Beginning Is Easy, Continuing Is Hard: Celebrate Your Small Language Successes!

When I first came to Japan, I felt overwhelmed by this new language all around me. I remember jealously watching my Japanese-speaking friends talk to each other and make new friends, while thinking to myself: “I’ll NEVER get the hang of this language!” I was feeling quite hopeless.

However, after a few nights out with friends without understanding anything, I turned a corner. I decided that I was going to try my best to communicate with people. My learning was slow, I’ll admit. I learned how to ask someone’s name first, then how to say hello properly and read hiragana. I know these seem like nothing, but to someone who came here with no prior knowledge of the language, these were all successes to me. And I celebrated them, just like I would have any other success. I told my friends about it, I shared my new sentences with my Japanese friends, and I did a little happy dance once I got home.

Today, I managed to help a new employee buy a bicycle and get signed up for pocket Wifi. I could ask simple questions and understand short responses. After everything was said and done, I took a moment to think back on when I first arrived here. I remembered that feeling of hopelessness and, in that moment, I realized just how far I had come. It felt so good that I did a literal dance in my car, while grinning ear to ear.

That’s not to say that my language skills are perfect. I know that I have a long way to go. But I’ve found, through my experiences here, that the best way to not get discouraged is to continue trying and take the time to really celebrate those small successes!

So pat yourself on the back when you are able to successfully order a meal at a restaurant. Do a happy dance when you manage to ask someone their name or their age. Pump your fist in the air and yell “HURRAY!” when you find yourself able to understand what that man behind the counter is telling you… Realize that learning a new language is hard, and even though there are a few stumbling blocks along the way, you’re already miles ahead of where you started. đŸ™‚

Don’t Give Into the Stereotypes: Kids Are Kids, No Matter Where They’re From

So here’s the deal: When I tell people back home (especially other Canadian teachers) that I teach EFL in Japan, their immediate response is usually: “Ohhhhh. That must be so nice! I bet you your students are sOoOoOoOoOoOo well-behaved. You must not have any classroom management issues!”

OK, so they don’t say those words exactly, but they definitely imply them, and they certainly do see Japanese students as perfect little angels, who listen attentively, don’t misbehave, and understand quickly. They essentially see them as model students.

Don’t get me wrong. There are definitely students in Japan who are like that. And I can certainly say that the emphasis on doing well in school (especially middle and high school) is very high here. However, it would be wrong and completely inaccurate to assume that all of my students are easy to teach. They aren’t. Just like any other children, in any other part of the world, Japanese children misbehave in class sometimes. They sometimes talk while you do, they won’t sit still, they get bored and decide running around the room is a good idea… You get my drift.

That doesn’t mean that I think any less of them, or that I don’t try to revamp my lessons to avoid some of this misbehavior. On the contrary, I’m constantly assessing and reassessing what I do in order to create lessons that will best meet my students’ unique needs. I do my best and am constantly learning new tricks to keep myself (and my kids) sane!

But the bottom line here is: don’t expect your students to be perfect (or to be awful) just because they’re from a certain country. Thinking in that way will give you unrealistic expectations in the classroom, which can lead to a whole bunch of problems in the long run!

Reading in Japanese: How a Five Year Old Taught Me Hiragana

As anyone will tell you, learning a new language is hard.

For me, this is especially true for Japanese. Pre-learning-Japanese, I’d only really studied latin-based languages. Because of their similar alphabets, root words, and general sentence structure, I was able to pick them up quite easily and begin speaking them within a few months.

Japanese has been, to say the least, a completely different experience! It has not one, not two, but three (four if you count romaji) different writing systems. And none of those use the Latin script that I’m used to! There’s hiragana, katakana, AND kanji. So, needless to say, my learning curb is pretty slow right now, compared to the speed with which I learned Spanish. But I’m still trying hard and I’m pleased to say that my reading is coming along nicely.

I started out simply: I would ask friends or coworkers what this sign said, or what this menu item was. Before long, I was correctly identifying many hiragana symbols. After this slow start, I put my nose to the ground and looked up a hiragana chart. I tried to memorize as many symbols as possible.

Obviously reading signs and menus was helpful to me, but, if I’m being honest, I would say that my students – one in particular – played a much bigger role in my learning than those things did.

One day, I was sitting in the lobby with one of my younger 5 year old students. She brought me a Japanese children’s book and asked me to read it. I wasn’t sure that I could, but I told myself: “Let’s give this a shot. She’s so little, she probably won’t notice if I say it wrong anyway!” So I sat down and began reading… And she read along! Whenever I made a mistake, she would point and say the symbol correctly. Once I had repeated what she had said, we would continue. Who knew 5 year olds could be such good teachers?!? This little song and dance became part of our regular daily routine: she would bring me a book while I was waiting for class to start and we would read it together. If I made a mistake, she would make sure to correct it. Eventually, she must have been confident enough in my reading skills, because she started bringing me books and asking me to read them TO her, rather than with her… And so I did.

Within three weeks of this little routine, I was comfortable enough with hiragana to read an entire passage in front of my coworkers. And 4 months after my arrival to Japan, I’m proud to say that I can now read all 46 basic hiragana symbols (as well as their modified forms). I’ve set my sights on katakana next. Who knows? Maybe my 5 year old teacher will help me with that too! Â đŸ˜€

“Please pee”: Adventures in Japanese

Languages are funny things. Even the slightest change in pronunciation can absolutely destroy your intended meaning. Here’s a little story about that that’s sure to make you chuckle.

I first came to Japan in October of 2016. While I now know enough basic words and sentences to get around in restaurants, supermarkets, and trains, I knew almost nothing when I first arrived… Nothing, that is, except for two sentences, “Hajimemashite” and “Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

Both of these sentences are used when meeting people for the first time. “Hajimemashite” is very similar to “Pleased to meet you.” and “Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” could be compared to “Let’s work well together.” As an English native speaker reading these sentences in romaji, I naturally thought that “Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu”was pronounced DO-ZO-YO-RO-SHE-KOO-OH-NE-GA-EE-SHE-MASS. Boy was I wrong!!!

On the first day of work, in a bid to impress my new Japanese colleagues, I busted out my well-practiced sentences. I had repeated them over and over in the mirror that morning, and I was determined to use them! “Hajimemashite” went just fine. My colleagues bowed slightly and responded accordingly, but “Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” didn’t go so well. When I said it, people looked confused, and then, after a moment, they just chuckled. What was I doing wrong? In this country of ultimate politeness, was I being too polite? Not polite enough? I had no clue.

The following day, still perplexed, I told one of my English work friends (who knows Japanese) this story. He immediately started laughing uncontrollably. Seriously? I thought. What is up with these people? I got my answer soon enough. I had essentially politely asked my Japanese colleagues to go pee. I had said: “Please pee.”

You’re probably asking yourself: How is that possible? As it turns out, I was mispronouncing “Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” “Shiku” (SHE-KOO) in Japanese is “to pee.” If I had done a little more research, I would have realized that I should have been pronouncing this sentence: DO-ZO-YO-ROSH-KU-OH-NE-GA-EE-SHE-MASS and definitely not DO-ZO-YO-RO-SHE-KOO-OH-NE-GA-EE-SHE-MASS…….

Luckily for me, my colleagues took it all in stride. And I was only mercilessly bugged about the incident for about a month until something funnier came up in the office. So, all in all, I would say I got out of this pretty much unscathed!