About two years ago I was finishing my thesis and since I didn’t have to follow a rigorous schedule I decided it was a good time to pick up a new language. Not really for work purpose, just for the sake of learning a new language itself. I thought about Hebrew or Japanese, since I was interested in a non-European origin language with a different writing system and interesting pronunciation. The chances I would use Hebrew were remote, so I picked up Japanese, at least I thought I was closer to Japanese culture.
So I enrolled in a course. Now as I look back, it seems one of the happiest times in my life. From the beginning I enjoyed learning every new word, a character, a grammatical pattern. Learning was a sheer pleasure. Whenever I came in a contact with the language, be it simply in the class or watching a movie or listening to a song would make me truly fascinated. I think this fascination could resemble being in love with a person and craving for getting to know more about this person and spending time with them as much as possible. I was happy to know there is still so much more to learn.
The course was a little slow and in the end I was left with rather basic skills. I kept on studying Japanese on my own, sometimes dreaming I could actually talk to people in this language. Little did I know.
Slap in the face
It also happens that I have a deep appreciation for Japanese architecture and was lucky enough to get an offer for internship in a studio in Japan. My first times were rather complicated especially due to so many hardships with communication in Japanese. First of all I realized and became instantly disappointed that everything I learnt didn’t matter much. I could understand very little and speak almost none. This slap in the face hurt for some time, but I kept on this stormy relationship with my language-partner.
Foreign language anxiety?
I guess if I studied Japanese in a university, things would be much easier, but I wouldn’t experience nor learn some valuable lessons. In my case I have to work while living learning the language. I still get excited whenever I learn a new word, a character or a grammatical pattern, but speaking belongs to a completely different universe. With my language level, upon meeting a person for the first time, it seems I have to adapt to their voice, pronunciation and way of speaking as they were carrying out a conversation in a completely different language. Here the language gets very personal and sometime it’s really complicated for me to get over a sort of social anxiety. Being in Japan and trying to communicate with a native also reminds me of being an outsider still not fully familiar with the culture and the language, making a bad impression or not offending a person with something inappropriate I might say. On the other hand, speaking undoubtedly accelerates learning process.
I believe that every language reflects way of living and thinking, culture, society and ethos it is related with. Of course, being able to communicate in a specific language brings you closer to people.
When people ask me why Japan or Japanese language I cannot give a fully logical explanation. The answer I usually give is my interest in the culture and wish to read Yukio Mishima in the original (good luck, maybe in 20-30 years from now on). It may sound pretentious, but it is true, I do like this guy’s books and his personal story. Fair enough, everyone seems to understand this explanation.
It’s been said that passing from one language to another may induce a personality shift. I have had an intense second language experience with English, Portuguese and now Japanese and I do agree to a certain point that it influences one’s personal identity: speaking a specific language makes us unconsciously do it in a certain tone of voice and adapt some expressions and even gestures related to that language.
As I said before, I am really afraid of being inappropriate and it will take me some time to interact naturally in Japanese, but at the same time, sometimes I get out of my comfort zone and try to say things I wouldn’t say in circumstances before. And I question: why am I doing this? This is so not me. Thinking this way makes me realize what I am and what I am not, what I could be and what I couldn’t.
So, of course, there is an influence on one’s behavior, thought and feeling. But speaking different languages inducing personality shift is a pure myth. Luckily, there is so much more to personality and personal identity. No matter how many languages you speak and unless you suffer a mental disease, at the end of the day you are still your old self.
Back to demanding yet dear partner
Language is not a solid stone, it’s rather a flowing river. I consider the languages I have been learning, no matter the level, in need of improvement.
In my case of Japanese, trying to communicate in a language I am far from proficient, adds up to everyday stress and overwhelming situations. In the beginning I would misunderstand and even make up things. It happens when I have no a complete notion of something, my mind automatically fills in with different alternatives which maybe sometimes far from reality. Hello, confusion.
For instance, I fail miserably in trying to tell a joke, which in its turn, result in a new amusing situation. Comic, because it is funny to see myself struggle so much with the language and tragic, every time I realize how much of a failure my language level is. While it is getting better, I realize limits are where you draw them. Despite all these let-downs and being-out-self-comfort-zone situations, the joy I feel learning it is bigger and every time I am happy to come back to this demanding yet dear partner.