I fell in love with the Japanese language in 1980s when I was about 24 years old. It was through a television show where a Japanese singing contest was showcased that I discovered that the words and the music of this language appealed to me.
Learning a foreign language is very challenging and I think that it requires firstly passion and love for the language to embark on it seriously. Besides the language, I love the gentle immaculate Japanese culture, it’s cuisine, its people who seem ever so polite and the wonderful sceneries of Japan.
I had the good fortune to learn from an excellent Japanese teacher who started the Sachiko Japanese school in the 80s. The groundwork in language basics was very important. There will be a lot of rote learning and once you have the foundation right, the rest are like building blocks that you employ into sentence construction, narration and language mastery.
I won a pair of tickets to Japan after passing the basic Japanese test conducted by Ms Sachiko. Unfortunately, life got very busy with career and marriage and I never furthered my learning in the Japanese language until two decades later.
In my forties, my love for Japanese language was rekindled as there was more time on my hands as my children had grown more independent. I went back to another language school(Ms Sachiko apparently was no longer in Singapore) and discovered that my basics were still in my head! The advantage of studying at a younger age.
Then in the new language school, I studied along with younger mates who were quick learners and that spurred me to study as fast and as well as them.
As my lessons in Singapore were only once a week, it was a very slow improvement. The onus was on me to strive for good progress.
Besides, doing my homework, revising and preparing for the next lesson, I had no visible progress especially in speaking and listening probably only in theory. It was also due to the lack of exposure to the Japanese language.
One day, I came across an advertisement that was open to anyone interested in an immersion course in a Japanese school in Tokyo. That turned out to be my ice breaker to speak Japanese.
It was a memorable experience learning in a Japanese school for foreign students. I arrived alone (my first solo travel) but was picked up by the school charge. The rest of the students were Taiwanese leaving me the only Singaporean and albeit mature one.
Nevertheless, the school knew how to categorize us based on a simple test to put us in classes where the students are of the same proficiency. It was a refreshing and also embarassing for me as I was the oldest foreign student in the history of their school (48 then) and I was about the principal’s age.
Anyway, to succeed, one should not let trivialities stand in the way. I would have to prove that older people still have the spright and spirit to live it up! Turned out that the students were quite enthralled by a ‘motherly’ figure among them. But hey, I hoped that they would carry a positive message home to their parents — they should never stop learning !
A different language is a different vision of life.”
Everyday for two weeks, classes were conducted in the morning. Lessons were conducted according the standard of the class. Each morning, there was a short test on the previous days’ lessons before we embarked on new topics.
Whether one absorbed most of the contents did not matter, it was the familiarization of the sounds and sights of the words belted out by the teacher that would start my immersion in Japanese.
After class everyday, there was a daily cultural session such as Kimono dressing for one day, the art of making Japanese tea on the next day, and for other days, experiences like the Japanese art of dyeing materials, the hot spring experience and visiting popular places in Tokyo, etc. It was indeed an eye opener to Japan’s aesthetic culture.
Most evenings, if I was not out socializing with some of the Taiwanese students over dinner, I would go out alone to look for some social interaction to use the Japanese language.
I found that opportunity in the supermarkets and shopping complexes. Armed with my electronic dictionary, I embarked on my faltering Japanese. Salespeople were amused and helpful. After two weeks of doing that, it became natural to me to converse and I finally lost my shyness in using the language. Everywhere I went, train platform, in the train, in the shops, on the road, I tried to decipher the language which presented in three forms-Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.
I was very happy to be able to work out the complex transport infrastructure in Tokyo. There are so many categories of trains, from slow to limited express trains to Bullet trains also known as Shinkansen. The train rides are a whole new experience to me. There are many train companies, some of them run on the same lines so one must be cautious to board the right one. They were also punctual to the second.
I looked at the advertisements in the train which were abundant and entertaining. I also loved looking at the meal menu and browsing the bookstores. The more I looked at Japanese words and phrases and decoded them from my dictionary, the more interest I gained. My understanding of the words, their meanings and usage increased. Listening was a challenge but was not insurmountable with repeated attempts.
There are so many ways to excel in Japanese. With the internet, one can join online language course or online chat forum. Books, magazines, YouTube, NHK website, etc are all means to further your learning. Today, there are innumerable apps that can speed up your learning too.
One good way is meet the acquaintance of a native speaker and exchange language lessons with each other. In Singapore, joining the Japanese corner of the Japanese Association is very beneficial as Singaporeans have many chances to interact with the volunteer Japanese teachers and fellow members on a Saturday afternoon.
I had the fortune to meet a Japanese friend who was interested to further her English speaking. We had exchange sessions twice a week and that was immensely helpful. Unfortunately, she went back to Japan and I would have to look for another ardent friend to learn together.
Though I have not reached an excellent level of speaking and understanding Japanese, I am glad to say that I have never been lost in Japan during my several free and easy holidays where I have ventured far out of Tokyo to other prefectures. Whenever, I used their native language, the locals could tell that I am a foreigner but the warmth and happiness were palpable. Someone is willing to learn about them ! I had many pleasant encounters.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
The overriding requirement in excelling in anything is the passion, patience and determination to carry through to your final goal and more. Nothing is impossible in today’s learning world.
In summary, to master a foreign language, I hope the following tips are helpful to you;
- Join a language school for regular course
- Do your homework and self-learning
- Use social media and language apps
- Join the association where you can have a mentor.
- Join an immersion course overseas
- Make friends with the natives
- Enroll for the exams
- Join the speech contest
Remember to do it with passion, patience and determination!