One year on (part 1)

Last Friday marked my one year anniversary in Japan. The time I arrived last year was the blooming of the cherry blossoms, which I wrote about a year ago today, in fact. It’s a big event in Japan, marking the end of cold weather and the beginning of Spring, and of course, it’s now a milestone for me, too.

To mark the occasion, I thought I’d do a sequence of posts eloquently titled: Some Of The Things I Have Noticed About Life In Japan After Living For One Year In Japan.

Part 1: Japanese

When I came to Japan, I essentially had zero Japanese. So, how far can you get in one year? Well, from being immersed in Japanese at work, reading email in Japanese, going to conversational night school two times a week, trying to read simple Japanese books, playing Japanese games and practicing Japanese with friends every weekend, the answer is…. “somewhere”. I got somewhere.

I don’t know how to compare something to “fluent”, but I feel as if I am in the Stone Age of my linguistic development. If I can metaphorically assault you for a moment, I worked out how to make fire, and I can stab things with a pointy rock. Armed with these primitive tools, I can survive in most situations – but not in a way you could ever describe as elegant. However, unlike wailing on a dinosaur armed only with a pointy rock, having basic language skills is considerably less awesome.

In real terms this means I can make myself understood in most situations, but in a very roundabout (and often painful) way. This is enough when I get to pick the words, but unfortunately everyone isn’t so thoughtful as to use only the exact words contained in my vocabulary at any point in time. Talking one to one might be okay, but company-wide meeting are a different story. At least now I can vaguely understand discrete words and decipher the general topic that everyone is on about. But as for the details…. no. I spend most of my time frantically scribbling away on my electronic dictionary, trying to pick out key words.

The best bit is when you hear “Something something something <your name> something something“. Then everyone turns to look at you expectantly. I have this well-practiced move down where I shift uncomfortably in my seat, eyes downcast, trying to muster a supreme apologetic aura to all around. I can now project remorse at Super Saiyan level 2 million.

But the good news is – thing are continually getting better. In small meetings I can explain things in my painful and roundabout way, and to my surprise, it sometimes appears that others actually understood what I was on about. Other times, to my greater surprise, I might actually understand the reply. This stage that I’m at feels a bit transitional, though. When other people talk in a basic conversation, even if I can understand every word separately, I can’t yet put them together quickly enough to get the overall emotion the speaker is trying to convey. Often it requires some intuition to put together the main words and predict what they’re talking about (which struck me as something we might do in our native language when we’re only half listening to someone).

So to sum up: in a year I’ve gone from “I will never learn this language ever” to “This language is still very difficult, but I can see how one might go about getting good at it”. Unfortunately, this realisation unavoidably includes a lot of work… which neatly fits in with my next topic.