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Culture

Speaking A Foreign Language

My books filled with over 2000 characters and 8000 vocabulary words.

There are a number of people in the world that are capable of speaking more than one language.  However, in the U.S. it is not nearly as common or sought.  Given that English is the primary language used throughout the world, it is not seen as such a desirable skill.  Instead, people decide to focus their talents and time in other areas.

Although language is not stressed in American schools, it is implemented into the curriculum.  Of course, there are always the standard English classes required in high school that study old English, or how to create a lengthy paper.  In addition, French, Spanish, or German language classes are being taught at younger and younger ages.  I personally began learning Spanish when I was eleven years old.  The sad part is, I can’t speak more than a few sentences in Spanish and each sentence takes a minute or so to remember.  The problem isn’t that the language teaching system in our schools is poor, but rather we have little or no interest in these other languages.

When students ask, “What can I do if I know Spanish?”, teachers may often respond, “You can go to Mexico/Spain!”.  However, the reality of the matter is: after high school, who really wants to go to Mexico for an extended period of time?  People have different goals and ambitions that turn language into somewhat of a hobby rather than a career.  If you plan to use Spanish someday, you may want to have a background in business before mastering the language completely.  Otherwise, you’ll be finding yourself in a career completely unrelated to what you expected.  Language is something that helps to experience the world and explore other cultures, but it is difficult to use solely language as a pathway in life.  This is not meant to discourage learning a foreign language, but instead redirect encouragement towards a different mindset.

Finding an interest in a foreign language is the utmost important thing when learning any new language.  Following high school, I had no idea I would someday travel to Japan, let alone live here for a few years.  I had a friend that helped me to develop my interest when I was still an undecided third year college student.  I had not known at the time that I was waiting for this interest to come around, but once it did I never looked back.

My breakfast during a homestay with my name written in Japanese.

Despite the fact that learning Japanese is hands down the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, I find each day that I am quite passionate about it.  There are constant setbacks and plenty of barriers to overcome, and with each step studying becomes even more difficult.  After understanding one concept, the next is twice as hard, but that sort of challenge is something that drives a person.  Finding the motivation to study for something is a daily battle, but once you find that motivation, once you find that meaning for studying so hard your life becomes less stressful.

Over the next six months I’ll be studying for a test that I possibly will not pass.  As a result, I will be studying constantly, whether I’m in my room working on new grammar, or out meeting people and fine tuning my speaking skills, or even going to the free classes offered at city hall.

Today I attended one of the free classes offered at city hall.  It helped me to realize how important studying is.  Another thing I noticed is that out of all the students, I was the only American.  That out of 50-70 students, I was the only ‘westerner’.  The only significance I could derive from this was that I have an advantage over all of these students.  The reason being, every student was interested in me.  They felt like they had something to gain from speaking with me.  I was constantly being approached by people from Vietnam, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.  Even the teachers at the school seem to be extra interested in me.  (I mean, it is pretty obvious that I’m different.  With as pale as I am, I truly stick out like a sore thumb).  And each time, the first questions they asked were, “Where are you from?  How old are you?”, as if my name were irrelevant at first.  Anyway, I find myself in a quite advantageous situation.  Not only will I be able to study Japanese intensively, but also I have the opportunity to learn about other cultures.

It’s kind of funny when speaking to someone from Vietnam and using Japanese as a common language.  I never thought I’d be in a position to do so, but here I am.  My favorite part about today had to have been when they were looking to interview people for the local paper, and blatantly chose people from a variety of racial backgrounds.  After they had interviewed students from Taiwan and China, they were not so interested in interviewing the Korean student as much as Indonesian and Malaysian students.  Japan can be extremely racist at times, but more than anything they are racially ignorant.  Only 2% of the population in Japan is foreign so given their experience with other cultures is limited, it is much easier to shrug off anything that could be labeled as offensive.

For what it’s worth, learning a second language is an amazing experience.  The ends certainly justify the means.  For all the people that grow up speaking multiple languages, I am envious and jealous of your experience.  Although, those people will never know the feeling that I have after having a conversation with someone, in Japanese, with a complete understanding of everything that was said.

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About travelnihon

I recently graduated from the University and am currently teaching English to all ages in Japan

Discussion

21 thoughts on “Speaking A Foreign Language

  1. You are amazing!! Then there are young men your age doing nothing but pushing drugs and figuring out how to steal to buy drugs. Aunt Karen

    Posted by Karen Fitzpatrick | January 16, 2012, 2:44 am
  2. Hello,
    I think this is my first comment here. I stumbled upon your blog in some blog directory, I think.

    I agree with what you wrote. Most of my American co-workers can only speak English despite of the fact that they have been in Japan for much longer than me, are married to a Japanese and have kids that mainly speak Japanese. I don’t get it.

