Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it’s a Language Plateau!

When I tell people I’ve been studying Japanese for 5 years now, most of them expect me to be fluent. While this can be reasoned away with a short explanation of difficulties of Japanese for English speakers and my meager beginnings, there’s still a little voice in the back of my head whispering, Yes, but shouldn’t you be?

That voice has gotten progressively louder over the past two years as I’ve been taking proper (rigorous) courses in Japanese since freshman year of college and studying abroad in Japan. I took CET Osaka’s fourth year class last summer and passed with flying colors. While my conversational ability and listening comprehension sky-rocketed, my reading comprehension had not improved enough to land me in Yale’s fifth year Japanese class. However I did have a chance to audit the class and it wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the material, but it was that I couldn’t properly express my own opinions on more serious issues such as politics. So, sophomore year I took Yale’s fourth year Japanese class along with those who hadn’t studied abroad (ouch, my pride) in which I also performed relatively well because I invested so much time into memorizing kanji and writing example sentences like a good student. However it became pretty apparent that I was learning kanji and vocabulary to get the grade, not to dedicate those words to memory. I was reading to get the gist so I didn’t look dumb in class, not to deeply understand. I did enough to get by, but not  enough to make permanent improvement. To this I thought, “Well, my attention is so divided because I’m working on so many other classes/projects/clubs. I simply don’t have enough time right now…” It was easy to forgive myself when I was acing the class.

Now I’m studying abroad in Japan yet again and the error of my ways is glaringly apparent. Though technically I’ve taken fourth year Japanese twice I’m stuck in Nanzan’s fourth year Japanese class AGAIN. With people who just started learning Japanese two or three years ago (how do you like that cookin, pride?). I’m not doing poorly, but my performance hardly reflects the time and energy I’ve invested into Japanese thus far. In class I see kanji and grammar structures that I’ve seen before or that I used to know. If I have to learn how to present graphs and charts in Japanese one more time I think I’m gonna scream. I should be able to understand the news with high percent accuracy or give an impromptu speech on a familiar topic in class without it turning to gibberish halfway through.  My language learning experience now is one big deja vu: Haven’t I done this before?! Why haven’t I gotten it?

What am I doing wrong?

It’s sad that it took me this long to realize that I’d hit a language plateau and I’ve probably been stuck on one for the past calendar year despite taking more challenging classes. Thanks to our good friend Google, I learned that I’m not the only one who hit a brick wall in language learning. There are tons of personal blogs posts and academic-sounding articles (with graphs!) from people who have hit the same brick wall but after some self-reflection took a few steps back a deep breath, a nap, a bowl of Wheaties and vaulted themselves over it. I’ll spare you the inspirational details and cheesy motivations (if you want them, click here and here) but by surfing through these websites I’ve found a few useful things:

Japanese language learning has become routine. I have been stuck in a classroom the past two years taking kanji and vocabulary quizzes, reading short stories and articles aloud and answering reading comprehension questions. Sure, teachers are doing their absolute best to vary the material and projects (to include speeches presentations popular media, so on and so forth) and while it was challenging and new at first, once I mastered the motions to get through Japanese class, I figured my Japanese was good enough, so I subconsciously stopped trying to get better.

The general attitude during this “autopilot” mode is: My Japanese is good enough for the teacher and native speakers to understand the gist of what I’m saying, so that’s good enough. This attitude was only cemented last summer when I realized I knew enough Japanese to get by in Japan or watch a movie completely in Japanese. Wasn’t that the goal? No one in Japan expects my Japanese to be perfect and no one is going out of their way to talk to me about deeper topics like international politics, Japan’s aging population or social hierarchy, so why should I bother in the first place? I don’t even talk about those things in English.

Which leads to another good point mentioned in both articles: marginal benefit, and diminishing return: “The law of diminishing returns is actually taken from the field of economics, but when applied to language learning it means something like this: the more effort you put into learning a language over time, the smaller your increases in fluency become. The more time you invest, the smaller your returns on investment become.” (From Lingholic.com)

The Japanese I’ve been learning the last calendar year has been grammar, vocabulary and kanji found in newspapers or academic articles. As great as it is to learn these words for the sake of literacy, I simply don’t use the grammar in everyday conversations and especially because I don’t live in Japan, these are not kanji and vocabulary I would encounter on a daily basis. So I get less use (“return”) out of these words, and I’m more likely to forget them as opposed to basic vocab and grammar structures.  It’s like taking a step forward only to be pushed three or four back. And it sucks.

