So, I have a BIG ego, and do LOTS of ego-surfing. I should make an RSS feed of my self-googling. And during my daily, no, hourly session of ego-surfing, it came to my attention that I had not quite made clear just what I meant by “fluency” after 18 months. In a word, my fluency was near-native. When I spoke on the phone, Japanese people assumed I was Japanese. In more detail, I was able to:
- Speak and understand adult Japanese-sounding Japanese. Many people assumed (and continue to assume) that I had either been raised in Japan or lived hear for 10+ years. Neither are so, at this writing.
- Conduct a job interview 100% in Japanese
- Conduct my visa processing with the Japanese Consulate in the US, 100% in Japanese
- Make convincing, logical arguments.
- Write business and personal emails.
- Understand TV and radio news 100%.
- Understand and enjoy Japanese comedy shows.
- Make intentional errors, jokes, witty comebacks and double entendres in Japanese.
- Read aloud and understand any general-purpose Japanese document (i.e. one intended for a lay audience), such as a newspaper.
- Read aloud and understand any IT/physical science/computer science expert document (manuals, software docs, academic papers, even legal documents).
- Write 4500 kanji from memory, 90% retention.
- Read aloud common Japanese personal and place names (prefectures, major cities).
- Talk my way around words I did not know or had forgotten. For example “cable splitter” was “small device for splitting a single cable TV signal such that it can be shared among multiple terminals” or something to that effect.
Here’s what was different between me and a “typical” Japanese person, i.e. what I could not or did not yet do after 18 months:
- Could not skim or scan Japanese documents. I had to read word-for-word. So, my reading was slower than native users’, but not less accurate. I skim and scan now (YAY!)
- I made infrequent, minor grammatical errors like saying “在庫ですか” instead of “在庫が有りますか”.
- In speaking, I thought I had to end every polite sentence in “-ます” and freaked out whenever I didn’t. I quickly learned that it was OK to not -ます everything — just sticking “です” or “のです” at the ends of things can be fine in terms of politeness. So this is less an issue of knowing the words, and more an issue of knowing what was or wasn’t OK etiquette-wise. It was like: “Oh, snap, I’m allowed to do that?”…[Edit: in fact, this correction may have happened before 18 months were up (but after interviewing), so…]
- In speaking, I didn’t have many (or any?) of those native speaker tools – words and phrases – for very quickly recovering from mis-saying something, such as “ていうか”.
- My active vocab was somewhat annoyingly behind my passive vocab. But I knew time would heal this wound.
- Using my kanji knowledge, I thought “手袋”/てぶくろ meant “hand-bag”. It actually means “gloves”. Doh!
- When I spoke, for a while I was only fully comfortable in two registers – super-keigo and Gokusen/anime. That has been taken care of. In fact it only took two weeks of hanging around with normal Japanese people (my coworkers) to fix it.
- I didn’t use Japanese bridge/filler words like “サァ” and “ていうか” a lot. With “サァ”, at the time, I just felt stupid saying it as much as Japanese people do; now I’m all over it. With “ていうか” I must have just not realized how useful it was? Or perhaps I didn’t understand how to use it, not sure.
- Since most of my reading, listening and watching (input) had been technical and abstract, my explanations of simple physical things – like how to throw a Frisbee – did not come out as smoothly as I would have wanted; they came out (with lots of demonstrative pronouns and gestures – “you kind of just go like this” – I didn’t know how to say “flick” or “twitch”) but I wanted them to be better. I still feel that I need to work on this.
- I had trouble using trains the first time not for lack of literacy but for non-intuitiveness of interface! So I put in how much money? Where? Hey, why did the machine eat my ticket?!
- I spoke somewhat slower than a Japanese person. I’m picking up speed even now. Speed generally wasn’t an issue when speaking formally, just informally.
- I made and make a point of saying words like “零”/rei instead of “ゼロ”/zero, because I think “零” sounds cooler.
- I used and use more kanji than many Japanese people.
- I used and use pre-US occupation kanji in handwriting. E.g. 會rather than会.
- I had (and, actually, still have) holes bigger than Stargate SG-1 plot inconsistencies in my knowledge when it comes to food. I don’t eat that much Japanese food, in part because I don’t frequent restaurants. Most of my food learning comes from visits to friends’ homes. My eating habits are such that this lack of knowledge is likely to continue indefinitely.
- I was a bit shaky on certain readings of common artificial food additives (those random chemical names you see on food labels). For the longest time I thought “葡萄糖” meant “grape sugar”; it actually means “glucose”.
- Names of certain fruits and vegetables, rarer personal and place names, I did not know. Apples, oranges and carrots were OK, but cucumber I did not actually know. BTW, the way I learned these was to look them up and write them down every time I made a shopping list.
- I don’t know the number of prefectures in Japan.
- Infer meanings of new, non-kanji (i.e. hiragana-only) words in text. I can do this now; it’s simply a matter of getting even more used to Japanese, once you expose yourself to enough of the language, you develop and incredible predictive ability, just like you do in English. In fact, I got so good at it so subconsciously that I sometimes shocked myself. One time I was trying on a T-shirt, and I said to the shop lady “this one’s too がさがさ/gasagasa (rough)”. Later, I asked my Japanese friend H-bomb if that was the right word and he confirmed it was completely correct. All this, yet I had never, ever, consciously learned or seen this word; it is nowhere in my SRS.
- I would forget certain alternate kanji/readings. For example, I was in the train and forget the reading of 断つ（たつ）when, say it was conjugated into 断って — I got a fellow passenger to remind me. It’s fun doing this – a great way to get talking to people and save a dictionary lookup.
- Also I actually didn’t know the readings of less-common but still general-use words like 翻る（ひるがえる）…it had just never come up in my reading. The meaning was clear from the character.
- I didn’t and don’t know many Japanese children’s games, nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
- Last, but definitely not least…I’m not that into Doraemon. At all.
So, all in all, after 18 months, I could function as an adult. Linguistically, I was Japanese, Japanese people on the phone assumed I was until I said my name, Japanese people who met me in person assumed I had been raised here. I had Japanese technical knowledge and vocabulary, standard social skills…but also tiny pockets of inexplicable ignorance, I mean, who doesn’t know how to say “flick”? These gaps were quickly filled by further reading and immersion in the language. It’s just like many native English speakers mistakenly write “tow the line”, or say “et cetera” as “e-t-c” or otherwise mispronounce words they’ve read but never heard or heard but never read, or totally mess up place names (I imagine many Americans would have trouble correctly reading “Gloucester”) – that was me in Japanese. And just like a native English speaker, some more reading and listening to good material took care of it.
Where am I now? Well, I need to keep my saw sharp, otherwise it does go blunt. If I go without Japanese for 5 days, I can tell and so can everyone else – when it comes to speech. But…I don’t know. It’s like, Martha Stewart, right? She still learns new recipes and home improvement things but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t own. Same here. I own, but I’m still learning stuff and picking stuff up. The main thing I’m working on is speed. Also witty comebacks – which have to be fast and correct. I’m also working on “arguing” skills, which I guess is a combination of charm, logic and word choice. I also write kanji every day and I’m always looking for strange kanji to read. In short, I am always searching for holes to plug. Another thing I have noticed about myself is that I’m finally finding my own voice in non-technical Japanese writing (i.e. “writing with a personality”) – I feel confident enough to make deliberate mistakes for comic effect, and write something with no more proofreading than I need for English.
The fun continues…