They say that Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. This is reflected in several aspects of how we teach the language—at my college (Wesleyan University in Connecticut), classes meet every day with mandatory TA sessions once a week. Most professors recommend a full year abroad in Japan rather than the usual semester. Inga, Tsugaru’s Coordinator for International Relations (through the JET Program), confessed that after nine years of taking Japanese (year abroad included), she still didn’t feel totally confident speaking the language, not that you’d be able to tell.
I’ve been taking Japanese for a year. In my infinite naiveté, I set off on the exchange trip totally ready for the language immersion experience. I knew how to say “I have never been to Japan!” I was practically fluent.
Reality was not so kind. Still, while I wasn’t able to dazzle everyone with my literacy (I think the most impressed I ever saw my host family was when I managed to read the word “book”), I did get the experience of being dropped in a brand new linguistic world for the very first time.
In many ways, Tsugaru wasn’t difficult for the English-speaking group to navigate. On planes, English announcements followed Japanese, and little plaques asking in several languages to please not smoke decorated the backs of bus seats. Important services like ATMs inevitably had an English option (to everyone’s relief). Naturally, this was especially true in Tokyo, a city positively overflowing with tourists, but it was hardly confined to that area. I was surprised to find that there were English announcements on domestic Japanese planes; what was common sense on an international flight also carried over to a short trip across the country. And while Tsugaru didn’t have to anticipate tourists like Tokyo did, there were plenty of chances to see the alphabet on the streets. An enormous number of stores were marked with either a name in both Japanese characters and English, or just the English. These store names ranged from the too-easily recognizable (McDonald’s) to the slightly off but still descriptive (Super Drug) to the incomprehensible. My favorite example was a store called “Wondergoo.” It sold used books. While these signs were hardly for the benefit of the occasional English-speaking visitor, it was still an interesting surprise to see how much I could actually read.
Inside these stores, however, you were likely to find far more Japanese. Restaurant menus in particular were dense labyrinths of unidentifiable words and kanji. Every time I ate out, I was totally reliant on my host family to figure out what I was eating. A person who isn’t familiar with even basic Japanese might find that something as simple as ordering an ice cream could become an ordeal if done alone.
It certainly wouldn’t be impossible, though. Perhaps the most amazing thing about being an English speaker in Japan was that virtually everybody you meet will know at least a little bit of your language. Grandparents, students, little kids, politicians, shopkeepers—everybody I met in Tsugaru could at least say something that I could understand, and make similar sense of my response. Students start taking English early on, and it shows. Do you remember the language you took in high school—probably French or Spanish? Do you remember how terrible you were at it? You do not know true humility until a seventh grader from halfway around the world stands up and delivers a short speech in exquisite English.
I met very few people who were actually fluent, but it was strange to find myself immersed in a language so different from my own, and yet to still encounter English everywhere I turned. This is in large part out of necessity; we live in a world where there is far too much pressure for people around the world to conform to Western-English speaking standards. It’s certainly telling that Americans can get by comfortably in another country while we can’t offer the same security to visitors here. Still, I also sensed an earnest enthusiasm about communicating with the rest of the world and with others from many people I talked to. It’s the way I feel when I practice Japanese. Seeing a new language can change the way you think (Languages change the way we think in isolation and in their interactions); the landscape in Tsugaru felt different simply because street signs were written in kanji.
The fact that so many English speakers abandon pursuit of other languages is a shame, and that fact becomes even clearer when you see how English interacts with other languages overseas. My favorite parts of the trip were when I was able to push myself out of my comfort zone and practice Japanese, like when I could speak to new people with my limited vocabulary, or when my host family helped me practice reading kanji. I don’t feel like I can slack off with my studying and expect to get away with just speaking English next time I’m in Japan. Instead, I feel inspired to redouble my efforts in Japanese class. I’ve had a small taste of the richness that emerges from the balance of many disparate languages intermingling, and from what I can tell, it’s well worth all the studying. I can’t wait to go back.
Eleanor Black, Brunswick, Maine