|

Tackling the nihongo mountain, by strategy: from base camp to the plateau and beyond

by Gianni Simone

For foreigners who arrive in Japan with little knowledge or preparation, the first encounter with the local lingo can be brutal. In the past, for instance, newcomers would have taken the train from Narita airport to Tokyo or Shinjuku station and promptly run up against a solid wall of indecipherable ideograms. Asking for directions was often a futile exercise, as most people only spoke a little English at best.

Today many stations and other public spaces provide information in English, and place names are written in the Roman alphabet. Still, for many people the Japanese language remains an exotic, mysterious beast. According to the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, which has compiled language-learning expectations for their professional staff (people who already know other languages), Japanese is one of the five most difficult languages to reach speaking and reading proficiency in, requiring 88 weeks of study (2,200 class hours).

This said, taming the Japanese tiger is far from an impossible task — even for native English speakers who are blessed (or cursed) with a language that is understood worldwide — provided one has the right attitude.For one thing, unless reading and writing skills are essential for your job, achieving a decent speaking level is easier than many people might think. For example, complicating factors such as articles and masculine/feminine or singular/plural distinctions are almost completely absent. Also, verbs follow regular rules of conjugation with few exceptions, unlike Russian, the Romance languages and especially English, which is mostly exceptions. This makes learning basic Japanese relatively easy for beginners.

Yet if you ask many long-term resident English speakers about their experience of learning Japanese, they will usually say it’s been a mixed bag, and that they are still far from fluent even after studying for years. Many are still struggling through the upper levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, having plateaued at intermediate level after soaring through elementary Japanese. With these frustrated students in mind in the runup to the JLPT on Dec. 2, we asked around for some good advice for wannabe Japanese-tamers from the veterans.

Japan Times writers Mark Schreiber and Mark Schilling have lived in Japan for decades and remember the days when people even in Tokyo gawked at pale-faced foreigners as if they were some kind of exotic animal.

“I first learned nihongo in the 1970s, when language learning tools were fewer and simpler — that is, more primitive,” says Schilling. “The biggest challenge for a white-bread American like me was . . . finding Japanese who would speak with me.

“One solution I found was to put myself into environments where Japanese was the default setting. The total-immersion experience — joining a sumo stable or living in the deep Kyushu countryside — wasn’t practical for me. Even so, I kept my distance from gaijin-friendly environments as much as possible, hunting instead for salarymen bars.

“A tipsy salaryman might start a conversation with ‘Where are you from?’ in shaky English, but a few exchanges would usually exhaust his vocabulary and I could switch to simple Japanese. I was nerdy and annoying, always asking about words and phrases I didn’t understand, but that was the only way I knew of actually learning a new language.”

Schreiber points out that in some respects, native English speakers may be at a disadvantage when learning Japanese.

“In many English-speaking countries, foreign language studies have been dropped as a requirement both at the high school and university level,” he says. “I would say from my experience that a student would be more likely to do better at Japanese after he has already been exposed to at least two other foreign languages.”

At the same time, Schreiber warns that there is more to language learning than grammar and vocabulary. “Many language learners, particularly learners of other Western languages, tend to misinterpret the study of a foreign language to be about enunciating all kinds of ‘funny sounds,’ around which they then simply weave grammar and vocabulary. That may even work for German or French, but the further one gets from the Indo-European linguistic family, the more cultural accoutrements get mixed into the syntax. In this sense, the only way to deal with it, mentally, is to give one’s brain a ‘cold boot’ and shed as much existing baggage as one can.”


Focusing only on the technicalities of the language would be a mistake, but Japanese can be a tough nut to crack pronunciation-wise. Though Japanese has only five vowels and around 20 consonant sounds — while English has 19 vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds — English speakers often find it difficult to master the fine distinctions between “cho” or “chou,” or “su,” “zu” and “tsu.” Concerning this problem, author and comic artist Adam Pasion wishes he had learned from the start to avoid writing words down in rōmaji (the Roman alphabet).

“The simple reason for this,” Pasion points out, “is that standard romanization misses certain subtle points. For example, anglicized versions of the biggest cities in Japan are ‘Tokyo’ and ‘Osaka’ but in fact they ought to be ‘Toukyou’ and ‘Oosaka’ to get correct pronunciation.

“The subtlety of Japanese diphthongs and vowel sounds is difficult to detect by a native English ear, but most misunderstandings I have had from mispronunciation is due to these subtleties. For example, the words isshō (meaning “for life”) and issho (“together”) sound similar to Western ears.

“Small glottal stops made with the small ‘tsu’ are also hard to hear for the unaccustomed ear, but can make all the difference. For example, hako (box) and hakkō (fermentation). If we write them down improperly in rōmaji and try to remember them that way it will lead to mistakes down the road, but learning them from kana the way Japanese people do can save a lot of headache.”

One thing that Pasion recommends to beginners is not to try to learn Japanese by sitting down with a textbook. “While writing is an important skill,” he says, “we have computers and cellphones to do that. It’s much more important to learn to read for meaning, as it is essential to getting by every day and deciphering signs, instructions, labels, etc.”


One person who learned the downside of dry textbook-based study the hard way is writer and otaku expert Patrick W. Galbraith.

