Learning a new language

One of the primary reasons I stayed in Japan to work (instead of going back to the states) after graduating university was that I wanted to learn business Japanese. When I first came to this country, I was completely immersed in a Japanese environment, on my uncle’s church out in Asuka Mura. It’s in a very rural area. I saw other gaijin maybe once every couple weeks or so, usually they were visiting the ancient tombs for which the town is famous. So I went through some heavy culture shock and it was tough, but it helped prepare me for Japanese classes at Tenri University.
The Japanese studies program, which let you take mostly Japanese language classes/other assorted classes taught in English the first two years and then core classes in Japanese the last two years, allowed one to graduate with the equivalent of a BA (the program, in this format, no longer exists due to administration’s pandering to students from China – no need to learn kanji from scratch, you see). So I studied out of class, usually just hanging around my pal T and his friends. Later I studied with my then-girfriend (now-wife) Nam, which is a funny story in itself – a Thai national teaching an American Japanese by default since neither spoke the other’s native language – and later yet, by doing various part-time jobs. Bartending, construction, office work, city street work, sales work, ditch digging, cafeteria work, translation, teaching English, the long con, the short con, man-whoring at wholesale rates… ah, okay I think I’ve shared too much now but you get the picture. I learned a lot of my Japanese on the street, so to speak, and it turned something that I once considered near impossible into a reality. I was eventually very comfortable using a foreign language.
Since then, I’ve added to my language skills mainly by working here and plunging into as many new situations as possible, as well as by cultivating friendships with competent conversationalists (of whom, I am sorry to say, there is a general shortage of in this world, but especially in the serfdom of corporate Japan).
The point is, I kicked Japanese’s ass, I mean really, thoroughly thrashed the shit out of it. It occasionally gets back up and puts up its dukes, but I just hammer away at it until it’s sniveling like a little bitch in the corner again. I mean, in the world of language-boxing, I’m not the king or anything, but I am confident in my weight class…
Horrible analogy aside, I started writing this post because thinking about how I learned Japanese and how it made me feel in the early years has now got me thinking about Thai. Don’t get me wrong, I’m up to the challenge and love learning languages, but I keep thinking about the down sides recently. You know, when you first start learning a new language, the learning curve is so steep – because you know nothing! There are many milestones in your pregression. Learning how to buy something in a store. Struggling to remember basic shit like numbers, money, time of day. Reaching a level of proficiency where you can understand what people say, but not being able to properly reply. Reaching another level, where you can fool people into thinking you’re a native speaker just by using simple phrases, but being embarassed when you have to ask just what the fuck a certain word means.
The point is, mastering a language is very hard. I look forward to tackling the Thai language. In fact, I’ve already kind of started, practicing with my wife. But it is just so goddamn humbling learning a language from scratch. It’s kind of a pain in the ass.
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Someday, I hope my kids will thank me for making them learn three languages from the time they’re born.

2 Replies to “Learning a new language”

  1. I am totally jealous, dude. I would love to move to Thailand and start the whole language process over again. If I would have continued to use the German I learned in high school (I was pretty good when I graduated), I would have 2.5 languages under my belt. But to add something like Thai to one’s resume is just cool. However, I spoke Jawa before you ever did – UDEEDEE!!

  2. as a child, all I apoke was Japanese. At 8, I came to the states and basically divorced myself from Japanese. Now mind you, it was spoken in the home – but, that’s it. In the outside world, everything was foreign. OK, at 8 I wasn’t the master of Japanese by any means – but it was all I knew. All of the sudden, shuu creamu turned into cream puffs. The pastry shop guy kept telling me to go the shoe store. Hot dogs at the Seibu I used to go to were served in 1/2’s. Imagine my surprise to find they served you a WHOLE hot dog in the states. A WHOLE HOT DOG!!! What a place!!! By the way that was 1963.

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