Found In Translation 1 by Peter
Watashi no name wa Peter desu. (My name is Peter.)
Anata wa totemo yasashii desu. (You are very kind.)
Onaka ga peko peko desu. (I’m hungry.)
Before I sat down and actually, genuinely tried to learn Japanese a couple of years ago, these were the very few phrases that I had learned and lived with for the longest time. The first, from a poster at a sushi restaurant that I had visited one afternoon back when I was at university, and the second and third I picked up from a friend that was learning Japanese when she was attending school. Every now and then I would bust these phrases out and trick people into thinking I was a pro. I even fooled myself every now and then.
For over fifteen to twenty years, that was pretty much all the Japanese I knew, aside from the usual “Domo arigatou, Mr. Roboto,” or the simple “hai,” “konnichiwa,” or “sayonara.” That was all the Japanese I knew, and that was really all the Japanese I needed.
A few weeks ago, before my summer break started (I’ve been an English ALT, or assistant language teacher here in Japan for the past year and a half), I was able to give a Q&A session for nearly an hour with some of my students on their future careers and my own personal experiences, speaking anywhere from sixty to seventy percent in Japanese, albeit still quite broken and rudimentary. After I had finished, I had just realized what I had done, and was a bit shocked and quite proud of myself. It was just cool, thinking of where I had begun and where I am now. Yoku dekimashita, Peter!
So what brought me here? As a Korean-American who just finished up seven and a half years in Korea, why move to Japan next? Why try and learn Japanese? Why aren’t you married with kids already?
Sorry, that last one was from my parents.
Well, I’d say that it’s because of my experience of learning Korean and eventually moving to and living in Korea that I’m here now. Prior to that experience, I had never attempted to learn a language to that degree. Although Korean in ethnicity, I was very much an American kid, loving all the American ways and all the American pop culture. I couldn’t have cared less about anything related to Korea besides the food and the girls. It was Marvel comics and MTV; Star Wars and Harry Potter; Friends and The Lakers, The Dodgers…America, America, America.
My Korean vocabulary was probably limited to anywhere from a hundred to a hundred and ten words. Okay, maybe a hundred and twenty. But I couldn’t have a conversation longer than five minutes with my folks, and to be honest, I didn’t really care to. As long as I could express my hunger, dissatisfaction, or rudimentary desires, I was at peace.
But then one day, someone at the “Korean” church I was attending back in 2009 asked me if I wanted to learn Korean. I had been helping out with the Junior High group there, and her daughter was one of the students. Maybe she wanted me to learn Korean so I could understand better when she wanted to tell me I was screwing up her kid’s life?
But I said yes, and unbeknownst to me at that time, it was the initial dive into the rabbit hole that would take me all the way to where I am now.
Little by little, I was learning new words and phrases at a preschool level. I found out how to say “lion,” or “lake,” or “f@&k off.” (Hm…I’m pretty sure I learned that last one somewhere else.) But it gave me a basic foundation to start with, and more importantly, it made me realize that I could still learn new things as an adult, and it made me hungry for more. I was good at it, and I knew that I could get better.
My appetite to learn grew at an alarming, near-zombie like rate. It was brain, brain, brain…knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, everywhere, all the time. Colors, foods, animals, adjectives, nouns, abstract ideas…there was just no end. And after being introduced to Korean dramas, after much refusal and a lot of convincing (I had grown up with my mother watching Korean dramas where someone was always shouting at someone else, or crying because of someone else, or being slapped because they were shouting or crying from someone else, and I couldn’t stand it), I did nothing else in my spare time. I found that there was a large variety of different types of dramas, and almost all of them with very attractive girls. I surrendered.
“I give up! You win! I’ll watch these pretty girls do stupid things and fall for rich boys with terrible mothers.”
But this introduced me to an incredibly powerful concept in learning a language: context – visual, cultural, situational context. Watching a scene and how and when a phrase or word was used multiplied my learning rate, not only because it was entertaining and kept my attention, but also because it reminded me to do something that every child does when learning a language: imitate. What should I say in this type of situation? Okay, got it.
It also taught me a method that I use to this day, even with Japanese. Watching dramas with subtitles, I found myself drawn to certain words or phrases. I would replay those scenes and pick out the parts I was interested in, and then using an online dictionary, I would write out the words and their meanings, as well as the example sentences (Example sentences. SO IMPORTANT!)
I would then practice writing and speaking as often as I could. Whenever an opportunity would arise, and even if it didn’t, I would just throw it into the conversation, as random as it would be, just so I could test out my new knowledge. This actually led me to tell a kid to “f@&k off” by mistake, and I was told that that probably wasn’t the best thing to say. I would agree that they were probably right, right?
So all the basic building blocks were in place. But it wasn’t just about learning a language, but about investing in a culture. It was about learning to appreciate new concepts and nuances, and finding that there’s much more texture, color and flavor to enjoy in the world than your weekly Big Mac, large Coke and fries. And truly, my menu was about to get larger than ever.