This post was inspired by what was — I’ll say it — a stupid comment on another one of my posts: Why Living in Tokyo is Hard. In it I talk about my struggle with getting everyday things done in Japanese. A person named “James” had this helpful response:
Seriously if you’re not going to learn the language don’t expect it to be easy living there… I’m sick of these blogs crying about how hard it is moving there when you SHOULD be getting your lazy ass fluent in their language…
For the record yes, I have been studying Japanese, and I’m waaaaay better than I was when I first came. (For example, I don’t run away crying at McDonald’s anymore when they ask me if it’s eat in or take out), but no I’m still not fluent.
I’ll cut James some slack, because before I did any research at all about what being an expat in Japan would be like, I also thought that I would be able to converse pretty smoothly in Japanese after just one year. I was…wrong, so wrong, but I think this is an idea a lot of people have. The hard truth is if you move to Japan, especially to teach English, after a year you probably still won’t understand even half of what people are saying to you, and here’s why:
You’re Not Really Immersed in Japanese
In fact when you first get here most of your long and/or meaningful conversations will be in English because…you can’t speak Japanese! So you’re going to seek out English services, get friends and coworkers to help you, and continue speaking in the language you actually know how to speak. You’re going to stream movies in English, listen to your English music on your iPod, think in English, eat, sleep and shower all in the King’s English. Plus, if you work teaching English that’s — what — eight hours a day where you’re in an English environment. In fact where I work we’re discouraged from even letting the students know we can speak Japanese. The idea is to try to immerse the students in English for the time they’re at the school. So I’m actually not hearing as much Japanese as I thought I would.
You (Hopefully) Have a Life
Alright, I suppose it’s technically possible to become at least conversational in Japanese after only one year, but it will be at the complete expense of your social life and you’ll have no one to converse with anyway. It’s not like you can just hear Japanese and magically “learn” it. It takes time, and it takes study. Even if you did want to go the “I’ll just listen and pick it up” route, think about this: A Japanese baby, living in Japanese society, hearing Japanese since birth, using his baby language-learning super powers to suck up the language into his eager baby brain, will still take a good three to four years to start stringing together sophisticated sentences. So if you want to get past cave-man Japanese in just one year, you’re going to have to work at it like it’s your 9-5.
People Will Want to Practice their English with You
So you’ve made some Japanese friends, maybe got a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend, gotten chummy with your coworkers…what a great resource of people to help you learn Japanese right? Wrong, because you are actually a great resource, a real live English conversation specimen, they can use to hone their English. And referring back to point one, if you want to have any kind of meaningful conversations with your friend/partner it’ll have to be done in English. Besides, your friends aren’t teachers. They may mean well and truly want to help at first, but the halting conversations about the weather will quickly wear thin. I hate to say it, but it’s much more exciting/beneficial for your friends to use you to develop their own English skills, and who can blame ‘em?
So this is my story for why I’m still not bilingual yet, and I’m sticking to it. And don’t get me wrong, despite what I’ve written above I actually really enjoy learning Japanese. I get a secret thrill whenever I understand a few words of what someone has said, and sometimes I even catch a whole sentence! So although I won’t be fluent this year or even next, I’m going to keep at it. And if I’m lucky maybe this time next year I’ll be able to order a pizza.
…And screw you, James.