deceze

Humor your hosts, speak to them

by deceze

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While most Japanese are fascinated with foreign countries and cultures, just as many are simply stumped encountered with the real thing. Social interactions in Japan, well anywhere in the world really, are driven (to a large extend) by gestures and language. However, in Japans largely heterogenous culture, gestures and language are more tightly interconnected than in English speaking ones. If either what you’re saying or how you deliver it is off or unexpected, it could become pretty awkward, as most Japanese simply aren’t used to foreign behaviour patterns.

So it is upon you, the intruder, the migrant, the foreigner to humor your hosts by adjusting your behaviour and, most importantly, your speech to meet expectations. On the bright side, the expectations aren’t high. Most Japanese are conscious that their country is unique, and they are very forgiving. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll help you a lot during your transitional phase either. You will have to make the effort, or you won’t be able to communicate with the natives beyond the barest essentials. (”Me want hamburger, now!”)

Despite their enormous determination, the majority of Japanese are notoriously bad at English—not to mention other languages. Another reason why it’s up to you whether you’ll sink or swim. And, to make things worse—unless you have some sort of Asian linguistic background—Japanese is HARD. If you’re not making a conscious effort, you’ll never get anywhere. You may have easily picked up another language similar to your own, but don’t expect the same experience with Japanese.

The biggest hurdle to learning Japanese is kanji—twenty thousand of them. On top of that there’s hiragana and katakana (an additional hundred or so characters) and, of course, there’s the vocabulary and grammar structure. To truly understand and use Japanese effectively you’ll need a good grasp of all of these. The grammar is also very different from any European language, so you’ll have to relearn a lot of basic concepts you might have taken for granted.

Learning Japanese takes a huge initial investment and it can be a very frustrating experience. It’s sort of a chicken and egg problem: without knowing kanji it’s hard to read the Japanese around you, without being able to read Japanese in real life it’s hard to learn it in context. And without learning Japanese in context, you’ll have a hard time remembering kanji. This vicious cycle makes effective learning very hard, and more than a few have given up and fallen by the roadside. I have talked to people who are married, have kids and live comfortably here and still said that they “probably would’ve learned some Japanese already, if it weren’t for them darn kanji.”

Does that sound familiar? Well, get over it. There are some 130 million Japanese speakers living around the world, and they all get by using it on a daily basis. Including kanji. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do it. All it takes is some initial energy.

And once you get started you’ll find that Japanese is actually a really fun language. It can be really convenient. It lets you express things in a very different way, which is quite an enriching experience. The writing system is very efficient once you get used to it. And, of course, being able to speak and understand Japanese allows you to experience the nuances of the Japanese culture, which is probably why you’re here in the first place.

Having said all that, I’m still learning myself. I have yet to take any of the JLPT tests and I’m not even seriously planning on doing so anytime soon. I’m being congratulated for my Japanese ability on a regular basis, but I know I still have a long way to go. I’m finding myself in situations every day where I’m not able to express myself exactly the way I want to. But after I started to make a conscious effort to improve my Japanese every day, I’m getting a little bit of satisfaction with every single word I learn. Suddenly I find myself understanding signs that I had previously only stared at or smoothly weaving a newly learned expression into a conversation where before there would have been an awkward pause.

Learning Japanese sure is a long and frustrating process, but eventually it’ll be even more frustrating to realize that you still can’t communicate properly with the people around you. If this seems familiar, you’ll have to get started—for your own good. Every once in a while I will share a bit of my experience of learning Japanese, problems I’ve struggled (or am still struggling) with and ideas on how to overcome them.

My first advise to any Japanese learner is to FORGET ROMAJI. Wait, let me make that a little more clear:

FORGET ROMAJI

It’s a nice security blanket to use the set of 26 Latin characters you’re already familiar with when getting started, but Japanese just doesn’t make any sense in romaji. It’s already very ambiguous in itself, but it becomes even more ambiguous when written in a foreign character set. You’ll be able to comprehend Japanese a lot better when reading it as it was intended to be read. And you’ll eventually have to learn the Japanese writing system anyway, so you might as well get over with it ASAP. Written and spoken Japanese are so tightly intertwined that one can hardly be learned without the other. Sorry, there goes the “I don’t need to read, I just want to speak” excuse.

So while you’re getting comfortable with the thought of the life-long journey that learning kanji will be (there’s virtually nobody on this planet who knows them all), you best get started with the two finite sets of hiragana and katakana. The latter will be slightly more useful to you immediately since it’s used to write foreign and loan words, which you will readily understand. You won’t be able to survive without learning both though, so just get done with it in one long sitting over the weekend. Given regular practice you’ll be comfortable reading hiragana and katakana within a few months. And there’s enough material to practice on all around you every day if you live in Japan. Make sure to burn any textbooks you might have that use romaji for more than a few introductory pages.

