Blogtober 17: (not) studying Japanese

My first introduction to Japanese was through anime music. Not even through anime! My parents weren’t the type to have anything beyond the four available terrestrial channels and anime wasn’t on “normal TV”. One of my friends sent me – through painstakingly slow dial-up internet – Cruel Angel’s Thesis and Tamashii no Refrain, and I listened to the Cruel Angel’s Thesis so much that even my dad started learning the lyrics. I found and printed out the romaji and English translation to sing along to and I think I might have listened to nothing else for a good three weeks.

After that, one of my school friends made me a mix CD of anime theme songs she’d downloaded. I had still never watched a single anime, but oh boy did I know the music! From there, a different friend introduced me to Dir en Grey, and thus began my love affair with the “Visual kei” genre.

Only, a mere handful of years after I started getting into Vkei, several artists came to Europe on tour. My beloved Miyavi came in both 2007 and 2008, and I saw him both times (first in Germany and then in England). While I loved the music, I didn’t necessarily feel the need to understand all of the lyrics of all of the bands and besides, if you were lucky, translations could occasionally be found online. Not once did I feel the need to go to Japan.

So despite years of being interested in Japanese music (of multiple genres), I never learned anything. When I first came here in October 2010 I couldn’t speak a word and relied on my friends the whole time. When I came back in 2011 I wasn’t much better, and although I was fractionally less hopeless when I moved here in 2012, I would by no means say I could speak Japanese.

In October 2010, a drama called Nagareboshi started airing, and I started downloading it to watch in England. Dedicated fans made subtitles to match the raw video files, but it would understandably take a couple of days (at least) between the video file being available and the fansubs being released. I don’t know what it was about that drama, but I loved it. I couldn’t wait for the next episode. I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen to Takenouchi Yutaka and Ueto Aya’s characters. And I started trying to watch it raw, without the fansubs, pausing every few seconds to try to write down words so that I could look up their meanings in a desperate attempt to follow the story. And so, my tiny ability to understand things began to sprout and grow.

Now, some people can live here and not speak a lick of Japanese after more than a decade. I am almost impressed by these people, because it takes a certain ability to pick up absolutely nothing. At work, while it was technically my head teacher’s job to translate and act as an intermediary between the Japanese and foreign staff, she was pretty cold and standoffish and just flat-out didn’t translate a lot of the time. Fortunately, my manager and I got along amazingly (given that neither of us could communicate that well in each other’s language) and when she and I went out for drinks after work with some of the students I gradually felt my spindly, shaky Japanese legs begin to get stronger.

In early 2014, I had chronic headaches and back pain, so started going to a massage place/osteopath to see if they could fix me. The people there didn’t speak any English, and that was an enormous help! We had to find a way to communicate, and – bless them – they used simple enough expressions to explain the words I didn’t understand, and helped my vocabulary grow.

And then I met my husband.

To start with, he tried really hard to communicate with me in English. But honestly, over time, he used Japanese more and more and I also used English less and less. Even our text messages/Line conversations started off in English and are now entirely in Japanese! I honestly don’t even know when I became able to read and write Japanese, it just sort of happened organically along the way. I really struggle to write by hand, though – the need to write anything with a pen occurs so rarely and I’ve always forgotten how to write kanji by the next time it becomes necessary.

I broke my leg in 2017 and had to stay in hospital for a while. There too, the nurses and hospital staff could only speak Japanese, so instead of everyday conversation it became “everyday conversation plus hospital conversation”, which came in useful the next time I had to stay in hospital, for a shredded ACL later that year.

The biggest test, though, was probably driving school. I had never learned to drive back in England, and in early 2019, we enrolled me in the nearest good driving school. I was terrified. I had no confidence whatsoever, but my husband was convinced that I could do it.

“Can you read kanji?” they asked.

“Uhh,” I replied. “It depends?”

They gave me a piece of paper with a bunch of driving-related kanji on and had me sit at a desk. “See if you can write the furigana for these,” they said.

I could barely write a thing.

“Hmm,” they said.

“Don’t worry!” said my husband. “I’ll help her! And she’ll study hard!”

And with that, I was accepted into driving school.

You know what? I did study hard. I went to classes at the driving school almost every day and followed everything the instructors said. Even the day after my early miscarriage I was practicing, driving around the area between Yokohama and Kamakura with agonising cramps while my sweet old instructor Mr. M sympathised, told me about his deceased wife’s miscarriages, and was ever so kind. And finally, the time came for me to take the tests to graduate from the driving school and be ready to go to the test centre to take the real (paper) exam.

Maybe I’ll write about learning to drive in Japan another day.

But I passed the test! I did it! Me! It gave my confidence a huge boost, and probably helped me feel brave enough to try job interviews in Japanese too.

The thing is, though, that I’ve still never actually studied Japanese. Everything’s just sort of happened by osmosis, I guess. I don’t think I know how to study – as a language it’s so different (compared to the European languages I learned a bit of at school) and without a teacher I wouldn’t know where to begin. Even though I got offered a job that included translation, even though I’ve already done some translation work for a university professor or two, I feel like a huge fraud. I’ve never taken any of the JLPTs. I’ve never sat down to read a book in Japanese, or write an essay. I can follow politicians when they give speeches, have conversations with all manner of people, and make people shocked when they realise that the person they spoke to on the phone isn’t actually Japanese, but it’s all always me 100% winging it and just using the language that feels right. I have no concrete evidence that I’m not screwing things up. And somehow once again, I find myself with no confidence.

