In the fall of 2017, this introvert did something bold and adventurous.
I’d been living in France for eight years and things were somewhat stagnant. Everything felt like the same old same old… I’d been in the same city longer than any other since childhood, living in the same apartment for years, and my work was fairly routine and predictable too. I’d been speaking French for decades and had apparently already reached my personal ceiling in it. A new challenge seemed called for, so I took a long-held albeit vague ambition down from the shelf and registered for a year-long Japanese class in the continuing education program offered by the City of Paris.
Vague, because I wasn’t at all certain I would actually be able to learn the language. It seemed so very complex and bewildering, and I’d already heard that it’s considered the most difficult language for English native speakers to learn, meriting a category of its own (one level up from the “super-hard languages”) in the Foreign Service Institute’s ranking of commonly taught languages. So rather than setting out confidently to conquer this new language, I planned to just dip a toe into Japanese for a closer look at how it worked. I figured I’d learn at least a few words and maybe some basic grammar if I made it through the year. I didn’t expect much more than that, but also didn’t dismiss the possibility (wild hope?) that I would turn out to have some natural knack for the language.
So while I wasn’t stressed about Japanese itself, I was a bit nervous about jumping into a class full of French people. I felt I would somehow be at a disadvantage and worried that I might not make friends. I would be a double gaijin (foreigner) of sorts. But I plunged ahead nonetheless – this is where the “bold and adventurous” part came in!
Fast-forward to the present. Last week, I finished my second year of Japanese in the program and got decent grades. I’ll probably register for the third year this fall. So how did it go? Just how tough was it, and how did I manage to get this far? How did the other students react to the strange American in their midst?
I’ll get to that in a bit. But first…
Maybe it’s the look of the language that attracted me – the beautiful loopy hiragana, the slanty futuristic katakana and the forbidding kanji, which look like little houses and dense thornbushes. It seemed like an enigma waiting to be unraveled. But my interest in the country and culture was probably piqued in childhood.
My earliest brush with Japan was at age six when my dad’s company sent him on a business trip to Tokyo. The situation was explained to me, but I could barely wrap my head around the idea of him flying such a long distance away. When I looked at Japan on a globe, it seemed just as remote as the moon.
I believe I was somewhat in awe of him when he returned, bearing all manner of strange and wonderful gifts for my mom, my little brother and me. Among them, I clearly remember a large spiral-bound booklet of flexible chalkboard pages made of rough green material and printed with mysterious roundish characters that you were supposed to trace and copy in chalk. It came with a thick yellow foam eraser of a kind I’d never seen before. My dad explained that the booklet was designed for Japanese children to practice writing their letters in. I can still recall the character あ (hiragana for the sound “a”) being one of them.
He also brought my mom some women’s fashion magazines that I would page through time and again, captivated by the inscrutable writing and above all the fact that they were read from “back” to “front”. And there was a Japanese baby doll for me – she had very white skin, was dressed in a red kimono and there was a pink satin cushion for her to sit on.
My dad had his photos developed into slides and we sat in the living room watching them on the projector screen, listening to his stories as we saw him standing in various squares in front of temples or near Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese business partners and pigeons (see some of his photos below). He told us about eating octopus tentacles and being served a luxurious dish of strawberries with cream. He’d brought home some miniature tubes of toothpaste from his hotel room and these delighted me because the caps were really tiny too, unlike the mini toothpaste tubes in the US. They soon became accessories for my dolls.
These early experiences must have planted a seed of some kind. Later, at university, I had a series of Korean and Japanese roommates and friends. I absorbed a few expressions in those languages without really trying to and began reading some Japanese literature in translation (Banana Yoshimoto was a favorite). In those days, I was interested in foreign languages of all kinds and took a few semesters of Arabic (that’s a story for another day) while continuing on with French, eventually earning my Bachelor’s in linguistics.
