Going to a country that speaks a language foreign to your own can be an intimidating prospect, but it doesn’t have to be. Japan has been my first experience in a foreign-speaking country that is not specifically set up for foreigners (e.g. resorts).
I came to Japan only knowing two sayings: konichiwa (hello) and sumimasen (excuse me). I had no idea how I was going to assimilate to a life in Japanese language but I anticipated that I would be relying heavily on my phone to help me through it all. Reflecting back on my experiences in Japan I have realized there are many ways to communicate with others that don’t require you to know all the words in each other’s vocabulary in order to have a positive interaction.
Japanese-speaking using English
I was grateful to learn that most Japanese-speaking people know at least a bit of English. Students in Japan start learning formal English in elementary school year 5. In prior years they will also learn different phrases or words in English and many students go to education centres to improve their English speaking skills outside of school. This greatly helped me in being able to communicate with them from my own language. It was also a useful tool for them as there are many Japanese-speaking people who want to improve their English so they enjoy practicing communicating with me.
English-speaking using Japanese
When I was in Sapporo, we had the opportunity to attend Japanese lessons to learn some useful terms and phrases for our time here in Japan. Our homestay families also aided in our ability to practice some of the Japanese we had learned. The phrases we learned to talk about were very helpful for being able to communicate a bit in Japanese while we are here. Japanese people are always so nice and compliment you on your use of Japanese, even if it is only saying a couple words. They are always surprised and impressed.
Some of the conversations we have had with others have had to be translated from one language to the other, mainly because of the complexity of the topic. I am very grateful to all the bilingual people who have been able to help us in our communication with others as they have been the key component to our deeper conversations with people from Japan. I am sure it is an exhausting task to do, especially for the lengthy conversations that can ensue.
The use of technology was definitely a huge aid in our ability to communicate with others. The best apps I used throughout my entire time in Japan were Google Translate and VoiceTra. While they are not perfect, they definitely helped to get the idea across, both ways. It is also beneficial to utilize pictures while talking with others helps to make sure that the content is clear and makes it easier for others to follow.
Some of my favourite interactions on this trip have been non-verbal or situations where translations could not be made but we were still able to make connections and understand one another. My homestay family had four children; they were aged 8, 6, 4, and 2 so none of them had begun their English language learning in school yet. I probably spent the most time with the youngest of the bunch, Sunao. We developed a close bond even though we did not know each other’s language. This first came to fruition when I was eating lunch one day. Sunao loves to eat, so while I was sitting outside with my food, he came out holding a bowl for himself expecting that I would share, and I did. It started a bond between us, whenever I was eating, he would come, and I would share my food with him (even though he already ate). It grew into non-verbal playing, laughter, and offerings of items (he would always bring me my water bottle). Some other ways I connected with the other kids was through games such as Othello and hand-clap varieties.
Dance, Plays, and Cultural Events
Some of the situations we were in that did not really have the opportunity for translation to occur were in the form of cultural events, plays, and dance. This led to the opportunity for us to use improvisation, pay attention to cues, and read the room – which I found I was able to do in many contexts to better help me understand. One unique thing that we did during our introductions to the different classes at our school visits was incorporated a dance activity where we taught the students how to do the chicken dance. This got the entire class involved, interacting with each other, and having fun with us, without language being a barrier. The students seemed to really enjoy the dance and even the principal and teachers would join in. It was evident that this activity really impacted the students as later that day, week, or at other functions, students would come up to us and just start doing the chicken dance. We attended a couple school plays and functions. Although we could not understand the Japanese dialogue, we were able to attend to some of the humour aspects based on the students’ ability to project emotions through their acting. We were very moved by their various acting, instrumental, and vocal talents expressed through many different forms during our visits.
One other interesting aspect about learning Japanese that came as a surprise to me was how activating that part of my brain, caused previously practiced languages to resurface. I found that my French words kept emerging and my American Sign Language went hand in hand (no pun intended) with the use of my new Japanese words. It is really fascinating how the brain works with language!