Back when I was preparing to study abroad in Japan and people would always ask me if I knew Japanese, as if this factor alone with determine my fate in Japan.
I would tell them with a slightly puffed out chest, “I know how to have small conversations in Japanese. That being said, if anyone were to talk about politics, I wouldn’t know what they were saying.” And that would leave them pretty impressed and worry free of the language barrier.
It’s been only seventeen days being in Japan and I have to tell you, I don’t even know how to tell the nice Mcdonald’s lady I want a burger and fries without pointing to the picture, and even then it’s a whole ordeal if I want to dine in. There were so many words I thought I knew coming to Japan and in reality, I did know them, I just knew them in English. It would be small but vital words needed to actually be able to ask a coherent question. Such as the word print, to ask my librarian, “How do I print my class schedule?” or knowing the grammar structure to ask, “Where do I pay for my textbooks?” It was like a puzzle, I had the border down that outlined a masterpiece, but the pieces that go inside, they were all over the place.
At first, the language barrier didn’t bother me. I came to Japan to learn the language, so why would I be discouraged I didn’t know many things? However, when your host sister comes to you, eyes glossed with excitement of something she did at school and you have no idea what she’s saying, it will stump you. Or watching my waitress stumble and wince sporadically in efforts to communicate with me, you’ll end up feeling as I did after a few days. Embarrassed, a little lonely, and most of all, a burden on a society that you’ve always been interested in.
NOW, this may be a sad post for some, but I do have one great tip to combat language barriers and it kind of found me quite naturally. It is this: Decide which student you want to be.
What do I mean by that?
While studying abroad, you’ll inevitably meet other students studying abroad and there are distinctly (in my opinion) three different types.
Study Abroad Student One: The 4’s, 5’s & 6’s
These students know the language. From previously living in the country or intensive language camps provided by their school, they know it all. You’ll hear them chatting it up with other 4, 5 and 6’s of their other travels and things they have to do in Japan. When they heard “Placement test,” they didn’t worry, they shrugged and went back to talking quite fluently. They are the goal to be when you leave your country. You may be silently intimidated by them or you may cling to them for safety to get around the country with. I think the two most important factors about this group is 1) They will be annoying at times when you’re dealing with your own battles of learning the language and yet, they do it with ease. 2) Most of the times, they’ll be inspirational. Once you start learning the language and tackling grammar, vocabulary and speaking partners, you’ll understand just how hard one has to fight to learn a language. And they did, they should be proud and we should strive for the same thing.
Study Abroad Student Two: 1’s, 2’s & 3’s
This is my group. We are the ones always studying. When we heard placement test, we solemnly brought out our at home language textbook (AND YES WE BROUGHT THEM) and started reviewing. In our heads, we’re always thinking, “Do I know enough? What’s the word for______ again?, Oh no, I need to ask a question but I don’t know the language.” The list is endless, seriously, endless. We scramble, we endure but we fight most of the times, as in fight to learn the language. I may be biased but I love this group. When things get hard, when that way of conjugating is just escaping us or words fall flat on our tongues, we moan and groan but eventually, we study harder and more. However, this group does tend to look for easy routes in language learning. We google things like, “How to learn Kanji fast and easy” or “Phrases in Japanese I Can Use Today.” There are no shortcuts in language learning. It takes studying and I know most don’t like it, but it may take starting from the beginning again and even time after your stay in the country to learn the language. It’s a very hard pill to swallow, but swallow it I did when I decided my ultimate goal was to learn Japanese; here in Japan and when I go back home if it comes to that. You can’t cramp learning a language in a semester or year even in the country that speaks it fluently. One has to be okay with that.
Study Abroad Student Three: Culture Tracks
These enthusiastic students came to the country for culture and travel. They are outgoing, loud and ready to meet and talk with everyone, anyone. When they heard placement test, they went out to see the city and got back three hours ago just to take the test and are first to leave the test to go again. Language learning isn’t their priority, it’s taking unique elective such as “International Business, Ceremonies and Rites, Anime and Manga Class.” What I enjoy about this group is the fact speaking the language isn’t as imperative as it is with the 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, when talking to native speakers. Culture Tracks will speak to anyone, native speakers’ of the language, other study abroad students in any track even just random travelers going through the country. They are unphased by the language barrier. One caution of warning with this group, if you decide you are a 1, 2, or 3 with the goal to become a 4, 5 or 6, be careful in making all of your friends who are Culture Tracks. Culture Tracks will invite you to go to places that are fun and interesting most nights.This sounds great but as I said before, language learning takes diligence, which means saying no to the fun things and studying instead.
So now, ask yourself which group are you in? Honestly, when you go through orientation and spend a few days in the country, you’ll know right away. However, don’t be discourage by which group you are in because the second question to ask yourself, “Which group do you want to be in before you leave?”
If you’re like me, in the group with the 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s, who has a strong desire to go higher and higher in studying. It’s not going to happen in a day or seventeen days, or three months and maybe not even the year I’ll be here. One thing I do know that encourages me each and everyday, I know more than I did yesterday and the day before. Learning a language is a building block and although my building may be small right now, I have the professors, textbooks, counselors, family and my own ambitions to see my building become as high as Tokyo Tower. I don’t intend to build it alone and building it will take my focus and care. So, write out your goals, what will you do to accomplish what your desires are in the country you’re studying in?
Lastly, none of these groups are better than other. They all come with their up’s and down’s, battles and victories. It’s up to you, and only you, to decide what kind of experience you want. So if you’re in the first group, congratulations, it wasn’t easy learning the language as you have. If you’re with me, we’ll make it and you’re going to be able to read that sign, order that drink and make that friend. And if you’re in the Culture Track, take lots of pictures, have fun and explore.
Until my next adventure,