Tag Archives: learning japanese

Exacting Expectations

Expectations can be a terrible thing, especially as a foreigner in a strange and distant land. Particularly when that land, though certainly distant, isn’t all that strange. It’s simply different. Excitingly so from time to time. Yet, crushingly mundane at others.

The people I meet out here, those who have stayed for far longer than I’ve been here, seemed to arrive with the bare minimum of hopes and dreams burdening their carry-on luggage. It’s an approach I would advocate to anyone planning a life abroad; expect little, enjoy what you can and don’t be too disappointed when you find out the dirt beneath your feet isn’t all that different from the variety of mud you’re used to.

In our case it just shakes a little more often than we might like.

They are a complex thing though expectations. The power of teacher expectations are a common theme in both sociological and educational circles. How a teacher sees a student can effect how a student sees themselves and in turn what they perceive their abilities and limits to be. We can shackle a kid to failure with a misplaced frown if we aren’t careful.

One of the biggest issues in Japan when it comes to language learning are false expectations, false assumptions and seemingly a fear of questioning these ideas.

English is too difficult for Japanese to learn.

Japanese is too difficult for foreigners to learn.

Both heavily embedded ideas and both utter nonsense.

Learning a language that shares no historical connection to your language obviously takes a longer time, but the idea that at their core English and Japanese are harder to learn for specific nationalities?

I don’t buy it.

And not because I have reams of documentation to prove it. Though they do exit.

Rather because if you go into a task believing it will ultimately be fruitless you’re asking to fail. We talk about the power of confidence in sport all the time. Where is it in education? In English language education in Japan it’s long gone by junior high school. Worse, we expect it to be.

The Japanese system expects kids to learn roughly five grammar points per fifty minute lesson. It hardly expects them to mutter a word.

On top of that it expects the teacher to somehow perform this intense instruction in the English language itself, in a room of kids that is expecting to be lectured to in Japanese.

You would be correct in assuming that Japanese teachers by and large hardly use English in their classrooms. What you might not realise is that it’s an arrangement everyone in the room is ok with.

Why? Because parents, students and faculty alike expect, and of course work incredibly hard, to pass their university entrance exams.

And what do I expect? I expect that someday, enough people might notice that learning English, or Japanese for that matter, isn’t some strange and distant land always tantalisingly out of reach.

But we’ve talked about false expectations already, haven’t we?


An Introduction to Marshmallow-Go

When I first arrived in Japan it was for one year. I never believed for a moment that I could reach any level of fluency in the language. After five years of French not making a dent in my synapses and three years of Spanish hardly faring better it seemed a fair assumption to make.

Four and a half years on manga still holds little allure for me. I still watch too few Japanese movies. Japanese TV drove me away early on by seemingly being about a collection of thirty or so foreigners lined up like hina no matsuri dolls for the sole purpose of surprising the easily surprised. I still can’t sit seiza style without feeling like I’m about to snap an ankle or lose total feeling below the waist.

Some things have changed though.

My usual rice portion size has tripled. I consume raw fish with a glee that would have made my picky childhood self believe I’d suffered some kind of sharp impact to the head. Earthquakes below a six don’t wake me up anymore. I don’t think Japanese is impossible.

That last one surprised me. More than the sashimi and the seismic shifts the idea that another language could worm its way into my brain seemed utterly unfathomable. How could it hope to make an impact beyond confusion? This collection of sharp angles and squirls that originated from another culture to the already foreign one I found myself in could never make its mark in the same way, surely?

Well, it did. And more than anything else out here, the language itself, the ability to speak to people in day-to-day life far from my English classroom, made me feel at home.

It has also confused, frustrated and annoyed the hell out of me.

I still don’t speak Japanese. I am however, fluent in another variant of the Japanese language. A dialect that emerged in Nagano and then found itself in Shizuoka. It has only one native speaker.

The history of this dialect is rather short.

It is however very reasonably priced and can be found at all good online retailers.

It can be found at Amazon UK, Amazon US, and Amazon Japan. It can also be found, for those with an iPhone, iPad etc. on the iBooks store.

It’s also available via anyone stocked by the publisher BookBaby.

Note: While around sixty percent of the book is new material, a large chunk has come from the blog because it acts as scaffolding to the rest of what I’ve written. The e-book is however still worth every penny you’ll pay… which really isn’t very many at all. 

Thanks again to everyone involved. 


Thanks to the lads over at Asobi K Design for the work on the cover.


Love, Hate, Coffee, Kanji and Repeat

I was struck when listening recently to a Radiolab podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell about his book Outliers that Gladwell and many others attribute a large proportion of genius, or lower down the scale for the rest of us a talent or ability at any given thing to be based on love. A love of the subject that allows an individual to devote endless hours to the pursuit of a goal and in the process put in that magic 10,000 hours that seems to be part and parcel of those world defining successes.

He spoke in particular of the example of Bill Gates, who aside from being the beneficiary of a great deal of luck in regards to his personal circumstances had the unusual desire to log in that 10,000 hours of programming time in the wee hours of the morning simply because it was there, he could and more than anything he simply loved doing it.

When I hear that example I’m envious. Not because I’ve never experienced it, literature as an undergrad felt to me much the same. It came easy and I could never quite understand how the passion I felt for it, the joy of discovering how the engine works, so to speak, could keep me tied to a desk with such ease and yet send others fleeing from the library before a page had even been turned.

Japanese isn’t like that for me. There’s enjoyment there but nothing close to what was hinted at in the interview with Gladwell. It’s not love like the movies. It’s not romantic. I don’t strive on endlessly for love of the brush strokes in a new kanji (Chinese character) or the discovery of some fascinating etymology. I do it because I hate it and love it in equal measure. In truth, the line is rather more fuzzy than all that.

It feels to me like an unhealthy pursuit. This love, because in some fashion it must be something I feel for me to keep on going back to it, isn’t so much unrequited as manipulative, even cruel. It lets me in a little bit at a time, gives me a sense of elation upon understanding even a tiny fraction of it only to swiftly turn its cheek to me and ‘hmmmph’ like a girl in a Ghibli movie.

She’s a stubborn little thing the Japanese language.

She’s not always like that though; sometimes she relaxes and smiles upon me. The hate, the frustration at having mastery of a language below that of a toddler from time to time subsides. I forget, for just an evening how many long hours it has taken to get here. The conversation with non-English speaking friends flows like wine (often alcohol flows in a concurrent stream), jokes pass back and forth and all seems well with the world.This mountain of a task before me feels like it has been at least partially scaled. The base seems far away and the peak is actually in sight. For once the summit is not hidden behind clouds and wisps of fog. It’s a target as clear and crisp as morning air. I can almost touch it.

Inevitably though, the thought always returns. I was foolish to feel competent for even a moment because as soon as I feel that way she turns and drops me on my arse again, surrounded by myriad forms and compounds, a gaggle of laughing school kids rolling around, sides split from the sheer hilarity of my efforts.

And just when I think it can’t possibly be worth it anymore more, that some mountains are too painful, too perilous to climb, she hands me a coffee and leads me back to my text book. She tells me one day it’ll be better, I’ll understand her moods, how she likes to play, how she acts in times of sorrow and stress, the subtleties at play when she’s conflicted. When that day comes she might even introduce me to her parents.

When I meet them maybe I’ll finally understand why she’s such a jumbled, beautiful and infuriating mess.

I still won’t understand why I keep going back to her though.