    For me it’s a differen situation anyways. I rarely get to use my mother tongue nowadays (German) as I speak Japanese only outside of work and English at work. I also learned Spanish, Latin and French at school.
    In Europe that’s quite common, you’ll rarely find anybody who can speak their mother tongue ONLY!

    Posted by zoomingjapan | January 26, 2012, 12:56 am
    • I think many American people admire the fact that Europeans can usually speak multiple languages. The only problem is that admiration only goes so far. The only way Americans become truly interested in Japanese per say, is through dramas, manga, and anime. After finding out how much work it takes to learn a language, people soon give up and move on to something more tangible. I personally was never interested in mangas or anime, with the exception of Dragonball when I was a kid, but instead found my interest through a foreign exchange student from Japan. I still don’t understand how people can stay in Japan for so long and not WANT to speak more fluently. Language has always been an interest of mine though.

      On another note, I loved your blog! They pictures, the topics, they’re both amazing! I’ll be back to comment and read more later.

      Posted by travelnihon | January 26, 2012, 3:59 am
      • Yes, that’s possibly right.
        It is hard to learn a foreign language, especially as an adult, but if you’re truly interested it’s possible.
        I studied Japanese all by myself while here in Japan as I didn’t have access to any teachers or language courses and despite having a full-time job.
        It’s all possible if people really want to.
        I’m looking forward to the Japanese related posts as well 🙂

        Oh, thank you so much!!
        I’ve been blogging since 2006, but though having a self-hosted blog might be much better, so now I’m slowly transfering my old blog posts there and also keep blogging about my latest trips and encounters ^-^;

        Posted by zoomingjapan | January 28, 2012, 10:47 am
  3. Stumbled onto your blog recently by way of the “freshly pressed” section.

    Great post!

    I’ll admit, my first interest in learning Japanese comes from anime/video games.
    Too many of the stories I’m into have been changed so much in translation (not just for sake of language, either), and I’d like to learn the language well enough to start on the originals.
    Kind of like this one author that decided to learn Japanese so she could watch untranslated Akira Kurosawa movies.

    Moving on, what I’ve learned so far is that, to a speaker of English, Japanese IS a hard language to learn. (Then again, isn’t English considered an extremely hard language to everyone else?)
    But my primary limitation is that I can’t afford the classes, or the software (e.g. Rosetta Stone). Or the travel, for that matter.
    What would you recommend? Are there any particular books that would be good to start with? Besides dictionaries, that is.

    Personally, the foreign language I know best is German. But I’m a military brat, and we lived in Germany for about seven years.
    Even so, I don’t know it WELL; if someone stranded me in Germany, I’d be an obvious foreigner to anyone and everyone.

    If a genie could grant me any one wish, I’d wish to be fully fluent in ALL languages…even the imaginary, the extinct, or the computer ones. 🙂
    And the ones that don’t exist yet. And to be able to keep up with changes. And….

    Posted by Side Quest Publications | February 13, 2012, 6:57 pm
    • I first started studying Japanese at my university. The first thing we did was learn the main characters “hiragana” which is used for about 60% of the language. It is the tool that you need to be able to read anything in Japanese. We also used a book series called Yookoso, which can help get you started, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best language tool. I’m currently using a book series titled 「日本語能力試験」 日本語総まとめ (Nihongo Noryoku Shiken) Nihongo Soumatome. The same book would possibly benefit, but for beginners make sure you get N5 to start. There are listening, grammar, vocabulary, and kanji books.
      I’m not sure how good it is for beginners since I haven’t used it, but my best advice would be to find a book that starts with basic conversation. Practice the conversations until you understand how to use them in real situations and build on them by creating your own dialogue. Studying Japanese is EXTREMELY difficult, but the easiest way is to move to Japan. 😀
      I hope this helps and if you have any other questions then feel free to ask.

      Posted by travelnihon | February 13, 2012, 7:46 pm
  4. Great info!

    First off, learning a language is extremely difficult. I am bumbling my way through trying to learn Portuguese as we speak. I run across many who say to me in a bragging way, “I can speak 4 languages!” They name off Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French. All are very similar. What impresses me is when someone says they can speak Russian, English, and Japanese. You are learning a language that is not based upon Latin and that is pretty impressive.

    As you are experiencing, travel is so important and lack of travel is what taints a lot of the views of the people in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, travel is absolutely huge in the U.S. but the issue is how they are traveling. Cruises, tours, and all inclusive resorts do not give one a good idea of life outside of your country. When you travel this way, you do not see what the U.S. has and most importantly, you can not feel the uncomfortableness of not being able to communicate or communicate well. For example, I have met people that took years of classes in English yet when I tried to speak to them, they just froze up. If you can not force yourself to speak, even if it is wrong, you will never learn. That is why people have this crazy notion that others should just move here and start speaking English. It is not that simple.

