Motivation by Necessity

I’ll keep this entry short, both for your sake, and for mine: I have just recently recovered from the after effects of what I think was heat exhaustion.  The summer in Hiroshima doesn’t break until October, and the daily forecast seems to be a beautiful 95 degrees with 75 percent humidity.  The heat, my compulsion to run, and my refusal to wake up early enough to run outside in a safe temperature, had caused me to spend two days of my summer vacation holed up in my hotel room, watching the world track championships with Japanese commentators yelling in the background.  At times, I provided my commentary in Japanese, which is still limited to somewhat simple phrases like: “that dude is fast”, “that dude is faster than that dude”, or “I hope Usain Bolt isn’t on drugs, because that would be detrimental to what is already a fractured trust between the fans and the athletes.”  The improvement of my commentary should coincide with that of my health and language proficiency.

The opportunity to learn is Japanese surrounds me. In America, the opportunities for language improvement are limited. Inside of class, my teacher would often throw in English vocabulary while speaking to me, perhaps because she didn’t think I would understand otherwise. Outside of those four hours of class, the amount of English I saw and heard threatened to drown out everything I learned that day.  Furthermore, the knowledge that I was studying another language caused my peers to approach the situation differently depending on their point of view: my Americans friends who spoke only English would assume that I was fluent and request that I perform for them on command; my Japanese-speaking American friends would often translate for me when hanging out around native Japanese speakers. The truth was somewhere in the middle. I don’t understand native speakers but don’t want a translation, and I’m not fluent but I’m working on it.  Only by immersion would I be able to make progress towards the more desirable end of the spectrum.

Most of the time, I don’t understand. Within certain situations, even if I don’t understand everything, I can manage my way through: at the restaurant, grocery store, buying a train ticket, et cetera. Situations like this you can fake your way through even if you don’t know what they are saying; either way the process is beneficial. At language school we practiced these scenarios but at times I refused to participate in this process, like when my teacher would ask me, for the 20th time, to describe what a friend of mine looks like (he is tall, has short hair, bad breathe, loves garlic) and I would instead try to translate a daily news article which had peaked my interest: Edward Snowden, for example, or the week I obsessed with the Boston Bomber.  In America, I would get upset or angry if I didn’t immediately understand something. Here, the language is everywhere, and I try not to worry about it. I am back on track with my studies, making daily conscious efforts to push my learning, but outside of that capsule of studying, I let the language wash over, allowing whatever happens to seep in. The goal is to push past the fundamentals and be able to communicate on a level that is normal for people of any language, that of everyday life.

I have read that the best way to improve language ability is by interaction.  Exposure to the language at all helps, of course. On a recommendation from someone else, last year I started watching a Japanese television show called Change, wherein a supporting character use the negative conjugation for the word “glad,” which translated to mean “I’m not happy.”  I understood that before, but I did not internalize the word until that moment. This happens a lot with learning another language.  When I was buying a Japanese cell phone service off of Hondori Street (the place to be in Hiroshima), it was a frustrating experience on both ends, as I tried to communicate the phone service I wanted, and she tried to explain its details.  It was a beneficial conversation in several ways, and what sticks with me the most is when she asked me, in Japanese, “is there anything you forgot that you need help with today?”  It’s a simple thought, but up until that point was a complex translation. I always “understood” the teaching of such a phrase, but never internalizes it until then.  She must have been confused as to why such a question seemed so interesting to me.

With my language training in the United States, maintaining a dynamic environment sometimes felt close to impossible. Six months into my year long language training in DC I switched to have Yu-Sensei as my primary teacher. My previous teacher, Inuoye, is smart, fluent and English, and a retired Japanese Professor, but I didn’t feel comfortable interacting with her. Her personality overwhelmed me and I would shut down, not able to communicate. Some of this was a factor of spending four hours every day in a room forced to interact with another person. The energy spent putting up with another person probably took away from the learning environment, but with Yu, it happened less.  Yu is mid 50’s, short black hair, cried at least once a week during class, and would consistently show up 30 minutes late to class, even when class started at 8:30 instead of 8, which allowed me to contribute my bullshit to Facebook and drink coffee. But I felt comfortable speaking with her.  Even then, the classroom could sometimes feel. How could I be expected to interact one-on-one with someone four hours a day in language that wasn’t my own? I often dreaded going to class. I had trouble sleeping sometimes, not saying one word during class, and then spending the rest of the day lying on my couch in my apartment, sleep-deprived and unable to think.  Though my department heads would say that I was being too hard on myself, weeks would go by where I felt I wasn’t learning anything, compounded by my progress reports that said I needed to improve more.

At times I tried to make the best of the situation. We would talk about newspaper articles that interested me, and I tried to ask more questions about my teacher’s life. The more I spent getting to know her, the more the particulars of her personal life confounded me. She had married 20 years earlier to a Naval Officer, a Chinese-American stationed in northern Japan.   Outside of a basic conversation, Yu doesn’t know much English, and her husband does not know any Japanese, and neither do any of her children.  The more I talked to her about it, the nature of her family relationship remained a mystery to me. Most of all: how did they make it work? How do you communicate on the deep level required in a marriage if you can’t speak the other’s language, or if there attempts to bridge the gap between? In the end, I could only know so much.  My knowledge was limited by the perimeters of that room.


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