石の上に三年 – Japanese Proverb

Like the quote above, いしのうえにさんねん (literal meaning “three years on the rock”), it takes time to learn a language, let it “grow warm” beneath you until it is really ready. Some of us, it’s 3 years — and for the rest (like me), we’re talking 10+ years.

So what’s the big deal with studying Japanese? Well, there’s a little bit of a story involved for that history.

How It All Got Started

My initial interest in Japanese started back in high school courtesy of my first boyfriend, who introduced me to Japanese animation. At the time, it was an underground sort of following, often requiring visits to Chinatown for the latest anime VHS videos. Yes, VHS. Back then, most of us were purists in an era that was slowly providing English-dubbed anime. That simply didn’t work for us; we needed our anime with Japanese language and English subtitles. Anime was an obsession for many years and yes, even I was an “otaku” — absolutely rabid and crazy about anime.

However, I really got into the real culture side of Japanese as a result: manga (Japanese comics), history, politics, lifestyle, music, etc. This lead me to start learning the language. I have to preface that I have a love of languages. I’ve never become fluent with any one language, but I’ve studied Spanish, French, German, Russian and Swedish over the years. Japanese was a natural transition from all the culture and history study while in college. I taught myself hiragana and katakana, even before taking the first formal class. I was lucky to have the best Japanese teacher ever, Hiroe Jackie Imai (wherever you are, thank you!) while at Iona College. She really tied in the language to cultural nuances that most Japanese students miss out on. I spent 2 years studying the language in college, and thereafter continued studying at the Japan Society in New York City. However, the class environment was very different and the textbooks they used were completely romanized. It was a huge disservice to someone like me that, from the very beginning, was used to writing and reading the Japanese characters.

The culture was still a huge part of my experience. As a native New Yorker, it was a major departure from my lengthy experience of living in a large city. Someplace like Tokyo was huge, but it was otherworldly. I couldn’t really appreciate just how amazing it was until I had an opportunity to travel to Japan and experience it for myself.

The Trip That Changed Everything

In 2003, I created the opportunity for me to stay in Japan for the duration of my tourist visa (3 months). I left everything behind — my then boyfriend, my mom, my friends — in search of this elusive need to understand and be in Japan. I’d travelled to many places before, but that first trip was a leap of faith, my earnest hope that being there would reveal the tremendous draw that had been driving me for years. I have to say I was not disappointed in the least. I got off the plane and immediately had a sense of calm come over me, some unknown and unseen sensation that told me that I was home.

The 2003 trip was very strategically planned; I wanted to experience everything. I set out on a 3 week train trip around the country, from the northernmost point in Wakkanai to the southernmost point on the “mainland” in Miyazaki. I’ll admit, I was a little homesick and lonely at the time. Think about it: I didn’t really know anyone here and I was young, black woman in a rather homogenous country all alone. Throwing that aside, it was an amazing experience that changed my whole perception of the country. Japan is filled with rich culture and history, and tremendously generous people. It’s not 100% awesome — it’s got its seedy underside and nasty people too. On the whole though, there is a selflessness that is exhibited more readily than in someplace like New York. I was immediately impressed and was reluctant to return home, but alas, I had to.

After that trip, it took me another 6 years to make it back to Japan. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but it was a whole lot of life getting in the way. Not once, however, did I forget the experience and I longed for it, held it close to me in the hope that I would be back on Japanese soil.

Since 2009, I’ve been back every year.  Just when I think I’m going to get tired of Japan, I still go back as if I was coming home from vacation. It is wonderful now that I have so many good friends in Japan and I can spend time with them.

The Language

The scale by which many of us Japanese learners measure our Japanese skill is in taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. They test you on your reading, writing and listening proficiency. The one thing that falls short is speaking. In learning language, there is always a discrepancy between the “textbook” process and the “practical” process. Since I’ve gotten back into active Japanese reading, I’ve been reading as quickly as I possibly can without sacrificing understanding, but I’m also reading some of it aloud so that I can hear how my own voice sounds in speaking Japanese. It is tremendously important to expose yourself to as many Japanese influences as possible. That includes watching TV shows (that’s how a lot of Japanese learn colloquial English!), music (I karaoke in Japanese all the time), hanging with Japanese friends or going to Japanese-language events.

All of these influences reinforce the Japanese I’m already learning. One of the biggest things to do is transform everything around you into Japanese; make it “all Japanese, all the time”.

Look here: http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com

AJATT has a great philosophy on the approach to learning the Japanese language. Language in general is meant to be most efficiently learned as an immersion process. It is this philosophy that I follow currently to improve my skills and the proof is in the results. I read faster, understand more and feel much more confident about how I’m developing.

Japanese is an amazing language. It sounds beautiful and has an uncanny ability to transform from year to year. Slang constantly evolves the language — sometimes for better or for worse — but it forces people to be on top of their own language in order to be understood.

It is truly an amazing thing and I am striving for fluency. I’m already on the road there.