The other day I was pondering the question, do I know Japanese? I mean, if somebody back in the states asked me, what would I say?
Most times I lean towards the latter. And it’s not because the Japanese cultural value of false modesty is rubbing off on me. It’s because most of the time I don’t FEEL like I know Japanese.
When I arrived in this country 25 months ago I thought that, with some hard work, after a few months I would have a pretty decent idea what was going on. I don’t think I ever would have guessed that at this point, a month after I originally planned to leave, I would still be this out of the loop. I still can’t track with most conversations. I can’t follow the baby talk of the preschoolers who ride my bus, the slang of the junior highers I teach, or the thick rural accent and dialectical words of the elderly locals I pass as I walk through town. It’s discouraging! I feel stupid, a lot.
In my better moments I give myself more credit. Years of Spanish and German meant I was once conversational in both. I didn’t know every word in either language, but I could talk about almost anything I wanted. Just, sometimes I had to take the circular route to get there. If I didn’t know the word for “pregnant” I would say a woman had a baby in her stomach. Not accurate, but it got my point across.
The thing is, I almost never spoke to native speakers of either language. I never had to deal with rapidity and slang and thick accents. Even at my peak, I couldn’t track movies in either language if they didn’t have subtitles. I was good at both languages, but I was never thrown in the deep end of the pool in the way I am here in Japan.
Japanese. I’m still not as good at it as Spanish or German. I can often get my point across, but there is still a ton of stuff I can’t say. Every once in awhile, however, I see glimpses that I’m not as incompetent as I think.
Today, for example. One of the new responsibilities I’ve taken on these past few weeks is doing some translating for my coworkers. Teaching plans for the elementary schools show up and it is my job to decipher them and communicate the information to the people who will be teaching at that school. And I can do it. Right now I’m taking it slowly and double checking by typing it all out into a translator. But I’m learning that most of the time my guess as to what the sentence said was correct. And even the fact that I can type it in is a win. It means that I know at least one pronunciation of a good chunk of the Chinese characters (most of the characters have at least two if not more pronunciations), and for those I don’t know, the method of looking them up is done by knowing components of the character and knowing how the strokes would be made. And I know those. It takes me time, but I can translate these papers.
Can I speak Japanese? I’m not sure. But I’m getting there. And hopefully someday I’ll give myself the grace to say, “yes”.