A lot of people give up at this point, apparently, and I certainly understand why. Every day I ask myself if I really want to continue. Is it necessary for me to be perfectly fluent to land a job? Can’t I just be happy with where I am now?

…But wouldn’t it be a shame to come this far only to stop? I don’t think I could live with myself if I did throw in the towel. I would probably run into this same problem with other languages (like Korean) so it would probably behoove me to learn how to divide and conquer now.

This requires some thinking, planning and re-assessment: I’ve got to rekindle my motivation for learning Japanese, isolate my weaknesses and tackle them one at a time. Find some new study methods. Keep it interesting. Hopefully there will be a series of posts mapping out my divide and conquer strategy. We’ll see.

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Nanzan the Tortoise

I should have taken the hint during the application process when several of my emails requesting a paper copy of the Fall 2015 Nanzan CJS application went unanswered, neither confirming that the application had been sent nor the time I could expect it to arrive. Yet again when I wired the tuition fees to the overseas account, I received no notification that it had been received, dues and fees paid, or that my spot in the 2015 Nanzan program had been confirmed. In both instances, it was weeks after deadline that they sent me a polite email apologizing for the delay in responding and affirming, yes, the application had been sent and my tuition had been received. My first few interactions with Nanzan set the tone for the rest of the semester.

A little background: I chose to study at Nanzan University this fall semester because it was one of the few programs approved by Light Fellowship that offered Linguistics courses that would count towards the major at Yale and I’d heard nothing disparaging about their Japanese language program. Specifically, they offered a course on the comparative phonology of Japanese and Korean, which would suit me just fine as I’d just spent three months living and studying in Seoul. In a nutshell, I saw this as an opportunity to explore Japanese or Korean linguistics coursework which is not available at Yale.

Upon arriving at Nanzan, I was made to endure the longest, most boring orientation of my life. Ten days of events, speeches and lectures that could have been summarized in a few simple words; some days they just read the student guide to us word by word. If the agenda for that day was supposed to end at 4pm, sometimes they would end early at 1pm or so, saying more information would be covered the next day. Why? Why not just talk about dropping-out policies now, while you’re on the topic of academic honesty? It’s on the exact same page in the manual. Please, spare me the pain of having to show up early tomorrow just to hear you tell me something that’s already written in the guide. Eight days into this pointless orientation, we finally got to register for classes, I quickly checked the classes I wanted to take and was ready to hand the form in to my section’s representative Nanzan CJS staff member. When she saw me approach, she flailed a little bit before asking me several times if I was really ready to hand in my form and when I assured her that I absolutely was, she mumbled a string of ‘um’s before calling someone else over to take a look at it. A man came over, checked everything and accepted the form in under a minute. The woman (keep in mind, this is supposed to be her job) then asked him to double check every single form from there on out. Are you kidding me? That just extends the whole process into a gross amount of time. But that’s just the way things are done here. I’ve never seen so many worker bees look so busy to accomplish absolutely nothing. Am I being overly critical? Sure, I know I am. Sorry, I’ve been getting in touch with my inner Virgo lately. We are an efficient people.

It may be harsh to call them completely ineffectual. It’s just the Japanese way to be very by the book, following all the long-established laws and policies to a T and sometimes to a fault. Occasionally this may seem ineffective to outsiders like me who are not familiar with or sympathetic to the system. If something about the system isn’t at its best, naturally, I want to optimize it even at the risk or throwing out methods that have worked for years. (But that comes with its own problems…) Their by-the-book mentality and attention to detail does have its benefits when it comes to teaching traditional textbook learners like myself. Though the readings in Nanzan’s Japanese classes are much shorter than the ones we received at Yale (the course packet is laughably light) the teachers spend careful minutes on each sentence of the text, stopping to ask questions about meanings and nuances of adverbs that students thought they knew well. Because there’s no rush, no one feels bad for asking clarifying questions or for further examples. It’s just what I need to improve my reading comprehension skills. The teachers are very sensitive to the students’ needs, sensing when we really not understanding even when we say we are and also sparing the students embarrassment in class when it looks like we don’t know the answer to a particular question. It’s a slow and steady learning environment.

