So perhaps I should rephrase that first sentence:
Even though I have been learning it for eight years, my Japanese listening ability is still rubbish. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, but possibly because listening is the weakest of my language skills, I have come to see it as the most important. The thing about the other three – speaking, reading and writing – is that for the most part, you can regulate their speed. When I’m speaking I can take my time (so long as I’m not trying to say something like ‘Get out of the way of that express train!’), when I’m reading I can go back and have another look, and when I’m writing I can dig out those dictionaries to make sure that I haven’t made any major spelling or grammatical gaffes. But when I’m listening, I am entirely at the mercy of the person who’s talking to me, and unless they’re very sympathetic indeed, that means having to negotiate an aural obstacle course of accents, dialect, background noise, foreground noise, people talking over each other, people directing what they say to someone other than me, and words, phrases, grammar and syntax that I simply haven’t learned yet. It’s infuriating because it leaves me feeling left out – either I keep quiet and stay out of the conversation altogether, or I run the risk of saying something inappropriate to wheedle my way into it, or I find my way in, only to realise that I don’t know what’s going on, and therefore don’t know how to react.
(As it happens there’s a metaphor in Japanese to describe exactly this feeling: the person left out of the conversation turns into a jizoh / 地蔵, namely the little stone statues of the Ksitigarbha bodhisattva that are dressed in little red hats and jackets and have an array of offerings at their feet. Mrs M said that she often turned into a jizoh at dinner parties in the UK.)
There are one or two key factors in my lack of ability, namely:
- I’m too old. Language acquisition starts to go downhill when you’re about seven years old, so starting afresh with a new language isn’t something that’s particularly advisable when you’re thirty-two (as I was when I went to my first evening class at South Thames College in Putney).
- Japanese has its roots in Chinese rather than Latin, so everything about it is different from English. If I’d chosen to learn French, Italian or German instead, I’d have been fluent years ago. Possibly. Well, OK, not fluent, but better than I am now at Japanese.
- I’m too male. It isn’t necessarily a sweeping generalisation to say that Women Are Better At Languages Than Men. This has something to do with right and left sides of the brain, and with being social creatures who take an interest in other people, as opposed to anti-social creatures who take an interest in sport, fishing, tinkering about in garden sheds etc.
But there is also, if I’m honest, a more important factor at work than any of these, and that is the fact that I have no natural aptitude for languages. Some people are good at football, some people are good at painting, some people are good at tinkering about in garden sheds, and some people are good at languages. K-san was an American woman who came to work as an ALT in Mrs M’s hometown a few years ago. She turned up in September, and from a standing start, passed level three of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test just three months later. A year later she passed level one, and since getting married to a Japanese man, has appeared on two different TV programmes without the aid of an interpreter or subtitles – one about newlyweds, and one about Japanese men who have married foreign women. And just so you don’t think that language aptitude is an exclusively female domain (although it is, as I have said, a largely female domain), the guy who started AJATT became fluent in Japanese in the space of just eighteen months, and this while he was living in America and didn’t even have a Japanese girlfriend (or even any Japanese friends, as far as I can tell). At the end of that year, he applied for and was offered a job with a Japanese company in Japan, after an all-Japanese application and interview process, and once he arrived there, started learning Chinese as well, which probably only took him another few weeks to master.
I try hard not to envy people like this, and I try hard not to compare myself to them, but the impulse is almost impossible to resist. After all these years of living in Japan, going to Japanese class, watching Japanese films, studying Japanese on the internet, and most importantly of all, going out with and then being married to a genuine, bona fide, 100% Japanese person, my conversations still falter, I have to strain to hear what people say, and a lot of the time, I am forced to admit defeat. When people talk about fluency, I assume they mean exactly that: ie. the ability to understand exactly what people are saying to you in all kinds of situations, and to reply accordingly. Back home, for example, I can absorb all kinds of spoken English and understand 99% of it: telephone conversations, conversations overheard on the bus, song lyrics, TV programmes, friends, relatives, work colleagues, non-native speakers, Cockneys, Geordies, Scousers, Scots, Irish, Aussies, women, men, children, politicians, bricklayers, you name it. All of those regional variations, all of that slang, all of that jargon, all of those idioms. Because I started when I was born, I’ve had plenty of practice, and this, I would contend, doesn’t constitute aptitude, it just constitutes naturalisation.