In the years after that, I continued to meet Japanese people and be exposed to more and more Japanese literature and culture. I followed the misadventures of An Englishman in Osaka. I acquired Elizabeth Andoh’s excellent cookbook Kansha and tried my hand at many of her shōjin ryōri (Buddhist “temple cooking” or vegan) recipes. Every dorayaki I made, every Haruki Murakami novel I read and every Ozu film I saw was like another knock at the door, another invitation to try learning the language.
A surprising shift in my attitude to learning the language happened in 2016 when I discovered Rachel and Jun on YouTube. Somehow, seeing Rachel – also American, also female – speaking Japanese made me feel that if she could do it, I surely could too. Or that I at least had a reasonable hope. It may seem strange, but prior to that, most of the people I’d known who had learned Japanese were men, and I realized that on some subconscious although illogical level I’d felt that it wasn’t open to me. I would have to look at statistics on this, if they exist, but I have a sense that in the US it is indeed a language more men try to learn than women. In my classes in France, there have been equal numbers of women and men.
So although Japanese was daunting on many levels, and I had a hard time imagining myself understanding and speaking it, I just had to try!
Learning Japanese in French
Since these courses take place in Paris, they are of course taught in French. Trying to learn Japanese in another foreign language may seem like asking for trouble – I myself wondered if that would complicate things – but now after two years I can say that it hasn’t really made much difference.
My French is solid enough that the instructors’ explanations have always been clear to me. The main effect of my being a foreigner is probably that I’m more reluctant to ask a question in class… but then I’m an introvert already.
Something kind of interesting does happen when I take notes in class. As the instructor speaks (in French), my page becomes a mishmash of French and English. In some cases, I write exactly what’s being said in French while at other moments, sometimes in the same sentence, my brain sends the signal down to my hand directly in English without any special intention on my part. This reflex may also be due to my being a professional translator, but I wasn’t the only one doing it – another foreign student who sat near me (and was not a translator) confessed that she also wrote her notes partly in French and partly in her language. The jumble of languages doesn’t pose any particular problem except when I realize I’m doing it and hesitate for a moment.
Occasionally, when I speak Japanese in class and then revert “back” to add something I can’t yet say in that language, I accidentally jump into English and have to start over again in French. This never happens when I’m speaking just French, so I assume the switch out of Japanese triggers a “reset” function of some kind and my system automatically reboots in English.
Apart from these small details, when it came to my potential compared to that of the French students, the playing field was leveled by the fact that this was a new and difficult language for all of us. I may even have had an advantage in a few respects: 1. the most common rōmaji (Romanized Japanese) transliteration system is based on English sound/spelling correspondences and is incorrect if pronounced according to French rules, 2. a good number of “Japanese” words are English borrowings which, while sometimes hard to recognize, can be traced back to their origin more easily by English native speakers than others (sutoraiki/strike, aisu/ice cream) and 3. I could already pronounce the “h” sound, which is usually troublesome for French native speakers. But this hasn’t put me at the head of the class or anything. Some of my classmates have worked at it harder than me and/or have lived in Japan or have a Japanese partner and get to practice all the time.
Is Japanese really that hard?
It sure is – the Foreign Service Institute was right. Or rather, let’s say it has many complex features. The grammar is quite different than what we’re used to, so that takes time become familiar with, and then there are unusual things such as special “counter” words that come after numbers when expressing a number of people or objects depending on their shape, size and other details. One counter word is used for pieces of paper (“flat thing” category), another for umbrellas (“long and thin thing” category) and still another for housecats (“small animal” category).
The writing system of course presents a host of additional challenges. You need to learn two syllabaries, the aforementioned hiragana and katakana, each of which has 46 base characters and 20+ variations. Those aren’t so bad once you’ve had enough practice with them, but they still act as a barrier, significantly slowing down the reading process for beginners compared to a language with a familiar writing system. Then there are the 2,000 kanji or Chinese characters you must eventually learn to be decently literate in Japanese (more than that exist for the ambitious). At this stage, having done two years, I’ve become familiar with a handful of the kanji just by being passively exposed to them in the textbook although I focus more on the small kana that are written above them as training wheels for foreign learners.