    Posted by Steve Z | February 13, 2012, 8:52 pm
  5. One of the wonderful thing about learning a foreign language is that you get to understand yours better and you never stop learning. I feel like I’ve never learned so much about French than since I’m actually learning pieces of English everyday. And although my English is quite good, I’m still learning everyday and I know it’ll never stop. I hope you’ll like that part too, constantly learning 🙂

    Posted by Leslie Is Hungry | February 14, 2012, 12:04 am
  6. Great post! I’ve been learning Spanish for three years now. I picked it up in uni on a whim, just checking to see whether I would like it. And I did. It was possibly the best thing I ever did! I often tell my friends, if I weren’t conversant in spanish now, I’d think that I didn’t learn anything from my college degree. I guess I didn’t quite realise that learning a language is more than learning words. Culture and language can never be mutually exclusive. I love how you learned Japanese in uni and then packed up and went to teach in Japan. I wish I could do the same. I’m filled with all these dreams of traveling my way through South America.

    Posted by patchooh | February 14, 2012, 2:42 am
    • Although there are tons of teaching jobs in Japan with relatively good pay, there are also opportunities for Spanish. I’m sure if you look around you could find something that may not pay well, but offers the chance of a lifetime, or vice versa. You won’t have many chances for such an opportunity so you might as well do it before you get tied down somewhere. A better way to put it, your only young once!

      Posted by travelnihon | February 14, 2012, 2:20 pm
      • I totally agree. It’s like because we’re young, there’s this big pressure to do everything, experience it all, be everything, NOW. Do you get that?

        Posted by patchooh | February 15, 2012, 12:45 pm
        • Sure do. The best part about it is, I plan on being young for a while. I’m not so focused on settling down right away. Whenever I head back to America, I won’t be going straight into a profession. Instead, I’ll be traveling around and waiting tables in my free time. I may even work as a translator for some tours that pay to sightsee and speak with people from all over the world. We’re young for a long time so live it up.

          Posted by travelnihon | February 15, 2012, 1:22 pm
  7. “Language is something that helps to experience the world and explore other cultures, but it is difficult to use solely language as a pathway in life.”

    so true – spent one year just to discover that.
    really found what you said so similar to my experience. good luck with your japanese!

    Posted by xoxoseoul | February 14, 2012, 7:11 am
  8. I enjoyed your post.

    I need to have a strong ‘need’ to learn a new language. It is a painstaking process to master a language though the fruit is delish. I live in a country where English (official) and Spanish (street) are spoken and I’m genuinly passionate about everything about Spain. It’s so close and interesting and I get to use the language everyday if I want.

    I self-taught Hiragana / katakana when I was at a primary school. It was very ‘in’ then. 🙂
    Hope you’re having a great time over there.

    puret0ne

    Posted by puret0ne | February 14, 2012, 11:52 am
  9. I just came from Japan, it was my first time ever visiting and I was there for just over 5 weeks. I have travelled a fair bit, and I found that Japan is the most exciting place I’ve ever been to. Just thinking about it makes we want to go back! I seriously considered living there one day while I was there, not sure how I would do it though as I don’t see myself becoming a teacher… I studied Japanese in high school and can remember all my hirigana, but forgot my katakana and kanji, I also forgot pretty much everything else. It’s a real shame; I had 6 years to master a language I now wish I had , but at the time had no interest in.

    Posted by caramellokoala | February 14, 2012, 4:44 pm
  10. Hey! Cool post, you make a lot of really good points. I personally have never met anyone trying to learn Japanese, it seems like an interesting language. I’m a canadian living in Germany, and I think it might be intersting fo you to check out my post about learning another language http://postcardsfrommatt.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/can-you-not-speak-english/. I think you’ll find we share a lot of the same view.

    Posted by mjemima | February 14, 2012, 6:51 pm
  11. Did you learn Japanese in Japan? I am taking some basic Japanese lessons but I am not sure how fluent I have got to be to consider working in Japan. I am thinking of applying for an ALT program, any tips?

    Posted by riatarded | February 14, 2012, 9:05 pm
    • You actually don’t need to know any Japanese to become an ALT teacher. It is just something that can be extremely beneficial. Even though I’m living in a rather small city, I find that a lot of people will go out of their way to help me. Not knowing Japanese will restrict what you can and can’t do for fun unless you have someone to translate for you. I find that a lot of people manage just fine with next to no Japanese skills, but the experience is so much more enjoyable if you are able to speak with others in Japanese and learn from what they have to say.

      Posted by travelnihon | February 15, 2012, 2:39 am
  12. I can totally understand where you are at and what learning another language is all about. I am an American living in Belgium. When I first came I thought it would be a piece of cake and all I had to do is take some lessons and….magic I was in. Not so. I have been here four years and I understand a lot but my brain (dyslexic by the way) can not seem to figure out how to get the words out. Put that on top of being in my upper 50’s and you have a real slow down. To my advantage Belgium is probably the most english speaking country in Europe so I landed in a good place. It is difficult moving to another country but than what in life isn’t.

    Posted by Gigi | February 15, 2012, 1:41 pm

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