08 December 2010

Learning Japanese - Validation

Studying another language is difficult and it sometimes feels like I'm not making progress. I'll sit on the train trying to understand what Japanese people are saying and I'll only be able to pick out a few words. Or I'll try to read advertisements and forget what certain kanji mean. But then things like the following happen that validate my attempts to learn Japanese.

This afternoon in one of my classes I corrected an 8 year old girl's kanji. There was a picture of a train ticket from Tokyo to Osaka and I pointed to Tokyo and asked if she knew what this word was. I helped her sound it out and then she wrote the kanji for it above the word. But I noticed that one of them was wrong. And she didn't. I looked at her, then at the kanji, then at her again thinking she would notice, but she hadn't. So I went for it.

Mike: Is this 'Tou'? *pointing at the kanji on the left*
Student: Chigau! ...Sensei, kanji ga wakaru?
Mike: No. *smiling*

"Chigau" is the verb "to differ from," but used the way she used it it roughly translates to "It's different!" "Sensei, kanji ga wakaru?" means "Do you understand kanji?" This episode took maybe 30 seconds but it made me feel pretty good about myself... Even if it was just one simple kanji that the 8 year old I corrected can draw better than I can with her left hand. Blind folded.

My other Japanese language episode was a lot more validating.

I was heading out to pick up some wine for a party last weekend and on my way out the lobby a Japanese woman said "Excuse me" in Japanese. From here on in, everything written in English was said in Japanese.

"Yes?" I said, smiling.

"Do you know how to use these new mailboxes?"

I turned around thinking there must have been a Japanese person behind me that she was talking to. But there wasn't. She was asking me, a dirty foreigner, how to do something she, a Japanese woman, didn't know how to do. I was floored. But it just so happened that I did know how to use the new mailboxes. So I mustered up my courage and saved the day.

"First, you have to turn to the right till the dial starts clicking. Then, stop at the first number. After that, turn left to zero and open the door." This was all said with perfect Japanese (and a little pantomiming...) - but there was one problem.

I was using my mailbox to give the demonstration, which made her think that every mailbox had the same code. Apparently she didn't get her code in the mail, which explained why she didn't know how to open the door. So I guess I didn't save the day entirely.

If you don't understand how these little events can make someone happy then you have to imagine experiencing them as someone who is learning a foreign language. The majority of the time it's frustrating as hell but then these little things happen that make the studying worthwhile.

After I bid the lady good evening ("Konbanwa!") I smiled the whole way to the store and all the way back. And it was the first thing I told Aimee about when she got home. And the first thing I told my friends at the dinner party. And, hopefully, it will be one of many more anecdotes about how learning another language is a lot of fun.


  1. yay! i'm sure you will have many more experiences like that in the next year.

  2. Hopefully with a lot more advanced language use. :)