(I don’t understand… One more time, slowly, please.)
I just returned from a very brain-draining spouses’ language/culture class at my husband’s company. And my brain is feeling fried. Atama ga itai desu, yo! (My head hurts, you know!) I want to participate in these classes, but I admit they can sometimes be very stressful for me. Today — was especially humbling.
I enjoy getting together with these women, but I am still the only American, and also the only truly native English speaker in the group. There are several from India and Pakistan who speak English, but often when they are together with each other they speak in other languages instead. There are also several from Korea, Taiwan, and China who can communicate (at least to some degree) with each other because their languages are all based on the Chinese kanji characters. Japanese is also based on those Chinese kanji, so our teachers (sensei, in Japanese) can more easily speak to them.
I usually hang out somewhere in the middle of our group, and try to understand as much as I can from both sides of the room. Our teachers speak only a little English, so they can’t easily explain a language concept to me. At this point, I know only a few of the kanji characters, but I can read the kana — katakana and hiragana — characters. Sensei writes things on the board in a mix of kanji and kana… and she usually translates the kanji characters into kana for me. And sometimes she will write it in romaji — the Roman alphabet.
My husband and I both really want to learn Japanese. We have taken three sessions of classes with a private instructor, and we use several language apps on our phones and computers, but after almost three years here, we are still only minimally conversant in Japanese. I have learned a lot of Japanese vocabulary and grammar, and I can usually understand the gist of a conversation — if they would just slow down and speak clearly.
My husband talks about this problem a lot. The official language of his company is English, and every employee hired has to have a certain proficiency in English. But often he struggles to understand what people are saying to him because they are speaking Korean-English, or Japanese-English, or Indian-English, etc. We all tend to accent and enunciate the words in a significantly different way.
For example: Today, one of my Korean friends in the group, was trying to tell me that I should visit Hamarikyu (a garden near where she lives in Tokyo.) She kept saying the name over and over, and I kept shaking my head trying to understand what she was saying. Then another person in our group said it in a slightly different way, and… AHA! I got it! I have been to Hamarikyu several times, and am familiar with the name. I just couldn’t understand it the way she was saying it.
The point of all this, I guess, is that language — and therefore communication — is a really difficult thing. We have to work hard at it. And, beyond the mechanics of language, we have to work really hard to truly understand each other. I am not just talking about words. Our language is part of who we are, and is linked to our culture, our upbringing, our values, and our experiences. We aren’t just communicating our words. We are “communicating” who we are, and how we view the world.
Yes… it is a struggle. Yes… it is difficult. But I think it is worth it, and I am not going to give up on it. This is how we connect. This is how we unite. This is how we learn to understand and respect each other — not as individuals of many different races, but as members of the same HUMAN race.