All Those Things We Never Learned to Say

Learning a foreign language brings with it a near infinite amount of frustrations and few joys. It does not make you happy. It probably won’t do much for your career. You can’t bring it up at cocktail parties without sounding like an ass, or having to lie through either false modesty (“oh, I just know enough to get by”) or simplifying-through-exaggerating (“yeah, sure, let’s just say I’m fluent”).

At best, it gives you fleeting moments of accomplishment, like when you point to a dog and say the word “dog” in the desired language and the native speaker you’re with says, “yes, I know that’s a dog.” Which you didn’t understand at all, except for the word “dog” again. Yay! Dog!

Even after years of study, countless hours spent repeating grammar patterns, flipping flash cards, and not-remembering vocabulary words you just memorized five effin’ minutes ago, you still can’t speak with the natural ease of a 5-year old.

That’s the real bitch of it. No other subject of study in the world is learned naturally, effortlessly by millions of other people who are not you. There are not countries where people grow up automatically mastering the ins and outs of C++, or quantum mechanics, or post-colonial theory (if such countries did exist, they would be insufferable).

Japanese has been a part of my life for 6 years now. In some ways, it has consumed my life. I work in a Japanese office. I live with a Japanese person. It is all around me, all the time, ever present, ever demanding. Like a grad school thesis or looking for work or writing a novel, it’s a 24/7 mistress. Every moment of peace and stillness is punctured by the irritating thought, “y’know, you really could be studying sonkeigo right now.”

I’ve come a long way from the day I arrived in Japan knowing only the words konnichiwa and ninja. I can live and travel easily in Japan. I can understand most of what people say and make myself understood. I can hold a conversation on most topics. I can read novels and diplomatic cables full of legalese.

I’ve even got to the point where Japanese people have stopped telling me my Japanese is good. Which means it actually is kind of good. When Japanese people tell you your Japanese is good, it means it sucks. When they stop saying anything at all about your ability, it means you’re getting good. When they start pointing out all the mistakes you’ve been making, it means you’re damn near fluent.

But every single Japanese elementary school student in Japan is still better at Japanese than me. Sure, I probably know more kanji (Chinese characters) than they do, but when it comes to spitting out Nihongo easily, naturally, they’re light years ahead. For me, it’s still a constant struggle.

They don’t use ni when they should use de. Their tongues don’t stumble through the ra-re-ru gauntlet that is the causative-passive tense. They will never accuse a taxi of being dirty (kitanai) when they mean to just say it hasn’t come yet (kitenai). They will never accidentally tell a classroom full of children that they once dressed up as a homosexual for Halloween.

Yet still I study, knowing full well I will never master this language. Partially because I’ve come too far to give up now. Partially because those fleeting moments of accomplishment are fun.

But mostly because I don’t want my co-workers to think they can talk smack about me without me knowing it.

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One Comment

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  1. Americans also say “your English is good”, which always means it sucks. It’s the same thing everywhere 🙂

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