I’m closing in on the 1 year marker of living in Japan. I wish I could see a video of how I spoke Japanese before coming to Japan and then after. It is difficult to judge your progress as you improve at a daily pace, the same as you can’t really see how quickly you are growing until you hold up a tape measure along side yourself. I know that before I came, I was able to speak, but limited by only three years of college level, basic Japanese skills. I was lucky enough to converse with students from Japan on a fairly regular basis, but with an exception of a four month gap during each winter. Despite three years of studying, I was still held back by not physically living in Japan, thus preventing me from totally immersing myself within the language and culture.
Now, ten months after coming to Japan I know that I have improved a tremendous amount. Lately I have let up on studying so much and focused more so on speaking as much as possible to fine tune my grammar and fluency. To say “use it or lose it” is such a meaningful phrase when applied to language. I find myself forgetting even the most basic words in Japanese if I focus only on studying and stray from speaking. Japanese students study at school for 7 years before entering college and the number of students that are capable of daily conversation are miniscule. Being able to hear a conversation and understand it or filling in bubbles on a test to select the correct response is in no way the same as extracting that information from your brain and throwing it into conversation at the appropriate times.
Speaking is a completely different level of language entirely. For example, I will be taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, as a measure of how fluent I am with regard to the Japanese language. However, this test is highly based upon grammar and vocabulary that is not used by Japanese people on a daily basis. As you reach the second and first level (the two highest levels) you begin to see things that are not relevant to most situations, but rather are seen in college literature and beyond. Of course, it is important to understand these things, but it is not something that is needed to understand the news, watch a movie, or hangout with a group of Japanese people.
I enjoy reading texts and stories in English, but I can’t say I go out of my way to read. I’m not the type of person that finishes a book and then searches for the next. However, when it comes to Japanese I find myself loving reading. It’s my most enjoyable way to study. Not only do I get to impress myself with reading these complex characters, but I can also understand a story while learning a language. It’s an overload of information, in a good way.
Anyway, being that I love reading things in Japanese, I found that I prefer being able to relay this type of information, or any information for that matter. Being able to speak and keep up with conversation with a group of people is quite an amazing feeling. I’ve been pushing myself towards common and appropriate words or phrases for each situation. In addition, I’m forcing myself to speak in situations that do not require me to speak, only because I want to be able to improve (even though I embarrass myself most of the time). But, I’ve found that having little pride in these situations can lead to becoming a better, more skilled speaker.
In other words, it has been ten months now and my language skills have improved to a point that I feel fairly confident in most situations (even though I still don’t understand a ton). I’m going to be taking the level 2 JLPT a month from now, and I don’t have such high hopes for it, but whenever I take practice tests I seem to do fairly okay. Anyway, my goal is to pass in December so that will be an accomplishment if I can obtain my goal. Even if I don’t pass by then, I am positive my speaking, (and kanji), will have improved to a level that I am quite satisfied with.
Good luck to everyone else that takes the test or begins studying any language. It is a skill that requires a lot of patience. It is comparable to a series of walls that you have to climb, but each time you make it over a wall the next one is even bigger. That being the case, I don’t think the walls ever end. Once you think you have reached the final wall, a few more are built despite your thoughts. I think that is what interests me more than anything. I want to find that last wall and stop any further ones from being built. 😛
Thanks for reading!