The university I currently attend requires undergraduates to complete two years of a foreign language to graduate. Although the school offers a multitude of languages to choose from, to me there were really only two options: French, which I had taken two years of back in high school; or Japanese, of which the extent of my knowledge consisted of random phrases picked up from anime and manga. Having had previous learning in French, that would have been the easier course; Japanese, with its three foreign alphabets and complicated levels of politeness, would be the more difficult one.
I went with Japanese. Summer courses, condensed and accelerated, are often regarded as more difficult than your usual semester, but I had reasoned that taking Japanese alone over the summer would be easier than juggling it with a handful of other classes during the school year. What I hadn’t planned for was the fact that summer courses are accelerated, meaning four months of learning have to be crammed into six weeks. I also hadn’t counted on most of my classmates already having some exposure to Japanese, whether it be prior school experience or exposure from Japanese speaking family. While everyone else got to review, I spent the first week frantically trying to learn hiragana.
Despite an enthusiastic teacher and my own desire to learn the language, I failed miserably at Japanese. I spent every night pouring over textbooks and worksheets, trying to pound verb conjugation and kanji readings into my head. I tried complex mnemonics, I sang little songs, I made flash cards. And I continued to fail. To be honest, it came as something of a shock to me. I mean, I wasn’t completely oblivious to the Japanese language; in Hawaii it’s everywhere, just like rainbows, to the point where you don’t even notice it anymore. But apparently comprehending a language is a big step up from correctly pronouncing Anime characters.
Somehow I managed to scrape by with a B in Japanese 101, and the following fall I moved onto Japanese 102. Though not an accelerated course, I continued to struggle, to the point where only a week into the semester my teacher left a note on my latest quiz (an utter failure) that read “Please see me.” As tactfully as possible, she explained that the work I was doing in Japanese 102 was not B level work, and probably my 101 teacher had awarded me that grade out of pity– or I suppose she worded it as an acknowledgement of effort. Either way the message was that I was screwed, because apparently accelerated summer courses have the disadvantage of glossing over things, important things that I would need to understand in order to move in. Important things that, of course, I didn’t understand.
And so the cycle repeated. Nights spend pouring over textbooks and workbooks, browsing Youtube for creative ditties to help me remember Te form conjugations and the days of the week. I met with my teacher often after class to go over previous
failures tests, and to my surprise she said I was doing better. I was still failing miserably, but I was doing better. My proudest moment in that class was when she handed back a lesson quiz with a big fat 68% on it and exclaimed “Great job!”, since it had been my highest grade thus far.
So the long and short of it? I fail at Japanese. I’m really, really horrible at it. I have this tendency to forget everything I’ve learned when put on the spot (such as tests or spontaneous conversation). For my final oral test last week, I accidentally told my teacher to buy Walmart (I’d been intending to tell her to buy something at Walmart). Which was better than my midterm oral, where instead of telling her I’d had a cough since that morning, I explained that I couldn’t come to class that day because I had morning sickness.
I’ve yet to get my grades back for this semester, but either way I’m taking Japanese 102 again in the spring. Even if I did pass, there’s no way I actually comprehend everything enough to continue on to 200 level. And I do plan on continuing on. Despite my long list of failures, there are still the little things that keep me going. Like listening to a Japanese song and being able to pick out a word or two. Or being able to navigate a Japanese only website. Or being able to listen and actually join in on a conversation between some of my Japanese dorm mates. These little achievements are proof that I am learning, I am retaining it all somewhere inside. I’m just perhaps a little bit slower than some. But the absolute joy I feel when recognizing that I know that word, I know that kanji, I know what they’re talking about! makes it all worthwhile.
In a few weeks I fly off to Tokyo. I’ll be spending three weeks there over both Christmas and New Years. I’ll be spending these holidays alone, in a foreign country, far from my friends and family. And I’m afraid. But I’m also thrilled to think of how different it will be from my last visit, how much I’ve learned since then not only about language but also culture. And come midnight on December 31st I hope to find myself at a temple as the bell tolls 108 times.
We’re ringing in the New Year. I’m ready.