The thing is, though, no matter how hard it may be, learning Japanese is something that I find endlessly fascinating. Unlike a lot of other hobbies I’ve had, or challenges I’ve taken on, Japanese never gets boring, and even when I reach a point where I worry that I will never truly feel at ease interacting with native Japanese speakers, I never think to myself, ‘Oh well, that’s it then. I suppose I might as well give up and go home.’ Something always keeps me coming back for more. This could be because my mother was good with languages - she studied French and Italian at university and lived in Paris for a few months - and without necessarily inheriting her ability, I have at least inherited her fascination with them. And since my father was a bookseller and aspiring writer, that makes two strands of DNA whose double helices are inextricably intertwined with words of one kind or another.
My brother has always been a whizz at maths and science, so perhaps that particular slice of the genetic pie is what has given me such an analytical approach to learning a language. Where K-san or AJATT probably turn up for work in the morning and say to their Japanese colleagues, ‘Ooh, isn’t it hot today?’ or ‘How did your meeting go yesterday?’ or ‘Did you see the baseball last night?’ I turn up for work in the morning, sit down at my computer and start reading grammar explanations on Tae Kim, or looking up new words on Jim Breen, or testing my vocab knowledge on Kanji Box. My method for speaking Japanese is akin to building a bicycle from scratch: I like to know how everything fits together, and that it’s all going to work properly before I show it to anyone, and not grind to a halt or fall apart while I'm riding it. Somehow, people like K-san and AJATT have an instinctive feel for language: for them, it’s not a tool or a machine, it’s something that flows naturally between them and the person they’re talking to, something that enables them to communicate and connect with other people, to exchange emotions and information.
When it comes to speaking English, The Japanese are often criticised for being too shy, and for worrying so much about making a mistake that they don’t say anything at all, but this is something that applies to other nationalities as well, and certainly something that I can apply to myself. When I was fourteen I went to France for six weeks on an exchange visit, and I can honestly say that in the entire time I was there, I uttered no more than ten words of French. Particularly when you’re a teenager, speaking a foreign language is like getting up on stage and acting out a role in a play, and thus acutely embarrassing. Also, if your only experience of that kind of performance has been about twice a week for a couple of years, with other English people in an English-speaking environment, then suddenly finding yourself in a French-speaking environment with a load of French people is like going from a script read-through to a first night in front of a paying audience, with no rehearsal time at all between the two.
I am reading Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point at the moment, and one of the items of research it cites was carried out by some curious parents on their young child. The child in question was in the habit of talking to herself before she went to sleep and – more importantly – after her parents had finished reading her a bedtime story and left the room. By secretly recording these monologues over the course of a few months, what the parents discovered was that the language their daughter used when she was talking to herself was a lot more sophisticated than the language she used when she was talking to them. This gap between one’s knowledge and one’s ability to put that knowledge into practice must, I think, be universal to foreign language learners: there’s always a shortfall between what you have read and remembered from a textbook, for example, and what you can pick up on or use spontaneously when you’re in the midst of a real-life conversation with a native speaker.
My fellow ALT C-san says – only half-jokingly and with some justification – that his Japanese improves enormously when he’s drinking, and sometimes the confidence that alcohol gives you can be the very thing that bridges that gap between knowledge and application. The trouble is you can’t be drunk all the time, and even if you could, the law of diminishing returns would come into play: being drunk would begin to seem like normality, and being ‘confident’ wouldn’t help you any more. So the sad fact is, unless you happen to be one of those select few who take to languages like the proverbial duck to water, you’re just going to have to keep plugging away until what used to take conscious effort becomes instinctive.
Indeed, this progress that is too slow for the human eye (or in this case ear) to detect – like the sun moving across the sky or the tide coming in – is another factor that makes learning a language so frustrating. Particularly for yourself, but also for the people around you, it is very hard to tell whether or not you are making any progress. Just occasionally you might see a friend for the first time in years, and they might be kind enough to tell you that your Japanese has improved, but even then, you can never be entirely sure they aren’t just flattering you.
So how long does it take for a mere moral to achieve fluency? I read an interview with a Finnish man who has been living in Japan for forty-five years and is now a member of parliament, so perhaps it’s several decades. Then again, ten years seems to be a good, round number, and another ALT friend of mine, while he can’t read or write Japanese, speaks it like a native, and has been here for about a decade. The irony is that the other weekend, I took level two of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and contrary to my expectations, while the reading part – grammar, comprehension, vocabulary and so on – was devilishly hard, the listening part was a breeze. The results won't be published until the end of September, but maybe then I will have the evidence I need to convince myself that while my Japanese is still rubbish, it isn’t quite as rubbish as it used to be.