Konnichiwa! My Journey Learning Japanese
Konnichiwa! Hajimemashite! This is how to say “Hello! Nice to meet you!” in Japanese. I learned this my first year taking Japanese in high school and this is what I said the first time I met my host family in Japan.
When I first got to Narita airport in Japan, I already felt like a gaikokujin, or a foreigner. I had to find my way to my host family’s hometown on my own and I thought it was going to be difficult. Can you imagine how you would feel if you moved to a new country and could not read the words on the sign or have not become fluent in the language? What if you were Japanese and moved to the United States without ever studying the language or learning anything about the United States? That would be very scary, right?
Well, luckily I already learned a lot about Japan and had the opportunity of studying the language for three and a half years before coming to Japan. Yet, I still felt very nervous. I knew the basics, but I had to get used to having to speak Japanese every day. I was very nervous to speak it. What if I cannot do the Japanese accent properly or I say the words wrong?
After a while I began to become comfortable speaking. One of the main things to overcome when learning the language is being afraid to make mistakes. When you are learning a language you are going to make mistakes! I definitely have through my time in Japan, but I also learned so much Japanese in the process by trying to say different things and using what I learned in class at home with my host family.
One of the mistakes I have made when speaking has actually become a fun joke amongst my host family. My host mom’s mother Junko comes over a lot and we all have dinner together. One night I was explaining that I had to do something on the 20th day of the month. In Japanese, the 20th day of the month is hatsuka. The number 20 is niju, and 20 years old is hatachi. Well, I always get them confused! In English we have the 20th day, number 20, and 20 years old which seems to be a lot easier to remember. When I was talking about the 20th day I said hatachi which is 20 years old instead of hatsuka. My host sister said, “Eh-”, which is common in Japan when you are surprised by something. It is similar to “huh?” Everyone started laughing and I laughed at myself. Junko said “tomorrow morning I will quiz you to see if you say hatachi again.” I accepted the challenge.
The next morning when we were talking, I suddenly pointed to the calendar and said “hatsuka.” Once she understood she started laughing. “Yes,” she said. Now it is a running joke. My host sister said something like “I am going out on hatachi and one day I will be hatsuka.” She switched the words around like I did and said “I am going out on on 20 years old and I will be the 20th day one day.” It made me laugh so hard and it actually helped me remember my mistake so that I do not make it again!
Recently, I wrote my last essay for my Japanese class. It has to be in Japanese and I usually ask my host family to look over it for me to make sure that my grammar is okay. I am lucky to have them to help me out! Well, this essay did not come out as nicely as my previous ones, because the topic was a little more difficult. Junko read over it after I wrote it on Japanese style composition paper. You have to write from right to left and vertically, top to bottom, compared to left to right in English. As she read it she found so many problems that I had to go back and erase most of my essay. It did not bother me though, because I was thankful for the help. As I started writing, she watched me. In Japanese, there is something called “stroke order.”
It is similar to when you have to learn your ABC’s as a little kid. You learn how you are supposed to write the letter “a.” I was writing a character like か (ka) and she said “That is wrong. It should be this way,” and she drew it in the air for me. I told her I usually write the characters wrong and she said, “I guess it does not matter because it looks the same on the paper,” and she laughed. As I started to write another character I looked up at her for her approval that I did it correctly. She nodded and then laughed and said “okay I won’t look anymore.” I started laughing. It was funny how she became like another Japanese teacher for me. I thought this might be what it is like for all students who are learning how to write in their native language and doing their homework at home with their parents.
Living with a host family while has really helped me improve my Japanese. I have had the chance to practice speaking every day. I think giving people who immigrate to the United States a mentor who speaks English and the new person’s native language would be very helpful. When I had to register as a resident of Yokohama I had to go to an office where everyone could only speak Japanese, but I had my host mom’s help filing out the forms I needed.
Also, I think it is important to study a foreign language, because you can learn about other cultures in the world. There are so many interesting things to see outside of the U.S. and I think everyone should travel to see those things! For instance, today I tried shark! I do not think I would have ever tried shark in the United States! Being in Japan has really given me the courage to try new things! Also, when you learn a new language you can talk to people from other countries or people in their home country about the differences in how they live compared to you. It is interesting that in Japan people eat fish for breakfast and I never imagined eating anything other than an American style breakfast like pancakes, eggs and fruit for breakfast.
If you are interested in speaking another language I think that first finding something you find interesting about the country and study it. I was most interested in Japanese pop culture. I listened to a lot of Japanese pop music and started trying to learn how to sing songs in Japanese. Then, as I got used to the sound, I tried to teach myself how to write and by time I started taking Japanese classes I already recognized some of the characters. Find what you like first and go from there! When you have a journey you do not know where you will end up!