Slowly, but Surely.
One of the most difficult things about living in Japan is the language barrier. It’s not something that can be overcome by cooking your own food, or buying extra cushions, or changing your class schedule. You can practice Japanese as much as you like, but it will still take time for you to learn. It will be difficult to understand for a long time. It is a problem that requires patience, determination, and some lack of dignity.
When I first got here, I remember feeling overwhelmed by how much I couldn’t understand when it came to signs, television, annoucements, and the like. At the same time I was pleased when I could complete small interactions–even “yes” “thank you” and “no, thank you” were enough to make me feel understood. On my fifth day here, some friends and I ordered ice cream. I was pleased as punch that I was able to read the menu, read the flavors, and have a short conversation with the employee to buy exactly what I wanted. It required speaking slowly, pointing, and lip reading, but it was something I did all on my own.
Lately however, I’ve had this feeling less and less. I may be attending school in Japan, but this isn’t exactly a Japanese school. It is an international school and the common language is English, which means that this is not an immersion environment. While this does help my comfort level, it does not help my Japanese. Many native students want to speak in English, either to improve their skills or because we international students have highly varied levels of Japanese ability. A few words spoken in the convinence store earn a “kawaii (cute)!” or “sugoi (amazing)!” from conversation partners. But when I speak with students who are determined to test my Japanese (which I do heartily appreciate), I feel like I can’t produce more than very basic sentences. My roommate speaks to me mainly in Japanese lately, but often I break into English when I reply if I want to say anything complicated.
I feel like most of my language practice consists of the words I use in the stairwell or on the way to class. “Sumimasen (excuse me)” when I move past someone. “Gomen nasai (I’m sorry)” when I bump into someone. “Arigatou gozaimasu” to thank someone for holding open the door, or “dozo (go ahead)” when I reach the door at the same time as someone else. And “daijoubu (it’s all right/okay)” at most troubles.
When I mentioned to one friend that I felt like I was getting worse at Japanese, she just shook her head. She thinks it just easier for us to realize how poorly we speak after two weeks of trying. I think she may be right.
Today I sucessfully asked a department store lady what floor sandals and shoes were on, and understood her answer. It’s a small victory, but you can bet I smiled all the way to the escalator.
Japanese word of the day: nihongo / にほんご (knee-hone-go) the Japanese language.