Week 4: Studying Japanese

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have been studying Japanese since I was 10 years old. Whoa, I should like, totally be fluent now, right?

Wrong. For a few reasons. One is that I live on the East coast and currently in Charlottesville, where I have seen perhaps five actual Japanese people. Essentially, there are no true opportunities to keep the language alive where I live. Two, I was one class away from a minor in Japanese at UNC when I was confronted by the choice of keeping my minor and losing my majors. I kept the majors and lost Japanese as a minor and thus had to drop the classes. I cried about it for a little bit and Emily consoled me in a way that only my fellow non-Romance-language comrade could. But, honestly, I was slightly relieved, because there was no way I could have taken and survived advanced Japanese my senior year (during which I was writing an honors thesis, working an internship, applying for jobs, and oh, planning my wedding). Japanese is a very difficult language to learn. This week, I’ve been remembering that fact with fresh attention.

I decided to learn Japanese when I was a child. My mother’s good friend Janet had lived in Japan for a number of years and had managed to maintain her knowledge of the language. She would tell fascinating stories about her life there and I quickly became enchanted. Japan sounded like a living fairytale kingdom to my 9-year-old ears. I announced to my mother that I wanted to learn Japanese. She told me that was great, but she didn’t have the ability to teach me such a difficult language. She wasn’t about to let my dream die, though. My mom found a handful of native Japanese women that lived in our city and hired them to teach me Japanese once a week. I learned the language through private tutoring from late elementary school through high school.

By the time I got to UNC, I placed into the second year of Japanese classes there and began more intensive study of the language. My primary goal was to get the chance to study abroad there. Through a series of amazing blessings, I was able to get a handful of scholarships to study abroad in Tokyo during the summer of 2008.

Living in a Japan for just a few months felt like the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Even though it was one of the hardest summers of my young life, I loved my time there. My host family, especially my host mom, was unbelievably great. We would stay up after she had put the kids down and talk about culture, politics, and families in a wonderful mix of Japanese and English. My ability to speak and comprehend the language improved exponentially in just a few months. But the minute I returned to America, I came crashing down from this pinnacle of Japanese language achievement. After having to relinquish my minor, I lost almost all contact with the language that I had devoted myself to for so many years.

I don’t regret learning Japanese. I love the language–its crisp sound, its organized grammar structure, even its impossibly complex writing systems–and I love the Japanese people and culture. But it is not a practical language to learn. Unless you are a businessman from the pre-bubble 1980s or a total nerd about anime and manga, there isn’t much use for an American to learn Japanese today. This saddens me, but only briefly, because I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to learn this beautiful–if increasingly obscure and “useless”–language.

For my weekly challenge, I bought this book at Barnes & Noble and it has been an excellent re-introduction to Japanese for me. The book, edited by Japanese scholar Michael Emmerich, takes six contemporary short stories by Japanese authors and then provides a gloss of the more difficult phrases for English-speakers and furigana over the kanji. The reading level is about what mine used to be and I have found it surprisingly easy to fall back into a pattern of comprehension. Kind of like getting on a bike again after a few years or something. I’ve also been studying old word lists, kanji sets, and trying to get into the habit of writing journal entries in Japanese again. So far, it’s been my most intellectually challenging week, but I have been very grateful for it.


  • Well, for one thing, dozens of new words that I will probably forget again because I have no real opportunity to use them. Although I have been told that the CEO of my company is fluent in Japanese…
  • Visual memory aids help me to retain my recognition of new kanji.
  • Reading out loud was very helpful for my comprehension. Although, when I listen to natives speak Japanese, I get lost in the words. My listening comprehension is not superb.
  • I don’t want to lose this language entirely. It still means a lot to me. I hope that when I’m 50, I’ll still be able to form sentences and recognize basic kanji. I need to find a way to keep this language present in my life.

Next week, I’ll be writing one letter each day to a series of my favorite correspondents. Stay tuned!

With my host family, the Koyasus, the night before I returned to the U.S.

3 thoughts on “Week 4: Studying Japanese

  1. How fun to be woven into such a wonderful part of your life like this! Since not everyone understands our fascination with this language and culture it is a treat to read about your experience of it! Mata NihoNgo o beNkyou suru koto ga gaNbatte kudasai! 🙂 Miss you and love to follow you here!

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