A Japanese Language Barrier Just Shattered

Something just happened a few minutes ago that has me quite surprised. But I’ll get to that in a moment.  First, a little background.

I started studying Japanese when I was in university in Victoria way back in 1997. I took just one class, and I thrived. I learned hiragana and katakana in just two weeks and could read and write fairly well within a month. I seemed to have a knack for it. I also had a very good teacher who supported us extremely well. By the end of the term, I could give someone a tour of a house. I was tremendously pleased with how quickly I learned. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take the second class because of schedule conflicts.

Fast forward to 2005. I arrived in Japan and was like anyone who’s traveled to a foreign country for the first time, completely enamoured by the sights and sounds of Japan. I was happy to notice that I could still read hiragana and katakana and recognised some of the kanji, too.  I bought textbooks, and I intended to study and start speaking with people.  What happened was different. I spoke English all day at work. I spoke English with my friends. It seemed I only spoke Japanese with shop staff when I was shopping, and that was very limited.

In 2007, I challenged the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level 3, which is survival Japanese.  I studied hard for 3 months before the test, but it wasn’t enough.  I failed, but just barely.  A year later, I studied furiously for 3 months and passed the test with a huge improvement in listening.  Why exactly was my listening so good while everything else was just mediocre? TV. I watched a lot of TV, and that helped my Japanese comprehension a lot.  At that point, I could understand the topics people were talking about, but not the details.

After that, my Japanese studying stagnated.  I still used English all the time at work. There weren’t many opportunities for me to really use Japanese.  When I met my wife in 2010, I still spoke English. When I met her family in 2011, I tried my best to speak with them in Japanese, and still do to this day. However, I felt like my Japanese never improved, and that was because I just wasn’t trying to use it as much as I should have. I couldn’t really at work, because it’s an English language environment.  And with my daughter around at home, I only use English because I’m the only source of fluent English for her to hear.

Everywhere I go, I still hear Japanese. My wife speaks Japanese with my daughter and quite often with me. And I’m always telling myself that I need to study. I need to try.

But something happened tonight that amazed me. I was watching a video where someone was interviewing people on the street about what is great and not so great about Japan, and I suddenly found myself understanding. Not just the 10 or 20% that I’d been understanding of people around me.  But it was more like 75% understanding! I was listening to them speaking and I knew what they were saying! It just suddenly came naturally. Such a strange, yet wonderful feeling.

I’m hoping this feeling happens more often. It’s given me a bigger push to work on my Japanese. I hope by the end of this year, I can have decent conversations with people, especially my wife’s family.


14 thoughts on “A Japanese Language Barrier Just Shattered”

  1. It’s a great feeling, isn’t it? I took Italian in uni a few years ago, and I was amazed at how quickly we moved, but even more amazed at how quickly I seemed to be picking it up. With classes five days a week, I was constantly thinking about it. Then the semester was over and I couldn’t continue with it. I try to keep on learning, but it’s hard when I don’t have access to anyone who actually speaks Italian.

    1. Definitely feels great.I took French for many years, but outside the classroom, I never had to use it. I’ve forgotten most of it, though I want to get back into studying French.

  2. That’s great! I had a similar experience living on the Quebec side of the border. My ex is French but we spoke English all the time. I can still understand most of it, more reading than speaking.
    Funny enough, kana came easily to me too. It’s impossible to cope there without it. I took a survival course the first time I went to Japan, also in 2005, but I only studied the textbook this time around. I must say my initial experience was much better.

  3. Interesting post. I also took a quick introductory Japanese class, but although I’m usually good with languages I had real trouble with being introduced to hiragana and katakana at the same time and I sank. Apparently, I need to see one picture and I was being given two. But since it was the first non-European language I’d tried, it was fascinating to see a grammar that structures itself so differently.

    1. The grammar is interesting, considering you finish the sentence with the verb. It’s difficult to adapt to, unless you’re very good at speaking Yoda.

  4. Funny you mention that it just clicked. I was watching a video via youtube about a guy who had a bike that turned left when you turned right and vice versa. He practiced for 8 months then it just clicked. His brain made the switch. Amazing how one day it’s a geat mystery but makes complete sense the next day.

      1. But like riding the backwards bike, he couldn’t for about 20 minutes until it just “clicked” and then he could. Was a neat video for sure. And his son learned it in 2 weeks!

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