Journey to Japan 5: One Leg Over the Language Barrier…

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On April 4, 2016
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Photo by Chi-Yow Lee

As somebody from an English-speaking country, one can easily become complacent about the willingness of people to accommodate you in your native language when travelling overseas – the fact that we can go to pretty much anywhere in the world and find somebody who will understand us is a luxury often taken for granted.

Attempting to learn at least a little of the local language is not only a respectful thing to do, it will also allow you to have a richer and more enjoyable travel experience – after all, finding yourself in a new and unfamiliar environment can be disorienting enough in itself, without having to worry about not being able to understand what is happening around you or not being able to communicate with certain people.

While not a complete beginner, I was far from confident in my Japanese language abilities when I arrived – in the two-and-a-half years that had passed since I last attended a Japanese class in my home country, I had barely used the language at all. I kind of naively assumed that, once in Japan, my language abilities would naturally improve simply through being in an immersive environment.

While this is true in some respects, the fact is that it is all too easy to slip-back into an English-speaking bubble. Of course, if you are coming to Japan specifically to study the language, there will be many options available to you in terms of Japanese language schools, classes and tutors. Likewise, if you are working in a Japanese-speaking environment you will likely have a very different experience in terms of how you use and develop your language skills.

However, in my personal experience of trying to further my language ability while working full-time in an English speaking environment, I have mostly found myself relying three things: textbook study, language exchanges and general exposure to everyday life.

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If you benefit from some kind of structure to your language learning, textbooks can be very helpful. The day before leaving the UK I had attempted the JLPT N2 exam, for which I had been self-studying using the excellent Nihongo So-matome series of textbooks. In combination with a flashcard app such as Anki or Brainscape to help those new words and grammar points to stick in your mind, textbook study can be a convenient way to lay a structured foundation to work with. But textbooks alone are not enough – the kind of Japanese you will learn from such sources is generally not the kind of Japanese that is naturally spoken in day to day life; the best way to build upon what you have learnt is to get out there and put your language to practical use – speaking to real people and dealing with real life situations.

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Tokyo was to sign up to a language exchange website where, for a fee, you can send messages to other members and arrange a to assist with each other’s language studies on your own terms. I made a number of acquaintances through this website, and as well as exchanging emails and correcting each other’s mistakes we would sometimes meet up and chat in a mixture of English and Japanese.

I also attended a number of language exchange events held by various groups on Meetup.com. These sessions were generally held in pubs or cafes and provided a more structured kind of exchange, alternating 20 minutes of English conversation with 20 minutes of Japanese, generally with two different language partners per session and opportunities for free talk during the intervals. Having these kind of opportunities to use your developing language skills to connect with others and make new friends can be a great motivating factor, and the fact that your partners are in the same boat with their English studies is reassuring – nobody worries too much about making mistakes as the main goal is to have fun.

One of the more passive “study” techniques I like to employ is to simply take advantage of what is around me – reading posters and signs, listening to announcements, watching television. Basically just paying attention to what is happening. You start to notice patterns and find certain words and phrases coming up so often that they stick firmly in your mind, without really having to do anything special. I feel that my reading and listening ability has improved drastically through this kind of constant exposure, and it means that even when I go through periods of feeling unmotivated or lazy about studying I’m still using my the language enough that I don’t just forget it all.

Studying a second language – whether in your own country or the place where it is the native tongue – is tough. It is a long (perhaps unending) process, and there will be many ups and downs and frustrations along the way. When it comes to putting what you have learnt to use, you will inevitably make some mistakes and you may feel somewhat embarrassed, but this is all part of the learning process – don’t let it discourage you. Doing what you can is better than doing nothing!

With even the most basic amount language proficiency under your belt, you will likely begin to feel more confident about going out there and making friends – in my next article I will talk about how I built my social circle in Tokyo, as well as some of the popular social activities you can enjoy here.

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British girl living in Tokyo, Japan.

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