Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Language Anniversary! (日本語記念日)

In light of my recent 5000th hit, I have decided to write a post about language learning.

By the time I graduate from Stanford this spring, I will have been studying Japanese for ten consecutive years. I have certainly come a long way since my first Japanese class with Ms. Morse at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle, however, every week as I meet with my current teacher Nakamura-Sensei and pour over sample test questions from the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam, I realize how far there is still to go!

My ultimate goal is to be bilingual, or as close to that as a non-native speaker can get. The Japanese have several phrases that speak to language fluency, such as the onomatopoeic word “pera pera,” or the formal word “ryūchō.” Throughout my time in Japan, I found myself telling countless people about my love of the Japanese language and my desire to speak it at a near-native level.

Half of the Japanese people I spoke to, using the word “fluency” to articulate my ultimate goal, would respond that I was already fluent in Japanese and didn’t need to study anymore. While some were undoubtedly being polite, others were genuinely serious. They really couldn’t see why I would want to continue studying Japanese; to them, as a foreigner, I was as good as it gets.

I am always dubious when I hear that so-and-so is “fluent” in Japanese, especially if they are a westerner. Call me jealous if you must, but these aforementioned responses illustrate a common problem with labeling someone as “fluent” in a given foreign language. Namely, what does the word fluent even mean? It means different things to different people. For me, true fluency in Japanese (or any language for that matter) is the ability to freely switch between reading, writing, or speaking different languages, and have there be a relatively small gap in the quality of personal expression.

That is to say, if I were to suddenly switch and continue this post entirely in Japanese, my word choice, humor, and for a lack of a better word, personality, would be largely unaffected. To me, this is the true sign of a fluent individual and the thing to strive for in foreign language study. できるかな?

If you were sat down in front of a camera or tape recorder and interviewed in a foreign language without the ability to speak English (as I have been), what would the quality of your answers be? Would they be radically different from what you intended? Or, would you find that you could freely articulate all the points and emotions you wanted to? Could you make the interviewer laugh and cry at the appropriate moments during your story? These are the questions that plague those in search of language “fluency.”

I would find myself thinking about these questions from time to time when I was in Japan, usually when I was particularly horny and fantasized about kissing and taking a Japanese woman as my future wife. I began to contemplate, if my wife spoke little or no English, would I be able to articulate my “true self” to the woman I loved? Would I appear as a complete person or just half of the funny, charming, and loveable person I could be were I wooing someone in my native tongue? What about my parents? Could they talk to my wife? Would they be upset if they couldn’t?

It all sounds like a reality show waiting to be pitched. A white guy who speaks no Japanese dates a Japanese woman. Taking a cue from a classic episode of I Love Lucy, he wears a wireless earpiece and is constantly being fed what to say in Japanese to impress her throughout the date. At the end of the show it is revealed that the white guy can’t actually speak any Japanese without the help of the bilingual translator and the girl has to choose whether she still likes him or not.

Allow me to shift gears for a moment and reflect on learning Japanese. People often comment that Japanese must be very hard to learn. It is! Well, parts of it are anyways. I don’t know how hard or easy Japanese ranks in the grand scheme of foreign languages, but I would say to speak Japanese naturally is difficult. I have certainly been kept busy over the past 10 years. I love learning foreign languages because there is always the possibility for improvement – there are always natives to speak to, books to read, and things to write. In this sense the sky’s the limit in terms of language growth if one is committed.

People also ask me why I began studying in the first place. I don’t know exactly why I started studying Japanese but I know why I continue: studying and getting better in the language makes me happy. As a kid, I always liked sushi and videogames, but I don’t think either of those products of Japan particularly spurred my interest in the country. More than anything, I started studying Japanese in middle school because it was radically different from English and because I thought (rightfully so) that it would be fun.

It can sometimes be difficult to be a language major at Stanford – a penguin in a flock of seagulls. A friend once asked me what my major was and I said “Japanese.” She responded, “and what else?” When I said that was it, she immediately started backpedaling and telling me how “cool" Japanese was. I laughed…it was fine. Most people at Stanford view language majors as a light snack before dinner, a fun romp when compared to more rigorous engineering or scientific majors. People often pick up a minor or double-major in Spanish / Portuguese, but will rarely devote their entire course of study to the language. The same can be said in my department where only one other guy besides myself is a “true” Japanese-only major. The rest are double-majors or minors.

I hope there is something to be said for those that dedicate themselves to the study of a different language and culture. I am happy that I have made this a priority during my time at Stanford. I very much believe in learning languages and expanding your cultural horizons. I think that is something that the world needs more of.

Japanese is a wonderful language to study…so is any other! What are you waiting for? Get out there and start learning one!