Your humble scribe has just returned from his twice-weekly humiliation at Japanese class. Tonight was a particularly taxing session after the recent holidays and I found myself in one of those classes where I am so completely out of my depth that it just becomes a meaningless exercise. Most of the time I am ok; I don’t understand everything that’s going on but if I can get a hook on the topic of conversation, I can usually take an educated guess and I’m usually not far wrong. But then there are nights – like tonight – where there are no straws within grasp and I really flounder.
The problem is that Japanese actually contains many languages within one. In English we tend to have “posh” words and “common” words for many things, but verbs tend to stay the same. The difference between “common” and “posh” is dramatically different here; in the UK, use the wrong word and people might think you’re a bit thick. In Japan, you can be ostracised forever for using the wrong terms of speech. It’s serious stuff.
In Japanese, there are not just different words for levels of politeness but entirely different verbs and terms of speech. This makes Japanese as it is spoken between friends a radically different language to that learned in most courses. In practice, what this means is that entire conversations can whizz past without you hearing any recognisable words that you can latch onto for reference. It’s very difficult.
But it is worth the effort because slowly…slowly, comes familiarity and understanding. I understand far more about what is happening around me than I did a year ago, so slow though it may be, there is progress. I am absolutely determined to be able to speak another language passably well. There is something so extremely cool about bilingual people – most of the gaijin (foreigners) I know here can speak reasonable Japanese and I always feel like a total chump in their company. It might take me a while, but I feel sure I’ll get there eventually.