Two years underwater – experiences with Japanese immersion

My passport is on my desk at the moment, sitting next to my laptop because I needed to check.  According to the stamp on page twelve, I arrived in Japan on March 28, 2007.  This means that as of today, I have been living in Japan for two years and one day – roughly seven percent of my life. Seven percent!

There’s so many things I feel like I should talk about here.  When I came back from holidays in Canada over Christmas (3 months ago, in the sense that calendars measure it at least) I was determined to write more articles bringing the sharpest contrasts about Japan into relief.  As I’ve learned though, you have to be quick.  It seems that the brain has ways of filing those peaks of difference down into the flat plane of daily experience.  When people come to visit me now, I have trouble remembering what to show them.  “So you know, they have guys here who push you into the trains in the mornings.  Wait, is this interesting?  Or does that happen everywhere?”  It worries me a little.

In the thrall of my arch-nemesis

My chief battle in Japan is still with language.  I came here two years ago with about twenty night classes under my belt, an attempt at cramming for the few months before I arrived.  For those interested, twenty night classes doesn’t buy you very much linguistic capital.  If you’d merely like to talk about apples, perhaps describing how this one is red, but that one is green, and the one yesterday was… also red, then consider yourself a graduate cum laude.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say that I had very close to zero Japanese from day one.  The lobe in my brain which handles optimism must have been working overtime at this point.  Perhaps, I reasoned, I am actually some kind of linguistic prodigy just waiting for the shock of full language immersion to unleash my potential.  Perhaps, ignoring my undistinguished results in high school German, I’d be rabbiting on in Japanese in mere weeks.

For those about to attempt entering a Japanese company, where everyone has at least a twenty year head-start on you… please sit down, we should talk.

The first year

The first year was rough.  Very rough.  Sitting through a three-hour meeting with incomprehensible conversation swirling all around you is mentally fatiguing in the same way as a grueling end of semester examination.  By the end of the meeting, your brain has covertly slipped out of your ear on to the desk beside you, sighing and steaming.  Past this point, communication in English or any other thought also proves somewhat challenging for the rest of the day.

For this first year, attempts at communication would be much like writing delicate french poetry on a sheet of gossamer, wrapping that gossamer around a cinderblock, and hurling that cinderblock through the front window of your conversational adversary’s front window.  Strangely, your adversary doesn’t take offense at your missive.  They just sweep up the pieces of broken glass, smile at you, and try to understand that you really just came next door to borrow a cup of sugar.

Luckily, Japan is an excellent place to be for cinderblock hurlers.  Everybody I’ve ever met is universally supportive of your efforts to learn.  A secret I’ve learned from more experienced expats (look away now if you prefer your reality sugar-coated) is that the more complements you get on your Japanese, the less developed it actually is.  The ubiquitous praise you get starting out is “nihongo wa jouzu desu ne” (“Your Japanese is very good, isn’t it?”).  Your goal is to get people to stop saying that.  Happily, I don’t get it so often now.  I appeared to have graduated to “nihongo wa perapera desu ne” (“You speak Japanese fluently”).  I take this as an encouraging sign that one of these days, with effort, I’ll actually be able to speak Japanese fluently and unconsciously.

Some of the most difficult parts about trying to operate in a foreign language are what you’d expect.  Public speaking, meetings, emails, a feeling of isolation.  However, one that threw me off-guard was jokes.  Social codes demand that when someone tells a joke, you laugh, at least out of politeness.  What if you can’t understand the joke?  And what if everyone around you knows it?  Laugh along with everyone, and you’re known to be faking it.  Don’t, and it screams against every fiber of the societal codes you’re been impregnated with.  I developed a technique of trying to affect a wistful half-smile, something that I hope indicated “I’m sure your joke was funny judging by people’s reactions, but as I’m sure you’re aware, I have no idea what you just said”.  As I’ve been told, you’ll know you’ve made it in Japanese when you can understand jokes.  I look forward to it.

The self-pugilism phase

For some reason, I set myself a magical goal of being at least adequate at Japanese after about six months.  I don’t know how I arrived at this figure – perhaps I read it somewhere, but more likely I plucked it from the air.  This goal proved to be completely unrealistic, in my case, at least.  As my six-month anniversary slipped by, I become quite despondent.  If I couldn’t become somewhat functional in Japanese by six months… perhaps I’d never be any good?  My optimist lobe was now being sat upon with the full weight of my pessimist lobe, kicking and gasping for air.  My realist lobe was sitting off to the side of this tussle like a distant cousin forced to stay in the same room as a pair of waring siblings, resigned to waiting for them to stop fighting.

The breakthrough

After nine months of being in Japan, I went back to Australia for Christmas for a coveted holiday with my family and friends in an English-speaking environment.  When I came back, the strangest thing happened.  Perhaps as a result of not doing much in Japanese for a couple of weeks, everything suddenly clicked.  The new synapses which I’d worked into exhaustion over the last year had a chance to rest and solidify, and, against my expectations, I could suddenly communicate in something which was an approximation of Japanese.  To say I was euphoric was an understatement.  Suddenly, I could see how Japanese as a system worked, and I could begin to speak without conscious translation from English.  I still had (and have) a long way to go, but that would be an important step.

