Spoken and Unspoken Japanese

I move between two languages on a daily basis, English and Japanese. When I say that I “move between” these two languages, I mean that I dive into conversations, jokes, sarcasms, criticisms, small-talk and office politics in both languages throughout the day. I am surrounded by others who do the same. I am also surrounded by others who prefer to use one language over the other.

Learning a language is funny and if you ask me “how does one learn Japanese?” I’ll probably give you some tips on how to study or what you can do to increase your language-learning potential, but when does “study” stop and “fluency” begin and at what point does one become “fluent”? Despite confidences from the Japanese, which we know can just as much be cliche as it can be true compliment, the idea of fluency does not enter into my sphere…What I mean is that, in expressing myself in Japanese there is always a wall, an invisible wall that flares up heavily at times and magically disappears at times. Sometimes, I trick the wall out of existence by knowing how to agree, knowing how to carry the conversation. Other times, the wall completely vanishes only to reappear when I least expect it.

If you also find yourself (or want to in the near future) move between these two languages here are a few things you may want to try or at least take into account.

  • Pay attention to the others around you and turn your daily life into the playground of learning. That is to say, I think that people can learn a lot by simply tuning in to the words that float around them, the little parts of speech that aren’t taught in textbooks, the kanji that reappear, the nodding of the head, the gait of the other, intonation, pauses…all of these come to life in the others around us. It may be difficult for one to see oneself a part of this and emulation is a wonderful way to learn the art of the spoken and the unspoken.
  • Pay attention to what is talked about and how it is talked about. For those who are wondering about “aimai,” the way of vague affirmation or indirect communication, one should always be paying attention to what is being talked about in small talk and how it is furthered on by others. Sometimes talking about the weather is simply talking about the weather and sometimes it is doing much more than that, it is strengthening the bond between you and the other person. It is a reaching out across the abyss from the other to you.
  • Humble yourself. I remember someone telling me to always “degrade myself” when presenting some project that I finished as the Japanese heavily do this when talking about themselves. Hhmmm…Well, yes and no. I think that at times it is proper to exit one’s ivory tower and to truly apologetically present some new completed project to co-workers, but at other times it serves one well to be steady and confident. The trick is that it completely depends on who you are surrounded by and who you are perceived to be in said situation. When in doubt, perhaps humbling yourself will serve you well.
  • Play with language. I think it is most important to play with the language slowly and smoothly. I used to write poetry in Japanese. At that time my goal was to create a harmony between the Japanese syllables, the form of the poem and the meaning that it held for me. In playing with the language in this way, I realized that it is possible to express or create some kernel of myself in this other language and I think with the proper amount of respect for the language and play with the language one’s ability will grow and the ability to “tune in” will increase.

By no means am I a master at Japanese and sometimes when challenged by a fellow ex-patriot as he seeks to test my level of Japanese, I back down. I don’t appreciate such challenges and don’t wish to duel. The foreigner who wishes to partake in a linguistic duel does nothing for me and doesn’t prove anything to me. The ex-patriot who questions with me and who plays with the language with me is beneficial and much appreciated. Being in a relationship with a friend whom you can learn with is wonderful for both of you and much more productive than the stand-offish challenge.

Thank you for reading this and I wish you all the best in your studies.