Everything's New Under the (Rising) Sun
It’s a truly beautiful, and for me at the moment, laborious way of writing. I have now been learning Japanese for a little over 16 weeks, and it’s taking daily practice to stay on top of this language that is so different to my native tongue.
For me, like many other Brits, learning languages has never been a priority. I jumped through the usual hoops between the ages of 11 and 16 to scrape by in both French and German, but the value of learning a language was never instilled in me in the same way that the importance of algebra was (still waiting on that one to reveal itself, by the way).
It’s a generalisation, but I do believe that by and large those of us who speak English as our first language often default to the safety and comfort of knowing that almost wherever we go, someone will understand us enough to get by. However, perhaps like me you’ve also been in situations where you’ve either cringed at the linguistic ability of someone you’ve met on your travels or shrunk in embarrassment when you’ve been unable to complete a simple sentence in a restaurant or shop.
English as a first language gives us great privileges, but it also has the power to handicap us – unless we choose to challenge the status quo.
It can also be tricky to learn a language when everyone else only seems to want to speak English; this is something I’ve certainly experienced in Albania. Having lived there on and off for the last 12 years, I’ve grasped a conversational ability with the language that enables me to be polite, friendly, and order a round of coffees – but it hasn’t equipped me with the subtle nuances needed to navigate more substantial conversation. And whilst this is in part because I’ve not stuck at a regimented pattern for learning, it’s also because by and large people want to speak English to practice it – even when I try to lead with my rudimentary Albanian, inevitably we default back to their vastly superior English skills. However, I’ve recently decided to brush up on my Albanian skills, as I continue to spend more and more time there.
But why Japanese? Towards the end of 2019, I made a commitment to do something that was simply just for me – it ought to have nothing to do with work commitments, friendships or other relationships, but only be about something that I wanted to do for the benefit of my own education and personal growth. I had been spending a lot of time reading books about Japanese history and culture, and I’ve acquired a recent taste for the cuisine too – it seemed like a natural fit, and clearly a way to challenge myself.
It has definitely been a challenge getting to grips with a language that has three alphabets (I’ve learnt the first: Hiragana; almost got there with the second: Katakana; and not yet started on the third: Kanji), and a distinctive pattern guided by social norms and etiquette substantially different from the UK, but it has been valuable and incredibly satisfying.
I’ve had to commit to daily practice, often draining repetition of characters written on a page, and sat through lessons late on a Thursday evening after a long day. But as my vocabulary begins to grow, and I develop a deeper understanding of what to say and how to say it, I can say that I’m proud of the effort I’ve put in – and that I can’t wait to test it out on the road in Japan when I hope to visit in 2021.
Learning a language is one of the best ways to truly get under the skin of a people and their culture – particularly when it’s limited to a specific ethnic group. Engaging with the structure of the words, feeling the shapes of the characters on the page, and hearing my mouth learn to make new sounds has been a dynamic experience, and it’s a challenge that I’m glad I accepted.