The slog

Not long after that, I’d start to take these new synapses for granted.  When you’re on a playing field with people who are vastly better than you, your brain can tend to think of everything in terms of deficits rather than strengths.  At the time, I was going to Japanese class.  Probably the main value of this was that I could compare myself to other learners rather than native speakers, and see that they were going through the same struggles as me.  I’ve since switched to private tutoring, which means you can learn at a faster, more targeted rate, but you can lose that relative perspective easily.

For a long time, I used to unconsciously judge my entire Japanese progress on the day’s worth of Japanese leading up to any particular minute.  If I managed to successfully have a conversation with someone in a shop about a home delivery, and the item in question got delivered – great!  I’d have this Japanese thing solved by next week.  Of course, if I had no idea what was going on in a meeting, I was cast into a pit of despair, only to be rescued by my next successful home delivery.

After two years, if we had to plot my progress day-to-day, it still looks like a saw-tooth graph, with violent spikes and troughs.  Some days it feels like you’re finally making solid progress, and on others, the most basic words slip your mind.   What I know now, though, it that these are only points on a long curve.  Zoom out from a weekly graph to a year, and see that the curve is forever sweeping gently upwards.  That’s a useful thing to remember.


It’s important to have goals to shoot for.  Learning a language in immersion is nothing like learning at school.  In school,  your teacher teaches you some specific things.  Your goal is to remember those specific things for six months before you are asked some questions on them.  The goal of learning a language in immersion, however, is to comfortably function in any of the situations you regularly find yourself in.  Exactly how much effort this requires to completely achieve is still, after two years, very hard to measure.  A language is a vast body of knowledge which changes for situation to situation, person to person, and year to year.  I can now communicate to some level in meetings concerning projects I’m involved with, but put me in a bar with some rowdy Japanese friends, and it’s like it’s my first week in Japan all over again.

With such vague goals and ways to measure progress, cling to those events that show improvement.  In my organisation, we have a monthly meeting where everyone gives a quick report on what they’re working on.  For the first six months, I gave these reports in English because it wouldn’t have been of any value at all otherwise.  In the seventh month, I spent the best part of an hour crafting a crude three-minute speech, and then writing it out in romaji (Japanese using the English alphabet) because I didn’t trust my hiragana skills to be fluent enough to read out aloud.  With much trepidation, I battled through my speech, probably sounding not unlike a primary school student up before the class.  When I finished, the five seconds of silence, followed by the wildly enthusiastic applause, is something I think I’ll remember forever.  I still smile when I think of it now.

From here

So, fast forward to today.  I can survive in a meeting – my Japanese isn’t pretty, but it seems functional in that other people know what’s I’m getting at.  I think of this as my blunt cudgel of language – I may not use the best matched words, but I’m still out there in the melee, swinging a big lump of wood around my head.  Crude, but it can get the job done.

It’s a widely held belief that children are better at learning languages than adults because their brains are spongy and geared for learning.  Perhaps that’s true, but I have a different take on the situation now.  Children are better at learning languages because they’re more patient.  If you already know one language, you already know the joys of being able to communicate effortlessly.  Take communication away from an adult, and you’re taking away their interface to society.  This can cause an intense feeling of powerlessness and isolation (certainly, it does in me some days).  Children learning their first language have nothing to compare it against, and so blissfully go along collecting language at their own pace from their surroundings.  Adults try to accelerate the process because they know where they want to be, and know how good the destination is.

Really, that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned out of this.  You can’t force feed yourself a language in a short amount of time.  Reading various language learning blogs around the place, and hearing remarkable stories of people “learning” a language in six or eighteen months, I know now that “learning” a language can mean a lot of different things.  Unfortunately, if you want to be a functioning, independent, adult member of a society, this is just going to take some time.  After all, it’s said that even Japanese people can’t fully understand a newspaper until they’re well into high school.  So, patience, along with occasional concrete evidence of improvement, are your best friends.

And with that, it’s time to go outside and enjoy the warm Japanese spring, along with the much-anticipated cherry blossoms in full bloom.  After that, I might write a poem about their fleeting beauty, wrap it around a cinderblock, and find some windows to throw it through.


4 thoughts on “Two years underwater – experiences with Japanese immersion

  1. Hey buddy,

    Great to hear that you’re more positive about your gift of the Japanese gab.
    As a bi-lingual (love how that gives me some sort of faux authority) I think it’s amazing to achieve what you have in just two years, considering that Japanese is a famously difficult language to learn and the fact that you are also working a full week in a demanding industry.

    A big pat on the back is in order.

    P.S. When are you next down 4000 miles south?

  2. Thank you very much for the cross-hemispherical back pat! I think it’s safe to say that being bilingual does give you quite a bit of authority here. And hopefully I’ll be able to get a short trip back home soon… fingers crossed.

  3. Pingback: Nihongo on The Net - April 3, 2009 - Nihongo Notes

  4. Pingback: A quantitative three year blog anniversary « 4000 Miles North

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