In other words

Oh Twitter, you misleading bird, you. 140 characters? So short! Finally, a social media platform that won’t suck the time from your life… Wrong!

I have Twitter. Mind you, I only tweet about myself and about television shows. Well, I’ve only just gotten access to TV in the first time in two years so…I only really tweet about myself. Occasionally. Ok, fine. I don’t really tweet.

I wish I could use Twitter proficiently and join one of the many Twitter communities. But let’s be honest here: for such a small character limit, its nature of instancy means that it involves a lot of time commitment. Even on a non-participatory spectating level: if you refresh the page as soon as it’s loaded, there are sure to be new tweets already. It’s impossible to keep on top of it all.

So as a wise meme once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat!”

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“Dang it!” *Blitz…*

I didn’t realise there’s a real life equivalent: being immersed in another language.

There are times when someone’s making a Japanese speech, be it at an event or every week at church. I guarantee that in every one of these occasions, the speaker will make a joke – even a small one – that will make everyone laugh. I’ll laugh too… a beat or two after everyone else has finished.

Some sentences contain vocabulary that is beyond my grasp, even when it’s used in context. Inversely, there are times when I will understand all the words separately but the grammar muddles the semantics. And then there are sentences that I will understand…if only I have enough time to work it out.

Just think, in these situations, I don’t even need to construct a response. So imagine how much worse I am in conversation, which, ideally, has more than one person monologuing.

Even on the few occasions when my comprehension and response times are quick enough to engage with the conversation, my response is sure to be devoid of things like intended meaning, tone, personality and wit.

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“The more Japanese I understand and the more English you learn, the funnier you seem to be,” I once said to my former manager.

“そうでしょう?(sou deshou: I know, right?)” she stopped working and nodded vehemently. “You don’t know this, but I’m actually really funny in Japanese.”

At the time, I laughed at how bluntly she agreed to the compliment, a rare quality in Japanese people. But now, I don’t doubt the truth of what she was saying. I’m just impressed that she can keep up with daily conversations in a foreign language with native speakers.

A lot of people ask me: do you need Japanese to live in Japan?

Well, take away the language ability required for most workplaces and perhaps life in the countryside. (Honestly, what would I know? I’ve been living in Tokyo this whole time.) My answer would be a resounding “no.”

You don’t need Japanese. You can certainly get through life here without it. Many foreigners I’ve met who have lived here for years can’t say anything beyond greetings. As for me, I came here without being able to count to ten.

But let me just say that, boy, does language affect your quality of life here.

My parents sent me to Chinese school when I was younger. Correction: my parents dragged me to Chinese school when I was younger.

On several occasions, in the midst of violent protest, my brother and I would cry out (in English), “We don’t need Chinese! We live in Australia!”

Fast forward about seventeen years later and I finally realised that I have never been so wrong. Whoops! Sorry, Mum and Dad.

From “Japanese study resources

As a language teacher, this is something that I’ve become quite adept at telling my students. You don’t need English, especially if you’re going to live in Japan your whole lives. You can hire translators if your company handles business internationally. You can travel in tour groups on your vacations. You can Google Translate almost everything…to varying results.

But if you want to make independent friendships with people? If you want a better chance of promotion? If you want to make your own travel itinerary? If, God forbid, your phone battery dies? Well, languages can come in handy. And let’s be honest, some people who only speak a very predominant language like English can be jerks about it.

Sometimes, I reminded my students that I got how frustrating language learning can be. After all, I’m experiencing it in reverse and I’m lucky in that most monolingual Japanese aren’t jerks about it.

I mentioned once or twice that I came here to experience life as an outsider. A big part of that experience is trying to climb out of that isolation.

Here are some difficulties that I’m experiencing along the way:

Understanding what people say and knowing how to reply in the appropriate language is two very, very different things.

It is deeply uncomfortable to make people wait for you while you’re digging for the right words to reply to their simple question. If they’re not used to speaking to foreigners, they will fill the silence by repeating the question a few times at different speeds, intonation and volume. Meanwhile, you’re still trying to fit all the puzzle pieces of the answer together in your head.

You say a sentence that you know is wrong but you can’t stop now.

You say a sentence that you know is wrong but you don’t know how to fix it.

You can say a sentence that is fine, but has a different meaning to what you were actually aiming to say. At a restaurant, I once tried to ask the waitress to help take a photo of our group. Instead, I asked if I could take a photo of her.

Depending on the person speaking to me, my listening comprehension fluctuates wildly. I had an assistant manager who would speak to me in Japanese, only to have me appeal to the nearest Japanese teacher for a translation. The Japanese teachers wouldn’t translate it to English but repeat exactly what the assistant manager had said to me again, verbatim, in Japanese. From teachers’ mouths, where words were formed with textbook clarity, I would understand. From that assistant manager, older men, and other foreigners, I could hear the same words and still be at a loss.

But it’s not all bad news. Here are the rewards I’m reaping:

I’m learning a whole new culture! Some phrases are really hard to translate from English to Japanese, and vice versa. Getting to know the concepts in both languages is really opening up the way I think and my understanding of people. It’s testing my values, assumptions and expectations. Which helps with the next point.

I’ve made better friends. Speaking and thinking in a different language for a long period of time is exhausting. It’s much easier to halve the burden and doing the conversation half/half – by which I mean, periods where both parties speak their own native language and just listen to the foreign language. It’s only through that that I can hear their responses unfiltered by language barrier, which, as I mentioned above, tends to simplify thoughts and censor out things like wit and tone.

Me, fangirling friends without context.

I’m also much more engaged in conversation when speaking Japanese. I have to be. I watch people’s expressions and mouth shapes more carefully. Gestures and tone become paramount to making sure that the intended and perceived meaning matches up.

I appreciate language learners more. In Australia, it’s an expectation for all foreigners, visitors or residents, to have at least a basic working knowledge of English. In Japan, I’m going into my third year of teaching English. It’s easy to go from that culture into this profession and completely underestimate how it feels to struggle in another language.

Television makes it look so easy. (Dany learnt Dothraki in less than a season. What?! Not even the creator of Dothraki is fluent in it!) The truth is that it’s hard. It takes a lot of continuous and conscious effort. Knowing that made me more patient. Experiencing it is making me a more empathetic person and a much better teacher.

I’m more independent. Not in everything. I never went to the hospital alone and I still need to send my friends photos of official looking mail. But I can go to the bank or city office alone. I could sign up for my new apartment alone. I can travel alone, even in the countryside where English speakers are scarce.

I feel a sense of achievement in mundane tasks. Since moving to Japan, I’ve visited Australia once for a week. A busy week. So  I do, of course, feel homesick. Often. One of the best remedies is making good friends, which, as I mentioned earlier, Japanese helps with. Another is keeping busy. Yet another is knowing that it wasn’t a mistake to move away from home.

Having constantly shifting goals while embarking on the long journey of language learning means that every hurdle I clear feels like an achievement. Every achievement feels like growth. A conversation with someone new? Reading a whole a short story? Laughing at the right places while watching a TV show? Understanding the announcement on the train? Achievements. Every one of them.


There are a lot more points to add to the argument of learning languages – if you think of any, let me know! – but I think I’ve made my point.

All in all, language isn’t absolutely necessary. You can have profound connections without it.

My favourite scene from "The Good Dinosaur," has its two main characters - Arlo and Spot - bonding and mourning together over one word: family.

My favourite scene from “The Good Dinosaur,” has its two main characters – Arlo and Spot – bonding and mourning together over one word: family.

But language proficiency makes communication more efficient, more detailed, and more accurate. Getting that proficiency, however, is a different story.

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Thoughts?