“I learned ‘proper Japanese’ in college, where there was a real focus on reading and writing, so I spent four years learning grammar, particles and kanji while hardly practicing conversation,” he says. “When I came to Japan, in 2004, I had all the grammar drilled into my head. I was very careful constructing sentences — so careful, in fact, that it took forever to say anything and I couldn’t engage anyone in a conversation. It wasn’t that hard for me to pass the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, but it took years of casual conversation in Japan for me to speak.”

The most challenging part for Galbraith was learning to think in Japanese. “As a native English speaker, Japanese can be a bit tough, in the sense that the order of the sentence is often exactly the opposite of English. There is a natural way to construct a sentence — a rhythm, a flow — but if you try to translate Japanese into English verbatim you sound like master Yoda!”


People who despair about ever being able to master Japanese can take comfort from Japan Times food and movie editor Daniel Robson. “I’m lousy with languages in general,” he admits, “and sometimes find myself surprised at having become semi-fluent in Japanese.”

Apparently, being a music fan helped him overcome his problems. “My first year I made a point of going most nights to live houses and just talking to people, because I wanted to learn natural Japanese. I had been a Japanese music fan for many years, and wanted to be able to chat with them and interview bands — I’m originally a music journalist — without using an interpreter. Just bear in mind that the amount you drink will affect how much you remember the next day.”

Both Robson and Schilling say that meeting their Japanese wives-to-be gave them plenty of incentive to improve their communication skills, even though Schilling adds that he “noticed that guys who learned . . . from the women in their lives did not sound like men in Japanese,” referring to the different vocabulary men and women often use here.

Pasion could not disagree more on the merits of learning from your better half. “I do want to dispel the myth that finding a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend will improve your Japanese,” he says. “In fact, I found the opposite to be true. Most English speakers I have met end up relying on their Japanese partner to help them through all the difficult stuff like doctor’s appointments and paying taxes. These experiences are so important for learning any language, so it’s a shame to miss out on them, as much as they may suck.

“Also, partners make awful teachers. The teacher-student rapport is terrible, and while they may be a native speaker, they most likely have no teaching experience or sense of pedagogy. Despite what the eikaiwa (English conversation) schools may have you believe, there is more to being a language instructor than mastery of the language.

“Also, who wants to spend time studying with a hot partner when you could be doing more interesting things? So get a real teacher, and let your partner be your partner. Otherwise you won’t learn, and it will burden and possibly ruin the relationship.”

Freelance wordsmith, narrator and event producer Nik Sliwerski agrees that nothing can replace a trained instructor.

“The DIY method has its merits, and language exchange can be useful,” he says, “but a teacher will consistently be able to evaluate your skill level, hold you to deadlines, and provide that important ‘human touch’ that you miss when relying only on books, flashcards or even a software package. So I suggest committing some small amount of money to some proper lessons a couple of times a week.”

According to Sliwerski, the benefits of Japanese ability are too many to list. “Getting practical things done, communicating with people on a deeper level and getting an insight into the Japanese mindset makes life far less frustrating. Let’s not forget new work opportunities, and of course a wider group of friends — I would be very sad to be trapped in a non-Japanese speaking social ‘ghetto’ after being here such a long time.”

Japanese reflects the country’s social diversity, and only real-life interactions can truly teach how to handle each conversation style. Chatting with friends is very different from how we speak to our boss. Learning how to navigate these disparate situations requires us to be open to understanding Japan’s culture and customs.

Robson agrees, and adds that the biggest challenge for him is simply not offending people.

“When you speak only a little Japanese, people don’t expect much from you and you can get away with speaking like a 6-year-old. But once you reach a certain level, Japanese people engage with you as they would another Japanese person, which opens you up to all sorts of pitfalls. Japanese culture has a lot of rules and formalities, and it’s a challenge not to break them by accident.”

* * *

All the people surveyed agree that finding some enjoyable interest or environment where you can practice your Japanese will provide you with a more natural vocabulary.

“When I was a DJ, I use to spend a lot of time in noisy clubs,” says Sliwerski. “Having to speak louder than normal can help your speaking and listening.”

Galbraith, on the other hand, learned Japanese through manga and anime. “My first experience with Japanese was hearing a pirate videotape of Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ my older brother was watching. As I grew and became more obsessed with anime, I started to focus more on the sound of the actresses’ voices — which I associated with favorite characters — trying to memorize words and phrases. Also, I started listening to Japanese pop music, beginning with the artists who provided the opening and ending songs for anime.”

However, like learning the language from your girlfriend, anime can be an unreliable source of knowledge, as Galbraith found out.

“Anime does not really teach you common speech patterns. I found myself repeating really embarrassing words and trying out all sorts of inappropriate styles of discourse. It was chunky, awkward and even confusing. What I really needed to do was learn how to listen to what others were saying, grasp the speed and tone of the conversation and respond.”

Galbraith says that he learned three things from his experience learning Japanese. “First of all, try to think in Japanese, or, the other way around. Don’t think in English and then translate it to Japanese; it just causes problems. If anything, translation should be an opening-up of meaning, so don’t fret over getting it exactly ‘right.’

“Two, relax and just try to speak. As Dali said, ‘Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.’ We are not native speakers of Japanese, and there is no reason to try to dream or pretend that we are or can be. Make friends and try to speak all the time, every day, as a way to communicate your thoughts and feelings, not ‘master’ the language.

“Three, try to have a goal or purpose to your learning. If you have a reason to learn the language and place to apply your knowledge, preferably with positive feedback from others, then you will excel. It is my belief that learning brings us joy. It should increase our joyful encounters. If it does, then it also increases our power to act.”

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .