“Stop bragging. Your Japanese still sucks.”

Help - for who exactly? (Azumanga Daioh)
Help – for who exactly? (Azumanga Daioh)

It’s always fun to know at least something when picking up a new language. I may not be a Malay, but I know how to say “Good morning” (Selamat Pagi), “Thank you” (Terima Kasih), “I don’t know” (Saya Tak Tahu), and count to five. This has helped me to at least start a connection with the other person whether they know English or not (but where I’m from, everyone should know English – even a smattering of it).

I love that by just putting in that extra bit of effort to communicate in the other person’s native language creates a new bond of sorts. Whether it lasts or not is besides the point; I have found a way to your heart just by knowing how to say “hello”, “thank you”, and “I’m sorry”.

The problem starts when you start to get serious with the language. You could begin by mastering the foundations – which is excellent. But the deeper you progress, the higher the expectations to at least maintain that level of proficiency – and the sooner it dawns on you that you can only get away with so much without proper study and practice with a native speaker.

This has been my love-hate journey with Japanese. I love that I know the basics, understand written instructions, and communicate easy requests with the locals. I can even get away with guessing how to pronounce the kanji, and – I say this with utmost humility – four out of five times, I would get it right at the first try.

But if you think you can get away with communicating with native speakers at a more hardcore, serious level, you may want to keep that ego in check and reconsider.

As I type this, I am playing a group interview with the cast of Psycho Pass 2, and to be honest, it is demoralizing. One can argue that multitasking is highly unproductive and an inaccurate benchmark to measure one’s proficiency with, but I literally understood nothing beyond the cast introductions. It’s true that I haven’t heard the rest properly (simply because it’s not my primary focus), but one ought to be able to pick up some words here and there to get the gist of the discussion. I am getting none of it.

This is affirmed again when I’m at work. I’m surrounded by native speakers – expatriates posted here from the motherland herself. And yet, for some shit reason, every time I try to communicate in Japanese, I’m stuck with basic conversations, and can never elaborate on anything specific to the topic, which is filled with business jargon. Anime and music does not teach business Japanese.

The whole thing is rather dispiriting. But it’s forced me to come to terms with the fact that I’m not “there” at all, and it’s time to go back to school to practice.

Just this morning I saw a post on Facebook by a friend who questioned whether it was weird for him to communicate in Japanese before switching back to English with a native speaker. Really? Does that even warrant such a public rhetoric?  The whole thing is made more embarrassingly obvious when you realize the native speaker is accommodating to your silent but obvious request for practice. Depending on how proficient you really are, this can be a waste of time for the poor fellow who has to politely put up with it.

Rather, these native speakers have more need to speak in English here than in Japanese. There is really no incentive for them to allow someone like me to practice Japanese with them, when it’s far more effective and practical the other way round. I don’t mean to assume that all Japanese natives are impatient with learners. But given that most people who learn Japanese are usually first influenced by pop culture, any attempted conversation would probably be so simplistic it’s embarrassing to watch.

Ultimately, communication is a two-way street. Native speakers have other native speakers to communicate with, whenever they want to. But it gets them nowhere with locals who don’t speak Japanese. And they know their English sucks. But as long as they are not in a Japanese-speaking environment, and make inroads to learn, this can be forgiven. For someone like me, while it is certainly handy to know their language, the reality is they need to learn English more than I need to learn Japanese – and I have to yield.


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