It’s finally reached Spring Break for the students at my two schools out here in the boonies of Central Japan, and that’s left me with 9 hour workdays, overflowing with mind-numbing idleness. To counteract the blinding boredom of having a desk job with no purpose, I’ve taken to studying Japanese. A lot. Like, several hours a day. Today, I decided to go for that golden-years feel and busted out the textbook I used the last time I studied Japanese in college. I breezed through the sucker in no time, finishing half the book’s reading materials in no time. Leaving work, I patted myself on the back. “Good work, Jonathan,” I beamed. “Your Japanese is far better now than it was two years ago. Gold star for you.” It felt amazing to see the actual progress I’d been able to make just by living here for the last 8 months. I went home, made myself burritos, and had a grand old evening. That is, until I crawled into bed and a thought which had been assembling itself in the back of my head for some hours now reared it’s ugly head. That thought can be explained through a simple application of the transitive property:
X = years of studying
Y = the fraction of time I feel comfortable in a conversation with my Japanese ability
Z = time needed to achieve fluency
Z = X/Y
X= 8 years
Y = 1/20
1 fluency = 8 years of studying results/ (1/20) actual results
1 fluency = 160 years of actual studying
This is depressing for several reasons, one of which is the fact that I really don’t want to study anything for more than 150 years. Another is, the fact that when I inevitably move back to the US (which unlike some people doing JET, I know beyond a doubt that I will), unless I can find a job that continues to expose me to the language, I will almost certainly become just another guy who used to sort of speak Japanese, leaving me to ponder the purpose of all this work.
And I guess the real issue with the whole process up until now is that foreign language classes are set up in a way that hides the true scale of what learning a language really encompasses. Classes give you structure with finite material and as long as you can understand that material you have succeeded. You pass that test and you get a little sheet of paper that says “He knows about half of the words in this book” and you feel as though you’ve done it. You know all the words and grammar you needed to know. The goal is the grade, not communication. And in case this wasn’t blindingly obvious to you, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get the grade than to interact with other human beings.
Here’s the perspective I should have seen all along, but never got through to me during 7 years of studying:
First, think about every word you have ever known in your native tongue. I’ll give you a second to calculate or count fingers or whatever it is you do to come to some number. The number itself isn’t important, suffice to say it’s about 1.7 fucktons. Oh, and lets not forget to include slang and all the made up words like “fuckton” that come and go without warning. Ok, so that brings us to 2 fucktons of words in English. The perspective that has finally managed to worm it’s way through this adamantium skull of mine is that learning a foreign language is like trying to learn every single one of those words you already know again, only now in some weird squiggles that you can’t really read very well and have trouble saying.
As if 2 more fucktons of words wasn’t enough, there’s more; you also have to learn words for things that don’t even exist in English speaking nations, usually for good reason.Take for example “chikuwa”. What the fuck is chikuwa, you ask yourself? Chikuwa is the Japanese word for a deep-fried pirouette straw-cookie if that cookie was made of compressed fishcake instead of delicious cookie. Chikuwa is frequently found in “Oden”, which is a bunch of weird flavorless boiled things floating in the water they were boiled in. People in Japan often pretend this is a soup, but this is just a lie to get hapless foreigners to try it. Remember, kids, just say no.
Another example is “mukade”. What is a mukade? A mukade is a centipede out of one of those nightmares that you wake up screaming from. Growing to be longer than half a foot and possibly the most poisonous thing in the Japanese Isles, mukade are ubiquitous and fast as a snake. These foul monsters live to eat cockroaches and take naps in nice cozy places, such as unwatched shoes and warm futons and OH MY GOD THERE’S ONE ON THE CEILING RIGHT ABOVE YOU. It’s ok, it’s scampered off into a drawer or your pillow to regroup. Even worse, on the off-chance that Lady Luck smiles upon you and - by some miracle - you see it before it sees you, you can’t even step on the fucker because if you kill or injure one, it will emit a fantastically putrid smell. This smell will immediately set two things into action:
1 - Your entire house will smell incredibly foul for at least a week, regardless of how much febreze you unleash. Really, you’re only artificially creating what it would have smelled like if the mukade died on a pile of potpourri.
2 - While you might expect that evolution would dictate that such a smell ought to act as a warning for other mukade to stay away, this would be ignoring the fact that that they are actually the most terrible creatures on this planet. No, the smell of injured or dead mukade ATTRACTS MORE MUKADE. Apparently they are so effective at swarming that they only have the “fight” part of the fight-or-flight instinct, and will come after humans with as little concern on those horrible tiny expressionless faces as they would hunting insects. May as well be the same thing for all they care.
There are full-on tutorials on how to kill these abominations that you can read online, but suffice to say that the least extreme methods include boiling them to death, throwing them into a fire, or drowning them in oil. Save your silver bullets and garlic-covered heart-stabbing stakes for something that might actually die if you use them.
Ok, so now you’re learning every word you’ve ever known in your native language, plus all the words for shit you are trying to stay the fuck away from, plus a bunch of words that that just don’t exist in English. I mean, you would think that a language that doesn’t distinguish between a foot and a leg wouldn’t be so damn particular all the time, but god, there’s a word for all the useless minutia. Now, us wasteful “English speaking Westerners” would probably just describe specific phenomena (such as “the lifting of a gold embargo”, aka 金解禁) with two or more pre-existing words, rather than making up a whole new one for some poor student to try to desperately shove down into their long-term memory. But no, not Japan. And then there’s the thousands of random idioms that are pretty much the nail in the coffin of your dreams of being fluent in this language. Short story short, I’m fucked. And not just because I’m deathly terrified that one day there will be a mukade hiding in the center of my chikuwa. At least if it’s been sitting in a boiling oden pot for god-knows how long, there’s a decent chance it could already be dead. #optimism
It’s just so frustrating because I know I worked hard in my Japanese classes and I got good grades, and now I look back and wonder how I could have learned so little over such a long period of time and how long it will take to actually get to a level that I feel confident with. And it’s not that I can’t talk to people, I had a 3 hour conversation with a random high school student on the night bus to Tokyo (and yes I mean to brag). It’s that in the class you are swimming around in the kiddie-pool, using the same vocabulary over and over with a focus on learning grammatical structures, and then one day you come to Japan and it’s like looking out at the ocean. You quickly realize that you want to be able to talk to people about things besides your family or school or whatever few topics your textbooks covered, but lack the vocabulary. And now, everyone’s speaking in Japanese, and they’re sure as hell not limiting themselves to the words you’ve already learned.
So now you’re faced with the challenge of either stopping the conversation every 10 words to ask them to explain something they said or just smiling and nodding until you haven’t the slightest clue what you’re talking about. Either way, conversations become exhausting after a while and you feel guiltily anti-social because you’ve reached the point where you are too tired to try to explain linkedin with your 1,000 word vocabulary so you just take a backseat while everyone else chatters away and hope that no one notices that you’re underwater.