It was sometime in my late thirties – many years since I had finished school – that I finally stopped having those mild anxiety dreams where you suddenly realize you forgot to show up for a test, or somehow forgot to go to one of your classes all semester. Now I just might start having those dreams all over again. Yesterday I took level 5 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Level 5 (called the N5) is the easiest of the 5 test levels, and by that I mean it’s really, really hard. I’m quite confident I failed, probably spectacularly. My Japanese tutor recommends 8 months to a year of study before taking it. I gave it a try after 5 months of very part time study with her (and I’d previously taken a low-intensity class, but that was 7 years ago).
It’s a standardized test, like the SATs. I took it at Kyushu University yesterday, which was overrun with mostly young people who were there to take various levels of the test. My general sense is that most of them were Chinese and Nepalese. For many, passing the tests are a requirement for a job or an academic program, so there was definitely a certain level of tension in the air. I was taking it because the thought of “…and there will be a test at end” was something to help maintain my motivation to study.
But my main motivation was to simply get more out of my experience living here in Fukuoka. Living in a place for 6 months is a different experience from a vacation: there’s grocery shopping to do, meeting people in your neighborhood, interactions with deliverymen, etc. Not being able to read or engage in conversation makes for a very limited existence.
As you’d expect, Japanese is a difficult language for a Westerner to learn, but in some ways it’s easier than you might expect, and in other ways it’s even harder than you’d ever imagine.
The easier aspects:
- Pronunciation: it’s actually easier for an English speaker to learn how to pronounce Japanese than it is for a Japanese speaker to pronounce English. Japanese only has a few sounds that don’t exist in English, and they’re not too hard to learn. But English has many sounds that don’t exist in Japanese. The biggest difference is that Japanese always has a vowel sound following a consonant (with one exception: “n,” like in “udon”). When the Japanese borrow words from other languages, they change the pronunciation to suit them. So when Maria asks me to buy plain yogurt at the grocery store, I look for ヨグルト プレーン タイプ on the label (yoguruto puren taipu – yogurt plain type). In practice, when people talk quickly, some vowel sounds are almost completely dropped, so it’s not quite as ridiculous-sounding as it may seem (but it’s still fairly ridiculous).
- Basic grammar: Japanese particles tell you what role a word is playing in a sentence. If a word is followed by “wa” (は) it’s the subject, if it’s followed by “o” (を) it’s the object, etc. It’s brilliant, and it means word order is generally less important than in English. The most basic verb conjugations have a past tense and a combined present and future tense (whether it’s present or future is generally figured out by context). As you might expect, the grammar gets a lot more complicated as you learn how to make more complex statements, but you can learn how to talk like Tarzan remarkably quickly with Japanese.
The mind-bending aspects:
- Reading and writing: Japanese has 3 writing systems (really 4, if you include English letters, which you’ll see a lot). Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic, and I’m comfortable reading and writing both of them at this point, albeit slowly (they have 46 basic characters each, plus variations that add up to a total of 104 different sounds). I’ve only just started with learning Kanji, which is the symbolic writing system. You need to know about 2,000 to read a newspaper. I know about 60 so far. So not only are there a lot of them, but they typically have at least 2 pronunciations (a Japanese reading and a Chinese reading) and sometimes as many as 6 or 7. Like English words, they can also have more than one meaning. It’s not unusual to see all the writing systems used in a single sentence. So when I try to read things, I can pick out the meaning of the kanji characters I know, but often I’m not sure how to pronounce them. And I can pronounce the Hiragana, but I often don’t know what it means! To make matters worse, there are no spaces between words, so (at least as a beginner) I have to scan back and forth to figure out where words begin and end.
- Levels of formality, and in-groups and out-groups: I’ve only just started learning this aspect of the language. It’s fascinating how Japanese culture is reflected in the words and grammar of the language. The words you use for family members (brother, sister, etc) change depending on whether you’re talking about your own family or someone else’s family. The verb forms you use with friends are different than the verb forms you would use with your boss. Also at work, you would refer to your boss with a certain level of formality in person, another level of formality when speaking to others in your organization about her, and yet another level of formality if talking to people outside your organization about her.
Living here and being only semi-literate has been a humbling experience. Fortunately, the Japanese are almost always very polite and helpful. So when I’m in the grocery store staring at what seems like a dozen different kinds of milk, all labeled in Kanji, I’ve learned to not be shy asking which one is the soy milk. Of course, I at least need to know how to say what I’m looking for. Sometimes I can throw in some English and be understood, but not always. When all else fails, it’s amazing how much you can communicate with hand gestures. But it all depends on having a willing and patient person to communicate with, and I’m consistently impressed with how helpful people here are. On more than one occasion, when I’ve been dumbfounded by the multitude of train platforms at Hakata station, I’ve had attendants not just point out where I need to go, but walk me all the way there.
This is in stark contrast to the experiences of many foreigners when they visit the US. For example, when our friend Yuka came from Japan to visit us in Philadelphia, she got confused at 69th St station, and got yelled at by a SEPTA employee when he quickly got frustrated by her limited English. And there’s the famous Speak English! sign at Geno’s. Of course there are plenty of helpful people too, but from the perspective of a foreigner in the US, I imagine it’s usually a hit-or-miss experience. I’ll be coming back home to Philly next month, and there are many things I’m looking forward to (like being a fully functional member of society again!), but I will definitely miss the friendliness of the people here.