Written by Emily Farmer (University of Pittsburgh), CET Japan Summer 2019
It’s only been a week? That’s the first thing that pops to mind as I reflect both on the past week, as well as the next nine-or-so weeks to come. The amount of Japanese that one learns when surrendering all ability to communicate in English is positively astounding. I can’t say that I’ve become anywhere close to language or cultural fluency in the past week, but I can confidently say that it feels like it’s been longer than a week.
Plot twist: Japanese is hard—like super hard. Not to lessen the immense effort required to learn any foreign language, but let me emphasize just how different Japanese is from English. There’s keigo, teinei kotoba, kudaketa kotaba, that is, super-formal-language, pretty-formal-language, and not-so-formal-language. Each kanji, or borrowed Chinese character, can have multiple kun’yomi, or Japanese readings, and on’yomi, or Chinese readings. And don’t even get me started on stroke order!
Regardless of how many hours of class or self-study that may be necessary to devote to an intensive language program, the language pledge has truly been the best way for me to devote myself to learning Japanese. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a language pledge, our language pledge is a promise to solely use Japanese in class, at home, and every place in between. Even if you were to find yourself alone with other American students at the train station, an izakaya, or conveyor belt sushi, you must devote yourself to speaking Japanese without the safety cushion of English.
As intimidating as that may seem, this past week of solely using Japanese has been much more manageable than some may imagine. You learn the super important words/phrases pretty quickly—”what’s that,” “are you ready to go,” “are you buying lunch today at the conbini?” In my experience, the language pledge also makes befriending Japanese students just as easy as befriending American students!
Although it’s only been one week and I’m sure things will most certainly ebb and flow as the program continues, I’d like an offer a quick few pieces of advice, both for potential students and for myself.
Firstly, you’ve come to Japan to speak Japanese. Don’t be afraid to speak to Japanese people! You’re not a native Japanese speaker, and no one expects you to be. Making mistakes here and there is a vital (I’ll say it again, vital) part of becoming fluent in any language, so make some mistakes! It’s all a part of the path to achieving a higher degree of language and cultural aptitude.
Secondly, finding your balancing is incredibly important. The first day of classes, one of our student coordinators named Malika gave a talk emphasizing the important of balance throughout the course of the program. She explained that throughout the course of the program, the line between school, social life, and personal health might seem hazy at times, but that that line is extremely important. If you want to go to karaoke on a Saturday night, then go! If you need a minute to collect yourself and reflect, talk a walk by the river or the park. What you need to succeed will inevitably look different from the person next to you, so pay close attention to your individual balance and needs.
Lastly, be flexible. America is a very different country that Japan in numerous ways (many of which continue to surprise me). The values, traditions, and emphases are going to look different than what you’re used to, so embrace the distinctness and your ability to differentiate the good from the bad.
(Also, here’s a quick promise that my next blog post will be focused on more specific and engaging aspects of Japanese culture. Future Emily—remember this!)