Learning either of the two syllabaries will also familiarize you with the (pretty limited) selection of sounds used in Japanese. This will immediately help you to make a lot more sense of what you hear and it’ll be easier for you to look things up in a dictionary. It’s the very first step of a long and exciting journey.

Next time I will expand on some of the peculiarities of Japanese and talk about learning techniques that worked and didn’t work for me. Textbooks aren’t everything.

Thanks to Luke for his awesome contributions to this article.

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9 Responses to “Humor your hosts, speak to them”

  1. Brad Says:

    “If either what you’re saying or how you deliver it is off or unexpected, it could become pretty awkward, as most Japanese simply aren’t used to foreign behaviour patterns.”

    While I agree that anyone in a new country should make an effort to learn the language, etc… you have to remember that being Japanese doesn’t mean that they’re mentally retarded. If a grown adult is seriously disturbed or shocked by something that isn’t from their own culture then there is something seriously wrong with that person and I would recommend them possibly watching more intelligent television and reading more.
    There is really no excuse for Japanese people not being used to “foreign behaviour” in this age of internet, media and multiculturalism. Saying “because they’re Japanese” or something just doesn’t cut it and is frankly insulting to those Japanese people who are actually globally aware.

    “So it is upon you, the intruder, the migrant, the foreigner to humor your hosts by adjusting your behaviour and, most importantly, your speech to meet expectations. On the bright side, the expectations aren’t high. Most Japanese are conscious that their country is unique, and they are very forgiving.”

    If I was to say the same thing to a new person to Australia I would be labelled a racist. Again, I am all for adapting to a new country but Japan is no more unique than every other country in the world.

  2. Brad Says:

    Man, I really sounded like a dick in my comment. Sorry about that. Of course people should learn the language. I just get tired of the assumption that Japanese people shouldn’t be expected to treat people any better or worse than any other nationality. Let’s give them some credit, yeah?

  3. deceze Says:

    Hi Brad!

    Maybe a bit of clarification is in order.

    “…you have to remember that being Japanese doesn’t mean that they’re mentally retarded.”

    I wasn’t implying that Japanese are retarded. And yes, there are quite a number of Japanese that are globally aware, but it’s not the majority.

    “Japan is no more unique than every other country in the world.”

    Like every other country, Japan has its way of reacting to foreigners. People can be as globally aware as they want, but most have a natural reaction to foreigners, even if it’s not consciously racists or anything of that sort. Even I find myself looking differently at gaijin on the street, just because they stand out, because they’re not the norm. You can label this reaction whatever you want, but it exists.

    Applying that to a conversation: As a native German I usually have some trouble answering a “How do you do?” In German that’s supposed to be a serious question, and not just a formality. And even after years of exposure to the English language, I’ll still automatically attempt a truthful answer, but then stop myself. That’s one of the many short, awkward pauses that can pop up in a conversation.

    Now, Japanese is very different from English, much more so than German is different from English. And especially the social interaction aspect is deeply ingrained within Japanese. So there’s a very good chance you might trip someone up by saying things the wrong way. And most Japanese, being as polite as they are, won’t be as outgoing as English speakers and simply go “Huh!?” They’ll attempt a silent inner search to come up with the right answer, which might create weird pauses. And every once in a while the whole conversation can collapse. Have you never experienced somebody freezing in place before your eyes, not knowing how to respond? It’s usually young, inexperienced, shy folks, but it can hit anybody.

    That’s what I meant to say with this paragraph. It’s a controversial topic (quite apparently :o)), that’s why I thought people should be aware of it. It plays a part in how to learn a language.

  4. deceze Says:

    “I just get tired of the assumption that Japanese people shouldn’t be expected to treat people any better or worse than any other nationality. Let’s give them some credit, yeah?”

    After re-parsing that statement a few times, I suppose I agree. In the grant scheme of things Japan’s not much better or worse than other countries. So my statement may or may not be applicable to more countries than just Japan. It’s still worth pointing out. Especially, IMHO, to natives of countries with little social inhibitions.

  5. Brad Says:

    I kind of agree and disagree though from my personal experience, those Japanese people that freeze, etc when confronted with a stranger tend to do so due to their own lack of social skills and normally just hide behind the stereotype of Japanese people being “shy” and most foreigners simply assume that they’re like this “because they’re Japanese”.

    I’ve met quite a few great Japanese people who love meeting new people (from any nationality) and will jump into a conversation straight away despite a lack of English ability.

  6. deceze Says:

    Yes, of course it goes both ways. But I guess it helps to assume the worst if you want to learn a language.

    There are the random guys that will shake your hand just because you look foreign, then there are the guys that’ll try to start a conversation no matter what because they want to practice their English and there are the guys that’ll freeze up just because you look foreign. And then there’s the non-weirdo majority. ;o)

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