Friday 24 April 2015

How I learnt Japanese, by Matthew Paines

There are many paths to the acquisition of a new a new language. What worked for me may not work for you; but here is how I learned Japanese.

I was raised a monolingual Englishman, so the cards were stacked against me. A teenage romance in Germany made me want to learn - not study – the language of Goethe and Schiller. Today I suppose it would have been Rammstein. However, due to my poor French test results, my local education authority deemed that I had no aptitude for foreign languages. Thanks, Norfolk….

Fast forward to 1986, and the Trans-Siberian ‘express’ through the Soviet winter, landing in Japan on Valentine’s Day. Well now, here was a chance for immersive learning – I would have Japanese TV only, Japanese radio, Japanese girlfriend, Japanese books, etc, and be ‘fluent’ (a word much overused by the British) within a year. What really happened of course was the easy comfortable expat lifestyle. I could very easily have lived without a word of Japanese, but eventually a balance emerged between my desire to learn and the lure of the gaijin pub.

My first job was washer-up in a coffee shop, with promotion to server when I proved to the manager I could take orders and handle telephone enquiries. After moving on to more lucrative work, I still tried to do one day a week in the coffee shop – I came to realise this was one of my only opportunities to talk with Japanese men. Of course it would have been very nice to spend my whole time talking with Japanese women, but that’s only half the population. Another point to consider is the stratification of East Asian languages. Not only are there different social strata embedded in the language, also the difference between male and female speech is markedly wider than in European languages – different vocabulary, different tones. That’s why so many gaijin men sound so effeminate when they try to speak Japanese.

Working, dating, etc are a great help in improving language skills, but to grasp the foundation as quickly as possible, you really cannot escape class time. ‘Learn like a baby’ is all very well, but I didn't have another 26 years, so I needed the shortcuts that class time can give you. I signed up for 40 plus hours per week class time, this allowed me to work under 40 hours per week; AKA ‘culture visa’. That was 3 mornings per week, the rest 'self study'. Class was good, but I soon came to understand why I couldn't progress beyond the lower levels of the Japanese Proficiency Test- the school was a visa factory: they only took white western students, because immigration always hassled other ethnicities, especially Asians. So to get to the top levels, ie a pass, I knew I had to join one of the tough cram schools in Takadanobaba, as the only European in the school, let alone the class- which was kinda fun I have to say. While my Asian classmates passed within 2 years of arriving, it took me another 2 years to pass Level 1, ie 4 years in total. This should tell you something about their drive. They had a clear plan- Level 1, then trade school, then back home to build up the family business, then get married. No fooling around. And me? I was just another backpacker on his next trip, man.

With Level 1 I had achieved some kind of goal, how to progress beyond it? About halfway through my studies I was asked to try a translation – a machine manual if I recall correctly. Translation work gradually increased, especially financial news with all the collapsing bubble economies of the time, and now it's been my game for the last quarter century or more. Beyond translation as a form of income and also study, I took many diverse opportunities to improve my Japanese. I paid a nice lady once a week to go through newspaper articles with me. Friends would give me children's picture books, which are surprisingly helpful. The huge manga culture helped too. But as a musician, I cannot overemphasise the importance of karaoke. Hearing a popular song on the radio, or an old Enka, would make me rush out and buy the cassette, which always came with a lyric sheet, and listen to it on my Sony Walkman while jogging around Tokyo Palace. What is ‘Enka’? Arnold Schwarzenegger called it ‘dat Samurai music’, and musically it has the A minor and D scales you would hear on old movies. But the lyrics are recognisable from the poor working class anywhere in the world – I got drunk, I lost my woman, my truck broke down, I lost my job, my dog died, etc. And of course nationalism- there was an undertone of ‘only we people can understand this feeling’. So it’s basically Japanese country & western.

I suddenly found myself married, and then our time in Japan came to an end. We took the slow boat to China, and the train back to England through what was now Russia. I worked in Japanese corporations in London for the next 20 years, but always kept up my translation skills as a hobby. During this time I developed contacts (and a name as a good, reliable translator) with the agencies that still give me work today. About 4 years ago I gave up the foolish idea of corporate career, and went freelance fulltime. The hobby became a career. The work piled up, and I splashed out on the big two tools, ProZ membership and Trados Studio, which are starting to pay dividends.

At this point I should probably say something about whether marrying – or even dating – someone of the country whose language you’re trying to learn has any pedagogic value. This is an assumption among many people, especially the monolingual (“ah, Japanese wife eh? No wonder…”). I heard this in both Japan and England. Well they may have a point – up to a point. And indeed we first met eyeing each other up for free language lessons. But any couple soon develops their own language, and becomes comfortable with a quite restricted vocabulary. We mostly speak Japanese, with the odd Finnish or Arabic swear word. It’s when she starts talking English at me I know I’m for the rolling pin….

We moved to Helsinki last year, thanks to my wife’s job. We have always loved the music scene up here, and the interesting friends we’ve kept contact with over the years. Then there’s the additional challenge of the Finnish language- the world’s second-weirdest, I can probably say. I made an attempt to learn it 10 years ago in London, but now I’m here, I’ve gone right back to basics with a class at Helsinki University. There are differences this time around. Dating is of course out of the question – at home it’s Japanese only. And then there’s that seductive expat lifestyle, which is almost exclusively English-speaking. And of course I am not 26 years old any more; I do find it harder to retain and produce language these days. But with the University’s help, and the music scene, and children's books, and my lovely friends, I have a plan to add Finnish>English to my translation pairs on within 1 year. OK, make that 2 years….

Matthew can be found on:

Photo credits: Sophie Marette