So it's been almost a year since I started studying Japanese. It's a strange thing to try to acquire a second language. There are hills and valleys in the process. There are moments of success when it feels like you've just done the impossible, and there are moments when you feel like the most stupid person on the planet. For many months now, I've been able to understand much of what is said around me. When I go to stores or on trips to various places in Japan that I've not traveled to before and find myself needing directions, when I go to restaurants and want a suggestion, I can do all of these things easily. Sometimes, usually for friends who don't speak Japanese, I'll have to think about how to formulate a question they've asked me to ask someone, but if I'm given a couple of seconds I can figure out what I need to say. For example, the other night I went with my French friend Steph to a bar in Tsukuba for drinks. We were sat at the bar, but Steph wanted to sit at a table so he asked me to ask the bartender if it was ok if we moved to a particular table (we thought we should ask as they had made a big deal of putting us at the bar because there was only two of us). So I was able to ask (though I still hate shouting for people's attention here, even though it's not rude) and got the table without a problem. And when my mom was visiting, I was able to translate for her and my aunt in various stores and shops and places where they had questions about items they were purchasing or might want to purchase, and about food, or how to get us to our ryokan when the bus to the place had stopped running, etc. But learning a language involves a variety of skills, especially when it is one so different from your own. I learned French in high school and college, but it was a completely different thing because the grammar is almost the same and the words look familiar. We at least use the same alphabet with only slight variations on accent marks etc. Studying Japanese is an entirely different process than studying French ever was.
There are various things you can be skilled at in learning another language: reading the other language, writing the other language, understanding someone else speaking the language, and speaking the language yourself. These are all different areas, and you can be strong in one and lower in level in other areas. For example, I chose to focus my skill learning in the understanding and speaking areas. I thought that would be most useful to me. And it has been. And I'm glad that is where I focused. I figured I can always still study reading and writing even when I'm not in Japan, whereas while I'm here, I should be able to hear and speak it while it's all around me.
One of the things that happens when you're trying to speak another language though is you find out stuff about yourself, tics that you have that you wouldn't have noticed so keenly maybe if you hadn't put yourself in this particular position. For example, when I traveled with my mom and aunt this summer, I spoke with much ease wherever we went. I realized I had vocabularies and grammars I had forgotten I studied. I was improvisational and fluid. I'm that way when I'm speaking Japanese to Japanese people I don't know. Clerks, sales people, strangers on the street or park who happen to strike up a conversation with me, etc. I feel less committed to these people, so I'm less reluctant to screw up in front of them, so I speak more easily and actually don't make many mistakes. But if I'm speaking to a Japanese person who I know knows English, I get nervous and speak very little. I become afraid to make mistakes in front of them. I feel behind because they've already done the work to learn mine and I just started on theirs. With the kids at school I have conversations everyday. This has given me a relationship with them that they weren't able to have with their previous foreign teacher, according to many of them. My colleagues at work are always telling me I seem more and more Japanese every day. At our recent work party, one teacher told another one in front of me, "Chris Nandemo wakatteiru!" Chris understands anything at all that you say to him. That's a bit much, but not in the confines of everyday conversation it isn't. And now the Japanese English teachers often direct me in class in Japanese. And I can explain grammar points to the kids in Japanese so they can understand when to use, for example, is/are/am correctly. And the elementary schools are happy because they no longer have to try and figure out what I'm trying to have their students do. I can explain my own lessons to the kids and they can relax while I teach.
But there are still moments when I struggle with certain things. Like I said, when I'm around people who already know English, I freeze up a little. Or when I'm around new people who I want to make a good impression on, I take a while to warm up to speaking around them, for fear of sounding stupid. But for a while now those were my weak points and I was okay with them (not totally okay but okay enough).
Then this past weekend I went to get a membership at a dvd and cd rental store. I bought a dvd player so I figured now's the time finally! Doing things like this is always like doing it for the first time over again. But joining this damned store made me feel like I understood the whole immigrant experience a little more.
So I walked in and asked if I could have a membership card, and was directed by the counter woman to a desk where they make them. I went over to the area, where two men and one woman were attending to people wanting memberships. The woman asks if she can help me. I tell her I'd like to become a member and she immediately appears worried and gets the form for me to fill out but seems to try to be recalling any English at all, even though I've asked her in Japanese if I can become a member. She points to places on the form and tries to tell me in English what they are. I tell her, "It's okay, I can read most of this and I can understand you, so don't worry." But when I started to write my information in English on the form, she said they needed it written in Japanese. This is actually a new experience for me. I've got cards at a variety of places that didn't care if I wrote my name and address in English. But this place wanted it in Japanese. So I began by writing my name, and I realized quickly that I NEVER write in Japanese, except on very rare occasions. My recall for writing is low. And I'm embarrassed by my kanji. My writing looks like my fourth grade students handwriting. But I made that decision long ago that writing wasn't my priority. But it's taking me forever and ever to fill out this basic form, so finally to save everyone time, I tell the woman, "I'm sorry but I can understand everything you say in Japanese and I can speak it obviously, and I can read it, but I don't write it very easily. If you could write my information for me, I'd be grateful." She then has to make a big production over this by asking her superiors who are there helping another customer if she is allowed to do this for me and then various Japanese people are suddenly looking at me, the illiterate foreigner, and I just want to say forget it and walk out of the store right there. It didn't matter that I used a really nice grammar to ask her to do this, was able to communicate with her verbally with ease. That didn't save me any embarrassment. Finally she got the okay to write my information for me, which she did quickly and easily and the whole process was done in two minutes, whereas it was taking me forever.
Afterward I sat in my car in the parking lot, a bit upset and shaken, and told myself I guess it's time to take away some of my grammar learning study time and devote it to writing practice, so I can avoid scenes like this in the future. I thought about how it would have been if I had been back in America working at some store and a foreigner had come in and said, I speak English but I don't write it very well, can you write my information for me on this application?" I would have done it without hesitation and without asking for anyone's permission either, without drawing everyone's attention in the store, but I still would have felt bad for the foreigner, and I don't want anyone's pity. I like being independent, even in another language. And there are enough foreigners living here who don't learn the language that give the foreign population, especially the westerners, a stereotype that we can't learn Japanese (or find ourselves above having to), so I feel that I have to do my best to be an exception to that stereotype. So now it's time to become a better writer of Japanese. But god how boring it's going to be. It's not the same rush as when you're interacting with an actual person and are able to communicate. It's you and a piece of paper, drawing kanji and hiragana and katakana over and over and over again, until it becomes second nature. And I already spend too much of my time staring at blank pages when I try to write in my own language. But here I go anyway.
Sigh. Just when you think you've reached a comfortable place in the climb up the mountain, you find a new slope you have to scale.
Onwards and upwards, or upwards and onwards, however that saying goes...