A couple of months ago, a high school kid teaching herself German asked me for tips on how she should make the most of an upcoming visit to Austria. Here is what I told her…Austria and German have been replaced by Japan and Japanese, but either way, the advice still applies. It’s mostly common sense, but hopefully it’s of some use to you.
Of course, I learned Japanese to fluency before ever setting foot in Japan — you don’t need to go there to get good. Nevertheless, going to the country of your target language is a great opportunity to do and see cheaply and easily, that which can only be seen and done outside of that country with great effort or at great expense.
There are three parts to cover: people, things and attitude.
First of all I’m assuming that you are coming to Japan (or whatever country) with a “bootstrap network”. That is, you have safe people who can welcome you into the country. These people are generally of the following types:
(a) Japanese friends you made in your home/base country.
(b) The network of your friends from (a)
(c) Host family (if you’re doing homestay).
(d) Japanese classmates (if you’re going to a school of some kind)
(e) Japanese coworkers
One of my friends, John D., is really good with people. He can walk around town with his guitar and instantly make friends. He also knows kung-fu (not joking; he knows martial arts). Unlike John, I am shy, quiet and sickly-looking. If you are more like me than John, then you may run the risk of being approached by drunkards and lonely old men (usually both in one). This is not a good combination. If someone random approaches you in Japan (or anywhere), chances are that they are a weirdo — I can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re socially unhealthy, they may in fact just be nice people (I have met some just plain nice strangers who just wanted to talk; I also make a point of asking tall Japanese people where they bought their pants) but they most likely are weirdos targeting you because you’re foreign and you have that fresh-faced “don’t have a clue” look about you; these weirdos would never approach someone who looks like she knows what she’s doing. That’s why you want to have a bootstrap network prepared in advance, to shield you from weirdos and connect you with quality people.
Endear yourself to the people in your bootstrap network. While in Japan, use your bootstrap network directly or indirectly to make some really, really close Japanese friends. Spend time with them. Wash their dishes, help them, smile at them. Eat meals with them and sleep over at their homes — scratch that, don’t sleep — stay up all night talking and laughing and making farting noises with bubble-wrap (for some reason, this becomes incredibly funny after 2am). Stick to them like glue while you’re there. Hang out and make memories with them so you’ll miss each other when you leave. Well before leaving, get all their contact information (don’t ask someone to do it for you, because they won’t, that’s just how the world works; do it yourself, get that contact info and get it all — email, snail mail, chat nicknames, home and mobile phone numbers). These people are going to become your lifelong friends/teachers/penpals. When you get back home, send these people personalized gifts (include notes about funny lines/jokes/situations you enjoyed together), chat with them online, phone them up, email them — stay in touch. You can have a deal where you might email them only in Japanese, and they might email you only in English, and you could help each other out by sending corrections. Or not, as long as you get your Japanese corrected!
I repeat. Endear yourself to people. Remember that the best way to make and keep a friend is to be one. Make yourself useful, suck up to them (not disingenuously…but do genuinely try to be of service; a good friend will be worth the work), and stay in touch with them. Remember little things about them. REMEMBER THEIR FULL NAMES; everyone loves to hear their names. Call them on their birthdays (by the way, my secret for finding out birthdays is to start a discussion about how horoscopes are a load of BS). Treat them like a million bucks, because…they are. When I finally moved to Japan, my Japanese friends from college are the ones who picked me up at the airport, housed me before I went to company housing, and acted as guarantors on my apartment contract after I left company housing. Though I came to Japan knowing Japanese at an adult level, I was still confused and scared when I arrived — sure, I could read the signs, speak and be spoken to; I was linguistically Japanese, but culturally as foreign as foreign could be; like a helpless child, I had no clue how Japan “worked”; where to go; who to talk to and how — my friends took care of me through that time, and showed me the ropes. Now, I show them the ropes sometimes…or at least debunk them. Last week, one friend told me that the courier services would never send a birthday cake. Imagine his surprise when he was eating it two days later. Black forest humble pie with strawberries; happy birthday.
Tell your Japanese-speaking friends to treat you like a child, tell them to correct you mercilessly both in writing and speaking. Tell them to hold you to a high standard, and not let you get away with mistakes just because you’re foreign.
Needless to say, avoid English speakers while in Japan. Ignore people from back home; you don’t want to get into an “expatriate cocoon”.
Two words. SHOPPING SPREEEE. Buy lots and lots and lots and then MORE lots of Japanese-language materials while you’re there. This is time to extend that budget by any means necessary. Specifically, you’ll want to look into:
- Comic books — buy entire sets. Try a used bookstore if you can, but if you can’t — buy it anyway.
- Other literature — magazines, pictureless books, newspapers. Get a newspaper for every day you are in the country. Scandalous tabloids count.
- Foreign Movies/TV shows (lots of English-language movies and TV shows get dubbed into Japanese — get them!)
- Local Japanese TV shows — especially children’s cartoons (simple), comedies (fun) and soap operas/dramas (addictive) — maybe those friends of yours can recommend some good ones.
With materials, make sure it’s all stuff that you like, and that you’ll watch and listen to instead of your English stuff. And make sure you get lots of it because this is a golden opportunity to save on shipping back to your home country.
Becoming fluent in a language — including your native language — isn’t difficult or unusual, but it is drastic. Drastic results come from drastic actions. And drastic actions come from drastic thoughts. Drastic thoughts like “if it isn’t in Japanese, then it is not of me”, lead you to take drastic actions like getting rid of all your English-language media and literature. Embrace Japanese. Become Japanese. Create for yourself the Japanese-speaking childhood, upbringing and environment that were denied you by accident of birth to a non-Japanese-speaking family in a non-Japanese-speaking country. Pretend that that whole “English” thing was an accident. Japanese is where it’s at for you now. Leave your linguistic past behind you. Don’t worry, it’ll still be there when you come back. You’re not going to forget English — but you do need to act as if you don’t know it.
Pretend that you’re just this little Japanese kid that’s returning to her native culture. Now, obviously that isn’t true. But just pretend. It’s a useful way of thinking, because it will both give you confidence and help you hold yourself to a high standard; you’re going to acquire real Japanese, not “foreigner Japanese”. When you’re on the Internet, pretend to yourself that you’re a little Japanese kid who’s just discovering the whole world for the first time. So, you don’t know English; you don’t want to know English, and you therefore have no business being on English-language websites. Fortunately, there’s plenty of Japanese out there for you to enjoy; for one thing, the Japanese-language Wikipedia is one of the largest there is.
A lot of people waste their lives away talking, thinking and worrying about stupid things — I know from experience — I almost had a heart attack this morning when a piece of paper wouldn’t fit into an envelope properly (solution: fold the paper). You have chosen to learn a language. Learning a language is one of the best possible uses of your time; it’s a skill that holds its value; it does not grow old quickly — language isn’t about to go out of fashion. So remember your choice and keep things in perspective. Forget about the things that don’t matter. Remember what you care about. Remember the joy you will be feeling when you are fluent.
And ALWAYS have fun!