The elective classes are a different story. Only after leaving Yale did I realize the rigor of the classes and exactly how much of a heavy workload i’m used to handling. Besides two intensive Japanese courses, I’m also taking Japanese Language and Society (which is really more like a watered down socio-linguistics class) Japanese Religions and Japanese Syntax. That class I came here for? The Korean-Japanese Phonology one? Yeah, it was one of two or three classes that got cancelled. Just my luck. The one class I was looking forward to the most got cancelled and I’m stuck with two other pseudo-linguistics classes taught in very slow English designed for students who’ve never taken a linguistics class. I feel a terrible intellectual itchiness, here and in a very Carmen-like fashion, I’m setting out to scratch my own back: finding texts on Japanese and Korean phonology, finding the original books the required reading articles come from and doing all the supplementary reading. I guess no matter what, you can’t take the nerd out the girl.

Japan Round 2

As my friends celebrated Round Three of Yale with triple-filtered posts on Instagram of residential colleges and selfies with friends they haven’t seen in months, I was tearfully packing up my life in Korea, not to return home to celebrate with them, but to study abroad in Japan for the second time. I wish I could’ve been excited, but more than anything I was overcome with nostalgia for Yale and sadness as I left Korea. Fittingly, I know the perfect word for this in Korean now: 섭섭하다. While that old saying “distance makes the heart grow fonder” is definitely the case for Yale and eventually will be for Korea, this is not the case for Japan. Well, I suppose the saying is ‘grow fonder’ so one would have to hold a certain fondness in the first place. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Surprise: I didn’t exactly enjoy Round 1 of Japan. Summer 2014. Carmen vs. Osaka, I was immediately KO’d. My bravery lasted for all of two weeks before the rose-colored glasses were smashed into pieces, breaking my nose and reducing me to a puddle of regret and tears. Yes, I cried. Yes, I wished to go home. And why shouldn’t I? When the culture you’ve spent most of your adolescent life learning to respect and understand does not offer you the same courtesy, who wouldn’t beat their chests savagely out of grief and loneliness and wish for all the time back that you felt you’ve lost? The language barrier was not the cause of my alienation, because I was proficient enough to hold a conversation and also discuss societal issues such as the treatment of women in the workplace and the aging population. But these conversations never happened because no one wanted to get to know me or what I thought or who I was. The people I encountered just wanted to take a selfie with me because I looked weird, or point and laugh like I was an exhibit at the zoo. Language is not the only necessary thing to bridge gaps between human beings, I learned. Putting aside languages, you also have to extend love, understanding, empathy, some degree of kindness. A smile would be nice. Every time I smiled at someone, they ignored me completely or turned away. That’s just the culture. Since I felt no one was even trying to meet me halfway, I shut down and let the whole bridge crumble.

I boarded the plane to Japan not expecting Round 2 to be anything spectacular. I’d already started a countdown calendar, trying to think it shorter: it’s only one semester. 107 days to be exact. I don’t have to stay here for the rest of my life. By Christmas, I’ll be at home stuffing my face with buttery, mouth-watering, artery-clogging, seasoned to perfection Southern food. I won’t have to pretend I don’t want or need, or pretend that the hole in my gut is hunger when it’s actually something darker and deeper. And best of all: I won’t have to separate the garbage after all the eating is done.

Recently, I’m taking comfort in the fact that time in Japan will pass regardless of how I feel. Whether days are crappy or awesome, they’re just hours, minutes, seconds. The two minutes I spend willing for my host family’s dog to catch fire could’ve been two minutes spent laughing at Engrish on a T-shirt. What a terrible waste of a semester it would be, to come halfway across the world only to wish to go home. Surely there are others who want to be in my position; though I can’t imagine it now, there will come a time when I’ll wish I’d taken full advantage of this opportunity. So here I am, a week into my study abroad semester trying to change my attitude towards it all.