the importance or value of learning a language. As sad as it is to admit now, the train of thought that I had as a 14 or 15 year old was "pssssh...when am I ever going to need to speak or write Japanese?"

Fast forward to now, as a 30-something who moved here a few years ago because of my husband's work. Oh, how part of me wishes that I could jump back in time and pay more attention in those "lazy classes" as I saw them back then. I remembered little more than broken sentences (and the occasional familiar looking hiragana) from those days.

In the four years that I've spent living in Tokyo, 12 months of that was in the inner city while my husband completed a fellowship program, and the next three were at a US military base - and again, my laziness seemed to take hold. Perhaps laziness is the wrong word, the path of least resistance is probably a better way of phrasing it. Living on a military base here was easy, because everyone around me spoke English. Sure, when I would go off base and need to mail something I would wish for a better grasp on the language – or when I saw another mom in an elevator at the mall with similar aged kids, and all I could muster was a “kawaii!” in reference to her children – but for the most part it was just too easy to get by without knowing the language. A combination of a few words here and there, combined with an interesting game of charades each time I would need to do something that required speaking Japanese – and we would tend to get there (albeit taking probably 10 times as long as if I could speak fluently).

There's also the part of the equation where my husband speaks Japanese well – so he has become my translator and assistant when it comes to getting by with the language. Ever heard of the term “enabler”? I guess that's what my husband has been. He encourages me to learn Japanese, but ultimately if I need his help he will help/translate for me – and then I guess I don't put the hard yards into learning myself. One word that I can safely recognize on the regular though - ramen!! (I'm motivated by food, what can I say...)

Now that we're living in Niigata, there's definitely more of an impetus to learn Japanese on my part. Not having that safety net of living on an English speaking military base any more is pushing my desire to learn. With a young family, it's not as easy as I would think to carve out time to study – but I think it's going to be necessary. Making friends and getting by with day to day life (otherwise known as not spending an hour and relying on Google Translate to find salad dressing) all require some level of communication – and I'm tired of feeling like a toddler in an adult's body when it comes to language comprehension here.

What pushed you to learn Japanese? Did you have any understanding of the language before your life as an expat here? And if you are learning (or already fluent – props to you if this is the case!) then I'd love to hear your favorite tools and resources for learning!



After spending the last several years in the beating heart of Tokyo, I will be spending the next three in the countryside of Japan. I adore this country and all it has to offer - and I'm always learning more and more about life here as I go along!


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