On the plus side, the pronunciation is a breeze and you have no gender or articles to worry about. It’s a very concise language, so a lot can often be conveyed with a just a single short expression. Sōdesuka!
But the complexities mean you do need to invest a significant amount of time between classes to studying. This, more than anything else, has been my particular challenge. I was accustomed to language-learning being easier (because I was learning easier languages, apart from Arabic that is), and sometimes didn’t put in the time I needed to, especially at times when work occupied most of my waking time. My solution was to keep going to all the classes, bumble through them (not ideal) and then catch up later. It worked, but please avoid going down this path!
Did I turn out to have a natural knack for Japanese? Definitely not! Luckily hard work is a good replacement.
Learning how to learn
It had been a while since I’d attempted a foreign language and I’d forgotten some of the tips and tricks for learning, practicing and memorizing things. And because Japanese is different in many ways from the other languages I had experience with, I had to figure out how to go about learning it.
Our textbook, Dekiru Nihongo, is full of what we need to know but at the same time maddeningly user unfriendly. It’s written only in Japanese so it can be used anywhere in the world, but this means it can’t provide any grammatical explanations for beginners. We therefore depend on what the instructor tells us to make sense of the example sentences and exercises in the book. As a result, you cannot afford to ever miss a class and supplementary materials can be very useful. I bought Everett F. Bleiler’s Basic Japanese Grammar as well as some French-language vocabulary books to help me figure things out a bit faster.
I’m also thankful that this is now the Internet age. When I began learning French back in middle school, there was no such thing, and no way to even hear French spoken by a native speaker except by going to see good ol’ Gérard Depardieu at the movies (he was in ALL the French movies in those days). Now, learning Japanese, I have a multitude of resources available to me at all times on both my computer and my phone. I quickly found the very useful online dictionary jisho.org as well as conjugation sites and YouTubers specialized in helping Japanese learners. An unexpected resource is Instagram… I activated the Japanese keyboard to be able to add hashtags like #ヴィーガン (vegan) and #猫 (cat) to my photos and discovered that when you type words in romaji or kana, the autocorrect feature suggests kanji. But then you have to make sure you’re picking the right kanji as so many words have the same sound. And to check your pronunciation, you can open up “notes” on your phone and activate the dictation feature (the little microphone next to the space bar). Say a few words and see if the right characters appear. This is also a major confidence-booster!
I’m happy to report that in spite of my foreignness (which didn’t bother anyone, it turned out), I did make friends in my classes. What’s more, I wasn’t the only non-French student. There were three or four of us in each of my classes (from South Korea, Madagascar, Venezuela and Spain, plus another American), so I didn’t even stand out as much as I expected. Occasionally when something related to the US or the English language would come up in the class conversation, everyone would turn to me for my pronouncement on the topic (“What’s the English for sac à dos?” when we were trying to determine the origin of the loanword meaning “backpack”). But the people in my classes were generally friendly and kind. We still sometimes meet up to attend Japanese-related events.
And I’d say this community of fellow learners has been one of the biggest things keeping me going at times when the classes got tough. There have been many points when I was afraid I would have to give up due to falling behind, but the desire to go on to the next year along with everyone else motivated me to keep attending the classes and make time to catch up.
This is a language that would probably be hard to make consistent progress in without an exterior motivation such as a formal class. It gets painful at times, so I know if I were just trying to do it on my own I would have given up long ago.
Meeting the challenge
So the answer to my question of the beginning (Can I really learn this language?) is at this point a somewhat confident maybe! I’m only two years in and don’t know what the future may hold. But for the time being, I’m very happy to have made it as far as I have. We’ll see this fall how the next chapter in my story goes.