I wonder if that will ever change? Those of you who have actually studied a language (any language) to a higher level, do you ever have moments of doubt that you’re using the grammar correctly, or choosing the right words? Or did learning from teachers and textbooks give you faith in your abilities? I’ve always wanted to attend a language school or something, but either the timing was off and it interfered with work, or the level of class offered was way too low. Do you think taking tests helps you feel more capable, or is it a waste of time? I really want to get advice, but since I’ve never studied and honestly don’t really know how to study, I always feel pretty useless… 😅

11 Thoughts

  1. Wow. Reading this, it becomes clear that you have a natural ear and aptitude for language.
    Many years ago I studied French and German and certainly found that having passed exams gave me some measures of confidence ….
    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel like I can manage quite a few situations now but I’m definitely less confident in speaking than I am in listening. I’ve been studying by myself mostly, with one class a week and while I can see a massive difference between today and three years ago (and I’m working towards N3), I don’t feel like I’ve improved enough.

    Doing the JLPTs does help me with motivation though – it suffered a lot after this summer’s exam was cancelled and I didn’t pick up my textbooks for ages.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I have no facility for foreign languages, so am full of admiration for someone who picks them up as easily as you seem to. But more than that, I have huge admiration for anyone who sets off on such a great international adventure armed only with a phrase book and their determination to succeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been saying this (in one form or another) to you for as long as I’ve known you but I think you reaaaalllyy underestimate how well you’ve learned even without any formal studying ._.

    Like, I did English for uhh 10 years, French for 6, Japanese for idr 3-4?, and Swedish for 5, and out of those English is the only one I can speak *right now* well enough not to feel *completely* embarrassed (and I’m still very insecure about it) – and that’s because I use it constantly. To the point where in the last two or so years people have started pointing out grammar mistakes when I speak Finnish. You speak Japanese every day, and you’ve become amazing at it.

    I can get my French back to an extent, but it requires me to be somewhere where I can’t just get away with English, and even then it takes a long time. I used to be half-decent at Japanese, around N3 or so, but right now? No way. Again, I know I can get at least the reading/comprehension skills back in a few months if I practice hard, but actually talking would require me to be able to talk Japanese with someone, so again something that just won’t happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Such an amazing thing to hear! By a lot of standards, you learned the “right” way, though I’d think the “right” way looks different for everyone. You have a lot of determination!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m with you in camp “I never studied Japanese”.
    I first came here in 2004 and I could not speak a wink of Japanese then but I did a homestay and went to a Japanese high school for a language exchange program. The entire group I was with was a least somewhat proficient in Japanese or had studied at least the basics before. I was the only one with 0 prior knowledge (except for, same as you, some knowledge of Japanese music and maybe a few episodes of anime at that point but yeah dial up internet… ahahaha)

    But I think that picking up a language naturally like this is… a lot better somehow than ‘studying’ it? idk

    I’ll probably talk about this in a blog entry of my own so I’ll keep it short but…
    “winging it” is totally how I passed the JLPT XD;;; still have no idea whatsoever of how I did it

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I think that because you learned the language “naturally”, you sound more natural than someone like me who did an intensive course in Japanese for a full semester and then continued classes once a week.

    “…and make people shocked when they realise that the person they spoke to on the phone isn’t actually Japanese”

    see what I mean?

    I passed the N2 but my Japanese is far from natural sounding. I’m better at listening and reading than I am at speaking it.

    Tests are an important motivation for me to keep studying, otherwise I’ve kind of stagnated. I haven’t studied in over a year since I attempted N1 and failed. I’ve also lost the motivation to study Japanese because I don’t think I’ll be living here much longer.

    My advice is to register for a test or to do a mock test to see your level, and to study informally. What I mean is, there are always free Japanese classes run by volunteers at many city halls, just inquire from yours. You can meet a volunteer whose schedule fits yours, you can even go with the baby, and you just study informally following a textbook at your level or whatever material you or your teacher chooses. However, because of coronavirus, these programs are currently on pause.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Being sickly is kind of how I got better at Japanese! My degree was in Japanese culture and language, but a lot of my daily life Japanese just came naturally too!


  9. I studied at language school and university – my bachelor’s degree is in Japanese linguistics. Passed the N1 last year. I’d like to say that I don’t doubt my grammar that often, to be honest? There are tons of time that I just fail at getting words out though, because my brain is stuck in one of my other two languages. lol
    I always loved studying languages though, and it’s really the only type of subject I was good at in school. Japanese was even like a hobby to me (I also started with Japanese music, visual kei specifically!) and I learned hiragana/katakana on my own at 14, then started taking classes from high school… so I guess at this point I’ve been surrounding myself with it for over 10 years, of which 3 years I spent studying intensely. Ugh I just sound like I’m bragging at this point but trust me when I say this is one of the very few talents I have 😭

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I studied Chinese in school for 10 years (including “advanced” or Higher Chinese), got As on my national exams, am able to do English Chinese interpretation and translation – but I always feel like a fraud when speaking in Chinese even now, and I don’t consider myself “fluent” or that I am using the correct words. So I don’t think it’s really all about studying and tests, especially if the classes are just to prepare you for tests that don’t really reflect your ability to use the language in daily life e.g. conversing with people / getting your bank to Sort Things Out etc – which is basically what I think JLPT is.

    That being said, I do think classes are useful to really build the foundation in a language and understand the hows and whys of the language (instead of just depending on instinct built through experience), and test results are useful to shove in hiring companies’ faces when they need proof of ability.


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