February 27, 2003

"I Almost Learned Japanese Once,"

"I Almost Learned Japanese Once," c. Ryan Rhodes, Feb. 18, 2003

For me, learning a foreign language is the linguistic equivalent of getting kicked repeatedly in the groin, only not as fun.

My first, and really only, experience learning a language other than English came when I moved to Japan my senior year of high school. Now, having grown up and spent my life in Harmony, Minn., I had pretty limited exposure to what the rest of the world was like. At that time, I thought Japan consisted of rickshaws and ninjas and superior automobiles and electronics.

Upon arriving, however, there were no rickshaws or ninjas to be seen, though I suspect they were hiding behind all the superior automobiles and electronics. In all seriousness though, the one contingency I had not prepared for became glaringly obvious almost immediately. In short, I learned that the Japanese have an irritating habit of speaking, well, Japanese. Who knew? Here was this entire country speaking a language other than English. I didn't know how to react to such craziness.

Actually, how I reacted initially was to simply point and grunt my way through stores and restaurants. This technique worked remarkably well, but I couldn't help but feel there must be a better, less rude, way.

Eventually, my school provided the solution I needed in the form of a beginners Japanese class. The class consisted of about 10 students of varying degrees of Japanese obliviousness, and a dynamo of a teacher, Toki-sensei.

Learning a foreign language in a classroom setting is an exercise in irritation and humiliation. On the one hand, you have students who pick up the nuances of the language with maddening ease, while on the other hand you have people like me who can't absorb anything not English-related.

One student in particular, of Chinese heritage, understood many of the complicated kanji characters that make up the Japanese written language, and he delighted in showing off with irritating regularity. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wanted to tackle him out of his desk and choke him until he was only faintly breathing. I would sit and listen to him drone on and on, just seething, wondering "Why!? Why are you in this class!? Why!?"

And then there was Toki-sensei. Always upbeat, she would encourage me, and the other struggling students, the way parents encourage their children to take their first steps. And even she lost patience with the Chinese know-it-all on occasion, so I was obligated to like her.

To say I was shaky at speaking Japanese would be a severe understatement. I never fully grasped their sentence structure and their multitude of ways of saying the same thing, each one more correct than the next, depending on the situation. They have so many ways to count things, I lost count.

So, there I sat, battling through dialog, with Toki-sensei coaching me along as I spouted forth such every day sentences as "The weather is nice. How much is that? I'll take three of those hamburgers. Should we take the train to the coffee shop?" Now, I didn't drink coffee, but I considered starting just so that last sentence wouldn't go to waste.

Of course, any illusions I may have developed in class that I may actually be catching on were quickly shattered once I went back into the reality of daily Japanese life. The Japanese didn't seem to understand that I was only a beginner. I think they should develop little buttons you can wear so people know your level of language proficiency, and they can slow their speech down accordingly.

As it was, there were no buttons, and the standard speed of conversational Japanese hovers somewhere around Mach 4. I would laboriously ask a store clerk how much something was, only to be greeted with a torrent of Japanese that sounded like an Alvin and the Chipmunks record played super fast.

The school year eventually came to a close, and I flew back to attend college here in Minnesota, where people speak English, well, for the most part, and I quickly lost what little Japanese I had learned. Then, about two years ago, a Japanese company in America, having seen my resume online, contacted me about a job that paid $75,000 a year for a Japanese to English translator.

"I almost learned Japanese once," I offered hopefully. "But I didn't."

I didn't get the job.

Posted by Ryan at February 27, 2003 03:29 PM

Party Pocker - Poker

Posted by: Party Pocker at October 19, 2004 06:42 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!