Nihongo ga wakari masu ka — Do you understand Japanese?
After living in Tokyo for two-and-a-half years, I can answer sukoshi — a little. Far less than I would like. I somehow had the idea that if I were immersed in the culture, with a little study the language would just come to me.
Learning any foreign language is hard, particularly for someone like me who never really studied another language before. I grew up in the midwestern United States in the 1960s. My parents never traveled internationally…they seldom left our small midwestern city. I never considered the need to learn any other language. I was an American, and I spoke English. What more could I need? With some careful planning and scheduling, I managed to go all the way through college without ever taking a foreign language course. A fact I have since come to recognize as a huge mistake.
When I started to travel internationally nearly 20 years ago, I tried learning a little of the language where I would travel. Je parle un peu francais. Ya nemnogo govoryu po russki. Hablo un poco de espanol. Perhaps because I once was pretty accomplished in music, I could memorize phrases fairly well. So I’ve learned to say a few things in several languages…just nothing that lets me have a reasonable conversation with a 5-year old in any language.
Then I came to Japan. A chance to study a bit more seriously. Actually be in the culture and use what I learn. And I have learned a lot. But still can’t have an intelligent conversation with a 5-year old. Maybe some day.
What I have learned is how to adapt to not being conversant in a language. I know enough Japanese to survive at the grocery store, restaurant, and occasionally I do have short and conversations in Japanese. Fortunately, the Japanese people are very patient with foreigners, and by mixing my limited Japanese, their limited English, and a lot of pointing and gesturing, things usually work out. Through this experience, I certainly have a lot more empathy for people who go to the US and don’t speak fluent English.
I’m still studying Japanese, and making slow progress. It’s an interesting language, and certainly challenging. Before I leave here, I hope to be able to have that conversation with a 5-year old. Just as long as he or she speaks very slowly.